Masterpieces in Intellectual History: A Panoramic Picture of Western Civilisation

The Landscape of Ideas

The Landscape of Ideas

This article reviews two masterpieces of intellectual history: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (by Jacques Barzun) and The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (by Peter Watson)

Reading intellectual history is like looking out at the window when the plane takes off. The colossal buildings become smaller and smaller until they are no more than little blocks of lego. It is then you realize how those distinct and individual blocks are connected through streets and roads, so that a coherent image of cityscape begins to emerge. Intellectual history is such a bird’s eye view of the whole intellectual landscape.

A good work of intellectual history should narrate the development of ideas with acute observations and describe the landscape of ideas in a concise and understandable manner. The historian can not satisfy himself in detailing the concepts of an idea; otherwise it is simply encyclopedic. He can neither ignore the range of forces that propel the evolvements of ideas. Personalities, social changes, history and intellectual climate must be all taken into account. A historian walks along a tightrope. He must balance between purely writing encyclopedic entries of ideas and narrating an overly simplistic historical account.

Two particular works stand out in these respects: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (by Jacques Barzun) and The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (by Peter Watson). From Dawn to Decadence starts the story from the year 1500 – a defining year in the Western history. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 signified the end of the rivalry between the Vatican Pope and Orthodox Patriarch. Columbus discovered America in 1492 and that marked the beginning of the end of the mediterranean politics in the Old World.  In other words, Barzun’s work describes and narrates Western cultural life at periods that prospered and began to dominate the world.

Watson’s Modern Mind begins where Barzun has thinly covered: 20th century. For me,  the 20th century is particularly important for a very simple reason: it is the century that is most chronologically relevant, and whose ideas have the most immediate impact in our present time. Watson offered a more sophisticated reason. Unlike previous centuries, science in 20th century not only played the dominant role but other fields of inquiry, including anthropology, mathematics, history, genetics and linguistics, all came together to tell one coherent story about the natural world.

Barzun followed a roughly chronological line with each part and chapter devoting to a particular cultural theme of the periods. The work is divided into four parts that started from Luther’s Ninety-five theses to ‘demotic’ life and times in our present age. A glance at the content will show chapter titles like ‘The Good Letters’ and ‘The Artist is Born’ for the Renaissance period and ‘The Reign of Etiquette’ and ‘The Encyclopedic Century’ for the Enlightenment age. The narrative story is expanded horizontally through different ‘cross-sections’ such as the views from Madrid and London around 1540 and 1715 respectively. These are intended to provide the flavor or the geist of the times.

These parts, chapters and cross-sections are interspersed with loose and recurring remarks, like primitivism, boredom, abstraction, analysis, specialism, self-consciousness and emancipation. Superficially, these mark as the features of Western civilization but Barzun often used them for idiosyncratic observations. For example, boredom was primarily responsible for the shift of tastes while primitivism and emancipation embodied in notions like Protestantism and ‘Noble Savage’ ally with each to break the existing chains.

Barzun’s approach to intellectual history is best described as deeply learned but provocative. He revealed his deep learning and willingness to disturb common notions when he argued that Leonardo da Vinci, though a genius in science and art, does not deserve the title of Renaissance man because, if we are to understand the Renaissance culture in its proper historical light, a Renaissance man must be also good at ‘good letters’ (poems and orations), sculpting, architecture and music – areas that Leonardo da Vinci did not necessarily excel. Such observation, among many others, shows characteristics of the Annales School as he seeks to bring forth the cultural and historical complexities behind ideas.

However this approach can sometimes be pedantic and bring conservative conclusions. Barzun made much distinctions between utopia and eutopia and between democratic and demotic. Most pedantic of all is that ‘Bagehot’ in Walter Bagehot must be pronounced as ‘Badjet‘. Some observations are interesting but also conservative. He analyzed the word ‘man’ and argued, with Biblical references, linguistic Sanskrit roots and historical facts, that it included both man and woman, so that by implication, the polemics of the feminists are not well-justified. Moreover he listed out distinguished women, such as Queen Elizabeth and Margaret of Navarre, as proof that women played a historical role not less prominent than men.

Barzun can often explain cultural ideas in clear and lucid manner but he showed a tendency to write highly dense prose that suggests his relative inexpertise in certain areas. He can explain Romanticism and clearly distinguish realism from naturalism. However in music, he vaguely described polyphony and harmony and then mixed in some jargons that suggested paraphrasing from secondary works. Very often, he crammed so much references in a single sentence that they are destined to be ignored or forgotten.

Like a feng shui master, Barzun traced the flow of ideas in the last 500 years. In a more soldierly manner, Watson concentrated his fire on the 20th century – the century that most of us have lived through. Again, Watson followed a roughly chronological line that traced the rise of Freudianism in the early 20th century to Stephen Hawkins’ A Brief History of Time. He divided the story into four parts with numerous little digestible chapters that group ideas loosely into a theme. The four parts described four periods: before World War 1, inter-wars period, after World War 2, and from 1970s onward. Like whirlwind, he covered a wide range of topics in each chapter, encompassing music, arts, literature, mathematics, philosophy, particle/atomic/astro- physics, genetic/evolutionary biology, chemistry, cosmology, political theories, economics, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, historiography and whatnot.

The breath of knowledge that Watson displays is immense, and this bring outs some relationship between ideas that I have never thought of. I did not realize that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is related to Skinner’s psychology insofar that they were committed to the positivist trend. Neither did I realize that Cubism was, in some measures, a response to the distorted reality as revealed by the dramatic discovery of subatomic particles in physics. Only an aerial view of the flows of idea could show such connections.

Nevertheless, not all those connections are reasonable. Sometimes  Watson grouped ideas too loosely and made some superficial connections. In the chapter ‘Cold Comfort’, for example, he believed that he already made a theme by repeating the chapter title, ‘cold comfort’, several times. In ‘Local Knowledge’, he introduced the views of several philosophers relating to the relationship between science and philosophy but his comparisons among the views constitute several vague remarks in the beginning of the sentences.

The problem is that Watson packed his prose with too much information. Even in the concluding chapter, Watson continued to stuff in with information, and it is not surprising that I felt information overload at many occasions. As a result, there is little space left for Watson to step back and see the overall picture. He did identify science, free-market economics, and mass media as the driving forces, but the actual interactions among them were less clear as he was busy outlining the details of the ideas for the bulk of the story.

Nevertheless, he relaxed his pace by occasionally narrating anecdotes. He recounted the rivalries between scientists, especially the space race in the Cold War, and, in one instance, narrated the love story between Heiddeger and Arendt. These made the information much more memorable than the sometimes crammed sentences in Barzun’s work.

One inadequacy is Watson’s excessive reliance on secondary works. Reliance per se is necessary and desirable because no one can be expert in everything. However he sometimes ‘pillages, précised and paraphrased shamelessly’ (his own words)  by not rendering the difficult ideas into more understandable forms. His entry on the origin of life account by Cairns-Smith is so layered with scientific jargons that it suggested he simply copied and pasted the key words from another author. His account on antibiotics is similarly obscure and difficult to understand. Without doubts he can write clearly, but he also needs to digest the ideas.

Overall, Barzun and Watson show different tendencies. Barzun excelled his job at narrating intellectual history with some over-arching themes in his mind, but he is occasionally inept at outlining concepts in an understandable or meaningful manner. Watson tended to write in an encyclopedic manner but his concise chapters, mostly coherent and thematic, saved him from being unduly pedantic.

One common pitfall is that none of them can be an expert at every fields. This is not their faults. It is rather the constraints of writing an ambitious volume all by themselves. There is a tradeoff between a single-author volume with a guiding vision or a multi-authors volume with a less focused theme. Both Barzun and Watson consulted secondary sources to overcome their relative inexpertise, but as we have seen, the result is sometimes less than satisfactory. Perhaps a solution is to have a framework set out by a guiding editor with details filled in by specialists.

These criticisms should in no way undermine the grand projects that both Barzun and Watson have accomplished. It is easier to point the finger at  something to criticize than to construct anything. Both Barzun and Watson painted a panoramic picture of the Western civilization that few can parallel. Now that we have seen the historical flow of ideas, it is time to see the philosophical flow in Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy which will be the subject of next article.

Commentaries: Publisher Weekly (From Dawn To Decadence) and Publisher Weekly (Modern Mind).

Other works of intellectual history: A New History of Western PhilosophyThe Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View and The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea

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