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A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future Reissue Edition

4.0 out of 5 stars 109 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 860-1300232638
ISBN-10: 0345373162
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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.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Reissue edition (March 17, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345373162
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345373168
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #61,780 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback
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.
Read more ›
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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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Format: Paperback
Charles Van Doren does a fine job of providing an enlightening overview to history and sociology. I've enjoyed the book twice now, given it as gifts, and recommended it to many friends and aquaintenances. I found his insight and perspective on historical characters and discoveries to be most valuable. Being a technical person, I find Van Doren helps me understand the the evolution of history...he combines events, individuals, and discoveries into (what appear to be obvious) relationships. Many times throughout the book, I would think to myself: "Now I understand!"

The book comes with a delightful bonus; it provides the reader with a refreshed interest in historical events and personalities. This makes for engaging conversations... topics from Henry XIII to Marco Polo. How about: the history and significance of "zero", or the demise of the Aztecs?

Further, Van Doren provides insight into the similarities and origins of different religions.

It's a great book you can pick up and put down, read a little, skim a section... fun to have around even as reference.
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