From Dr. Johnson's famed Dictionary to H.G. Wells's grand attempt to offer "The Outline of History," we've seen a remarkable number of British writers willing - and, by and large, able - to take on huge projects that involve synthesizing massive amounts of information and presenting the results in a clear and lively form suited to the ordinary reader.
Unlike their American counterparts, who generally aim for objectivity (or at least its appearance) by adopting a more impersonal tone in works of this kind, quite a few British savants (not only Wells and Johnson, but more recently, writers like journalist Paul Johnson in "Modern Times" or literary critic Martin Seymour-Smith in "The New Guide to Modern World Literature") have not been shy about offering their own views along with the material.
Peter Watson, London-based author of 13 previous books, is no exception.
Having given us "The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century," he's now undertaken an even more ambitious project - Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud, a bold attempt to summarize the history of ideas from prehistoric times to the early years of the 20th century.
Perhaps it was the lure of alliteration, that led Watson (or his publisher) to single out "fire" and "Freud" in the subtitle. Watson himself is most interested in the ideas that contributed to the development of the natural sciences: This certainly includes fire, although the first primeval "ideas" discussed in his book, even before fire, are scavenging, bipedalism, and stone tools.
As for Freud, however, Watson is clearly no fan, concluding that the influential doctor, his writings, and the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis were - and are - useless fakes. Because Watson tends to evaluate ideas from the standpoint of hard science, one can see why he rejects the claim that psychoanalysis is one. (Still, his unequivocal dismissal of the "talking cure" ignores the fact that many have found it helpful to discuss their problems with a therapist.)
Rather than merely chronicle the history of ideas, Watson also describes various theories of contemporary scholars as to their origin and significance. By bringing us up-to-date on the thinking and research of such specialists, his book challenges what may be some of the general (nonspecialist) reader's long-held assumptions.
His pivotal section, "The Great Hinge of History," asks: How did Europe, once looked upon by sophisticated visitors from the East as a pathetically "backward" part of the world, suddenly (or not so suddenly) manage to forge ahead?
While previous scholars pointed to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, locating the turning point in the 14th, 15th, or 16th century, many recent scholars, Watson tells us, see the beginning of the change much earlier - starting in the 11th century with the first stirrings of the idea of individuality: a turning-inward of faith and hope in the wake of the great surprise among Christian believers that the year 1000 did not bring in the widely expected apocalypse.
As one reads this thought-provoking book, one is struck by the ironies it reveals about the discrepancy between the original intentions behind some ideas and their ultimate effects. Most early Protestants, for example, were motivated by the desire for a more authentic faith, closer to God and Absolute Truth. Yet the movement, with its many individual sects and believers, by strengthening individualism and engendering a certain skepticism (with so many different kinds of true believers, how could any claim to have a lock on Absolute Truth?) soon fostered tolerance, freedom, democracy.
Watson has something of a blind spot about one half of the human race, however, for this history almost entirely neglects feminism and the ground-breaking ideas of women such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
And, although Watson pays some heed to the ideas of democracy and equality (his intelligent and appreciative discussion of the American Revolution is particularly good), he generally does not cover ideas about social justice in enough depth.
We get some inkling of Watson's own views in the Introduction: While other scholars have proposed everything from fire and agriculture to Protestantism and rationalism as the most world-changing ideas, Watson's own candidates are "the soul," "Europe," and "the humble experiment."
At the book's conclusion, he expresses his conviction that the idea of the soul, while in some respects a fine idea that fostered individualism, also had a negative effect in that it got people placing more value on unfathomable matters such as the Next World than on what might be accomplished in this one.
In his view, natural science - the study of the physical world - has proved the most fruitful line of human endeavor, and, although he has some regard for social science, he is deeply suspicious of anything subjective, from Plato to Romanticism. (Perhaps this is why he misattributes Shelley's phrase about poets being the unacknowledged legislators of the world to Coleridge, and seems unaware of Shelley's strong interest in science.)
But just as we now consider some of the ideas that dominated earlier eras as regressive (the early Church Fathers' antipathy to worldly knowledge), dangerous (the racist thinking of men like Gobineau in the late 19th century), or misguidedly utopian (Marxism), it is surely possible that we in our own times labor under similar delusions.
In presenting the latest line of thought, Watson often seems (perhaps unwittingly) imbued with it. Trade is unreservedly presented as a "good thing" (what of the slave trade or the drug trade that spawned the Opium War?) Ditto, money: So much for the proverb about love of it being the root of evil!
Despite such qualms, one cannot help being impressed by so comprehensive, incisive, and stimulating a guide. Moreover, at the very modest price of $29.95, this hugely readable, information-packed tome is better than a bargain.
• Merle Rubin is a freelance book reviewer based in Pasadena, Calif.