Watson: Ideas

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Peter Watson, Ideas : A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud. New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2005. xix + 822 pages with "Notes and References" and index.

This is a big, impressive book. The size is not really surprising for a book that promises to survey the entire history of ideas from prehistory to the beginning of the twentieth century (but only to the beginning of the twentieth century).

A promise like that naturally creates a few expectations on the part of the reader: that the author will choose very carefully from a vast range of possibilities how to describe and emphasize his points, how to connect the myriad ideas in the web of history, and how to keep it interesting and worthwhile reading from the beginning until the end of the book. Watson meets those expectations quite handily, with grace and wit. He makes it look easy but, one suspects that on this scale, organizing all these ideas into a coherent story is a daunting challenge indeed.

Thus, Ideas takes some time to read but the reading of it is fun and stimulating, and having read it is satisfying. Please don't think that it is difficult to read, however. Watson's writing is admirably clear and precise and never stuffy or pedantic. Too, he writes in episodes that are easily digested, making it possible to read a few pages at a time and not lose the thread. There are a lot of ideas and connections to think about along the way, so one doesn't want to feel rushed. Reading Ideas is more akin to taking an older, scenic highway to a destination, one that has lots of enticing scenic overlooks. The reader doesn't arrive at the end so quickly as possible on the interstate highway, but the trip was magnificent.

One rather obvious thing is worth emphasizing. This is a history of ideas, and Watson is delightfully faithful to that premise. Important people are only important to the extent that they contributed significant ideas to history, so there are lots of people, like kings and popes and politicians, who thought themselves terribly important, who never get mentioned. Likewise, the history of warfare plays a refreshingly minor role in this survey.

Surprisingly, many—perhaps most—ideas emerged much more recently than casual thought might suggest. We see that ideas don't just happen in isolation, but arise in times and places and circumstances that are, at least, somewhat prepared for their arrival. Ideas bubble up in a sea of supporting ideas (a theme developed in one direction by John Lienhard in How Invention Begins and in another direction by James Burke in Connections).

For us here at Ars Hermeneutica, reflecting on the origin of the idea of science as a way of looking at the world is a great idea.

There are two principal aspects to that legacy [of Ancient Greece]. One is that the Greeks were the first to truly understand that the world may be known, that knowledge can be acquired by systematic observation, without aid from the gods, that there is an order to the world and the universe which goes beyond the myths of our ancestors. And second, that there is a difference between nature – which operates according to invariable laws – and the affairs of men, which have no such order, but where order is imposed or agreed and can take various forms and is mutable. Compared with the idea that the world could be known only through or in relation to God, or even could be known not at all, this was a massive transformation. [p. 124]
The very first scientist, in the sixth century BC, was Thales of Miletus, a city on the Ionian coast. However, science is a modern word first used as we use it in the early nineteenth century, and the ancient Greeks would not have recognised it; they knew no boundaries between science and other fields of knowledge, and in fact they asked the questions out of which both science and philosophy emerged. Thales was not the first ancient figure to speculate about the origin and nature of the universe but he was the first 'who expressed his ideas in logical and not mythological terms'. As a merchant who had travelled to Egypt, he had picked up enough mathematics and Babylonian astronomy to be able to predict a total eclipse of the sun in the year 585 BC, which duly occurred, on the day we call 29 May. (For Aristotle, writing two centuries later, this was the moment when Greek philosophy began.) But Thales is more often remembered for the basic scientific-philosophical question that he asked: what is the world made of? The answer he gave – water – was wrong, but the very act of asking so fundamental a question was itself an innovation. [p. 128]

The Middle Ages are often described as "dark ages". There is a good reason for that. A great deal of learning and understanding retreated from western culture, and human progress suffered for it. But it was probably worse even than we can imagine, a time before the idea of a "self" emerged in human thought.

Just how dark these dark ages were is instructive. The true medieval mind was very different from our own way of thinking. Even Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor and the greatest of medieval rulers, was illiterate. By 1500 the old Roman roads were still the best in Europe. Most of Europe's major harbours were unusable until at least the eighth century. Among the lost arts was bricklaying: 'In all of Germany, England, Holland and Scandinavia,' says William Manchester, 'virtually no stone buildings, except cathedrals, were raised for ten centuries.' The horse collar, harness and stirrup, all invented in China, much ealier, did not exist in Europe until around 900. Horses and oxen, though available, could hardly be used. The records of the English coroners show that homicides in the dark ages were twice as frequent as death by accident and that only one in a hundred murderers was ever brought to justice. [...] Trade was hampered by widespread piracy, agriculture was so inefficient that the population was never fed adequately, the name exchequer emerged to describe the royal treasury because the officials were so deficient in arithmetic they were forced to use a chequered cloth as a kind of abacus when making calculations. As well as being dangerous, unjust and unchanging, the medieval way of life was also invisible and silent. 'The medieval mind had no ego.' Noblemen had surnames but this was less than 1 per cent of the population. Because so few inhabitants ever left the village in which they were born, there was in any case no need. Most of the villages had no name either. With violence so common it is no surprise to learn that people huddled together in communal homes, married fellow villagers and were so insular that local dialects developed which were incomprehensible to people living only a few miles away. [pp. 237—238]

I'm fascinated by reminders of how recently much of mathematics took the shape that we recognize today but tend to think of as timeless. Yes, we are vaguely aware that "Arabic" numerals came sometime from the Arabs and replaced Roman numerals, but do people realize that Roman numerals were actually the only numerals people had to use in practice? Not only that, the symbols we use for mathematical operations had to be invented, and they've been with us for barely 500 years.

Al-Khwarizmi's book on Hindu numerals, and algebra, was translated into Latin by Robert of Chester in the twelfth century and from then on the influence of the new numerals began to grow (the last mathematics textbook to use Roman numerals was written in 1514). There was however, a curious cross-over period when people in Europe used both systems. One writer wrote the years as MCCCVC94, that is, two years after Columbus discovered America, which Dirk Bouts dated his altarpiece at Louvain as MCCCC4XVII, which probably means 1447. The operational signs for arithmetic came later. In the last half of the fifteenth century Italians and other were still using P [with an overbar] for "plus" and M [with an overbar] for "minus". The familiar "plus" and "minus" signs, + and -, appeared in print in Germany in 1489. Their origins, Alfred Crosby says, are obscure: "Perhaps they sprang from the simple marks that warehousemen chalked on bales and boxes to indicate they were over or under weight." In 1542, Robert Recorde in England announced that "they figure +, whiche betokeneth to muche, as this lyne, - plaine without a crosse lyne, betokeneth to little." And it appears to be Recorde who, in the sixteenth century, invented the 'equals' sign, =, to avoid repition of the words "is equal to" and because "noe 2 thynges can be moare equalle." The x sign for multiplication was not settled for centuries: to begin with in medieval manuscripts it had as many as eleven different meanings. Fractions were a function of trade and, in the Middle Ages, could be very complicated, such as 197/280 and, in one case, 3345312/4320864. Decimals existed in embryo but the system was not finally completed for another three hundred years. [p. 380]

Music, as an idea, is given some treatment. Here Watson succinctly summarizes the emergence of what we would recognize as modern (as opposed to ancient) music.

In 1470, at a public festival in Breslau, in honour of the marriage of Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary, the newlyweds were treated to the sound of many trumpets and "all kinds of string instruments." This is regarded as the earliest account of a large number of strings, the essential ingredient of what would later come to be called an orchestra. A hundred years afterwards, roughly, between 1580 and 1589, a number of gentlemen started to meet regularly at the home of Count Giovanni dei Bardi in Florence. This group, known as the camerata, sounds like proto-mafiosi but in fact they consisted of a celebrated flautist, Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer Galileo Galilei), Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, also musicians, and Ottavio Rinuccini, a poet. In the course of their discussions, mainly about classical drama, the idea was conceived that such drama could be sung "in a declamatory manner." In this way was opera born. Roughly speaking, in the century between these two dates, 1470 and 1590, we may say that the main elements of modern music came into being. It paralleled the explosion in painting. [p. 415]

The reformation of the church sparked by Luther is a familiar story, but I found particularly interesting this analysis by Watson of exactly what it was that Luther was reacting against. It gives a deeper understanding of what it was that likely really upset him: not so much a decadent and corrupt hierarchy as a deep perversion of theology.

Luther's attack was directed not just at Tetzel, or the Vatican behind him. It was directed at the theology represented by indulgences. Indulgences existed, so the theory went, because of the "surplus grace" that existed in the world. Jesus, and the saints who came after him, did so much good that there was a surplus of grace on earth. Purchase of an indulgence put the purchaser 'in touch with' this surplus. Luther didn't like the idea that grace could be traded like potatoes in the first place but, no less important, it obscured the important fact that purchase of an indulgence freed the buyer from penance for a sin, but not from the sin itself. For Luther, the sale of indulgences was therefore deeply misleading and untheological. It was not far from this point of view to Luther's second innovation, a return to the twelfth-century idea that "true inward penitence," contrition, was needed for the proper remission of sins. The popes might claim plenary remission of all penalties but Luther insisted that contrition was a necessary condition. This next step was equally short but much more momentous. If, without contrition, an indulgence was invalid, then it soon became clear to Luther that contrition alone, "without any papal paraphernalia", was itself sufficient. In making salvation dependent on an individual's faith and contrition only, Luther simply removed the need for the sacraments and for a hierarchy to administer them. the idea of intercession – the very basis of the Catholic church – went out of the window. [p. 460]

This is a summary paragraph for what has passed in the fourth part of the book, before moving on to the final, fifth part.

The eighteenth century, the Enlightenment, was characterised by the first attempts to apply the methods and approach of the natural science to man himself. They were not wholly successful but they were not a total failure either. It is a problem still very much with us. What we might call the "hard" sciences – physics, chemistry and biology – have gone on making great progress. On the other hand, the "soft" sciences – psychology, sociology and economics – have never acquired the same measure of agreement, or predictive power, and have never generated the same highly effective technology in the realm of human affairs as, say, nuclear physics, solid-state physics, organic chemistry and genetic engineering. Today, two centuries after the end of the Enlightenment, we still can't say for sure what laws human nature obeys or even if these laws are the same as those that obtain in the "hard" sciences. This disjunction is, essentially, the main topic of the last section of the book. [p. 549]

When America was reached by Columbus in 1492, the New World was largely mystifying to the European mind, a perspective that we find foreign from our modern perspective. Watson points out just some of the difficulties for European thinkers.

The fact remains that for more than a century after the discovery of America there was no real intellectual progress in assimilating the New World into European thought patterns. For a start, how was she to be explained? There was, for example, and as was referred to above, no mention of America in the scriptures. Did that mean, perhaps, that she was a special creation, emerging late from the Deluge, or had she perhaps suffered her own quite different deluge, later than the one that had afflicted Europe and from which she was now recovering? Why was the New World's climate so different from Europe's? The Great Lakes, for example, were on the same latitude as Europe, but their waters froze for half the year. Why was so much of the New World covered in marshes and swamps, why were its forests so dense, its soil too moist for agriculture? Why were its animals so different? Why were the people so primitive, and so thin on the ground? Why, in particular, were the people copper-coloured and not white or black? Most important of all, perhaps, where did these savages come from? Were they descended perhaps from the lost tribes of Israel? [p. 574]

In the Introduction, Watson introduced his list of the three ideas of human history that he claims are the most important: the soul, Europe, and the experiment. On the surface it seems an odd list, but he uses it as a structural device for his book – to very good effect – and as a way to get his discussion underway. He also humorously observes that any number of historians take a tripartite view of history, and who is he to quibble?

In the end of the book he revisits these ideas and makes his case for their importance, using that as a device to summarize the main points of his vast discussion. Not surprisingly, I decided to share some of his justification for the idea of "the experiment" as one of his three most important.

It is surely beyond reasonable doubt that, at the present time, and for some considerable time in the past, the countries that make up what we call the West – traditionally western Europe and northern America in particular, but with outposts such as Australia – have been the most successful and prosperous societies on earth, in terms of both the material advantages enjoyed by their citizens and the political and therefore moral freedoms they have. (This situation is changing now but these sentiments are true as far as they go.) These advantages are linked, intertwined, in so far as many material advances – medical innovations, printing and other media, travel technology, industrial processes – bring with them social and political freedoms in a general process of democratisation. And these are the fruit, almost without exception, of scientific innovations based on observation, experimentation, and deduction. Experimentation is all-important here as an independent, rational (and therefore democratic) form of authority. And it is this, the authority of the experiment, the authority of the scientific method, independent of the status of the individual scientist, his proximity to God or to his king, and as revealed and reinforced via myriad technologies, which we can all share, that underlies the modern world. The cumulative nature of science also makes it a far less fragile form of knowledge. This is what makes the experiment such an important idea. The scientific method, apart from its other attractions, is probably the purest form of democracy there is. [p. 739]

I don't read very many books that cause me to react with this much enthusiasm. I recommend Ideas to anyone who can make the time to read it, thinking that most people should make the time. The payoff is well worth it.

-- Notes by JNS

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