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101 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every person that would like to call him/herself educated should read this book
An absolutely amazing book. It has illuminated so many cause and effect chains for me that I can hardly believe how much I've learnt in such a short time. If history at school could be presented from this angle, it would fundamentally increase the general understanding of who, what and where we are.

Watson is a great writer that conveys an incredible amount of...
Published on September 16, 2005 by A. de Wet

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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining despite quirky and uneven scholarship
Ideas are usually only part of the various milestones that world historians use, such as the births, wars and deaths of civilisations and empires. Peter Watson's focus on ideas shows how we got here without documenting the boring bits, i.e., phases in the history of continents, civilisations or empires when nothing new was said. Obviously not all ideas can be covered; the...
Published on November 1, 2010 by Marc Riese


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101 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every person that would like to call him/herself educated should read this book, September 16, 2005
By 
An absolutely amazing book. It has illuminated so many cause and effect chains for me that I can hardly believe how much I've learnt in such a short time. If history at school could be presented from this angle, it would fundamentally increase the general understanding of who, what and where we are.

Watson is a great writer that conveys an incredible amount of information with a story teller's flair. Quite an investment in time, worth every second.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book on History from a different perspective..., March 19, 2006
This is a fantastic book that covers how ideas have developed through History and explains a lot of things about ourselves, members of the Western world in the 21st century.

If you are like me, you didn't enjoy your History classes much when they were all about the particular (and too often unrelated) dates of political and military events. Fortunately, brilliant historians such as Peter Watson know how to weave countless facts into an engaging history, from Gilgamesh to the Cavendish Laboratory at the dawn of the 20th century.

Don't you know what Gilgamesh is? Maybe you should take a look at this book and enjoy yourself learning and thinking about things you might have taken for granted and never questioned.

This book is highly recommended for those who, keeping an open mind, want to be aware of how humans have evolved through History and would like to get to the roots of our many habits and traditions.

I wish all educated people could enjoy the insightful comments and innumerable associations of ideas that Peter Watson shares with us in his delightful history of ideas.

Maybe the most encompassing book on History ever written. Certainly the best I have ever read. A book on History from a different perspective.
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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A university education in itself, January 2, 2006
This is a splendid book. People who did not have a chance to go to university will find, after reading it, that -- if they couldn't before -- they can now hold their end up in a conversation with any history or social science major. Indeed, if they pay close attention to what they read here, they can probably dominate the conversation!

But if you did go to university, here is the chance to (1) fill in all the gaps, those courses you didn't have time to take or slept through, and/or (2) if you are "of a certain age" catch up with what's been happening in your field (and others) since you graduated.

Mark Steyn had a column recently in which he attacked the author for saying that monotheistic religion had been a bad idea, historically. Be that as it may, this is a splendid book, and my only question is: how the devil did the man find time to write it? Or did he have a mulit-disciplinary army of graduate students reading hundreds of books and summarizing them?

If I only bought one book this year, this would be it.
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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exceptional book, December 12, 2005
By 
This is the history book I've always wanted to read, not a history of war but a history of ideas. A look at the index gives you an inkling of what's in store for the fortunate reader. It's size is a bit intimidating, but the scope and depth of the material demands it.

I thought the NY Times interview [panned by 'Texan' below] was inciteful and funny. To rate a book you clearly haven't read based on a reply in an interview is to deliberately mislead the literate people who would enjoy this book. Please ignore Texan's "review", and do read this book.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Long and Short of It, January 2, 2007
By 
Dorothy H. Papp "Reader" (Stonington, CT United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (Paperback)
Ideas, A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud is an amazing book. Peter Watson knows his brief and can explain some of the most difficult ideas ever conceived by man in words that make them understandable to the popular reader. No, he makes them more than understandable - he makes them fascinating and relevant, showing how they have shaped the fabric of human life to this very day.

Watson's capacity to discuss some of the key controversies of modern science in an even-handed manner is almost as impressive as his scholarship. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that it is impossible to publish a book of this scope that will not be out of date in some respects within months. The artifacts reflecting python worship 70,000 years ago in Botswana and found by Sheila Coulson from the University of Oslo, for instance, is strong support for the view that abstract thought emerged gradually in Africa and at a far earlier date than those arguing for a genetic change in European Homo sapiens 40,000 year ago. Nor, perhaps, may the discovery of Homo floresiensis face us with the challenges of explaining how a different human species with such a small brain reached the Indonesian island where their skeletons were found.

It is a surprise that a book about the power of ideas throughout human history should close suggesting that there is probably no such thing as the Platonic "inner self." While discoveries of modern neuroscience are making this an increasingly respectable position to argue, Watson's defense of his view is surprisingly poor.

Despite its riveting interest, actually reading this book is a challenge. Its 822 8x10" pages weigh over 8 pounds, which makes cumbersome bedside reading. The Big Bang to Now: A Time Line, the slim volume by T. H. Sissons, covers much of the same ground as Watson's book but in far less detail. For those not sure they are ready for a heavyweight like Watson or for anyone looking for a quick overview alongside Watson's estimable tome, The Big Bang to Now may be either a good starter or accompaniment.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind blowingly good, March 24, 2007
This review is from: Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (Paperback)
Do you want to know everything about history but just don't have the time to read all the classics and the right "must read" novels and written works from Plato to Darwin (or perhaps like me you dont have the trained intellect to digest a lot of these works)? This book is the solution. It satisfied my massive curiousity of all ideas of man from the hunter gatherers through to Freud, and the best part was that it was an absolute joy to read. A two fold joy in that it is not overtly taxing due to Watson's ability to put ideas (and their context) forward in the most succinct fashion, and secondly the sheer scope of this book consistently amazed me. So many things I didn't know which have had such an important effect on mankind, and so many of the myths now explained. I read this book over the space of about 8 months. As I work full time and with a small child I dont get all the reading time I would like, but I found I also needed some time after reading a few chapters to absorb the enormity of some of the information contained therein. I was compelled to write this review after reading one of the final chapters (on Darwin's evolution) and I had the sensation of my mind literally expanding!! If you have a thirst for knowledge of the history of mankind and its ideas I can offer you no better reading, and as a supremely added bonus it is an absolute pleasure. I have only three chapters to go and I am already worrying myself as to what will take its place once I have finished it! Thank you Mr Watson you have increased my understanding of man exponentially. I look forward to your next publication.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed but interesting, August 21, 2007
By 
J. A Magill (Sacramento, CA USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (Paperback)
One must give Peter Watson credit where credit is due; he is not shy when it comes to examining topics of enormous scope, or at the very least craft titles that imply that this is his aim. Unfortunately, far from examining thought "from fire to Freud" Watson's work is of far more limited dimension, instead examining European cultural evolution from the early Middle Ages forward. His text examines several topics to understand their influence and development on civilization. His examination, however, proves too often limited, failing to look far enough to embrace the full range of his field. Most disappointing is his tendency to bifurcate ideas into two competing camps, and ignore the vast nuance in the middle.

For example, Watson divides thought into two opposing spheres : the physical (scientific or natural) world and the spiritual (religious). While it is true that this dichotomy exists in the West -- interestingly forced on the physical camp by the Church - far from inevitable, the division is a historical artifact created by social context. Those enchanted by Watson, and they are legion, will retort that his is not interested in the possible, but the actual, and even then only what occurred in (western) Europe. Yet even here, Watson ignores alternatives. Judaism, which Watson gives only so much attention as suits his goals, long embraced a notion of the co-existance and even integration of these two concepts. Many rabbis examined the physical world and sacred texts and sought reinterpretation of the former when they conflicted with the latter (two prime examples being Nachmanidies of Spain and Maimonidies of Egypt, two of the most significant sages of Jewish history). Watson might likewise have considered the ancient Greeks like Aristotle who sought to understand the spiritual through they physical.

When it comes to certain concepts Watson plainly tortures his topic to reach desired conclusions. Thus he imagines Freud's examination of the unconscious as on the continuum of the notion of the soul, yet this is at best forced. While it is true that Freud postulated a division between mind and body - not surprising given the technology available to him - but far from a notion of rote ritual, he developed a theory based on observation and imagined it being refined over time by experimentation. Even a cursory comparison of this with religion reveals the extreme limits of the comparison.

This brings us to the place where Watson succeeds, and in my opinion shines. His examination of the notion of the controlled experiment, that instead of being limited to observations as they occur people can create things to observe in order to test hypothesis, is nothing short of brilliant. This concept may be the driving force of the creation of modern science, a concept that allowed humanity to tame the atom and journey to the stars. Despite its other short comings, this makes Watson's book worth reading and presents an idea worthy of further consideration.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Informative and entertaining despite quirky and uneven scholarship, November 1, 2010
By 
Marc Riese (Mittelhäusern Switzerland) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (Paperback)
Ideas are usually only part of the various milestones that world historians use, such as the births, wars and deaths of civilisations and empires. Peter Watson's focus on ideas shows how we got here without documenting the boring bits, i.e., phases in the history of continents, civilisations or empires when nothing new was said. Obviously not all ideas can be covered; the focus of this book is on what is important for civilisation and the individual. What I enjoyed most was the breadth and the (generally) careful coverage; the raw ideas; the story of the idea-creating people and the effects of their work; the unusually good coverage of Eastern ideas; the origins of words noted along the way; the reminders of ideas and books that are often overlooked; the debunking of Freud based on recent research; the well-chosen structure and the author's conclusion. What surprised me was the author's off-hand dismissal of the importance and influence of Spinoza and Watson's distastefully sneering rejection of the formidable related research done by Jonathan Israel (p687). Watson misrepresents Israel, for example, by implying that Israel claims that Spinoza single-handedly "dispensed with the devil and magic". This is simply not true. 99% of the book merits five out of five reviewer points, but 1% ruins the book for me.

To cover the history of ideas is a herculean task. The author fares well at it, but in some places the history gets rather quirky. Watson implies that the idea of the separation of powers came from America (p790): "It was this attitude [of the new nation] that gave rise to the separation of powers." The same page refers to the contribution of Montesquieu to America, but what that was is not specified. Montesquieu receives only cursory coverage in the book and no mention of the separation of powers (which does not appear in the index). Watson asserts that the most important point of Montesquieu's book "The Spirit of Laws" was "how individuals administer the government". Watson refrains from mentioning Spinoza's critical role in a chapter about the rise of atheism. Spinoza was recognised and feared by his religious contemporaries as the "chief atheist of our time". Why does Watson choose to leave this out in an entire chapter devoted to that topic? How can the reader take Watson seriously granted the mountain of scholarship that Jonathan Israel established? As is typical in the history book industry, the author's history of the Enlightenment focuses on developments in a few countries in detail (down to the Wedgewood pottery, p758, groan) but largely ignores the crucial intellectual contributions of other countries, e.g., Holland. Some ideas that changed the world are barely mentioned, such as the idea that the Medieval concept of Hell was nonsense.

Watson makes extensive use of citations to leave the description of an idea and its effects either to contemporary experts or to later experts --usually including superlatives-- describing the idea as the most important this or that. This approach indicates significance and is entertaining, but it is overdone. Using this approach, the author often only quotes someone else without comment and the reader is left to guess whether the superlatives were at all justified and to guess the real significance.

The appended Notes are informative but the Reference section is often of no practical use; the "Ibid" references can only be deciphered if one invests hours to trace them backwards. The index of ideas is missing entries or important page references (e.g., encyclopaedias, universities). The penury of illustrations is irritating and in some places mystifying, such as the long, confused descriptions of the first world maps or of a Hindu icon. Some ideas are not clearly associated with a context nor even with a century (e.g., p639).

This 1118 page book is long enough for good coverage up to and including the 19th century. A pity that so much fine work is ruined by Watson's superficial attack on Jonathan Israel. In Watson's short and non-committal review (New Statesman, 2001) of Israel's book "Radical Enlightenment" he writes, "The scholarship is breathtaking. Israel has read everything, absorbed every nuance, followed up every byway. This is the kind of history book that will take a while to sink in. But the general view is that, five years from now, our views of the Enlightenment will have been enormously influenced by Israel." Since Watson has now clearly taken a critical stance regarding Israel's work, he should attempt a serious counter-argument and not just sneer.

Those who enjoy this book might also like J. M. Roberts "History of the World", which is a broad-brush of civilisations and also partially oriented towards ideas.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideas on Display, June 21, 2006
By 
If you want to understand the important ideas which have marked the development of mankind, read this book. From paleolithic and neolithic times, Watson tells us about the rise of language, the concept of deity, of cities, the domestication of plants and animals, romanticism, the factory, nationalism, the university, and many others. The writing is lucid. The book ends at 1900, where his other history, THE MODERN MIND, begins. IDEAS has 746 pages of text plus notes and references. I rarely feel this way about long books, but I wished it had been longer. OUTSTANDING!
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ideas: Importance, origin, inspiration and impact - simply, February 18, 2006
Riveting! Quite frankly this book puts EVERYTHING in context. The scale, depth and range of this work is mesmerizing. To chronologically review and assess the importance and origin and inspiration and impact of ideas (wherever geographically they may have originated) is a task one wouldn't think was possible. But Peter Watson weaves this multi-dimensional tapestry so comprehensively and clearly a reader might almost feel the exalted rank of the "universal man" was within their grasp.
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Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud
Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson (Paperback - September 26, 2006)
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