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A Secular Miracle

Peter E. Gordon—

In 1770, the empress Maria Theresa summoned to the Viennese court an imperial counselor named Wolfgang von Kempelen, a man from the Hungarian city of Pressburg who was already well esteemed for his services to the state. In an era when the German language was displacing Latin throughout Habsburg lands as the official medium of enlightened absolutism, von Kempelen was prized at court especially for his linguistic skill in translating the text of the Hungarian civil code from Latin into the German vernacular. In later years, however, von Kempelen devoted a greater share of his time to practical invention. The inventor wheeled out his newest creation for its public debut. It was a strange apparition: a life-size figure carved of wood and clothed in the style of a Turk, with a turban and a fur-trimmed robe. Seated behind a large cabinet with a chessboard on its top, one arm extended forward in readiness, it held a long and slender pipe in its other hand. Its unmoving eyes seemed to fasten with quiet attention on the unplayed game.

Especially during the age of Enlightenment, automata such as the chess-playing Turk were objects of popular entertainment and scientific curiosity. Pierre Jaquet-Droz (an inventor born into a Swiss family of clockmakers) designed no less than three fantastical protoandroids—known as the “Writer,” the “Draftsman,” and the “Lady Musician”—which entertained audiences across Europe. Some of these machines, of course, were exposed as fakes: an automaton harpsichord player that was presented to Louis XV turned out to be animated by a five-year-old girl hidden inside it. But others were genuine feats of mechanical engineering. In the 1730s, Jacques de Vaucanson created an automaton flute player and displayed it in Paris before the Académie des sciences, whose skeptical members verified that it was in fact what it seemed to be: an ingenious machine. Vaucanson also built a mechanical pipe-playing boy, then shifted to the animal world to fashion an artificial duck that could not only quack and swim but also eat, digest, and even defecate. Such wonders of invention were a testament to Enlightenment science. But as both Simon Schaffer and Adelheid Voskuhl have observed, they could also serve as object lessons in the mechanistic and materialist doctrines associated with French philosophes such as Diderot and La Mettrie.

Enlightenment theology also helped to breathe life into these inventions. For the Deists, God was a watchmaker, and all of creation resembled an invention whose clockwork perfection bore witness to the skills of its creator. But such inventions could be easily imagined without a divine being to set them in motion. Schaffer suggests that such automata also furnished a root metaphor for the emergent model of society as a self-regulating machine. Once society was conceived as a mechanism crafted by human hands, all appeals to religious intervention became superfluous. It was this model of unthinking perfection that encouraged Adam Smith to imagine the market as a self-regulating domain that would achieve universal opulence when set free of mercantilist intrusion and allowed to run on its own, as if in obedience to nothing but an invisible hand. Smith, we should recall, invokes the invisible hand only as a figurative illustration: no external manipulation is actually necessary for the functioning of a market economy. Rather, he believed that human trade exhibits the same regularity that physical nature does, as it had been conceived by Isaac Newton not long before in his Principia Mathematica. Smith’s reflections on the quasi-naturalistic workings of the economy were not unique; they were instances of the notion of “self-organization” that took hold in the eighteenth century. Early theorists of manufacture also likened the repetitive gestures of industrial labor to the workings of automata. Schaffer has suggested that this metaphor reinforced the social distinction between labor and the intellectual elite: the automata merely accomplished the physical activity while knowledge of the social process remained the privileged domain of scientists, philosophers, and politicians. Karl Marx himself described the mode of industrial production as “an automatic system of machinery,” a system which was “set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself.” Capitalism, Marx wrote, resembled an artificial being, fashioned not by divine hands but by merely “mechanical and intellectual organs.” 

In his lively history of the mechanical Turk, Tom Standage describes not only its Enlightenment-era origins but also its legacy for artificial intelligence in the twentieth century. The chess-playing automaton is an early ancestor, Standage notes, of both the Turing machine, the early computer invented by Alan Turing and his colleagues in 1936, and “Deep Blue,” the IBM supercomputer that defeated Garry Kasparov at chess in 1996.I do not mean to pursue such historical connections here, since my interest lies not in the actual history of the automaton but in the philosophical lessons it could be made to bear. From all of the details I have related thus far we can glean a simple fact: throughout its artificial life the chess-playing Turk was understood to be a specimen of purely human ingenuity. For this reason the connection with modern experiments in artificial intelligence (AI) is of some philosophical importance. Today scientists and philosophers are preoccupied with the question of whether the emergence of AI marks a new epoch in our understanding of what it means to be human and whether we have already trespassed onto the terrain that was once the exclusive province of the life-giving gods. If humanity now has the power to create artificial life, then have we not stolen the fire from Olympus and usurped the role of the divine creator? But if we have taken this step, does the very distinction between the sacred and the secular lose all meaning? Such questions, I would suggest, were already in view when von Kempelen first wheeled his ingenious contraption before the Viennese court. Though it may have seemed miraculous, everyone looked upon it as an entirely secular miracle.

Adapted from Migrants in the Profane by Peter E. Gordon. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Peter E. Gordon is the Amabel B. James Professor of History and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, and in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard University.  He is the author of several books in modern European philosophy and social theory, including Adorno and Existence.


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