- Paperback: 416 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press (December 20, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231128479
- ISBN-13: 978-0231128476
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,446,980 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology in France
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[Hecht] brings wit and enthusiasm to her densely packed tale of the freethinking anthropologists, who first knew each other as distraught republicans during the Second Empire. (Nina C. Ayoub Chronicle of Higher Education)
Hecht is... a very good writer and a brilliant researcher. Highly recommended for all academic libraries. (Library Journal)
A fascinating glimpse of a little-known chapter in French history. (Publishers Weekly)
Hecht has given us a very strong account of the republican scientific vision... This book will be richly rewarding to scholars of the Third Republic, to historians of anti-clericalism and of the social sciences, and even to laymen with an interest in the current round of the nature-nurture culture wars about the genome and evolutionary psychology. (Martin S. Staum H-France Book Reviews)
Clearly, this is a superb work, one that captures a major moment in French and European thought with thorough scholarship and literary grace. Highly recommended. (Choice)
A comprehensively researched, carefully contextualized, engagingly narrated, and provocatively revelatory book about an underappreciated episode in the history of anthropology and religion. (George W. Stocking Journal of Anthropological Research)
Jennifer Hecht's endlessly fascinating book...A great gift for that special intellectual history buff in your life. (The Society of Mutual Autopsy)
The often poignant life-histories she recounts...are one of the real pleasures on offer in this wide-ranging, original study of late nineteenth-century French anthropologists. (Elizabeth Williams American Historical Review)
The book makes a significant contribution and should be of interest not only to historians but to a wider readership interested in the intersection of culture, science, and politics. Hecht has produced a work of impressive erudition. (Susan Terrio Anthropological Quarterly)
Hecht is a vivid writer with a keen eye for the evocative anecdote and the unexpected interconnection.... Hecht's book will make provocative reading for historians of science, religion, and republican politics. (Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences)
"This is a wonderful analysis of the passionate, exuberant and at times bombastic radical anthropologists whose views were central to political culture in late-nineteenth-century France. In lively prose, the author characterizes these combative scientists and their contributions to every conceivable topic of the day, from religion, to morality, to prehistory, to criminality, human equality, feminism, and socialism. It is full of striking insights into the politics of science, especially the ways in which an almost religious fervor for scientific materialism could lead either to radical scientific egalitarianism or it's opposite, scientific racism." -- Nancy Leys Stepan, Columbia University--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Hecht deserves praise for her thorough research and her willingness to tackle such an ambitious project. That is about where my praise for the book ends, however. Ultimately, I found this study to be poorly reasoned, extremely unorganized, dryly written, and offensively unsympathetic to its subject. At times, it reads more as a polemic against atheism than as a sober evaluation of any moment in history. This is quite surprising, since Hecht is herself an atheist.
She makes repeated assertions that the primary subject of her study, the passionately atheistic Society of Mutual Autopsy, founded their own religion. Yet, she doesn't provide the reader with a definition of "religion," so we have no way of knowing what qualifies as a religion in her book. For most scholars and lay people, religions are based around a belief in the supernatural. That means the atheists studied in this book were not in any way religious, a detail Hecht overlooks. When she then offers phrases like "evangelical atheism" without any justification or explanation, Hecht seems set on diminishing her Society's values. As an atheist myself, I found this extremely annoying.
There are many other unsupported conjectures and highly questionable conclusions offered here (and even a number of blatant misrepresentations of the facts), and none are intended to give her subjects the benefit of the doubt. For no apparent reason, she mocks the Society's interest in brains and skulls, and suggestively emphasizes the lack of useful scientific information garnered by their research. She claims that they were not truly interested in science because they failed to further our understanding of neurology, as if success were a mark of sincerity.
Another one of her ideas is that atheism is not caused by scientific discoveries, but that science is rather more likely to be influenced by atheism. This claim is not supported by anything close to a compelling argument, however. Ultimately, Hecht offers very little insight into the end of the soul or atheism. Her views seem to be based on questionable assumptions about human psychology, and there is a sore lack of coherent argument throughout.
Worst of all, the book does not seem to be organized around a main idea, and the reader is likely to wonder why one chapter or section is followed by the next. The entire book is greatly lacking in focus, a truly tragic flaw considering the breadth of material Hecht covers. The whole thing feels like something of a mess.
Again, the research that went into this book is impressive. There is a wealth of information here for anyone interested in the subject matter. However, wading through it--and separating the facts from Hecht's questionable assertions--is not an enjoyable task. I could not finish the book, and I would not suggest anyone try.