Mumford, Lewis

views updated May 18 2018


Historian and social philosopher Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) produced a broad critique of modern technology complemented by studies of art, architecture, and urban life. Born in Flushing, New York, on October 19, Mumford studied at the City College of New York (CUNY) but contracted tuberculosis and was forced to leave before earning a degree. In 1919 he became associate editor of the Dial, and he later worked as architectural critic for the New Yorker. His first book, The Story of Utopias (1922), was a literary survey that examined the place of technology in society. This became the main theme in Technics and Civilization (1934), which was a founding work in the social history of technology. Although he voiced critical attitudes that sometimes anticipated wider cultural shifts (Hughes and Hughes 1990), Mumford also saw science and technology as positive forces in history. In 1936 he and his wife Sophia settled in rural Amenia, New York, where he died on January 26 more than half a century later, after a lengthy period of dementia.

Life in Context

In 1915 Mumford discovered the writings of Scottish philosopher Patrick Geddess (1854–1932), from whom he learned to see the built environment and social processes as reciprocal influences. With others he hoped that technology would usher in an era of material abundance, but maintained that such promise would be fulfilled only if technology were subject to social democracy and wise regional planning. Mumford thus fostered a regionalist vision in which the automobile, electricity, and other new technologies would help transform congested cities into balanced and decentralized communities. The Great Depression, however, raised grave doubts, in response to which he argued for new institutions and revitalized values to redirect technology to human ends.

Mumford was an early advocate of World War II, but the loss of his son in the war, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing nuclear arms race left him a fading hope "that a moral transformation may alter the fateful course of technological development" (Hughes and Hughes 1990, p. 6). Many of his later works betrayed a growing pessimism that science and technology were fundamentally irrational and dangerous, which led him to challenge the equation between rationality and modernity. Despite this his stubborn optimism and refusal to lose sight of the human element and submit to technological determinism in the massive waves of sociotechnical change prompted many to consider Mumford one of the last great humanists (Stunkel 2004).

At times, however, Mumford appeared to despair that his cautious utopian vision of an organic culture was at odds with an increasingly mechanistic post-World War II society. He rebuked scientists for their alliance with capitalists and the military, but his books in this era received poor reviews. This can be partially explained by his unabashed interdisciplinary holism, which threatened many narrowly specialized academics. As Russell Jacoby noted, he was "a thinker and writer who addresses a literate and general audience about questions and issues undefined or categorized by conventional academic and professional disciplines" (Hughes and Hughes 1990, p. 11). He also remained fiercely independent, declining all employment in institutionalized academia except visiting professorships.

Mumford resolved to react to what he saw as the negative drift of history by analyzing and promoting the positive personal and communal forces more in line with his vision. In this work, he influenced U.S. literary studies, architecture, and urban development studies. Unlike John Dewey (1859–1952), Mumford did not emphasize political action as a means of transforming society, but maintained that communities were formed and reformed at the levels of family, church, and workers' associations. His later years were characterized by his ambivalent position that science and technology presented both peril and hope and his determined optimism that the necessary moral and religious transformation could happen and thus alter the course of scientific and technological development. His critique of science and technology continues to influence work in several fields, and his vision for urban renewal and transformation lives on in the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research, established at the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY), in 1988.

Philosophical Anthropology

Mumford is part of the U.S. tradition of this-worldly romanticism that first flowered with Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892). The tradition demonstrates a concern for the preservation of nature and the harmonies of urban life, while insisting that physical matter is not the final explanation of organic activity, especially in its human form. In this sense Mumford represents an even older tradition (stretching back to Aristotle) of a humanities philosophy of technology (Mitcham 1994).

In 1930 Mumford proposed that the machine be considered in terms of both its psychological and practical origins and appraised not just by technical considerations but in ethical and aesthetic terms. This thesis was the germ of Technics and Civilization, which sought to integrate the examination of the practical with the good, the true, and the beautiful. The book broke new ground by summarizing technical history for the previous thousand years of European civilization in a way that revealed the reciprocal and many-sided relationships between social values and institutions and the work of inventors, engineers, and industrialists. One popular example is Mumford's treatment of the clock, which is a "piece of power-machinery whose 'product' is seconds and minutes" (Mumford 1934, p. 15). Like Henri Bergson (1859–1941), Mumford saw alienating dangers in the regulating of time by the mechanical clock.

In Technics and Civilization, Mumford described the psychological and cultural origins of the machine, explained its material and efficient causes, and outlined a history of machine technics in three overlapping phases: intuitive technics using water and wind (to about 1750); empirical technics of coal and iron (1750–1900); and scientific technics of electricity and metal alloys (1900 to the early-2000s). The last part of the book evaluates social and cultural reactions: "We have seen the machine arise out of the denial of the organic and the living, and we have in turn marked the reaction of the organic and the living on the machine" (Mumford 1934, p. 433). Other civilizations had reached high degrees of technical proficiency and possessed machines, but only the Europeans adapted their entire mode of life to the pace and capacities of the machine. Technics (his term for technology) has thus been transformed from mere hardware into a complex sociotechnical system that embodies a way of thinking and being.

Mumford's subsequent writing, insofar as it was an elaboration of Technics and Civilization, culminated in the two-volume Myth of the Machine (1967, 1970). In it Mumford argued that humans are not fundamentally to be understood as Homo faber, because the human essence is not making but interpreting. The interpretive mind, not the manipulative tool, is the basis of humanity:

If all the mechanical inventions of the last five thousand years were suddenly wiped away, there would be a catastrophic loss of life; but man would still be human. But if one took away the function of interpretation ... man would sink into a more helpless and brutish state than any animal; close to paralysis. (Mumford 1950, p. 8–9)

The elaboration of symbolic culture through language "was incomparably more important to further human development than the chipping of a mountain of hand-axes" (Mumford 1967, p. 8).

Kinds of Technology

On the basis of his philosophical anthropology, Mumford distinguished two basic kinds of technology: polytechnics and monotechnics. The former is the primordial form of making, which is "broadly life-oriented, not work-centered or power-centered" (Mumford 1967, p.
9). Like appropriate technologies, polytechnics harmonizes with the many aspirations of human life and functions democratically. Monotechnics is directed toward production, expansion, military superiority, and power.

Although modern technology exemplifies monotechnics, Mumford traced its origins back 5,000 years to the discovery of the megamachine, or rigid, hierarchical social organization. Examples include the work crews that built the Pyramids or the Great Wall of China. The center of authority in these ancient megamachines lay in the absolute ruler, whereas in the modern bureaucratically administered megamachine it resides in the system itself. The megamachine and monotechnics produce great material benefit but at the expense of a dehumanizing limitation of human aspirations and the pervasive belief in the myth of the machine, or the notion that monotechnics is irresistible and ultimately beneficent. In the 1950s, for example, forecasts predicted that by the year 2000 technology would shorten the workweek to twenty hours. Newly formed institutes of leisure pondered how to spend the resulting free time (Lightman 2003). But in 1990 the average American was actually working 160 hours longer than twenty years earlier (Schor 1991). For Mumford this phenomenon illustrates the enthrallment to the myth of the machine.

But the megamachine can be resisted, especially because it is not ultimately beneficial. Mumford attempted to demythologize monotechnics and to make a plea against losing sight of humanity, its purposes, and its dreams. He called for a reevaluation of the machine in order to master it and put it to work in the service of life. Technology should be promoted when it enhances human meaning and the personal aspect of existence, but not when it restricts life in the service of power.

Mumford explored as well the positive technologies of art and urban life, and his The City in History (1961) won a national book award. The second volume in his four-volume renewal of life series (1954) championed a technology modeled on patterns of human biology and a biotechnic economy. In Art and Technics (1952) Mumford contrasted art as a symbolic communication of inner life with technology as a power-manipulation of external objects. He did not seek a simpleminded rejection of technology but wanted to complement the Promethean myth of human beings as tool-using animals with the story of Orpheus. The animal became human "not because he made fire [a] servant, but because he found it possible, by means of his symbols, to express fellowship and love, to enrich [a] present life with vivid memories of the past and formative impulses toward the future, to expand and intensify those moments of life that had value and significance" (Mumford 1952, p. 35).


SEE ALSO Science, Technology, and Society Studies.


Hughes, Thomas P., and Agatha C. Hughes, eds. (1990). Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual. New York: Oxford University Press. Sixteen papers by an assortment of scholars, plus a synoptic introduction by the editors. Reveals the breadth of Mumford's interdisciplinary social criticism.

Lightman, Alan. (2003). "The World is Too Much with Me." In Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery, ed. Alan Lightman, Daniel Sarewitz, and Christina Desser. Washington, DC: Island Press. Explores the intangible human losses from the fast-paced nature of modern life.

Miller, Donald L. (1989). Lewis Mumford: A Life. New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Mitcham, Carl. (1994). Thinking through Technology: The Path between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Some material from the analysis of Mumford, on pages 40 through 44, has been adapted for this article.

Mumford, Lewis. (1922). The Story of Utopias. New York: Boni and Liveright.

Mumford, Lewis. (1934). Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace. A 1963 reprint includes a new introduction by the author plus corrigenda.

Mumford, Lewis. (1950). Man As Interpreter. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Mumford, Lewis. (1952). Art and Technics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mumford, Lewis. (1954). "Technics and the Future of Western Civilization." In In the Name of Sanity. New York: Harcourt, Brace. This is a lecture presented at the 100th anniversary meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1948.

Mumford, Lewis. (1961). The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Mumford, Lewis. (1967, 1970). The Myth of the Machine, 2 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace & World.

Mumford, Lewis. (1973) Interpretations and Forecasts: 1922–1972: Studies in Literature, History, Biography, Technology, and Contemporary Society. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Forty-two selections from his work, by the author.

Mumford, Lewis. (1982). Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford. New York: Dial Press. The first volume of an unfinished autobiography. See also Mumford's more schematic My Works and Days: A Personal Chronicle (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).

Schor, Juliet B. (1991). The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books. Chronicles the increased workloads and stress faced by U.S. citizens since World War II.

Stunkel, Kenneth R. (2004). Understanding Lewis Mumford: A Guide for the Perplexed. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press. Organized by concept such as architecture and megamachine.

Lewis Mumford

views updated May 23 2018

Lewis Mumford

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), American social philosopher and architectural critic, analyzed civilizations for their capacity to nurture humane environment. He emphasized the importance of environmental planning.

Lewis Mumford was born in Flushing, Long Island, New York, on October 19, 1895. He attended Stuyvesant High School until 1912. He studied evenings at the City College of New York for five years but did not receive a degree. Instead he became a student of the cities, beginning with New York City, whose libraries, theaters, and museums were his academy. Later, he wrote a series of "Skyline" essays for the New Yorker magazine which were intimate visits to buildings and quarters of the city that illustrated New Yorkers' aspirations and failures in their continuing act of building and rebuilding.

In 1915 Mumford read Patrick Geddes's essays expressing an organic view of society and claimed Geddes as his mentor in the years after 1923 when they met. In 1916 Mumford gained experience in the labor movement by serving as investigator of the dress and waist industry. Briefly in 1917 he worked for the Bureau of Standards in Pittsburgh, testing cement. He served as a radio operator in the U.S. Navy in 1918. The following year he became an editor of Dialmagazine and then went to London in 1920 to serve as acting editor of the Sociological Review. Returning to New York City, he wrote The Story of Utopias (1922).

The English utopian planner and advocate of garden cities, Ebenezer Howard, inspired Mumford toward an active role in city and regional planning. He helped organize the Regional Planning Association of America (1923) and served as special investigator for the New York Housing and Regional Planning Commission, beginning in 1924. He edited the pioneering regional planning issue of Survey Graphic(1925) and helped edit five volumes of The American Caravan (1927-1936). In city planning, he advocated the conservation of "green belts," with self-contained cities supporting residence, work, markets, education, and recreation. The new cities were to be constructed on a pedestrian's scale with organic coherence among the urban functions. As a city planning consultant, he forcefully urged such ideas throughout the world.

In his writing, Mumford tried to define the American conscience: its traditions and allegiances and the forces that periodically betrayed it. Louis Sullivan is the hero of Sticks and Stones; Henry Hobson Richardson is the hero of The Brown Decades and The South in Architecture; both men were gargantuan talents who wedded art and technology to give a distinctively indigenous form to American architecture. In his pioneering study Herman Melville (1929), Mumford disclosed his tragic sense of art and life. Art, he affirmed, is man's declaration against a universe that is "inscrutable, unfathomable, malicious … Not tame and gentle bliss, but disaster, heroically encountered, is man's true happy ending."

In Technics and Civilization (1934) and The Culture of Cities (1938) Mumford tried to show that artifacts are instruments of a civilization's cultural and social process and to examine architecture and machines in terms of the social conditions that nurture them. His thesis was that contemporary civilization must undergo a moral reformation to have the quality of life known to many earlier societies.

Between 1935 and 1951 Mumford wrote a series of books (the "Renewal of Life series," he labeled them) concluding with The Conduct of Life. They are long, sometimes tedious pleas for an understanding of the moral problems of public policies. Preoccupied with the rising threat of fascism, Mumford departed from his earlier pacifism and urged in 1935 that the United States declare its intention to defend against the totalitarian states. Men Must Act (1939) called for American intervention in World War II. The 1950's were very prosperous for Mumford's literary works. His early books including Sticks and Stones, The Brown Decades, and The Golden Day were all republished in 1995.

After the war Mumford worried about the ruin of cities through wholesale urban renewal, the growing dominance of highways, and the military mind's domination of foreign and nuclear policies. In Faith for Living, he wrote that "in a world in which violence becomes normalized as part of the daily routine, the popular mind becomes softly inured to human degeneracy." He held visiting professorships at North Carolina State College, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his most searching book, The City In History (1961), he wrote, "We need a new image of order, which shall include the organic and personal, and eventually embrace all the offices and functions of man." The City In History was honored the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1962. In 1964, Mumford made six twenty-eight minute films based on The City In History.

In his much later work The Myth of the Machine (1970) he looks down upon technology, labeling the megamachine as the "guilty party." Mumford died in 1990.

Further Reading

The major source for information on Mumford's life is Van Wyck Brooks, The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters: The Record of a Literary Friendship, 1921-1963, edited by Robert E. Spiller (1970); it is virtually a social history of the era. Mumford's early career is detailed in Roy Lubove, Community Planning in the 1920's: The Contribution of the Regional Planning Association of America (1964). Mumford's views on urban life are analyzed in Morton and Lucia White, The Intellectual versus the City: From Thomas Jefferson to Frank Lloyd Wright (1962); W. Warren Wagar, The City of Man: Prophecies of a World Civilization in Twentieth-century Thought (1963); and Alan A. Altshuler, The City Planning Process: A Political Analysis (1965). Other sources include Lewis Mumford and American Modernism: Eutopian Theories for Architecture and Urban Planning written by Robert Wojtowioz (1996), Coping with the Past: Patrick Geddes, Lewis Mumford, and the Regional Museum by John L. Thomas (1997). □

Mumford, Lewis

views updated May 14 2018


Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895–January 26, 1990) was a New York humanist, intellectual, architectural critic, journalist, and the author of numerous critically acclaimed works on architecture and the history of urban culture. In 1923 Mumford cofounded the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA), and for much of the twentieth century he provoked America to think creatively and comprehensively about the social and physical form of the modern urban community and about building a more humane urban and regional civilization.

Mumford was born in New York City, the illegitimate son of a Jewish businessman. Raised in semi-poverty by his mother, Elvina, the daughter of German immigrants, Mumford attended but never graduated from the City College of New York. He believed that his main education came from long solitary walks through the city, during which he carefully observed and studied urban life and architecture. At City College Mumford encountered the works of the Scottish biologist and urban theorist Patrick Geddes and he became a close disciple of Geddes and his comprehensive, biological view of the city and its region as a living organism.

After World War I Mumford married Sophie Wittenberg (his lifelong companion), moved to Greenwich Village, and worked as a book reviewer for Dial magazine. During the 1920s Mumford established himself as one of America's leading intellectuals and social commentators through his books The Story of Utopias (1922), Sticks and Stones (1924), and The Golden Day (1926), and his architectural criticism in the New Republic. His communitarianism, a byproduct of his apostleship of Geddes and his conviction that architecture must serve social ends, led him to Charles Whitaker, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, and Benton MacKaye, with whom he founded the RPAA, an informal body of social planners influenced by the ideas of Ebeneezer Howard, Raymond Unwin, Barry Parker, and the British Garden City Movement. The RPAA sponsored several garden communities including Sunnyside, New York, where Mumford and Sophie lived from 1925 to 1936.

When the Great Depression struck America in the 1930s, Mumford, like many progressive, left-ofcenter intellectuals, hoped that the crisis of capitalism might shift the nation from a privatistic economy toward a more cooperative one modeled somewhat on the new regionalism espoused by the RPAA. In Mumford's brilliant Depression-era writings The Brown Decades (1931), Technics and Civilization (1934), and The Culture of Cities (1938), he explored the role of the machine (technology) in shaping modern urban civilization. These works revealed Mumford's essential optimism that human-kind was capable of shaping truly humane, equitable, and socially efficient living environments that Mumford labeled the new "biotechnic" order. For evidence of this progress he pointed to Europe, in particular Letchworth and Welwyn in England and Romerstadt in Germany, the modern, low-density cooperative housing communities he had visited in 1930 and 1932 when he toured Europe with his then paramour, the houser Catherine Bauer.

This was the "new world" Mumford hoped President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal would bring to America during the 1930s. When Roosevelt's New Deal housing programs failed to realize this dream, Mumford lashed out at the New Deal in his column in the New Republic. He also assailed the rise of fascism in Europe. Mumford branded Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini as "barbarians," and he became a strident voice in favor of American military intervention. After the war Mumford continued his prodigious literary output that included his opus The City in History (1961) and numerous books of social and architectural criticism aimed particularly at American housing, highway, and urban renewal policy.



Miller, Donald L. Lewis Mumford: A Life. 1989.

Mumford, Lewis. Sketches from Life: The Autobiography ofLewis Mumford. 1982.

Spann, Edward K. Designing Modern America: The Regional Planning Association of American and Its Members. 1996.

Thomas, John L. "Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKaye, and the Regional Vision." In The American Planner: Biographies and Recollections, 2nd edition, edited by Donald A. Krueckeberg. 1994.

John F. Bauman

Mumford, Lewis

views updated May 11 2018

Mumford, Lewis (1895–1990). American architectural and town-planning critic. A disciple of Patrick Geddes, his views on urban planning originally stemmed from that source. His Story of Utopias (1922) was followed by many books, including Sticks and Stones (1924), the widely read The Culture of Cities (1938), and The City in History (1961). His knowledge and interests ranged far and wide, as is clear from The Culture of Cities, The Brown Decades (1931), and Technics and Civilization (1961), while he contributed articles to many journals, and wrote a perceptive regular column on architecture and the environment for The New Yorker entitled ‘The Skyline’ (1930s–1950s). A critic of the dehumanizing effects of technology, he nevertheless believed in the need for large-scale regional, even national, plans, and was a founding-member of the Regional Planning Association that sponsored the Garden City complex of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, NYC, and also worked for the New York. Housing and Planning Commission. He belonged to the low-density decentralist tradition of Ebenezer Howard, Abercrombie, and Unwin, yet, because of his belief in the need for large-scale planning, found his philosophical position confused. That confusion deepened after he helped to organize the MoMA exhibition, International Style, in NYC (1932—with Johnson, Hitchcock, and others), for by the 1940s he saw where CIAM-Corbusier-inspired dogmas of urban planning were leading, and he became a vociferous critic of them. In his New Yorker articles he prophesied the roles that the motor-car and urban motorways would play in the decay of the city as early as 1943, but his support for large-scale centralized intervention was challenged by others, notably Jane Jacobs, with whose views on urban renewal he agreed, but when her The Death and Life of Great American Cities came out in 1961 he was obliged to attack her thesis regarding urban densities. He insisted that architecture and planning had to be socially responsible, and he emphasized the plight of the individual in The Myth of the Machine (1967) and The Pentagon of Power (1971).


Architectural Review, clxxxvii/1117 (Mar. 1990), 9;
LG&S (1996);
D. Miller (1989);
L. Mumford (1922, 1924, 1931, 1934, 1938, 1944, 1946, 1952, 1952a, 1961, 1963, 1967, 1970, 1975);
Progressive Architecture, lxxi (Mar. 1990), 24;
Jane Turner (1996);
Wojtowicz (1996)

Mumford, Lewis

views updated May 17 2018

Mumford, Lewis (1895–1990) US writer and critic, best known for his essays on town planning and architecture, which include The City in History (1961) and Roots of Contemporary Architecture (1972). He also published works on a variety of subjects, including Herman Melville (1929) and Renewal of Life (1934, 1938, 1944, 1951).

About this article

Lewis Mumford

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic