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Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson Paperback – September 7, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht (The End of the Soul), the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery. Most scholarship focuses on the belief systems that have defined religious history while leaving doubters burnt along the wayside. Hecht's poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial, in terms of historical currents and individual wrestlings with the angel. Doubt is revealed to be the subtle stirring that has precipitated many of the more widely remembered innovations in politics, religion and science, such as medieval Jewish philosopher Gersonides's doubt of Ptolemaic cosmology 200-300 years before Copernicus, Kepler or Galileo. The breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history. Hecht's exegesis traces doubt's meandering path from the fragments of pre-Socratics and early religious heretics in Asia, carefully elucidating the evolution of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, through the intermingling of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought in the Middle Ages that is often left out of popular histories, to the preeminence of doubt in thrusting open the doors of modernity with the Cartesian "I am a thing... that doubts," ergo sum. Writing with acute sensitivity, Hecht draws the reader toward personal reflection on some of the most timeless questions ever posed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Let others admire cathedrals: poet and historian Hecht celebrates the creations of doubters. In this remarkably wide ranging history, Hecht recounts how doubters from Socrates to Wittgenstein have translated their misgivings about regnant orthodoxies into new philosophic insights and political horizons. Though she explores the skepticism of early Greek thinkers challenging pagan gods, the tantric doubts of Tibetan monks chanting their way to enlightenment, and the poetic unbelief of heretical Muslim poets, Hecht gives center stage to Christianity, the religion that made doubt newly visible--and subversive--by identifying faith (not law, morality, or ritual) as the very key to salvation. Readers witness the martyrdom of iconoclastic doubters such as Bruno, Dolet, and Vanini, but Hecht also illuminates the wrenching episodes of doubt in the lives of passionate believers, including Paul and Augustine. In Jesus' anguished utterances in Gethsemane and at Calvary, Hecht hears even Christ experiencing the agony of doubt. Indeed, Hecht's affinity for the doubters who have advanced secular democracy and modern art does not blind her to the hidden kinship between profound doubters and seminal believers: both have confronted the perplexing gap between human aspirations and their tragic contradictions. In her provocative conclusion, Hecht ponders the novelty of a global confrontation pitting America not against the state-sanctioned doubt of Soviet atheism but, rather, against a religious fundamentalism hostile to all doubt. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 576 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition (September 7, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060097957
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060097950
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #54,401 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jennifer Michael Hecht lives in Brooklyn, blocks from where her great-grandmother Jenny Balinsky lived. Hecht has written four books of history and philosophy and three books of poetry. She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in the History of Science and European Cultural History and has taken that in many directions.

I like to think about human meaning, especially the kind that exists outside the individual, in the culture and the community. The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning, just as the feeling of love is sufficient to the definition of love. (Of course we sometimes don't feel love, but that doesn't make us say love doesn't exist.) I believe Stay's approach to the question of suicide allows us to see ourselves as more profoundly connected to each other, and able to relax our need to each generate the entire meaning of life on our own.

For me, poetry is the best way to get to truth underneath what we think we know. My nonfiction also requests a flip in perspective. I love to hear from people! Contact me on my website:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

78 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Gregory Mills on August 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Hecht does us freethinker apologists a great service here. She gives us an eloquent and exhaustive account of the process of doubt through history. For the most part, the people she depicts here are skeptics, rather than cynics. Their humanistic values come from their own evaluations and struggles with objective truth, rather than a wholesale rejection based on suspicion of motives of others (although that does pop up from time to time to be sure). For as many loud and proud rebels depicted in here, there are an equal army of strugglers who can't reject what they see as true, despite the prevailing beliefs of the communities around them. It's a very lively, thought provoking book, and enjoy interested in the history of ideas would probably enjoy it. Heck, even theists should read it.
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68 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Martha C. Knox on April 23, 2007
Format: Paperback
This book is excellent.

The Freethought Society and Humanist Association in Philadelphia co-sponsor a Secular Book Club, and Doubt: A History was the first book we discussed. Surprisingly, the moderator said the book wasn't recommended to him, but rather, he found it by browsing in a book store. That's a shame because this book is such a wonderful survey of religious doubt in the Western World, that also touches on some aspects of doubt in the Eastern World as they influenced and related to the West.

Jennifer Hecht is a historian and award-winning poet. Her writing style is narrative, clear, and full of personality. At my book club meeting we spent several minutes just raving about how much we enjoyed the writing style.

The story begins with the ancient Greeks, then moves into ancient Judaism, Rome, and early Christianity. Jesus himself becomes an important figure in the history of doubt because by emphasizing faith in a way that Judaism never did, Christianity invented the doubt of the believer and the concept of doubt itself as a grave sin. (Jews, Greeks, and Romans were fine with you as long as you practiced religion. Genuine belief was secondary.) From there it moves into Buddhism and some lesser Eastern schools of thought, Islam, and relates them all to how Christianity and Judaism evolved over the middle ages and into the Enlightenment and modern times. Of course it discusses the role of religion in politics, especially in the era of the secular state, covering the French revolution and the foundation of the United States. The book touches on so many figures in the history of Doubt that even the seasoned freethinker is sure to encounter some new names and stories.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Tom Spelvin on August 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As the other reviews indicate, if you're a doubter, a "freethinker," an agnostic, an atheist or just plain unable to buy any story with a supernatural element in it, you will love this book. If you're a believer or unwilling or unable to give up the belief system you cherish (which is perfectly understandable), then this book will most likely aggravate you.

What I found as I went through this book is that for every belief system someone somewhere came up with, some other person somewhere else deflated it. As Hecht explained each system, I was tempted to think, "Ah, there's a philosophy I can adopt!" But, no. As I continued reading, the flaws in the system were pointed out by the great thinkers of all time (and sometimes by Hecht herself), and I thought, "Well, no -- I guess that one gets thrown in the trash pile of history, too."

This is why this book is NOT good for those seeking answers -- especially those who need validation of their own belief system. For, in the last analysis, this book leaves one thinking there ARE no answers (at least, at this time). Maybe it's all beyond the human brain, and always will be. I was left realizing that we're living in a Universe which is -- to use Churchill's phrase about the Soviet Union -- a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

If one is open minded -- and especially if one is already a "doubter" and needs validation of their doubts -- I can hardly recommend this book highly enough. It's comprehensive, accessible, witty and more fun to read than you'd expect a book about philosophy could be.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Marvin S. Long on March 11, 2007
Format: Paperback
History is normally taught as a series of conquests -- this man over those men; this nation over that nation; this religion or idea over that culture; and so on. History is presented as tedium punctuated by fits of violence.

How much more useful to humankind it would be if history were taught like this: as the struggle of the concepts underpinning human liberty and dignity -- physical, intellectual, spiritual -- to survive and thrive in the face of human ignorance and knavery. We debase the human spirit when we hold up the worst blunders of Aristotle and Plato as greatness -- because they were co-opted by church and state power in the centuries to come and became great instruments of human slavery in the process -- and ignore the genius of thinkers Democritus and Epicurus, which helped human beings learn to be free every time they were discovered and rediscovered over the years.

Today we're steeped in a culture that equates doubt and thought with deviance and immorality. The culture-warriors of the Right wouldn't be able to get away with it, though, if the masses knew the history that is laid out clearly and delightfully in this book. When you realize that throughout recorded history men and women with no prior knowledge of modern physics and biology were able to dismiss the manipulations of the religious state with nothing more than curiosity, honesty, and common sense as their allies -- that's a history that does a body good.
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