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

4.27  ·  Rating Details ·  506 Ratings  ·  52 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 847 pages
Published July 23rd 2002 by Harper Perennial (first published 2001)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,986)
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Todd N
Dec 14, 2007 Todd N rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone remotely interested in thought in the 20th century
This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. I am always curious about the history of ideas and how influential ideas can be so pervasive in our lives as to be almost invisible. This book starts with the discovery (and re-discovery in some instances) of the gene, quantum, and subconscious in 1900 and works its way through the century as people wrestle with Freud, Darwin, and Marx. Along the way, Watson identifies science, the free market, and mass media as the most important forces. ...more
Loring Wirbel
Jul 02, 2012 Loring Wirbel rated it it was amazing
One approaches a massive tome with big ambitions under the assumption that the author probably covered the territory rather well, but it's rare to find something as satisfying in multiple dimensions as 'The Modern Mind.' Jacket blurbs and some reviews suggest dipping into this work in encyclopedic fashion, in a manner similar to dabbling with 'The Autobiography of Mark Twain.' No way. The author is telling an important story of the 20th century, one that deserves a straightforward read, even if ...more
Mar 22, 2015 Jan rated it it was amazing
Did you ever see a 10-foot pointillism painting by Seurat and not recognize the picture until you stepped way back from the canvass? Did you ever assemble one of those tile mosaic kits and not know if you did it right until you backed away?

Peter Watson is an intellectual historian at Cambridge and he summarized the works of the leading minds of the past century and tries to piece together a coherent narrative of the past century.

These fragments became part of a mosaic in his hands.
This is a his
Dec 27, 2012 Philipp rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
It took me what, 7 months to read this book? It's a massive book trying to summarize the history of knowledge in the 20th century, ending with the rise of "pop-science-books" and starting with

The history of the 20th century is not easy and as such, this book is not really "bed-lecture" to be easily digested: it's not uncommon that the authors throws ten names at you in one paragraph. Sometimes the ideas are hard to comprehend, but Watson always does a good job to explain everything in laymen's
Oct 31, 2008 Jon rated it really liked it
This book serves two purposes. First, it provides a meta-narrative of 20th-century intellectual history that ties together the scientific, artistic, and socioeconomic trends of the last 100 years into an overarching story of increasing individualism and alienation. On that count, it satisfyingly explains over the course of 800 small-print pages what countless other authors have explored in-depth in 200 or 300 pages. Second, it gives the reader a jumping-off point for literally hundreds of possib ...more
Oct 26, 2008 Manderson rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This compendium of modern thought and intellectual achievement is a remarkably breezy read, given that it could just as easily have been a dry and nauseating regurgitation of lists and names. Watson strings a tight narrative out of the history of modern man, providing a compelling perspective of the evolution in arts, sciences, and providing both caution and hope for future human achievement. Watson delves not only into humanity's heights of innovation, but also the stark and abject failures of ...more
Macoco G.M.
No terminó de gustarme del todo. Quizás iba buscando otra cosa, no lo sé. Pero la verdad es que el libro es una especie de listado muy superficial de las ideas históricas mas relevantes, pero sin análisis.
Si de verdad quereis ver un análisis de la evolución de las ideas que llevaron a los totalitarismos del S.XX, mejor el increíble libro de Albert Camus en que describe todo este proceso: El hombre rebelde
If not for the excessive adulation Watson has for a limited range of figures such as T.S. Eliot and Francis Fukuyama, this book would have been a sort of perfect jumping-off point (insofar as such a limited tool can be described as perfect). Still, Watson's ambitious project can hardly be called a failure, and my time, at least, was not wasted. I happily have pages of notes for new reading and research projects.
Jose Gaona
Jun 26, 2014 Jose Gaona rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: no-ficción
Faraónica obra de Peter Watson que será devorada por los amantes de las historias de las ideas más integrales y completas. Nada se le escapa al autor, ningún tema, ninguna controversia. Uno de esos libros que en su inmensidad te hacen sentirte pequeño antes de empezarlo y un poco menos ignorante acerca de muchas cosas una vez terminado.
Vikas Datta
Jul 28, 2015 Vikas Datta rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A veritable tour de force of concepts, thought and works that permeated the century... a must read for anyone who wants to chart the various tides of intellectual ferment and achievement it had... on the other hand, missed a few key ideas - liberation theology for one..
Dan Scott
Sep 29, 2012 Dan Scott rated it really liked it
I began to understand the modern world after reading this book. YEar by year, the author takes the reader through the discoveries of the twentieth century and unpacks their implications.
Sep 06, 2009 Ed rated it it was amazing
Brilliant comprehensive and balanced intellectual history of the 20th century that complements his other volume that covers from the beginning to 1900: From Fire to Freud.
Jul 28, 2010 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Chockful of information, but inevitably laborious. Read prudently and don't take a 6-month long break from it.
Wray Finks
Apr 03, 2016 Wray Finks rated it it was amazing
What can you say about a book as comprehensive as this? It covers more than a hundred years of some of the most significant insights and ideas in art, philosophy, science, literature, psychology, etc. In a way, it's an expanded encyclopedia. Maybe some of the people written of will get half a page. Others will get a few. Depends on their influence and the significance of what they achieved. This is a great book to keep around, read a couple chapters, read something else, come back to it, pick it ...more
Tso William
Reading this book is like having a buffet. There is so many brilliant ideas to consume that you felt you are over-feeding yourself without knowing it.


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)

Gene Grant
Sep 05, 2009 Gene Grant rated it it was amazing
This was a great thought provoking book about the ideas of the modern era and how religion went from being central to being discarded by so many intellectuals in the modern era, but then the brave new Godless world turned out to be worse than the old one and the post modern era dawned in recognition that the materialist and scientific worldview that discards God is not the salvation of mankind that almost all intellectuals thought it would be. This book is a great companion read to the Evolution ...more
NJ Wong
Feb 03, 2016 NJ Wong rated it it was amazing
To me, "The Modern Mind", which was published in 2000, is a much better book than "The Age of Atheists" that was published this year. "Modern Mind" actually predates "Ideas: A History - From Fire to Freud" (published in 2005), which was my first book from Peter Watson.

This book is as thick as "Ideas", and thus took me a very long time to finish. I love the expansiveness of the topics covered, which I feel is Watson's strength. Books like "Ideas" and "Modern Mind" cover a vast array of subjects -
Alexander Weber
Jun 24, 2015 Alexander Weber rated it really liked it
Ok, obviously he can't include everything, and I felt like there was a lot missing in terms of math and statistics and science and what not. However, that may just be my bias. He also had a lot on architecture that I could care less about, but that may be because I know so little about it.

Besides that, wonderful book. A little slow at the start, but the ending flew by as I raced through the pages. Again, could be my bias.
Apr 10, 2013 Marc rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Een kanjer van een boek, na 20 blz dacht ik dat ik er nooit door zou komen: het is een encyclopedische opeenstapeling van vooral heel bekende namen, zonder veel lijn. Maar ik heb toch doorgezet en na 3 maanden zwoegen, moet ik toch zeggen: hoed af voor de eruditie van Watson! Vooral het laatste deel is verdienstelijk, omdat het orde schept in de cultuurproductie van de laatste decennia van de twintigste eeuw. Blijft wel de terechte kritiek dat er geen echte lijn zit in het verhaal. Watson zelf g ...more
Charles Kerns
Jul 02, 2015 Charles Kerns rated it it was ok
Shelves: europe, us, 20th-century
Imagine a book that gives a paragraph to every person in the 20th Century. Or at least to everyone who got his name in the news for more than a day: scientists, writers, philosophers, artists, you name it. All are here in this fatboy of a book weighing in at 800 plus pages.
Feb 23, 2009 Orin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ideas
What a brick! I finally got through it. This ambitious book, attempting to summarize the main currents of 20th century thought, is largely successful. Some of the chapters are superb summaries of some exciting periods of modern thought. I could point to the chapter on recent developments in evolutionary science (Genetic Safari, 34, and The Best Idea, Ever, 39) or the chapter on recent literature (The Empire Write Back, 40). The chapter on French post-modernist thought largely boggled me, but tha ...more
Oct 10, 2010 Maia rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An ambitious, thorough, investigative-type chronicle of what shaped and influenced our lives today as seen through the lens of the ideas, discoveries, facts and 'opinions' (though undoubtedly questionable') of the 20th Century--from Freud and Darwin to pop culture and political icons. Pretty much anyone can see themselves reflected in this 'mental' voyage--one which, at times, when the writing soars, can even be thrilling to follow. In many ways, the 20st Century was thrilling, despite 2 World W ...more
Iván Ferreira
May 27, 2016 Iván Ferreira rated it it was amazing
maestría al unir toda la historia intelectual del siglo XX en una forma tan sinérgica, una lectura muy interesante y de la que aprendí muchas cosas sobre el pasado reciente.
Mano Chil
Apr 19, 2015 Mano Chil rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-politics
If you want to know the major breakthroughs in the modern age, then this is your book.

Peter highlights the major advances in all the fields in the recent age.
Jeff Kelleher
Feb 01, 2013 Jeff Kelleher rated it really liked it
Like a huge table of delicious hors d'oeuvres.

It took weeks of on-and-off reading to finally finish this 770-page "intellectual history of the 20th Century". An amazing feat--summarizing every significant idea of the era. Inevitably superficial, often so much so that it leaves the reader as puzzled as enlightened. But it's the kind of book that sets your mind churning with almost every page and, like a good quotation book, stirs you to want to read the original works. It sharpens your regret ove
Nov 07, 2007 lisa_emily rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: aspiring intellectual historians
This huge, hefty book chronicles ideas that have impacted Western culture during the 20th Century. Everything from philosophy and literature to art and politics are dissected and reviewed. With such a mammoth topic, you would think the book would be unyielding, but amazingly, it reads well. Watson's journalistic talents are put to good use, and after a few weeks of reading, you may be able to say that you understand the world you live in, a little better.
Oct 14, 2008 David rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone high school age or older
This is history the way it is not taught in schools. Watson weaves a tapestry from diverse threads of intellectual activities - art, music, physics, economics, poetry, politics, psychology, etc. He shows how major figures from the 19th century (such as Freud, Marx and Darwin)had their impacts in the 20th. The picture that results has many features that weren't apparent before, even if, like me, you lived through the majority of the century.
Aug 22, 2013 Justin rated it it was amazing
It is like an encyclopedia. Kind of an anthology of thought. It is good because it covers so much in terms of intellectual breakthroughs of the 20th Century, without leaving out too terribly much. Because of the scope of the project it cannot go into too much detail on each subject, yet its ability to touch on such a vast array of subjects and connect them is admirable. Recommended to anyone interested in intellectual history.
Nicole Frangione
Oct 22, 2015 Nicole Frangione rated it it was amazing
Five stars for effort and breadth. This is nearly 800 pages, a narrative, of many of the ideas of the 20th century and a more enjoyable read than you might expect.
Stephen Armstrong
Watson is a British journalist and writer. This is a descriptive intellectual history, not tracing out memes so much as recounting and accounting the intellectual trends of 20th Century life from art to zoology.

After awhile, it became somewhat tedious and labored, alas. I finished it by trying to imagine what it might be like to have such comprehensive and exhaustive knowledge.
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Peter Watson was educated at the universities of Durham, London and Rome, and was awarded scholarships in Italy and the United States.

After a stint as Deputy Editor of New Society magazine, he was for four years part of the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ team of investigative journalists. He wrote the daily Diary column of the London Times before becoming that paper’s New York correspondent. He returned t
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