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A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future [Paperback]

Charles Van Doren
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 17, 1992 0099179512 978-0099179511 Reissue
A one-voume reference to the history of ideas that is a compendium of everything that humankind has thought, invented, created, considered, and perfected from the beginning of civilization into the twenty-first century. Massive in its scope, and yet totally accessible, A HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE covers not only all the great theories and discoveries of the human race, but also explores the social conditions, political climates, and individual men and women of genius that brought ideas to fruition throughout history.
"Crystal clear and concise...Explains how humankind got to know what it knows."
Clifton Fadiman
Selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the History Book Club

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Van Doren's provocative, encyclopedic guide to great thinkers, concepts and philosophical trends was a BOMC and History Book Club selection in cloth.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Van Doren, once editorial director of the Encyclopedia Brittanica , has produced a miniature encyclopedia, organized to show that there is progress in knowledge. He praises Columbus for giving us "a world well on the way to the unity it experiences today." India is mentioned as the source of the caste system. The Chinese gave us Confucius, but Van Doren notes their main legacy seems to be good recipes for tyranny. He warns that some good knowledge is unpleasant: we must now control our technology. Ultimately, the best knowledge for him is Western scientific knowledge since it is cumulative, meaning that better theories nearly always replace worse ones. An avid reader of Popular Mechanics who went to sleep in Peoria, Illinois in 1920 and awoke today with this book in her/his hands would probably find their ideals intact, needing only new technical knowledge and preparation for Van Doren's predicted revolt of intelligent machines. Van Doren has distilled the ideology of scientific progress into a neat, short drink that should win him a place on every library shelf.
- Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa, Canada
Copyright 1991 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reissue edition (March 17, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099179512
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099179511
  • ASIN: 0345373162
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
75 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for anyone interested in history January 5, 2001
At last a concise and brilliantly connected history of thought. Beginning with the "knowledge of the ancients" (which, to my pleasure, included information from ancient India, China and the Americas as well as from Egypt and the Middle East), Van Doren covers all the great theories and discoveries of the human race. Although I read it cover to cover, it would be just as useful (and enjoyable) to dig in and read it piecemeal.
The contributions of Einstein, Newton and Galileo are here, as are the ideas of Buddha, Martin Luther and Boethius. This is more than just a cataloguing of ideas and discoveries, though. Portraits of these individuals are made, and their contributions are placed in historical context. What is most remarkable, however is that van Doren has managed to squeeze all this information into a mere 412 pages.
The only shortcoming of the book is perhaps is length - but Van Doren sets out only to summarize, highlight and explain. With this in mind, he does an admirable job. The book is simply fascinating, and I highly recommend it.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ambitious project May 17, 2003
Charles Van Doren undertook an ambitious project in this book, which according to its cover blurb purports to be 'a compendium of everything that humankind has thought, invented, created, considered, and perfected from the beginning of civilisation into the twenty-first century.'
There are, alas, a few things missing, as this book only has a bit over 400 pages. But that does not really detract from the thesis of the book; it is certainly a worthy outline of human history, particularly approached through the lens of intellectual achievement and the advance of knowledge.
Van Doren, as you may recall, is the Van Doren who got caught up in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Ironic that this fate should befall him, as his learning would obviously put to shame the current crop of would-be millionaires so popular on the television today. But, I digress.
Van Doren spent the two decades before writing this book as an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. He has put together a worthy outline to knowledge, broad in scope and with just enough detail to satisfy the hunger and whet the appetite simultaneously.
`The voluminous literature dealing with the idea of human progress is decidedly a mixed bag. While some of these writings are impressive and even inspiring, many of them are superficial, perhaps even ridiculous, in their reiteration (especially during the nineteenth century) of the comforting prospect that every day in every way we are growing better and better.'
Van Doren does believe in progress, but not in inevitable progress. He distinguishes between general knowledge and knowledge of particulars, and explores the inter-relationship of knowledge and happiness:
`The desire to know, when you realise you do not know, is universal and probably irresistible.
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46 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A somewhat mis-titled book June 21, 2001
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An ambitious book by Van Doren, "A History of Knowledge" presents a sweeping portrayal of knowledge and its developments from the time of the ancients to today and beyond. This portrayal is a relatively easy read, and Van Doren's style is alternatingly conversational and didactic. While it's a good book, I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly. Why? I believe that it has two key flaws.
First is its scope. Any book titled "A History of Knowledge" is bound to miss a few things while keeping the size of the book down to something that doesn't require a pickup truck to haul around, and this is no exception. However, the things that Van Doren has chosen to eliminate include all of the progress of knowledge in the Far East or the early Americas (the book would be more accurately titled: "A History of Western Knowledge"). If you're looking to see how knowledge has waxed and waned across the world through recorded history, your best bet is a more focused title (see any of Boorstin's recent three book series for a focus on technology, arts, or philosophy; or Beckman's "History of Pi" for a more mathematical insight).
The second, and arguably more serious, flaw is the increasing focus on opinion and interpretation rather than historical presentation. We've become accustomed to separating our history into two parts, one that presents it as it happened (or we believe it happened at any rate), and one that interprets and analyzes it for reflection an understanding. Van Doren hasn't done this. And while I appreciate an author's perspective, I tire of reading of his unalloyed joy in his Judeo-Christian ethic, in the victory of Capitalism over Communism, and in the superiority of democracy over ALL other forms of government. And anyone who's read any science fiction at all will cringe at the prognostications regarding the next 100 years.
It's a good, but flawed, book.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Definitely for history lovers May 10, 2000
This is an excellent history text. I've used it as a reference for years, although I haven't read it through from beginning to end at any time.
So you want to know when Newton influenced physics and wrote his books? What about Descartes? Arsitotle? It's all in there. It covers how knowledge was created and spread throughout history.
This book seemed obviously influenced by James Burke's "Connections" science series on TV. I can't think of many better influences actually, as it was one of the best learning series ever done for television.
Because of the small size of the book, it's more of an overview than a super-detailed historic tome, but I am always surprised at how much the author does cover. I've rarely found a significant scientific or knowledge discovery/event that has been missed in the text.
I highly recommend this book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars perfect book
The book are great!
there are many Ideas and inspiration.
I recommend it to everyone who wan't to live full life!
Published 1 month ago by dima
5.0 out of 5 stars The unchallenged best succinct view of Western thought through the...
Van Doren succeeds where many have failed: he is entertaining (as are his obvious peers in that regard, Kenneth Clark and James Burke). Read more
Published 2 months ago by S. Devasconcellos
5.0 out of 5 stars Subjective But Fascinating View of History
There are many other more objective narrations of History but few that are this interesting to read. Read more
Published 4 months ago by R. Budin
5.0 out of 5 stars Charles Van Doren is enjoyable
This is a very enjoyable book. The format is very concise with its entries. It covers a lot of ground and is a lot of fun to peruse. Charles Van Doren is a great mind. Read more
Published 6 months ago by cmc308
3.0 out of 5 stars A little slow in the beginning
Starts off a little slow in the beginning. Sort of feels like your reading a Bible with the repetition and finite way of describing the early civilizations. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Rbeckett
4.0 out of 5 stars Required summer reading
Required summer reading for my son. Informative book. He is enjoying it even though I have to make him read!
Published 11 months ago by Momachelle
5.0 out of 5 stars Global vision on the development of knowledge
Charles Van Doren develops an exhaustive journey in de development of knowledge and human progress. One of the most interesting compilations on milestone events of humankind from... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Aldayo
5.0 out of 5 stars I love it
Everynight i am in a diferent period of time and I feel like I am living it.
Excelent book. I am in the middle ages now.
Published 16 months ago by Ruben Hernandez
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT REFERENCE BOOK
This book attracted my attention because it reads like an intriguing story as one seeks to become better educated on selected topics. History, literature, theology, etc. Read more
Published 21 months ago by DEEPLY MOVED
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and relevant, even in the 21st century.
A very enriching and well-written book. The tone is wonderfully engaging, the content even more so... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Oubai Elkerdi
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