Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought

By Crane Brinton | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Scope and Purpose

This is a book about the world-views of men in our Western tradition, the ideas they have held and still hold on the Big Questions -- cosmological questions, which ask whether the universe makes sense in terms of human capacity to comprehend and, if so, what kind of sense; theological and metaphysical questions, which ask further questions about purpose and design of the universe, and about man's place in it; and ethical and aesthetic questions, which ask whether what we do and what we want to do make sense, ask what we really mean by good and bad, by beautiful and ugly. The recorded answers to these and similar questions -- that is, most of our Western philosophy, art, literature, and in some senses, natural science -- fill millions of volumes. Any account of them, therefore, must omit vastly more than it can include.

There are many possible schemes for guiding the historian of these ideas and attitudes, for what we may call figuratively the cartography of ideas. The figure is more apt than such analogies often are, for neither the historian nor the cartographer can ever reproduce the reality they are trying to communicate to the reader of books or of maps; they can but give a plan, a series of indications, of this reality. There are contrasting schemes for choosing from enormous numbers of geographic details. You may have a map in which every feature that can be named, every hill, brook, crossroads, is crowded in; or you may have a map in which many details are omitted in the effort to show the reader the lay of the land, the shape of the mountain systems, the relations of drainage, relief, communications, and so on. Both kinds are useful, depending on the needs of the user. In mapping the history of ideas, this book will definitely attempt to follow the second scheme. It will try to show the lay of the cultural and intellectual land; it will omit many famous names, and perhaps even a few landmarks, in an effort to make clear what large

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