Ideas : A History, Paperback

Ideas : A History Paperback

3 out of 5 (1 rating)


A highly ambitious and lucid history of ideas from the very earliest times to the present day. In this hugely ambitious and exciting book Peter Watson tells the history of ideas from prehistory to the present day, leading to a new way of telling the history of the world.

The book begins over a million years ago with a discussion of how the earliest ideas might have originated.

Looking at animal behaviour that appears to require some thought: tool-making, territoriality, counting, language (or at least sounds), pairbonding.

Peter Watson moves on to the apeman and the development of simple ideas such as cooking, the earliest language, the emergence of family life.

All the obvious areas are tackled: the Ancient Greeks, Christian theology, the ideas of Jesus, astrological thought, the soul, the self, beliefs about the heavens, the ideas of Islam, the Crusades, humanism, the Renaissance, Gutenberg and the book, the scientific revolution, the age of discovery, Shakespeare, the idea of Revolution, the Romantic imagination, Darwin, imperialism, modernism, Freud right up to the present day and the internet.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 1152 pages
  • Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: History of ideas
  • ISBN: 9780753820896



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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.

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