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Book Review – Ideas: a History

“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)

Earlier this week, I marked a literary milestone. After just over a year and a half, I finished reading Ideas: A History by Peter Watson. This tome is over a thousand pages long and each one is simply brimming and overflowing with information; getting through a few pages of this book is equivalent to getting through a few chapters of any other non-fiction book. It is a fantastic survey of human progress in science, philosophy, thought, and the different ways we organize our society, reaching back many thousands of years. The quote at the top of this page precedes the reader’s journey through this extensive exploration.

I was going to constrain myself to simply writing a neat review of the topics covered and outline the benefits of reading such broadly reaching narratives. (There are many, of both the topics and the benefits.)  However, as I am working on mentally decompressing and digesting the information I have finished reading, I am finding that this book manages to inspire responses much more emotional, morally exhausting, and forceful in nature than I would have ever thought possible from such an objective and factual narrative.

Therefore, it is justifiable to fully dispense with the easy summary at the present time. Peter Watson has made me want to stand up and applaud at times, and raise my voice with frustration and indignation at others; here is the summary of these occasions, instead.

x x x

(1) Broad survey, minute details.

The greatest achievement of Ideas is its perfect combination of ambition in both scale and scope.  It’s incredibly difficult to absorb all the facts in this book. As such, there is choice in how to read it. One option is to make it a marathon read and explore each theme at a very slow pace, relying on the references and end notes to take the time in learning each subject fully. This makes the book a companion to a much broader survey, a sort of guide or a teacher. It might take years to finish in this way. The other option is to focus on retaining broad themes, letting some details go, and potentially skimming some sections. I chose the latter, making more mental notes on patterns and connections between events and periods of time. In this way the book can also be used as a springboard: after it is done, a world of potential topics to explore opens up. The lasting impact is the reader’s open mindedness and a more efficient curiosity.

(2) Objectivity.

The other great achievement of the book is the author’s commendable determination to a strictly objective account. I looked for it, and I found no inherent bias in terms of geographical viewpoint, left-of-centre or right-of-centre politics, the validity of religious beliefs, or the roles of men or women. Watson does have strong opinions on select topics. We know this because each opinion presented in the book reads like one;  there is no opinion presented as a fact. For instance, his intense respect for Greek Classicism is explicitly stated and factually supported. It is clear that he is expressing a viewpoint in an arena where it would be rebutted by others.

Interestingly, one of the areas where he shows little patience and loses some of his objectivity is in dealing with poor scientific method. Freud, in particular. After patiently explaining the orthodox account of Freud’s accomplishments and discussing his legacy, he begins the next paragraph: “So much for the orthodox version.”  Then, for an author who mentions Freud in his book’s subtitle, Watson does an excellent job of completely demolishing the scientific validity of Freud’s studies and demoting him to the extreme. It was informative, yes, but also very entertaining in tone.

(3) Pragmatism over the inner self.

This was the most challenging part of the book to come to terms with. In the conclusion, Watson organized the “Ideas” he discussed into two streams: environmental and internal. Environmental ideas are about our surroundings: physics, biology, and astronomy, for instance. Internal ideas are about how humans think and behave, and can be further broken down into two streams: societal organization and the study of our conscience/inner life/true self. Watson rates our progress in the last stream of ideas as the worst, and he is right. We still do not understand how our own mind works: what makes us human? Why are we the species to have developed complex language? Besides the activity of neurons in the brain, we have no answers for the specific essence of humanity.

Watson believes this is because there is nothing else to it.  His closing remarks encourage further development in ideas that we are good at:  ones that are pragmatic and external.  He praises industriousness and productivity, and shows great impatience for any periods of “turning inward.”

This is shocking: the author spends over one thousand pages discussing things that the human mind came up with. If not from conscience, where did these ideas come from? My reaction is to protest this sentiment completely. I refuse to believe that there is nothing more to the human mind than evolutionary instinct, specifically because of the subject this very book discusses.

x x x

Ideas was undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read. It serves as a reference for further reading, as a large high-resolution map onto which to plot all of one’s existing and future knowledge of history, and it also tests the moral, ethical, and intellectual compass of the reader. My favourite part was not any specific chapter. It was the feeling that after finishing each section, Watson challenged me to develop a full cohesive understanding, and then, an opinion.

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