Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 Paperback – November 9, 2004
Featured resources in history
Explore these featured titles, sponsored by Springer. Learn more
Customers who bought this item also bought
What other items do customers buy after viewing this item?
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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Browse award-winning titles. See more
If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support?
Top Customer Reviews
Murray has chosen the creme de la creme of thinkers and doers who have accomplished results having profound, advancing effect on society in the areas of artistic and scientific excellence -- this between 800 BC to 1950 AD. Murray recognized that such choices as he made can be seen as tainted by his own subjective biases. For this reason he has devoted a significant part of his book to explaining the systems by which he sought to achieve objectivity.
<Human Accomplishment> is not a book to be entered lightly. It contains much to interest the discriminating reader IF THAT READER IS PREPARED TO GIVE IT HIS CLOSE ATTENTION.
I'll tell you a little about the author Charles Murray's method to determine who the most significant figures are in the arts and sciences. He did a statistical analysis across English-printed and foreign-printed textbooks in the arts and sciences, calculated who the most frequently cited were, and the amount of pages were devoted to those figures. And these were the figures that emerged. It's a pretty cool concept, and it made for a pretty fun read. I think it's definitely an important book.
Being aware of the topic's controversial nature, Murray spends nearly as much time explaining his statistical methodology as he does analyzing results. After reading Murray's disclosure, you're overwhelmed by his data gathering effort. And, you are hard pressed to think off how a researcher could have been more objective in this endeavor.
From his extensive data, he develops a ranking of the top 20 contributors in tens of different fields. The usual suspects dominate the podium. In Western literature it is Shakespeare and Goethe. In Western Art, it is Michelangelo. In Physics, it is Newton and Einstein. In Western music it is the usual trio Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. And so on and so forth.
Murray makes a great effort in capturing non-Western culture by dedicating several inventories/rankings specifically for them, including numerous disciplines for the Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures. His research methodology renders him as well versed in Japanese Art as Arabic Literature. His related analytical commentaries are fascinating and educative.
Murray preempts politically correct concerns by addressing them head on. How about representation of women? As an abstract of his findings, if you are looking for the greatest composers of all time it is just impossible to come up with an alternative to the Mozart-Beethoven-Bach trio. And, the same is true for the other rankings he developed. He mentioned that in his gathered inventory of significant figures 98.5% are male. Speculating that all the well established sources had been heavily biased against women and had missed 50% of such significant figures; that would mean the percentage of male/female significant figures would be 97%/3% instead of 98.5%/1.5%. Murray does not believe the mentioned sources were biased. But, he adds even if they were it would not have made a material difference as stated above. Murray explicitly states men and women are of equal intelligence. It is just that our societies are patriarchal. Access to activities leading to superlative achievements is limited for women. Biologically, women incur the burden of reproduction and child rearing that is a constraint on the maniacal focus needed to become one of the all-time-greats in anything.
How about representation of foreign cultures? As mentioned, Murray already dedicated numerous inventories/rankings to other cultures to give them more than their fair share of representation.
After ranking individuals, Murray goes on to developing chronologies of major events in all the mentioned disciplines. Then, he moves on to analyzing trends in creativity over time and geographical location. You get that just a few places over short period of times generated an inordinate number of luminaries such as Athens during the Greek antiquity and a few Italian cities during the Renaissance.
Murray is intrigued by this phenomenon. In chapters 15 and 16, he analyzes the factors contributing to generating many luminaries at any one time within a specific country. From his multivariate regression models we learn that the major contributing variables to generating such luminaries per country are: 1) # of political and financial centers; 2) # of cities with an elite university; 3) population of the largest city; 4) # of luminaries in the immediate preceding generation (defined as a 20 year span); and 5) GDP per capita. On page 380, he discloses the results of this model. And, it is surprisingly good. Using this model he estimated within + or - 10 the number of luminaries per country from 1400 to 1950. Less than 5% of the defined per country-period have an error greater than + or - 10 in the estimated number of luminaries.
Next, Murray attempts to explain what the model has not. He extensively looks at the role of government with the expected assessment (totalitarian ones are bad as they don't allow individual creativity). He also advances that the reason why Europeans dominate the rankings is because of religious considerations. Confucianism and Buddhism in Asia valued tradition, family, responsibility to community, and detachment from desire and individual aspiration. Murray feels Christianity allowed more room for individual achievements hence related human accomplishments thrived in Europe more than else where. Murray makes a case that Christianity fostered human accomplishments more than our modern secularism. This is because he feels religion gives a greater sense of life purpose than secularism. He extends his theory by explaining why he feels that the rate and quality of innovation in the arts and sciences has declined in the 20th century. Remember, he is not talking just about technology. He is questioning whether our civilization will ever produce music composers of the quality of a Beethoven, or painters comparable to Michelangelo, playwright matching Shakespeare, or even scientists matching Newton or Einstein (ok this last one is just on the cusp belonging in good part to the first half of the 20th century). Even though many would disagree, Murray makes a very interesting point. Do we really have another Michelangelo or Shakespeare to come?
For a much different view of the interaction between science and religion, I also recommend Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Mike Shermer's Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.
This one was different. The author took me down paths I never even thought about.
He looked at what an outstanding accomplishment was, why it was outstanding, what caused it to be outstanding, what contributed to periods of accomplishment, what stopped them and more.
I learned much that will be useful to me as a teacher to inspire students to strive to achieve great things. Thank You, Mr. Murray