132 of 136 people found the following review helpful
on March 23, 2001
At 800 pages the heft of the book makes you quite aware that you should think of it as a reference book. But then, you open it up and start reading, and suddenly, you're hooked. You're hooked because Mr. Watson is telling you the great, scary, tragic story of the 20th century, moving from the nearly unbridled optimism at the beginning of the century through the despair and disenchantment and dark days of WWI, Stalinism, WWII, into Vietnam and the rejection of liberalism and modernism in the last decades of the 20th Century, and he's telling it in an inherently fascinating way: through the leading lights in the arts, sciences and humanities -- a kind of meta-biography. Because he moves chronologically, you begin to anticipate the next raft of intellectuals, the next slew of scientific achievements. Then, later, you get the next iteration of certain theories and ideas in the hands of greater and lesser minds. Or, you start to fear how certain misguided ideas -- eugenics and defective Darwinism, for instance -- will be transmogrified into the rationale for evil. What's most valuable is that Mr. Watson also puts various schools of thought -- the Vienna Circle, the Frankfurt School for instance -- into their proper relation in terms of intellectual history. Mr. Watson's grasp of what's important and what's not, of whom to speak at length and of whom simply to mention, is for the most part nearly faultless. But that is another of the lures of the book -- seeing if you agree with his characterizations and the amount of space he dedicates to each one! For those who crave the long view, who weren't alive in Vienna in the 1900s, or Paris in the 1910s, New York in the 20s, Berlin in the 30s, Paris after WWII, New York in the 50s, who have tried to grasp the overlapping histories of the fine arts, music, literature and science in some kind of systematic way, this book is the answer. An awesome achievment!
68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
In writing The Modern Mind, Peter Watson has attempted the impossible. He tries to give us a look at the entirety of twentieth century thought. Still, though there are bound to be omissions and inaccuracies in such a book, Watson succeeds admirably in giving us a taste of the intellectual achievements of the past 100 years.
There is so much I like about this book. I like the fact that he sticks to his purpose. He stays away from the wars and politics that dominate most histories and focuses on scientific, literary, artistic and other intellectual achievements. Not that I have no interest in our political history but it is nice to be able to give some consideration to what is often best in humankind--the achievements of the mind.
Also, this is a very well-written book. It is long, but broken up into easily digestible segments with important names and concepts highlighted. Reading too much at one sitting can lead to information overload but in short gulps this book can really educate. I am amazed at the breadth of knowledge Watson displays in this book. I, for one, felt that I gained a lot of insight into things of which I already had some knowledge and, in addition, picked up many new things.
Of course, a book like this with such a large scope can be by no means complete. On the other hand, it achieved something that is rare and that I enjoy very much while reading--it lead me to new people, new ideas and new books to read. I was encouraged to track down and read a handful of titles that I might never have come across without reading this book.
A final warning: if you are a fan of Freud and psychoanalysis, you will not like this book. Watson does discuss the subject quite a lot (as he should, considering the influence Freud and his successors have had); however, he is not a fan and comes down rather hard on the field. Fortunately, I feel much the same way as Watson and was glad to read such a well-articulated position on the subject.
Not that such a position matters much to me anyway. Everyone has a right to a well-argued position and, agree or disagree, it is worth learning. All in all, anyone with a desire to broaden the range of his or her thinking will find some enjoyment in this book. I might not always agree with Watson's conclusions but it really got the wheels in my mind turning.
51 of 55 people found the following review helpful
The essential virtue of this book is that there is nothing else like it out there. So if you want to read a book like this, this is the best one available. Thus it gets 5 stars and I strongly recommend it.
In particular, there is strong coverage of science's progress (toward consilience), and its influence and intimidation of the humanities (although the Sokal hoax is unfortunately not mentioned). The influence and eventual failure of Freud, and its implication for his followers (not only the French left but a lot of self-conscious art and critical theory) is a major theme, along with the failure of socialism. But also, economic criticism of capitalism is well covered; as are questions about the meaning of life in capitalist societies. A related theme is the end of high art and the rise of pop. In the early part of the century the discovery of the non-Western mind in anthropology, archaeology and history is considered well; appropriately balanced by the emergence of non-Western intellectuals in various disciplines in the latter half of the century. But the failure to deal with racial inequality in the US (and now, Europe) is considered as well.
Those are the just major themes that I picked out; many more minor issues are dealt with as well. No other book that I know of covers this range of themes.
But I do have to criticize it a bit, hoping that something better does come out.
A minor criticism, which the author acknowledges and is perhaps somewhat inevitable, is that he relies heavily on a few other books, which maybe you should just as well read.
The essential criticism is that it is too brief. The list of omissions is huge: jazz, the Asian values debate, all of Japanese scholarship, math aftr Turing (such as solutions to the sphere-packing problem, Fermat's last theorem, and so on), liberation theology (other aspects of theology are pretty well covered), social and experimental psychology (Asch, Milgram, Zimbardo, etc), the idea of "kitsch" in art criticism, comparative religion. In contrast to the otherwise good coverage of science, he seems to have confused environmentalism with ecology (related indeed, but not the same), and didn't either one well.
Everything that is actually covered is covered too briefly, which is probably necessary from a marketing standpoint at least; but unfortunate for a student. For instance, minor theories and incredibly influential ones are considered shoulder to shoulder; based on the coverage here, a naive reader would conclude that David Riesmann is more influential than Gadamer.
The book should be 4 times as long, and it would still only be introductory.
I emphasize that these are minor criticisms because no other book like this exists currently: if you are a student or desire to fill-out your knowledge of the intellectual world, this is unsurpassed and despite my nit-picking I strongly recommend it.
In contrast to several other reviewers, however, I do not recommend using it as a "reference," as it compares poorly with several resources available on the internet.
I mentioned the author's reliance on a few key books; you might want to check some of them out. Among them are Wilson's "Consilience," Weatherall's "In Search of a Cure," Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," Johnston's "The Austrian Mind," Everdell's "The First Moderns," and Hughes' "The Shock of the New."
Besides them, Pinker's "The Blank Slate" is a book that I'd recommend because it has many similar themes to this one, but more focused and argumentative.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2002
What Peter Watson attempts to create with "The Modern Mind" is a narrative tale of (mostly Western) ideas that have shaped the 20th century. With a project so ambitious, it is certain that many readers will feel some important people are left out, or that some ideas are not covered in adequate detail. But reading through his accomplishment, it is forgivable. "The Modern Mind" must be read as a personal work that is intricately tied to the mind of its author. It is one person's view of intellectual history, and it is what he managed to fit in the space of less than 800 pages.
What is immediately clear from the beginning is that this story is molded by two thinkers: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. It is thus a tale of first, how science came to dominate our view of the world, and second, how psychology came to be so focal in our lives. The book is roughly chronological, but the chapters are topical so it is not simply structured as a list of intellectual events. There is form here, and one of the book's achievements is that there actually is a narrative going on, and it is interesting to see what was happening in literature or music, for instance, during the same time as certain scientific discoveries or during particular political events. There is definitely something to be said for looking back upon a century and taking in a distant, if thin, view of how ideas developed during that time.
The content essentially boils down to a bunch of books and accounts taken from other books. The older the history, it seems the more established the thinkers and their impacts are. The more recent material has some idiosyncratic choices, though most are no doubt influential and important. I also felt that Watson was a little too optimistic of science, and as important as science was in the book, I did not feel confident of the author's grasp of scientific concepts or of mathematics. Are string theory and chaos theory really that important at the moment, or are they simply new and sensational? Still, what you end up with is a very large reading list and a narrative to tie them together. If you're interested in some famous thinkers of the past but don't know how their ideas fit into a larger historical context, this may be a good resource for you.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2006
Peter Watson, holding a number of research degrees, offers a comprehensive intellectual history of the 20th century in this book. Not being an easy read, it takes some time to get through.
The main strengths of this book are placing the intellectual development of the 20th century in its economic and social context. This is quite an achievement, considering the remarkable scientific and technological advances and the fragmentation of human knowledge into many small and specialised areas in very arcane topics.
Watson tends to cover science the best, and provides excellent accounts of the development and progress of 20th century science, including the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, scientific cosmology, evolutionary biology and the discovery of the gene. However, the book falls down in some parts where it covers philosophy. Watson dismisses Husserl's Phenomenology as 'abstract' and of little importance, when in fact Phenomenology was probably the most important philosophical school in the 20th century along with analytical philosophy, founded by Russell and Wittgeinstein, and attracted so many leading European minds to philosophy in a time when science was at its zenith of glory.
Overall though, Watson's work is a very important attempt to see where we are in what we know, and where we are going.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2002
The urge to write - and more importantly, to sell - books about the 20th century was well in evidence before the century came to a close. And it shows no signs of abating even now. 'Conventional' histories have been outnumbered and outshone by those claiming to be 'unconventional' (which would, of course, make these very much the convention). But few have been as wide-ranging as Peter Watson's Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century.
At first sight, Modern Mind looks like one of those heavyweight volumes that sit on the reference shelf, waiting for graduate students to photocopy the odd page. But Watson used to be a journalist before he became an academic and it shows: the book is an extremely readable, even thrilling, romp through almost every major Western idea of the 20th century.
The book opens in the year 1900 with the publication of Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, Arthur Evans discovery of the Minoan civilisation in Crete, Hugo De Vries' introduction of modern genetics and Max Planck's discovery of the quantum. It follows these threads (and others) through the century in almost 900 pages, managing to mention 2,000 different people who contributed to the great intellectual discoveries of the century. As promised, it is not a conventional history of kings, politicians and generals, all of whom make only the most cursory appearance. Instead, Watson focuses on scientists, philosophers, writers, musicians and artists.
All the usual suspects are here: from Freud and Jung to Foucault and Derrida. Once you have waded through the book - a long but surprisingly delightful exercise - you will be able to hold your own on almost any aspect of modern culture. Naturally, this breadth of vision entails a rather drastic loss of depth but one cannot expect more detail when such a vast subject is being tackled.
Granted the author's choices cannot possibly satisfy every taste in any such undertaking, yet in the area of modern music the omissions are so glaring that one is moved to complain. The author devotes dozens of pages to Stravinsky and Schoenberg but his 'modern mind' does not include Jazz, Blues, the Beatles, hard rock or heavy metal. After this display of determined 'squareness' Watson compounds his sins by failing altogether to mention Indian music or, for that matter, any other music in the world. Similarly, while all the major scientific breakthroughs get a mention accompanied by brief but generally accurate explanations, the field of mathematics is somewhat neglected. Sir Karl Popper gets well-justified airplay in the philosophy of science but Paul Feyerabend is mentioned without any reference to his ideas. Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society gets a reasonable hearing but his equally devastating Medical Nemesis is completely overlooked.
Watson is well aware of the fact that the 'modern mind' is almost entirely western. Though the book manages to devote a few pages to Lu Xun, Yan Fu and Fu Sinian, all members of the early 20th-century Chinese enlightenment, they are there mainly to show how western ideas were introduced into China. The only other 'non-western' intellectuals who make an appearance are writers like Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul. Mahatma Gandhi is given only one throwaway line and Mohammed Iqbal, with his mishmash of Spengler, Nietzsche and Islam, is not even mentioned. Neither are any of the 'theorists' of militant Islamic revival.
In his defence, Watson concludes that he is only reflecting the facts as he found them: the modern world is an overwhelmingly western creation. No amount of lists of Arab contributions or African origins can obscure this fact. But the author fails to give a cogent reason for the dominance of western civilisation, even though he does mention Naipaul and Landes (the author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations) as people who may have an inkling of why this is so.
This may well raise hackles in some quarters but it should not detract from the value of the book. Whatever our own 'meta-narrative', we cannot ignore the tremendously fertile and overwhelming contributions of 20th-century western civilisation. And Modern Mind is an excellent introduction to those contributions. Also, one may add that if this book seems Eurocentric, it is still an improvement over several recent titles that take the view that even western civilisation is too broad a term and the credit (or blame?) for the modern world should go to much smaller groups. A flavour of this can be had by simply perusing the following titles: How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe and The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2011
I do not want to comment on the book itself...all has been said in the previous reviews.
The Kindle edition of this book is nothing short of an utter disgrace of book editing. I have so far covered 50% of this book, and found about 50 to 60 typographical errors of the worst kind...it is obvious that no professional editor looked at the manuscript after it had been converted to an eBook. Considering the price of this edition, and the gravity of the topic, this is shameful. Nothing more to add, other than "Fix it!"
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2001
Mr. Watson takes on a subject that seems impossible to tackle, a survey of the century's big ideas, and does an admirable job of getting a lot of them in, even as he sometimes overreaches in his search for connecting strands to tidy his narrative. Mr. Watson has his biases (he is an unabashed fan of science's achievements and pays particular homage to the neo-Darwinists; while at the same time bemoaning the impact of the two men he believes most responsible for the bad ideas of the century: Freud and Marx (in fact he seems to lay blame on Freud for what he sees as the lack of truly important ideas emanating from France in the 20th Century)). Most controversially, i would think, Mr. Watson points out that he intended to include whithin his survey important ideas from non-Western sources, but decided not to after completing his review, since he came to the realization, one buttressed by the opinions of experts he consulted, that the century was dominated by Western ideas. He notes that all important non-Western (defining "western" to mean Europe and the U.S.)intellectual contributions were reactions to and re-workings or adjustments to Western ideas. I would think that this thesis would be controversial. The true importance of the book, however,is that its summaries lead the reader to the work of influential thinkers such as Reisman and Von Hayek whose predictions (along with those of the more well known Daniel Bell) are eerily on point. All in all, a worthwhile and thought-provoking book. I recommend it.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2009
There is much to praise and plenty to criticize about this (any) volume, but let's not nitpick about how much attention is devoted to one person or subject over another or that he left out items or events here and there. There is only so much space in a book and so much a single author can do in one attempt. What a fantastic attempt it is. He lifted a full bucket from the well of human accomplishments.
The overriding positive thought must be that Watson has attempted a monumental new history and succeeded. Sure there are omissions and natural biases in the information, but we must accept the human. This is a profound achievement and Watson should be proud that it is even coherent, much less a fascinating, provocative read. I love the concept of looking at history in a new way, from a new direction. More histories of ideas, sciences, and arts are needed. Hope to see more of this style in the future. Very much worth the read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2007
Dense, erudite and challenging, but never boring: An 800-page panoramic view of the intellectual history of the 20th Century. It follows both the paradigms and the paradigm shifts in the arts, humanities and most of all in the sciences -- paradigms and shifts that have taken place over the 20th Century mostly in the Western world.
All of the big ideas and the people that introduced them are present, accounted for, and are neatly and economically summarized, in context. The core elements of most of the key intellectual ideas and theories across a vast expanse of the intellectual landscape -- from Freud to Nietzsche, and Darwin to Einstein -- that have driven us from Modernism to Post-modernism are given with the historical connective tissue left in.
Importantly, the author makes a distinction between "cultural" and "intellectual" history and advances; between "big ideas" and "big people" and "big events" that normally drive history and uses these distinctions as a tool for ignoring the latter two; thus paring down his selections to a manageable size. As a result, the book has a unity that is simply uncanny in its utter coherence and precision.
What an exhilarating ride. Intellectual history doesn't get much better than this. Read and enjoy. Amen