Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson

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by Jennifer Michael Hecht
     
 

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In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to Wittgenstein

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Overview

In the tradition of grand sweeping histories such as From Dawn To Decadence, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and A History of God, Hecht champions doubt and questioning as one of the great and noble, if unheralded, intellectual traditions that distinguish the Western mind especially-from Socrates to Galileo and Darwin to Wittgenstein and Hawking. This is an account of the world's greatest ‘intellectual virtuosos,' who are also humanity's greatest doubters and disbelievers, from the ancient Greek philosophers, Jesus, and the Eastern religions, to modern secular equivalents Marx, Freud and Darwin—and their attempts to reconcile the seeming meaninglessness of the universe with the human need for meaning,

This remarkable book ranges from the early Greeks, Hebrew figures such as Job and Ecclesiastes, Eastern critical wisdom, Roman stoicism, Jesus as a man of doubt, Gnosticism and Christian mystics, medieval Islamic, Jewish and Christian skeptics, secularism, the rise of science, modern and contemporary critical thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, the existentialists.

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Editorial Reviews

Alan Wolfe
“Hecht is right that doubt’s story deserves to be told ... [and] she tells it in just the right spirit.”
Krista Tippett
“Jennifer Michael Hecht has forever changed the way I will think about history — religious or otherwise.”
Detroit Free Press
“Hecht gleefully invites readers on a lively stroll through three millennia of clashes between believers and nonbelievers.”
Christian Century
“Hecht aims to give doubt its due in her lively and endlessly provocative new book.”
Booklist (starred review)
“A remarkably wide ranging history.”
Booklist
"A remarkably wide ranging history."
The Washington Post
That Jennifer Hecht's history can offer little in the way of a systematic account of skepticism attests to the infinite forms human gullibility can take. The need to believe in cosmic salvation is as persistent as our lower-level interests in sex, power or gossip. Belief-mongers will always find new threats, new promises and new lines of patter. Doubt's work is never done. — Denis Dutton
Publishers Weekly
Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht (The End of the Soul), the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery. Most scholarship focuses on the belief systems that have defined religious history while leaving doubters burnt along the wayside. Hecht's poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial, in terms of historical currents and individual wrestlings with the angel. Doubt is revealed to be the subtle stirring that has precipitated many of the more widely remembered innovations in politics, religion and science, such as medieval Jewish philosopher Gersonides's doubt of Ptolemaic cosmology 200-300 years before Copernicus, Kepler or Galileo. The breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history. Hecht's exegesis traces doubt's meandering path from the fragments of pre-Socratics and early religious heretics in Asia, carefully elucidating the evolution of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, through the intermingling of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought in the Middle Ages that is often left out of popular histories, to the preeminence of doubt in thrusting open the doors of modernity with the Cartesian "I am a thing... that doubts," ergo sum. Writing with acute sensitivity, Hecht draws the reader toward personal reflection on some of the most timeless questions ever posed. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Running parallel to the history of religious belief is the history of doubt about the truth of such belief. In this sprawling, magisterial, and eloquent chronicle, poet and historian Hecht (Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment) provides an elegant study in the history of an idea that has fueled many of history's greatest innovations. For Hecht, doubt takes many forms, including cosmopolitan relativism, philosophical skepticism, moral rejection of injustice, and rational materialism. Thus, many great doubters have questioned not only the existence of God or the gods but also the absolute truth of one religion (Xenophanes); the truth of either reason, religion, or the senses (Hume); the justice of God's actions in the world (Job); and any supernatural explanation of the workings of the material world (Democritus). Hecht surveys the history of doubt from its ancient roots in Epicurus, Lucretius, and Democritus to the deism of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to the postmodern challenges of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Her brief but splendid study of the great Renaissance skeptic Montaigne is alone worth the price of the book. Hecht's warm prose, lucid insights, and impeccable research combine for a lively, thoughtful, and first-rate study of a neglected idea. Highly recommended.-Henry L. Carrigan Jr., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping survey of how unbelievers have shaped religion, science, and society through the ages. Hecht (History/Nassau Community College) begins, unsurprisingly, with the Greeks. Much of their philosophy arises with questioning gods who were all too human both in their attributes and their personalities. Questions first raised by Plato and Aristotle remain, even now, at the root of Western thinking on religious questions. The Jews, with an invisible deity, had different issues to settle, growing to some extent out of their history; the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes dealt subtly with questions of guilt, pain, and divine justice. Buddhists discarded the notion of a god early on; their impact on the other religions of Asia was significant. And the Romans, with a perfunctory state religion, turned readily to Skepticism, Epicureanism, and other philosophies that offered advice on living well in this world without worrying what comes after. Christianity, then Islam, threw the focus back onto god-based systems with emphasis on an afterlife; but even these faiths had their doubters, including such central figures as St. Augustine (and both Plato and Aristotle contributed to their core beliefs). Hecht follows the thread of doubt and rationalism through the Renaissance, when Galileo and Montaigne began to question the wisdom of the Ancients, to the Enlightenment, when science and rationalism fought on equal terms with a new revival of faith. The final chapters touch on the founders of the modern worldview, from Darwin, Marx, and Freud, right up to the conflict of religions implicit in the post-9/11 world. Along the way, Hecht may have missed a few prominent naysayers, but all the important onesare here, with clear explanations of their contributions. Sometimes dry, but worth sticking with—a well-rounded treatment of the subject. Agent: Henning Gutmann

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060097950
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
09/07/2004
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
576
Sales rank:
320,495
Product dimensions:
8.94(w) x 10.88(h) x 1.51(d)

What People are saying about this

Alan Wolfe
“Hecht is right that doubt’s story deserves to be told ... [and] she tells it in just the right spirit.”
Krista Tippett
“Jennifer Michael Hecht has forever changed the way I will think about history — religious or otherwise.”

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