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4.4 out of 5 stars
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4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 12 August 2017
Very easy to read - it's long but well paced - it makes a valiant effort to tie together the development of different core ideas through time. I've noted some readers/reviewers have pointed out bias and some lack of understanding of some areas. I agree but given the impossibility of attempting this sort of work without some of this creeping in I wouldn't let it put you off. Just perhaps remember that you're reading an overview and that almost any theme that's developed is likely to have some objections. Usually the author here is reasonably good at suggesting where there are strong opposing views. Overall I found this a welcome contribution simply because of the attempt to show connections across periods and viewpoints that are very often only discussed in isolation.
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on 19 July 2017
Fantastic book. The erudition is impressive (and well documented). Easy reading. Despite its monumental length, it is organized into chapters that take maybe 2 hours to read. The only shortcoming is the paucity of the Index, which might be forgiven in a work so dense with facts as this is.
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on 9 December 2007
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. Plato is an immense thinker, and responsible for a huge step forward in rational thought - the development of the dialectical method and the concept, both of huge importance to subsequent thought yet barely if at all mentioned by Watson, who is however supposed to be writing a history of ideas.

These examples are from philosophy, something which I know something about, but this made me wonder if his coverage of other areas I am less familiar with can be trusted.

In another field, Watson affirms that "it is time to bury psychoanalysis as a dead idea, along with phlogiston, the elixirs of alchemy, purgatory and other failed notions that charlatans have found useful down the ages", (p.728 my edition) adding "It is now clear that psychoanalysis does not work as treatment". This is a highly subjective and controversial stance to say the least.

Watson clearly has an agenda, that of the no-nonsense British empiricist, prefering Aristotle to Plato, Locke to Descartes, which is fine, except that many people may be reading his work thinking that they are getting a reasonably unbiaised account of the history of thought, which I don't believe is the case. This is a pity as there is clearly a need for this kind of historical synthesis of ideas in today's confused world. So read this history, by all accounts: there is surely much of interest here, and perhaps Watson is stronger in areas other than philosophy, but do not believe that you are getting anything like an unbiaised account of the history of thought.
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on 18 May 2005
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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on 7 June 2012
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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on 27 January 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 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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on 16 August 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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on 3 August 2014
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 ;).

It became my favourite book and as such I ordered my own copy from Amazon, which as a person who doesn't re-read books, gives the correct impression of how i value this book.
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on 9 October 2016
Excellent book, with up to date information in a consolidated way that one can get useful historical info on the worlds history and evolution.
Well written and in a comprehensive language especially for non English native readers.
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on 30 October 2016
Extraordinary book helps to make sense of the world now.
Bought a paper copy to annotate although reading on kindle

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