Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century

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From Freud to Babbitt, from Animal Farm to Sartre to the Great Society, from the Theory of Relativity to counterculture to Kosovo, The Modern Mind is encyclopedic, covering the major writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers who produced the ideas by which we live. Peter Watson has produced a fluent and engaging narrative of the intellectual tradition of the twentieth century, and the men and women who created it.

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The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century

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From Freud to Babbitt, from Animal Farm to Sartre to the Great Society, from the Theory of Relativity to counterculture to Kosovo, The Modern Mind is encyclopedic, covering the major writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers who produced the ideas by which we live. Peter Watson has produced a fluent and engaging narrative of the intellectual tradition of the twentieth century, and the men and women who created it.

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Editorial Reviews

Daniel Bell
It is astounding, a one-man encyclopedia, a history of every idea in the twentieth century.
Daniel Bell
It is astounding, a one-man encyclopedia, a history of every idea in the twentieth century.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Just as the 20th century dawned with an unparalleled optimism regarding the moral, social and scientific progress of humanity, it ended with an unshakeable confidence in the promises of technology and the power of free-market economics to deliver a better life for all humankind. British journalist Watson's (War on the Mind; The Caravaggio Conspiracy; etc.) panoramic survey traces various 20th-century ideas and their power to bend and shape society and individuals. At a frenetic pace, he gallops through the modern intellectual landscape, pausing long enough to graze the founts of philosophy (from Wittgenstein to Richard Rorty to Alasdair MacIntyre), literature (Kafka, Woolf, Mann, Rushdie), literary criticism (F.R. Leavis to Jacques Derrida), art (Picasso to Warhol), economics (Milton Friedman to John Kenneth Galbraith), science (Linus Pauling to E.O. Wilson) and film (D.W. Griffiths to Fran ois Truffaut). He also briefly examines the significance of a wide range of political and cultural movements, such as socialism, communism, fascism, feminism and environmentalism. Watson's rich narrative covers every corner of intellectual life in the 20th century, yet the style is so breezy and anecdotal that it lacks the deep learned elegance of a history of ideas by, for example, Isaiah Berlin or Jacques Barzun. Unfortunately, for all the book's breadth, Watson's workmanlike approach has the feel of a handful of school assignments cobbled together from encyclopedia articles rather than of work drawn from years of thoughtful reflection and an intimate acquaintance with, and love of, ideas. (Mar. 9) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this long and astonishing narrative, British journalist Watson presents an unconventional history of the 20th century, which, he argues, "has been dominated by a coming to terms with science." Although this massive volume is packed with a multitude of events, ideas, and influential people, Watson's infectious writing carries the reader swiftly along. The mosaic he creates can best be illustrated by this typical sentence: "On 25 October 1900, only days after Max Planck sent his crucial equations on a postcard to Heinrich Rubens, Pablo Picasso stepped off the Barcelona train at the Gare d'Orsay in Paris." In 42 chapters, Watson travels from Freud to the Internet, from pragmatism and relativity to Brave New World and Hiroshima, while considering the impact of the arts, existentialism, feminism, sexuality, genetics, medicine, the Great Society, race, AIDS, and more. Key people and ideas are highlighted. It is hard to spot any major omissions, though post-World War II music seems to get overlooked. While this work is reminiscent of Paul Johnson's Modern Times (LJ 5/1/83), Watson's scope goes far beyond politics and history. This book will be read and consulted for many years. Thomas A. Karel, Franklin & Marshall Coll. Lib., Lancaster, PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A smart, lively, and astoundingly comprehensive panorama of practically every major European and American intellectual movement of the 20th century. Art journalist Watson (Sotheby's, 1998, etc.) offers a Hit Parade of political forces and personalities, discoveries and revolutions, modernism and postmodernism. Thematically organized chapters present the century as a vivid narrative that sweeps from Mendelian genetics and Max Planck's theory of electromagnetic radiation to the explosive emergence of Schoenberg's atonal compositions and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from the Harlem Renaissance to the outbreak of WWII, from The Organization Man to multiculturalism and postcolonialism. The readability comes at a price: some reductiveness is inevitable in a single-volume overview of a subject as complex as the 20th century, and many interesting countertrends and secondary figures had to be omitted-but not all that many. At times, the format necessitates flat, simplistic judgments, the kind that students quote trustingly. Watson announces unequivocally that the "six great philosophers" living at the turn of the century were Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Bendetto Croce, Edmund Husserl, William James, and Bertrand Russell-and that, as far as novelists are concerned, Saul Bellow will prove "the standard against which all others will be judged." Yet far more controversial and problematic material (such as the human potential movements of the 1970s, deconstructionist philosophy, and the "canon wars" of the 1980s and 1990s) is handled with disarming subtlety and intelligence. Watson's emphasis on European and American culture may eventually prove a more seriouslimitationif the demographics of the coming century shift the world's gaze to developments in Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, the sheer quantity of accurate, fair-minded information and thoughtful analysis results in an invaluable resource for at least the near future. Watson has achieved the near-impossible: a concise reference that is also intellectually compelling-and a fascinating read.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060084387
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 864
  • Sales rank: 479,326
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.38 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Watson has been a senioreditor at the London Sunday Times, a New York correspondentof the London Times, a columnist for theLondon Observer, and a contributor to the New YorkTimes. He has published three exposés on the world ofart and antiquities, and is the author of several booksof cultural and intellectual history. From 1997 to 2007he was a research associate at the McDonald Institutefor Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Disturbing the Peace

The year 1900 A.D. need not have been remarkable. Centuries are man-made conventions after all, and although people may think in terms of tens and hundreds and thousands, nature doesn't. She surrenders her secrets piecemeal and, so far as we know, at random. Moreover, for many people around the world, the year 1900 A.D. meant little. It was a Christian date and therefore not strictly relevant to any of the inhabitants of Africa, the Americas, Asia, or the Middle East. Nevertheless, the year that the West chose to call 1900 was an unusual year by any standard. So far as intellectual developments — the subject of this book — were concerned, four very different kinds of breakthrough were reported, each one offering a startling reappraisal of the world and man's place within it. And these new ideas were fundamental, changing the landscape dramatically.

The twentieth century was less than a week old when, on Saturday, 6 January, in Vienna, Austria, there appeared a review of a book that would totally revise the way man thought about himself. Technically, the book had been published the previous November, in Leipzig as well as Vienna, but it bore the date 1900, and the review was the first anyone had heard of it. The book was entitled The Interpretation of Dreams, and its author was a forty-four-year-old Jewish doctor from Freiberg in Moravia, called Sigmund Freud. Freud, the eldest of eight children, was outwardly a conventional man. He believed passionately in punctuality. He wore suits made of English cloth, cut from material chosen by his wife. Very self-confident as ayoung man, he once quipped that 'the good impression of my tailor matters to me as much as that of my professor.' A lover of fresh air and a keen amateur mountaineer, he was nevertheless a 'relentless' cigar smoker. Hanns Sachs, one of his disciples and a friend with whom he went mushrooming (a favourite pastime), recalled 'deep set and piercing eyes and a finely shaped forehead, remarkably high at the temples.' However, what drew the attention of friends and critics alike was not the eyes themselves but the look that shone out from them. According to his biographer Giovanni Costigan, 'There was something baffling in this look — compounded partly of intellectual suffering, partly of distrust, partly of resentment.'

There was good reason. Though Freud might be a conventional man in his personal habits, The Interpretation of Dreams was a deeply controversial and — for many people in Vienna — an utterly shocking book. To the world outside, the Austro-Hungarian capital in 1900 seemed a gracious if rather antiquated metropolis, dominated by the cathedral, whose Gothic spire soared above the baroque roofs and ornate churches below. The court was stuck in an unwieldy mix of pomposity and gloom. The emperor still dined in the Spanish manner, with all the silverware laid to the right of the plate. The ostentation at court was one reason Freud gave for so detesting Vienna. In 1898 he had written, 'It is a misery to live here and it is no atmosphere in which the hope of completing any difficult thing can survive.' In particular, he loathed the 'eighty families' of Austria, 'with their inherited insolence, their rigid etiquette, and their swarm of functionaries.' The Viennese aristocracy had intermarried so many times that they were in fact one huge family, who addressed each other as Du, and by nicknames, and spent their time at each others' parties. This was not all Freud hated. The 'abominable steeple of St Stefan' he saw as the symbol of a clericalism he found oppressive. He was no music lover either, and he therefore had a healthy disdain for the 'frivolous' waltzes of Johann Strauss. Given all this, it is not hard to see why he should loathe his native city. And yet there are grounds for believing that his often-voiced hatred for the place was only half the picture. On 11 November 1918, as the guns fell silent after World War 1, he made a note to himself in a memorandum, 'Austria-Hungary is no more. I do not want to live anywhere else. For me emigration is out of the question. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.'

The one aspect of Viennese life Freud could feel no ambivalence about, from which there was no escape, was anti-Semitism. This had grown markedly with the rise in the Jewish population of the city, which went from 70,000 in 1873 to 147,000 in 1900 and as a result anti-Semitism had become so prevalent in Vienna that according to one account, a patient might refer to the doctor who was treating him as 'Jewish swine.' Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite who had proposed that Jews should be crammed on to ships to be sunk with all on board, had become mayor. Always sensitive to the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, to the end of his life Freud refused to accept royalties from any of his works translated into Hebrew or Yiddish. He once told Carl Jung that he saw himself as Joshua, 'destined to explore the promised land of psychiatry.'

A less familiar aspect of Viennese intellectual life that helped shape Freud's theories was the doctrine of 'therapeutic nihilism.' According to this, the diseases of society defied curing. Although adapted widely in relation tophilosophy and social theory (Otto Weininger and Ludwig Wittgenstein were both advocates), this concept actually started life as a scientific notion in the medical faculty at Vienna, where from the early nineteenth century on there was a fascination with disease, an acceptance that it be allowed to run its course, a profound compassion for patients, and a corresponding neglect of therapy. This tradition still prevailed when Freud was training, but he reacted against it. To us, Freud's attempt at treatment seems only humane, but at the time it was an added reason why his ideas were regarded as out of the ordinary.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    Well Well Written and Illuminating book

    This is a great book. In essence, it is a survey of the influential ideas of the twentieth century. It covers disciplines as wide ranging as psychology, philosophy, art, mathematics, sociology, physics, etc. It is well written and reading it gives you a perspective on the raging debates and tremendous intellectual breakthroughs the shaped the world we live in now.
    I loved this reading this book. It took some time to read (it is a big book) but it was worth it. The Modern Mind rewards you with a better understanding of the modern world.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2003

    No Illustrations !

    What is otherwise a wonderful book is terribly flawed by the complete absence of ilustrations. The visual arts are too important in the story to be left entirely to words. Also, ignore the author's expanations of Einstein's theories. He completely misunderstood the popularizations he read and has written utter nonsense himself.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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