The Modern Mind & The Age of Atheists: Intellectual & Cultural History by Peter Watson

The Modern Mind, by Peter Watson (2000)

Editorial Review from Amazon:
“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.”
“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.”
[Yes, Read Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism) and Jacques Barzun (From Dawn to Decadence) to see how two of the greatest scholars of intellectual and cultural history have honed their craft. They are the gold standard!


The Age of Atheists, by Peter Watson (2015)

Editorial Reviews from Amazon:

“As humanity (limited here to Western humanity) was losing the sense of certainty that came with a belief in God, with Nietzsche famously pronouncing His death, what was to fill that spiritual void? This is the enormous question tackled by English intellectual historian Watson. How have thinkers, artists, and others in a secular age sought to anchor humanity in relation to the universe? Watson’s breathtakingly vast coverage ranges chronologically from the immediate post-Nietzschean generation to the present, and culturally across an immense canvas, an encyclopedic who’s who in twentieth-century arts and sciences (and more) somehow confronting a spiritual vacuum in a period marked by two world wars, the Holocaust, a multitude of other horrors, and the atomic age. American poet Wallace Stevens thought that “in an age when God is dead, the arts in general, and poetry in particular, must take over.” What was created were not only lasting works of art but also, in aggregate, an anti-theology theology. Watson’s theme seems to be that an astonishingly broad spectrum of manifestations of the human spirit, in a human community, ground us in a less-certain world. His style, like many of those he discusses, can be recondite, but Watson’s encompassing treatment of a difficult subject, in a world growing no less uncertain, is impressive and, ultimately, reassuring.”

“Peter Watson’s hindsight, foresight and insight into the role atheists play in creating our cultures makes The Age of Atheists a must read. Readers will gain a deeper appreciation of the rich world in which we live.” (Charles de Groot, co-chair of The de Groot Foundation)

“Peter Watson’s book has made the extraordinary leap of assessing each of the 20th century’s important secular philosophic traditions. Along the way, as an ultimate reference, he has also given us the intuitive methods and insights of that century’s leading poets, painters, musicians and choreographers. Perhaps no one else at this moment has the background for such an adventure. Whether as a guide to the last century’s thinkers or as a reference to the insights of its artists, The Age of Atheists is an indispensable map to locate our present.” (William Kistler, poet and essayist)

“Watson’s encompassing treatment of a difficult subject, in a world growing no less uncertain, is impressive and, ultimately, reassuring.” (Booklist (starred))

“The beauty of this book is Watson’s ability to impose order on a riot of ideas…even the casual reader will find much to delight and enlighten as Watson elegantly connects the dots from Nietzsche and William James to Bob Dylan and jazz.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Highly readable and immensely wide-ranging….Peter Watson has produced what is, in every way, a big book, one that bears reading thoughtfully, with a pencil in hand. For anybody who has wondered about the meaning of life, and that pretty much covers everyone past the age of 12, discovering “The Age of Atheists” will be an enthralling and mind­-expanding experience.” (Michael Dirda The Washington Post)

“A vividly engaging conspectus of the formative ideas of the past century, The Age of Atheists shows how Nietzsche’s diagnosis evoked responses in many areas of cultural life, including some surprising parts of the political spectrum.” (The New Statesman)

“An exhilarating ride through the cerebra of disparate men…who have tried to fashion a Godless yet nonetheless ordered and sustaining worldview. It is a topical book, to be sure, but also one that will stand the test of time as a masterful account of its subject.”

Rich’s comments:
One feature that struck me in reading these two books by Peter Watson was this: In the first book, The Modern Mind, published in 2000, Watson documents and celebrates the ascendency of scientific hegemony and especially Darwinian evolution trajectory of atheism. But in The Age of Atheists, published in 2014, he seems more interested to showcase how atheistic, agnostic and in particular non-theistic and anti-theistic worldviews have been expressed by thought leaders not only in science but in a wide variety of other fields, including philosophy, literature, art, painting, choreography and economics. Rather than subordinate all other fields of intellectual and cultural expression to science, as in scientism, Watson seems more willing to embrace the irreducible plurality of ways of looking at the world. He concludes with a quote by the neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty: “Cultures with riches vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones.”
Watson has done an impressive job of surveying many of the modern secular philosophers, literati, artists and scientists who have adopted their various disciplines, worldviews and epistemologies as functional surrogates for religion. He freely admits that we live in a more anxious, uncertain and potentially nihilistic world with the cultural “death of god.”  Watson himself has clearly become impressed with the neglected philosophy of phenomenology (within the existential tradition) as a complement and corrective to scientific positivism, especially celebrating the voices of the artists and poets who are usually subordinated to those of philosophers and scientists.
I also recommend his book, “The German Genius.”

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