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Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 Hardcover – October 21, 2003


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 688 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (October 21, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006019247X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060192471
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,051,524 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Achievements that require mental and spiritual effort are the highest forms of human endeavor, Murray says. He has scanned the most reputable biographical dictionaries and histories of the arts, philosophy, and sciences to find who and what, during 800 B.C.-1950, are mentioned in them. He came up with 4,139 persons and a list of events and ponders 20 persons in each of nine scientific, three philosophic, and nine artistic fields who were most extensively covered in the resources. More than 80 percent are "dead white males," and Murray carefully examines why. The greatest achievements of India, China, Japan, and Islam occurred well before the West took off during the Renaissance, and each of those cultures valued duty, family, and consensus, whereas the West prefers individualism, the sine qua non of scientific debate and discovery. Further, the scientific method was a set of Western "meta-inventions" (Murray's term) that arose, fortunately, simultaneously with the ratification of Thomism, with its dual emphasis on faith and reason, by the most important cultural force in the West, the Roman Catholic Church. Of overarching importance to great achievements in any culture, Murray argues, are the sense that life has purpose and belief in ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness. This book probably won't get Murray in as much hot water as The Bell Curve (1994) did. Then again, with its speculations that the rate of great achievements has slowed since 1800 and that the arts are in a very bad way, maybe it will. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

326 of 348 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Once a decade, Charles Murray drops a bombshell book on American intellectual life.
In 1984, it was his devastating assessment of welfare programs, "Losing Ground," which helped inspire the famous 1996 welfare reform act.
In 1994, Murray coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein the enormous bestseller "The Bell Curve." It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.
Now, after a half-decade of work, Murray, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is back with another massive book, 688 pages full of graphs and tables. "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950" (HarperCollins, $29.95) is a fascinating attempt to rank the 4,000 most important artists and scientists in human history.
Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.
Murray took some time to discuss "Human Accomplishment" with me.
Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?
A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.
In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not.
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51 of 55 people found the following review helpful By Charles Miller on March 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Charles Murray presents three questions in this book. First, can historiometric techniques be used to produce a survey of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences over time and across cultures? Second, are there any obvious patterns in the data? And third, why are those patterns present?
The answer to the first question is certainly "yes". Murray uses the extent of coverage of scientists and artists in standard reference works on each field that he investigates. Basically he counts the number of times figures are mentioned and the amount of space their work is given. He makes a heroic effort to ensure that the results are not skewed by reliance on single works or works in a single language. His inventories include: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine, technology, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, western philosophy, western music, Chinese painting, Japanese art, western art, Arabic literature, Chinese literature, Indian literature, Japanese literature, and western literature.
While many may deride this methodology as bunk, the surprising thing is that the listings "look right". Who will argue that Galileo and Kepler do not belong at the top of the astronomy list, that Newton and Einstein do not belong at the top in physics, or that Shakespeare and Goethe should be lower on the western literature list? We may quibble about minor differences in rankings, but few would assert that obviously significant figures have been completely misplaced.
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40 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Nottingham on December 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book is much more than cataloguing accomplishments of the arts and sciences and adjudicating their relative greatness. More importantly, this is a book about the meaning and the pursuit of excellence.
Murray has an important message, which crystallizes toward the end of the book. An important part of the human spirit, after the basic needs of survival and procreation are met, is its natural attraction to truth, beauty and good. (This is the best elaboration I have seen of what is meant by the "pursuit of Happiness" in our Declaration of Independence) Given the right cultural climate, the emergence of excellence in the pursuit of truth, beauty and good, will thrive. I do not know if Murray had that message in mind and used the data to support it, or that he analyzed the data to conclude on that message. Either way, the message is powerful.
Murray also made the point the religion (not organized religion, but a mature contemplation of truth, beauty and good) and its contagiousness is what is behind the waves of achievements and discoveries in history, entailing superhuman efforts and sacrifices that produced the greatest art and the articulation of the most insightful truths.
There is in this book a detail list of "inventories" of great and significant figures and an elaboration of how they are selected, with special consideration -- allowing quotas, if you will -- for non-Western achievements. The inventories will undoubtedly generate a lot of debate from the PC crowd. Murray anticipated that and did quite a bit of that debate within the book. If you are a serious reader of the book, you will find that the inventories, despite the amount of space devoted to them, are mere launching pad for the thesis of what is the meaning of excellence.
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