SCIENCE IDEAS: A HISTORY OF THOUGHT AND INVENTION, FROM FIRE TO FREUD By PETER WATSON [Harper Collins, 822pp., 2005]
A THOUSAND YEARS AGO, it was Still possible for Ibn Sina’s biographer, Juzajani, to write: “For the 25 years that I was his companion and servant, I did not once see him, when he came across a new book, examine it from beginning to end. Rather, he would go directly to its difficult passages and intricate problems and look at what its author had to say.” By the age of 21, there was no field of knowledge Ibn Sina was not familiar with.
In modern times, we are heirs to a different reality – one conceived in the 19th century by the Prussian education minister Wilhelm von Humboldt, who proposed that the university be organized not around teaching but around conducting original research. His reforms were fabulously successful, jettisoning the German university system from relative obscurity to become the envy of the world, generating unprecedented quantities of knowledge, tremendous advances in technology, and scholarly colossi such as Planck and Heisenberg, Strauss and Weber, Freud and Nietzsche. Yet, the consequence of this development was the labyrinthine world of multiversities and hyper-specialization that we know today: delineated formal disciplines and sub-disciplines, specialized literatures inaccessible to the common reader, and the widespread usage of the Ph.D. system to restrict access to teaching faculties. To say that Humboldt’s reforms were a Faustian bargain may be going too far. But they did shatter a once more holistic educational vision that was arguably better suited to the needs of the common citizen and civil servant.
In such a context, it is exciting to welcome Peter Watson’s Ideas, which sets as its goal nothing less than the integration and summation of the entire intellectual achievement of mankind, beginning with pre-history and ending with modernism, crossing every field of endeavor, from metallurgy to political theory to drama. Watson visited countless academic authorities, read innumerable secondary sources and condensed his findings into 800 pages. The result is a masterfully assembled, refreshingly nonparochial and engagingly written tour of human ingenuity.
Ideas begins in Africa with the protoideas: standing upright, cooking meat and making tools. Watson then spirals around the world, moving horizontally through space and vertically through time, cataloging discoveries, inventions and developments of the Mesopotamians, Greeks, Romans, Israelites, Hindus, Chinese, Muslims, Christians and even MesoAmericans. The fulcrum is on the rise of Europe during the late Middle Ages, after which the book becomes primarily a history of Europe: absolute monarchy, capitalism, biological racism, the factory metropolis and even particle physics among myriad other topics.
Watson’s greatest achievement is authoring a work so readable. In part, this is a function of the field he has chosen. Francis Bacon argued that the history of ideas was the most interesting kind of history. The magazine Computer Gaming World listed intellection-history oriented Civilization as the best PC video game of all time. Intellectual history requires none of the tedious memorization of royal lineages and battle outcomes that are the bane of students. It is generally progressive, allows easy mental organization and takes as its subject the most stimulating thoughts and discoveries of mankind.In part, the strength of the book is also a function of Watson’s gift for narrative, no doubt cultivated by his journalistic pedigree. He understands, as Tolkien did, that good story telling depends upon world building, and this in turn upon employing the right type and quantity of detail, not as ancillary trivia but as an aid to the imagination, especially when it helps to highlight contrasts with our own experience or unexpected similarities.
Watson also succeeds in presenting history as a dynamic field of endeavor that is subject to debate and continuous revision. Was there really a scientific revolution? Modern scholars, he notes, drawing on a cache of Newton’s papers uncovered in 1936, argue that Newton and Kepler are perhaps better regarded as the last of their era’s mystics rather than the bulwarks of a new rationalism. Why did Northern Europe, once a barbaric Mediterranean backwater, eventually surpass the Islamic and Chinese civilizations that had for so long been its superiors? For such questions, Watson surveys the arguments and provides some discussion.
If Ideas falls short, it is because of its heavy reliance upon secondary sources, some of which are quite dated. Also, errors appear that could have been avoided if the book had been authored by a team of subject-matter experts. For example, according to Watson, Muslims believe that Muhammad’s “only miracle was the Qur’an,” that “the Qur’an does specify that one of the duties of Islam is to keep pushing back the geographical boundaries that separate dar ai-Islam . . . from the daral-harb,” and that “in Arabic, beauty implies ‘delectation’ rather than the Platonic idea of moral good.” These are serious errors. Whole books were compiled listing the Prophet’s miracles; the terms dar al-Islam and dar al-harb do not appear anywhere in the Qur’an, they are the later inventions of jurisconsults; and the Arabic root H-S-N implies both the good and the beautiful.
A more serious shortcoming of the book is its at times caustically anti-religious bias. In a revealing interview with the New York Times, Watson was asked what he thought was the single worst human idea. He responded, “Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god … I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.” His response would not be problematic had it remained a private conviction, but it emerges throughout his work, detracting from its objective tone. In a section on Ancient Israel, for example, he goes to great length – allocating two whole pages – to question the historicity of the Biblical patriarchs, and though he admits that “there is of course an opposing argument which is argued equally robusti)1,” he allocates only a third of a page to it. Throughout the work, religious experience is generally presented as inauthentic. The Israelites, he writes, “probably borrowed” prophecy from the Canaanites. That certain miracles attributed to Jesus in the Qur’an are found elsewhere in the Christian Apocrypha, “throws a glimmer of light on the books available to Muhammad in the 7th century,” suggesting that Muhammad, not God, was the author of the Qur’an. Such judgments are out of place in a work ostensibly about the ideas themselves and belie a materialistic worldview best separated from scholarship.
These caveats aside, the work is still highly recommended for its breadth, usefulness and readability. The vision of the world presented by a history of ideas is a porous one, in which knowledge and invention cross state borders though their progenitors may not. It is also a cooperative one. No modern discovery can be said to be the work of any one civilization. When America went to the moon, so too did the Hindus, Arabs, Greeks and Chinese. In an age preoccupied with “the clash of civilizations,” this is an important lesson – and Watson’s Ideas an important book to hold on to.