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

Peter Watson, Author
Peter Watson, Author HarperCollins Publishers $29.95 (822p) ISBN 978-0-06-621064-3
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Watson's (The Modern Mind) hefty tome distills history's greatest ideas and inventions into an impressive discourse on history's driving forces, enlivened by anecdotes and made approachable by Watson's casual, nearly conspiratorial, tone. Watson presents a vast amount of information, but his greatest strength lies in his ability to make an immensely varied body of material coherent and digestible. The author asks the reader to approach his history ""as an alternative to more conventional history-as history with the kings and emperors and dynasties and generals left out,"" and assumes ""readers will know the bare bones of historical chronology."" Central to Watson's approach is his belief that the scientific experiment, as it took root in medieval Europe, forever changed history's intellectual landscape. (Watson goes as far as labeling the scientific method ""the purest form of democracy there is."") Whereas the non-Western world once dominated intellectual spheres (The author notes that the Hindu mathematician Aryabhata calculated the value of pi and the solar year's length, determined that the earth revolved around the sun and discovered the cause of eclipses nearly a thousand years before Copernicus), Watson points to a grand-and specific-shift that changed that dynamic: ""The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a hinge period, when the great European acceleration began. From then on, the history of new ideas happened mainly in what we now call the West."" This analysis is indicative of Watson's scholarship, and the result is a rich tapestry of intellectual and cultural life through the ages.
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