Human Accomplishment

Human Accomplishment

by Charles Murray
     
 

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A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.

"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'

So begins Charles Murray's unique account

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Overview

A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.

"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'

So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that have rarely been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences—a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence.

The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.

Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions. Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously. Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In his latest book, Human Accomplishment, Murray steps back up to the plate after Losing Ground and The Bell Curve with a thesis sure to irritate most of America's thinking class.

Yet the book is, more often than not, brilliant. In lucid prose, Murray methodically addresses and refutes most of the predictable counterarguments to his thesis. — John McWhorter
Publishers Weekly
Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements. (Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Polemicists generally favor brevity, hitting their targets with surgically precise (or broad, near- slandering) bon mots. The prolific Murray (coauthor, The Bell Curve), consistently libertarian champion of all that is Western and elite, here opts to overwhelm with data and extended example in this history of the best ideas and the humans who made them. In the tradition of Daniel Boorstin and Paul Johnson, he has produced a very long narrative most likely to engage those readers conditioned to a priori agreement. This need to produce such an ultimately orthodox reaffirmation of the status quo assessment of human accomplishment running up to 1950 is a bit puzzling. Yet even more surprising is how interesting and worthwhile a book has resulted. To be sure, Murray's logic is at times transparently circular, with the significant intellectuals he ranks drawn in some cases from millennia of received wisdom. But if his case for overall intellectual decline since at least the 19th century is ultimately unpersuasive, his demonstration of how greatness, once established, limits room for innovation is just as persuasive. The statistics will dazzle or bore, and Murray's justification for disregarding the social sciences may be unconvincing, but nonetheless this is a book every library collection needs, perhaps especially those with a minority of readers who will warm to its author's biases. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Yes, human societies really do evolve for the better-thanks to the technologies, ideas, and other contributions of scads of mostly dead white European males. Never let it be said that Murray (What It Means to Be a Libertarian, 1997, etc.), co-author of the hotly debated Bell Curve (not reviewed), shies from controversy. His overarching thesis will attract gainsayers from the outset, especially among the cultural relativists whom he takes great pains to twit throughout his long-but eminently readable, and often entertaining-discussion. ("Assessing the comparative contributions of the Greeks and Aztecs to human progress," he observes by way of an opening shot, "is not a choice between equally valid constructions of reality.") Cultural and intellectual historians of a certain bent may find more troubling Murray's rationale for identifying those who have really made a difference in shaping the ways in which the civilized world thinks, works, and lives: his method resembles that of a search engine in ranking artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other assorted thinkers and makers by the number of "hits" they earn in standard surveys of the literature. Michelangelo is thus the world's premier artist because he figures most heavily in the indexes of art surveys-but, Murray rejoins, "Shakespeare gets more attention that everyone else because Shakespeare wrote better than everyone else." Setting aside the question of whether intellectuals, like Hollywood types, can be famous merely for being famous-one manifestation of the Google effect-Murray's overview of the progress of art and science is engaging, user-friendly, and even self-effacing. (He allows that while he doesn't enjoy the laterworks of Henry James, his wife does, "and over the years I have had to accept that I don't know what I'm talking about.") Murray wrestles with Big Questions: What kinds of social conditions favor the arts? Why did London emerge as a world center, while Hangzhou did not? Why are Western philosophers more important than, say, their Asian counterparts, pound for pound? Why have women been so poorly represented for so long in the inventories of culturally important figures? Murray's answers are bound to set the walls of the academy and the halls of the learned journals ringing with rebuttals. But readers who took pleasure in Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence are sure to enjoy his arguments and elegant presentation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061745676
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/13/2009
Sold by:
HARPERCOLLINS
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
688
Sales rank:
562,193
File size:
8 MB

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