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What's the Big Idea?
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, by Peter Watson
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Peter Watson’s long book covers the entire history of humanity, in the tradition of H.G. Wells’s Outline of History (1920) and Hendrick van Loon’s The Story of Mankind (1922). His approach, as the book’s title tells us, is to present the whole immense story as one of intellectual development, driven by changes in the way people have thought, by important new ideas, and by the appearance of key inventions — a term, by the way, that is not restricted here to technology, but which also embraces religious, linguistic, and political innovations. Watson takes his narrative only to 1900, with a brief wrap-up suggesting ways human thought might change in the near future.

A book of this kind needs some large general theme to unify it, or it is in danger of ending up as a rag-bag compendium of facts only loosely connected to each other. The main defect of Ideas is that it has no such theme. The book’s main attraction, on the other hand, is that, as rag-bag compendiums go, this is a superior specimen, with numerous interesting factoids and some thought-provoking short essays on topics we have all pondered at one time or another. This is much more a book for dipping into and browsing than for reading right through. For example: It is curious — and, as the author shows, significant — that “England’s royal chancery in the 1220s used 3.63 pounds of wax per week for sealing documents, but that this had risen to 31.9 pounds per week in the later 1260s.” If you like this kind of thing, you will have much fun with Watson’s book. Very few readers will be so well-informed as to gain nothing from reading it. For instance: I did not appreciate, until reading Watson’s chapter titled “The Oriental Renaissance,” what a great impact Hindu literature had on 19th-century European intellectuals. Lamartine, on Indian philosophy: “[It] eclipses all others for me: it is the oceans, we are only clouds … I read, reread, and read again …”

Books like this serve a useful purpose, reminding us of things we have half-forgotten, putting them in contexts where we never saw them before, connecting events and ideas we never thought of as being connected. And even though Watson has no Big Idea of his own to sell, he has plenty to say about the Big Ideas that have driven history forward. Making lists of really important ideas or inventions has of course been an intellectual parlor game since at least the Enlightenment. Some candidates — the domestication of fire, the smelting of metals, printing, law, scientific method — obviously qualify. Others — chariots, timepieces, nationalism — are more debatable. Watson offers his own three “most influential ideas in history”: the soul, the idea of Europe, and the experiment. The last of those three is shorthand for the scientific method, which Watson rightly extols as a supremely democratic way of arriving at esoteric knowledge. The truths of science are not like the truths revealed to the shaman in his trance, or the truths teased out from sacred scriptures by long years of study and meditation, or the truths arbitrarily declared by kings or dictators. “[I]t is this, the authority of the experiment, … independent of the status of the individual scientist, … and as revealed and reinforced by myriad technologies, which we can all share, that underlies the modern world.”

Taking Europe as his second Big Idea leads the author into his discussion of the Big Question that any survey of humanity’s overall development must tackle: Why did the modern world, with all its science and democracy and cultural vigor, emerge from Europe rather than from some other place? Watson gives over a whole long chapter to this question, a chapter he calls “a hinge of the book.” He pins the critical changes to the eleventh and twelfth centuries after Christ, and has perceptive things to say about, inter alia, the trend to primogeniture, the psychological impact of the millennium, and the elevation of womanhood through love poetry. None of these points is original, but that Big Question is of such moment, and is so intrinsically fascinating, it is almost impossible to write anything dull about it.

I did find myself wishing, though, that the author were a bit more opinionated. He has an odd, flat way of presenting other people’s theories about human development without giving away what he himself thinks about them. Watson devotes three pages to the “Orientalism” of the late Edward Said, for example, but makes no effort to evaluate Said’s notions in the light of the previous 670-odd pages of narrative. To those of us who think that Said’s work is postmodernist twaddle, this is a bit annoying. Similarly with the treatment of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that manages the remarkable feat of describing human development across millennia in terms of environmental stresses, without ever mentioning natural selection. Watson presents Diamond’s thesis with no obvious sign of approval or disapproval, then moves on after noting only that “though I think that all these ideas and innovations are important, my own candidates are very different.” This really won’t do — will, in fact, I believe, make Watson’s book seem dated very soon. Natural selection has had plenty of time to bring about minor adaptations since modern humans dispersed from (as we now believe) Africa around 100,000 years ago. It is hard to believe, and becomes harder by the day as work in the human sciences advances, that these adaptations to the different environments of different regions played no part at all in subsequent human history.


The author’s diffidence in this regard is even odder in light of his concluding paragraphs. Of his third Big Idea, the soul, Watson has much to say, and is generally persuasive. He has picked on the soul, rather than on God or the Afterlife, as a focus for writing about the progress of religious ideas. This makes good sense. Plenty of religions are, after all, ambivalent about the Afterlife, and at least one major religion, Buddhism, has no God. The soul is also a useful peg on which the author can hang some interesting reflections about the periodic inward turnings of human thought, like the one that took place when Aristotle’s “social man” gave way to the individualism of later Greek thought. In his final pages Watson brings the notion of the soul forward into our own irreligious age, where it has become the self, subject of modern discussions about the nature of human consciousness. Here at last our author takes a clear stand on something, unmasking himself as an Aristotelian, elbowing aside Plato to declare that:

We human beings are part of nature and therefore we are more likely to find out about our “inner” nature, to understand ourselves, by looking outside ourselves, at our role and place as animals. In John Grey’s words, “A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.” This is not paradoxical, and without some such realignment of approach, the modern incoherence will continue.

I completely agree; and I think that these closing sentences of Peter Watson’s book would serve very well as the opening ones of a different book — one in which recent insights from the human sciences are brought to bear on the story of human intellectual and cultural development.

(Republished from The New York Sun by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Review 
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