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Ideas: A history from fire to Freud [Hardcover]

Peter Watson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

12 May 2005

In this hugely ambitious and exciting book Peter Watson tells the history of ideas from prehistory to the present day, leading to a new way of telling the history of the world. The book begins over a million years ago with a discussion of how the earliest ideas might have originated. Looking at animal behaviour that appears to require some thought: tool-making, territoriality, counting, language (or at least sounds), pairbonding. Peter Watson moves on to the apeman and the development of simple ideas such as cooking, the earliest language, the emergence of family life. All the obvious areas are tackled: the Ancient Greeks, Christian theology, the ideas of Jesus, astrological thought, the soul, the self, beliefs about the heavens, the ideas of Islam, the Crusades, humanism, the Renaissance, Gutenberg and the book, the scientific revolution, the age of discovery, Shakespeare, the idea of Revolution, the Romantic imagination, Darwin, imperialism, modernism, Freud right up to the present day and the internet.

IDEAS: A HISTORY concentrates on the activities and achievements of philosophers, writers, artists, scientists, inventors, religious thinkers, poets, historians, jurists and dramatists, investigating how their ideas have shaped our lives and thinking.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Orion (12 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 029760726X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297607267
  • Product Dimensions: 25.4 x 17.8 x 5.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 603,462 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


The history of ideas deserves treatment on this scale. (FELIPE FERNANDEZ ARMESTO EVENING STANDARD)

It would be a dull reader that failed to be stimulated either by the questions it raises or by the answers it gives to all sorts of questions that one would never have thought of asking. (NOEL MALCOLM SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)

"In Ideas, Watson gives us an astonishing overview of human intellectual development which covers everything... In a book of such vast scope, a reader could easily get lost, but the narrative has a powerful momentum...For those who want something more engaging than the dreary Plato to Nato narrative that dominates conventional histories of ideas, this wide range of reference will be invaluable" (JOHN GRAY NEW STATESMAN)

This lively book may stimulate the intellectually curious as they seek to understand the history of the mind. (THE TIMES)

Book Description

A highly ambitious and lucid history of ideas from the very earliest times to the present day.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
50 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but biaised grand tour... 9 Dec 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
First of all, I should say that I haven't read this book from cover to cover, but have dipped in and read it in several places. Nevertheless this has been enough both to appreciate the ambition of Watson's project and to see some of its failings. I am particularly interested in - and reasonably knowledgeable about - philosophy, and so started by reading Watson's accounts of various philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Descartes, Spinoza and so on. I was disappointed to discover that:

(i) Watson's knowledge of philosophy is patchy at best; for example saying, p.490 of my edition, that it was not clear why Descartes included appendices on meteors and dioptrics to his "Discourse on the Method". Well, I'm afraid it is clear to anyone who knows anything about Descartes: it was precisely as a demonstration of how his method could be applied, as his objective was to rebuild the sciences from scratch, rather than to construct a system of philosophy as Watson seems to believe. If you don't understand this you don't understand anything about Descartes' project. It seems to me here as elsewhere that Watson has leaned heavily on secondary literature rather than first-hand acquaintance with the sources which in this case are easy to read and would have enlightened him on this point.

(ii) what he does know is very much twisted to suit his objectives. For example, he gives a very biaised and rather dismissive account of Plato's thought, portraying it as "mysticism" when Plato was obviously more of a rationalist than a mystic.
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you ever wanted to know ... 18 May 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you, like me, are the kind of person who doesn't want to be left out of any conversation because of his total ignorance of the subject, then this is the book for you. If you, like me, enjoy reading journals like The Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, because of their wide scope, then this is the book for you. If you like reading books where experts in their field bring you up to date on advances in, say, physics, or linguistics, or archeology, then this is the book for you.
The author seems to have read all of the books I would have wanted to read, had I had the time and the opportunity, and to have built the most prodigious card-filing system, because this book is stuffed with facts (for instance, did you know why a circle has 360 degrees?).
As the title suggests, the book ends at the beginning of the 20th Century, where the author's history of ideas in the 20th Century begins (A Terrible Beauty: the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind [American edition: The Modern Mind]).
Of course, in a book of 800 pages which covers three million years, there is much that is touched on lightly: you will have to consult the references to go into depth. But this book will tell you where to start, and it puts thinkers into context with each other. It's a book that I will give as a Christmas present to bright teenagers, and will keep handy for consulting for the rest of my life.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Superficial and badly-written 27 Jun 2014
Peter Coville's review (q.v.) is much more interesting and detailed than anything I want to attempt here. I had his experience, namely that in areas of my own expertise, Watson is often unreliable or inaccurate. The whole work is also very superficial.
Now, at the risk of attracting more internet trolls who hate my criticism of English style, I have to say that PW is not only inelegant (forgiveable) and seriously ungrammatical but incompetent in the handling of language. (Yes, trolls, you'll find mistakes of my own in my other reviews.) He also oscillates between formal and trendy language, unable to find and sustain his own linguistic register. Some people might be quite happy to read that, for example, Athenians 'kick-started' democracy, but s*** bro it kinda blows my head innit.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another astonishing achievement 27 Jan 2006
Barely five years after completing "A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind", Peter Watson has repeated that astonishing achievement. This time he goes back to the beginnings of human prehistory to examine ideas - their development and their impact on human life up to the year 1900. He brings together so many disciplines normally compartmentalised that you might think that a team working for decades had been needed, as with the original French Encyclopédie, whose noted contributors included Diderot, d'Alembert, Rousseau, Voltaire... But Watson has written this maximum opus by himself. Specialists may dispute some of his conclusions and he is certainly not unbiased, while the occasional error has crept in. However, his breadth and vision are truly encylopaedic. This is a book that everyone interested in the history of human ideas should have on their shelves.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opener of a book 16 Aug 2009
The mind boggles at the amount of reading Peter Watson must have done before he embarked on writing this book. However, despite the huge range of ideas and controversies, the book is eminently readable with almost every page offering intriguing information and insights. Why did early man give up the easy life as a hunter gatherer (five hours work a day required) to become a farmer with endless hours of back-breaking work? Yes: now I come to think about it, Mr Watson, that is a fascinating question...... Don't be daunted by the size and weight of the book. It's an absorbing read.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very good
I borrowed this book from a friend and enjoyed it so much because it was very instructive as to why things are as they are, and were as they were ;). Read more
Published 2 months ago by sean89928
2.0 out of 5 stars Aaaarrrgghh!
Very frustrating book full of interesting stuff but written by a woolly minded humanities 'intellectual' so it is poorly organised, rambling and difficult to read. Read more
Published 8 months ago by TalkingMammal
5.0 out of 5 stars Best non-fiction book I've read
Super interesting, extremely well written. A great survey of ideas up until around 1900 - not sure if Watson has a book covering the 20th century, but I would definitely buy it if... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Patrick
4.0 out of 5 stars "A Very Good Empirical and Seminal Account of Historical Thought!"
I bought this book by Peter Watson: "Ideas - A History From Fire To Freud" as result of being a member of the Folio Society in 2005-2007, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson... Read more
Published on 7 Jun 2012 by Matloub Husayn-Ali-Khan
5.0 out of 5 stars becoming more human
I suspect that this book has had more impact on my life than any other I've ever read. I came across it by chance a few years ago and read it from cover to cover. Read more
Published on 26 Nov 2010 by stilllearning
5.0 out of 5 stars A tremendous book
I think that anyone who professes to follow a religion should read this book, if only to see how closely these apparently mutually incompatible faiths are actually intertwined. Read more
Published on 29 Nov 2007 by A. Jones
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