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Ideas: A history from fire to Freud Hardcover – 12 May 2005

4.2 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Orion; 01 edition (12 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 029760726X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297607267
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 5 x 25.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 38,499 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
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 magnum 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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Format: Hardcover
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 (Orion Publishing Group) in 2005. Although, I must admit that I have not read it from cover to cover, but found many of the sections on philosophy, religion & history very interesting and enlightening. I was interested in Part Two: Isaiah to Zhu XI: Romance of the Soul; Chapter 8: Alexandria, Occident and Orient in the year 0, Chapter 12: Falsafah and al-Jabr in Baghdad and Toledo; Part Three, Chapter 15: Great Hinge of History: European Acceleration & Part Five: Vico to Freud; Parallel Truths: The Modern Incoherence, Chapters 29, 33 & 36. However, Watson clearly gives away his 'hidden agenda' of being an British Empiricist writer who prefers to highlight Aristotle and Locke and not Plato and Descartes which is not the problem. The problem, however, is that this work is supposed to be an unbiased account!

Also, Watson's knowledge of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH - SAW)'s biography is a bit sketchy and shallow in that it fails to mention the fact that the most authentic & reliable is the traditionalist account by Ibn Ishaq: "The Life of Muhammad Apostle of Allah (updated/edited) by Ibn Hisham. He (Watson), ironically, mentions a Nestorian Christian from al-Hirah (born over one hundred years after Ibn Ishaq - whose grandfather was a Christian) was also called (Hunayn) Ibn Ishaq who became known among the Arabs as the "Sheikh of the translators". He mastered four languages: Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian!

Apart from some of these obvious shortcomings, I found the book to be very pro-atheistic because it shows religion (faith) as being closely intertwined and yet apparently these faiths are mutually incompatible.
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