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on 23 January 2011
Does this book's approach suit your needs? That is the question I have found that the prospective reader needs to consider. There is rich fare here, but can you digest it?
What I find sorely lacking is the author's presentation of an overall view of developments during this period. The book's refusal to start with a broad perspective over the whole period is shown by the Prologue's title: 1848-49 The Disillusionment of the Intellectuals. If I wanted to be rude, I would call this Prologue a jumble of representative and disparate figures, which includes George Sand (female emancipation) and Marx (socio-economic determinism). I had continually to look back over what I had just read in order to try to extract any sense of direction. It may well be naive of me to expect a grand narrative before the book launches into the detailed study of individual topics; but I find it hard to imagine what kind of reader, in terms of existing knowledge and resources available, could find this approach optimal and extract the most benefit from it.
This lack of overall view goes hand-in-hand with a failure to provide broader context, for the whole and the parts. The potential reader will no doubt have some knowledge of nineteenth-century Europe. You may be aware that in 1848, France had what can be called a revolution only in the narrowest sense of an abrupt change of regime; Germany and Italy made premature attempts at unification; and the British elite got away with rejecting with contempt the basic principles of representative democracy put forward by the Chartists. You may therefore expect the book to describe this situation as its starting point, and then proceed by presenting the intellectual and cultural currents within a political matrix. If so, you would be disappointed.
I feel that political context needs to be integrated with the core content in order to achieve full understanding of the subject. This is a century marked by fierce control of expression by reactionary regimes; in which ideas of liberalism, conservatism, socialism and nationalism took shape; and which saw the rise of mass political movements. Equally, what might seem relevant, but which you will not learn much about here, is changes in education (who learned what) and literacy (who read what).
Looking at context in terms of the parts, Chapter 1, on the impact of progress in scientific thought, suffers from the form of presentation. The author uses a rather odd device of a list of scientists admired by a character in a Turgenev novel; if this is thought to give a valuable insight into the contemporary mind, I am not inclined to agree. Expanding on this list, we start by meeting Germans who were at the cutting-edge of research in physiology in the 1840s and 50s. There is much food for thought here, but I feel the exposition would have been much clearer if it were explained that what we are concerned with here is a conflict between proponents and critics of vitalism; hence the central issue is the struggle to understand what exactly defines the uniqueness of life and distinguishes living from non-living systems. I had to obtain this clarity and insight by looking elsewhere on my bookshelf. So, yes, this book does encourage the reader to explore more widely, but it would be preferable if the desire were not driven by a desperate attempt to understand what could be better expressed.
A second illustration could be provided by the book's treatment of Social Darwinism in Chapter 2. To me, the immediate question is why this doctrine received such a warm welcome. The book refers only briefly to the issues: middle-class fears about the advent of democracy; international tensions; economic competition. These are major issues, and if they were dealt with at somewhat greater length, it would provide a better understanding of Social Darwinism through a fuller understanding of its historical circumstances. Again, what is said is well said, but the book loses by its focus being too much on the immediate topic, at the expense of the wider context.
The second half of the nineteenth-century in Europe is obviously an especially rich period in itself, as well as being pregnant with the sufferings of the twentieth. It should not be difficult to write an engaging study of the intellectual and cultural movements of the period. It is unfortunate that this book is weakened, for those who want an introduction that draws them into its depths, by its avoiding of any overall synthesis, and by its short-comings in contextualisation.
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on 6 April 2011
I want to disagree with the other reviewer. This in my opinion is an excellent book. Its intellectually rich, as one would expect and readers shouldn't expect a simple story because intellectual history isn't simple. What this does though it get down into the details and present a very complex period of change in a way that both shows a common path of change and the complexity behind it.
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