Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Matters Intellectual, Science Dominated the 20th Century

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Matters Intellectual, Science Dominated the 20th Century

Article excerpt

As the 19th century drew to a close, humankind believed that it was drawing ever nearer to perfecting itself. The sun shone brightly on scientific achievements and on the possibility that societies around the world might coexist peacefully because they shared the same political ideals.

Very quickly, of course, a Depression and two world wars shattered such enthusiastic confidence. But the excitement of a post-war economic boom and the increasing reliance on technological advances to bolster the human spirit enabled the 20th century to end much as it had begun - optimistic about the power of humans to change their worlds through ideas.

Journalist Peter Watson, who writes for The Observer and The New York Times, chronicles this contentious century with a panoramic overview of the history of ideas in the 20th century.

Although Watson explores a number of intellectual movements and various writers and artists in their own contexts and on their own terms, he contends that the century has been "dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science." He claims that science has not only changed the things we think about but also the ways we think about those things.

Watson reads the history of ideas in the 20th century through these lenses, and he often shows the ways in which humanists incorporated or reacted against the scientific thinking of their day in their paintings or writings.

Watson follows the development of the ideas in this century in a roughly chronological fashion. So the first chapter plunges us into the year 1900 and a look at some key figures who set the stage for the rest of the century. Watson briefly examines Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams," Max Planck's contributions to physics, Arthur Evans's discovery of the Cretan Linear B scripts, advances in genetics, and Picasso's paintings.

What is amazing about this year, he claims, is "the extraordinary complementarity of many ideas at the turn of the century, the confident and optimistic search for hidden fundamentals. …

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