Wednesday, June 08, 2005

New Book on the History of Ideas

There's a new book out by Peter Watson about the history of ideas. Here's a review of it from the pages of The New Statesman. The two quoted paragraphs below confirm at once my deepest fears about studying the history of ideas--it's too big and broad to be able to be mastered--and my opinion about the myopia-mania that is Ph.D. studies today (and the reason I'd like to go to St. John's before going on to my doctorate). Anyway...
Given the importance of the history of ideas to the way we understand ourselves, you might expect it to be a flourishing discipline, but that is far from the case. As Isaiah Berlin used to say, it is an orphan subject. Ever sceptical of abstraction, historians complain that it slips easily into loose generalisation. For philosophers, who tend to assume that questions asked hundreds or even thousands of years ago about knowledge and the good life are essentially the same as the ones we ask today, it is irrelevant. Very few economists know anything much about the history of their discipline, and the same is true of many social scientists. At a time of grinding academic specialisation, intellectual history seems a faintly dilettantish, semi-literary activity, and the incentive structures that surround a university career do not encourage its practice. More fundamentally, the history of ideas is a casualty of the growth of knowledge. Anyone who aspires to study it on anything other than a miniaturist scale needs to know a great deal about a wide range of subjects - in many of which knowledge is increasing almost by the day.

In these circumstances, a universal history of ideas seems an impossibly daunting project. Yet in Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, Watson gives us an astonishing overview of human intellectual development which covers everything from the emergence of language to the discovery of the unconscious, including the idea of the factory and the invention of America, the eclipse of the idea of the soul in 19th-century materialism and the continuing elusiveness of the self. In a book of such vast scope, a reader could easily get lost, but the narrative has a powerful momentum. Watson holds to a consistently naturalistic philosophy in which humanity is seen as an animal species developing in the material world. For him, human thought develops as much in response to changes in the natural environment - such as shifts in climate and the appearance of new diseases - as from any internal dynamism of its own. This overarching perspective informs and unifies the book, and the result is a masterpiece of historical writing.
The book can be bought here.