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Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (2005)

by Peter Watson

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689825,785 (4.33)19
In this hugely ambitious and stimulating book, Peter Watson describes the history of ideas, from deep antiquity to the present day, leading to a new way of understanding our world and ourselves. The narrative begins nearly two million years ago with the invention of hand-axes and explores how some of our most cherished notions might have originated before humans had language. Then, in a broad sweep, the book moves forward to consider not the battles and treaties of kings and prime ministers, emperors and generals, but the most important ideas we have evolved, by which we live and which separate us from other animals. Watson explores the first languages and the first words, the birth of the gods, the origins of art, the profound intellectual consequences of money. He describes the invention of writing, early ideas about law, why sacrifice and the soul have proved so enduring in religion. He explains how ideas about time evolved, how numbers were conceived, how science, medicine, sociology, economics, and capitalism came into being. He shows how the discovery of the New World changed forever the way that we think, and why Chinese creativity faded after the Middle Ages. In the course of this commanding narrative, Watson reveals the linkages down the ages in the ideas of many apparently disparate philosophers, astronomers, religious leaders, biologists, inventors, poets, jurists, and scores of others. Aristotle jostles with Aquinas, Ptolemy with Photius, Kalidasa with Zhu Xi, Beethoven with Strindberg, Jefferson with Freud. Ideas is a seminal work.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
Peter Watson's hugely ambitious and stimulating history of ideas from deep antiquity to the present day—from the invention of writing, mathematics, science, and philosophy to the rise of such concepts as the law, sacrifice, democracy, and the soul—offers an illuminated path to a greater understanding of our world and ourselves. ( )
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  InstructorFlip | Jun 2, 2016 |
I am in two minds about this book. On the one hand, I was deeply stimulated and intrigued by most of the information and in the book. On the other hand, I found myself vociferously disagreeing with a lot of Watson’s surmises. Maybe both these responses are twined around each other, as Watson obviously wrote the book to elicit a strong response. But what disappointed me in the end was not so much the content of the book, objectionable as some of it is to me, as the style in which Watson writes. He gathers a lot of interesting facts together, which is fair enough, but then he generalises ad infinitum – leading to a reduction ad absurdum, to be frank.

Let me start with a few positive aspects of the book. Watson introduces a lot of information with which I am not really familiar, and he does this engagingly. The early chapters I found a little tedious, perhaps because I am no anthropologist or archaeologist and consequently have little interest in pre-historical humanity. Despite that, I found these chapters well-written and fairly interesting. As Watson moves into territory with which I am more familiar, he asks interesting questions and posits interesting answers. A lot of the things he has to say about, for example, the Middle Ages, are if not original (the book is endlessly footnoted – not necessarily a bad sign) then at least fresh. Watson brings to the table broad reading of the latest controversies in historiography, and he gives a good overview of many contested points of canonical history. An example would be the reassessment of the role the Renaissance played in Western history. Watson questions the importance attributed to the period – in fact, he questions whether the period can even be considered as a homogenous block of history. Watson also presents both the Occidental and Oriental sides of the historical narrative, and in so doing calls into question whether we can really separate the world into such easily pre-digested chunks.

In a book that spans so much of history, generalisations are to be expected. Where Watson does seem to trip up, to me at least, is in his somewhat arbitrary selection of historical figures. He seems sometimes to decide on historical figures merely out of personal taste. This would be more acceptable if he admitted to this, but instead he portrays his reading of the history of ideas as the ‘correct’, unquestionable version. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but that is the impression I got. My real problems with the book started with Watson’s writing on things of which I have a fair amount of knowledge, such as Greek philosophy and English literature. I would not claim to be a world authority on these topics, but I have read widely on the subjects, so I found myself often disagreeing with Watson’s generalisations about them. For instance, Watson contends that Aristotle has been much more influential than Plato, claiming that the ‘great success stories in the history of ideas have been in the main the fulfilment of Aristotle’s legacy, not Plato’s.’ To start with, I disagree with Watson’s thesis that Aristotle and Plato represent two contrasting, mutually exclusive ways of looking at the world. But what really irritated me was this: ‘It is a remarkable conclusion to arrive at, that, despite the great growth in individuality, the vast corpus of art, the rise of the novel, the many ways that men and women have devised to express themselves, man’s study of himself is his biggest intellectual failure in history, his least successful area of inquiry. But it is undoubtedly true, as the constant ‘turning-in’, over the centuries have underlined. These ‘turnings-in’ do not build on one another, in a cumulative way, like science; they replace one another… Plato has misled us.’ Now, I cannot emphasise how wrongheaded this conclusion is to me. Watson seems to completely misunderstand the point of the arts, something which I would not presume to define, but which is surely not to act like the sciences. If one could simplify art into something inherently useful – the aim of science – then one would no longer have art, as far as I am concerned. It is not that Plato has misled us, as much as that humanity has always struggled with whether something is ‘useful’, or ‘meaningful’. I would say that art has meaning, science has use. That is obviously a simplification (the two do not really form a strict dichotomy) but it seems a more ‘useful’ way of looking at things than Watson’s pessimism towards the humanities.

Ok, polemic over. This book obviously made me think, for all its faults. Maybe Watson’s own idea was somewhat too ambitious to put into a single book. It ends up being a jack-of-all-trades book, which is not masterly on any of its various fronts. ( )
3 vote dmsteyn | Jul 1, 2011 |
Jan 3, 2010 8:04 PM
Ideas, A History: From Fire to Freud
Peter Watson

I read this continuously for about two weeks, with one break to tackle another shorter book. This general history of ideas and intellectual progress is about 1,000 pages, starting with pre-history, proceeding mostly historically to science and Romanticism in about 1900. I discovered that I had read or at least knew about many of the sources discussed, most of which are secondary sources and analyses, but the skill Watson demonstrates, putting thousands of years of thought together into a readable narrative, is considerable and appreciated. I cannot convey the whole narrative, but have marked some passages of interest. The prologue opens with a story about the realization in Europe of the origin of stone tools, and the implication that stone tools imply a time before history, and imply a time of earth origin much older than allowed by Biblical accounts. The ancient Greeks, Plato and Aristotle, are of course discussed at length. The Stoic philosophy mentioned with a quote from Zeno: “Man is a dog tied to a cart; if he is wise he will run with it”. I was surprised to find a reference to the Goddess of Wisdom, participating in the creative acts of God, in the Old Testament (Proverbs 8), perhaps a residual of the worship of woman gods that seemed to be common in late pre-history, and attesting to pagan influences on Hebraic religion. Empiricism in Alexandria may have begun with physicians, originally theoreticians (“iatrosophists”), who were allowed to perform autopsies on criminals, leading to “so many discoveries the Greek language was unable to name them all”. I encountered lattice, or “gelosia” multiplication, using a diagonal grid to simplify the calculation, in Venice, adapted from Arabic and Hindu numerals, in the early middle ages. The idea of the period 1050 to 1200 as the key time in which the idea of Europe and seeds of its dominance was planted, as more important than the Renaissance, is a new concept for me.
Many will criticize the book on these grounds as Eurocentric, but Watson does credit and discuss Islam, China, India, and the Americas, returning to the theme of Western European dominance in trade, industry, science and discovery, which he says “cannot be denied.” Orientalism, the respect Europe paid to Sanskrit and Buddhist philosophy in the 18th century, was a new theme to me; Emerson was very attracted to Buddhist thought, for instance. The American revolution is discussed in the second volume, along with the Enlightenment. “Tradition has a fine ring to it, especially in the Old World. But another way of looking at it is as a principle by which the dead govern the living...” There was great reversal in the social and libertarian thought of the Enlightenment in Romanticism, when internal sensations would become the arbiter of truth. Fichte, puts it in terms of a creation of the will “I do not accept anything because I must. I believe it because I will.” In discussing Darwin, Watson points out that Robert Chamber’s popular account of Darwinism “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation” was much more widely read. The account of American pragmatist philosophy, Watson admits, is taken from Menand’s book “The Metaphysical Club”. I admire the pragmatists and read Menand’s account previously. Freud, although as Watson points out is now thoroughly discredited as contributing anything in a scientific sense, is respectfully discussed as summing up the ideas of the unconscious that had been developing in Charcot, Schopenhauer, and others in the 19th century. One slip was identifying “propranolol” as a neurotransmitter. His discussion of early chemistry, the insight that oxygen combined with metals to yield bases and with non-metals to yield acids, was a generalization I missed as a chemistry major. 1900 is the end of this volume, although I have another on my shelf starting at that point, and the last scientific achievement discussed was the discovery of the electron. In a summary chapter, Watson chooses the soul, Europe, and experimentation, as the three greatest ideas. He argues that the Aristotelian concentration on the external world has been a success in advancing thought and the happiness of men, the Platonic concentration on introspection and ideas less successful. One can argue with the choice of emphasis on certain ideas, but to contain so much and tell it in a readable way is a remarkable accomplishment. ( )
2 vote neurodrew | Jan 3, 2010 |
A unique and sometimes idiosyncratic, but highly informed and intelligent account of world intellectual history (but predominently of the western world) down to the end of the 19th century. The closer I came to the end of this book, the more I appreciated it. Highly recommended. ( )
  Illiniguy71 | Nov 15, 2008 |
One of the must read books who wish to understand and chronicle the evolution of human creature. ( )
  Linus_Linus | Jul 6, 2008 |
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Epigraph
There are no whole truths;
All truths are half-truths.
It is trying to treat them as
Whole truths that plays the devil.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Dialogues (1953)

While it may be hard to live with generalizations,
it is inconceivable to live without them.
- Peter Gay, Schnitzler's Centruy (2002)
Dedication
For Bébé
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In 1936, a collection of papers by Sir Isaac Newton, the British physicist and natural philosopher, which had been considered to be 'of no scientific value' when offered to Cambridge University some fifty years earlier, came up for auction at Sotheby's, the international salesroom, in London.
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Usually published in two volumes in translation, and by the Folio Society.
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In this hugely ambitious and stimulating book, Peter Watson describes the history of ideas, from deep antiquity to the present day, leading to a new way of understanding our world and ourselves. The narrative begins nearly two million years ago with the invention of hand-axes and explores how some of our most cherished notions might have originated before humans had language. Then, in a broad sweep, the book moves forward to consider not the battles and treaties of kings and prime ministers, emperors and generals, but the most important ideas we have evolved, by which we live and which separate us from other animals. Watson explores the first languages and the first words, the birth of the gods, the origins of art, the profound intellectual consequences of money. He describes the invention of writing, early ideas about law, why sacrifice and the soul have proved so enduring in religion. He explains how ideas about time evolved, how numbers were conceived, how science, medicine, sociology, economics, and capitalism came into being. He shows how the discovery of the New World changed forever the way that we think, and why Chinese creativity faded after the Middle Ages. In the course of this commanding narrative, Watson reveals the linkages down the ages in the ideas of many apparently disparate philosophers, astronomers, religious leaders, biologists, inventors, poets, jurists, and scores of others. Aristotle jostles with Aquinas, Ptolemy with Photius, Kalidasa with Zhu Xi, Beethoven with Strindberg, Jefferson with Freud. Ideas is a seminal work.

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