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

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  667 ratings  ·  66 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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Apr 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
What a whopper of a book (more than 800 pages)! After 20 pages I thought I never would reach the end: this is an encyclopedic accumulation of known persons that made the 20th Century. But still I continued reading and after 3 months of toil, I have to say: hats off to the erudition of Watson! Especially the last part is meritorious, because it creates order in the cultural production of the last decades of that century.

Remains the justified criticism that there is no real line in the story.
Todd N
Nov 15, 2007 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 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
Apr 29, 2014 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
Dec 27, 2012 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 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 ...more
Jafar Isbarov
20th century was...huge. It bore the most children ever; it killed the most soldiers ever. It wrote the most words ever; it burnt the most books ever. It unearthed the most history ever; it brushed aside the most traditions ever. Studying it, in proper sense of the word, is an ideal to strive for only if it is understood to be out of reach.

Few books make me feel as indebted to the author. The amount of dedication and hard work put into this years-long project is daunting; even more so, once you
Sep 14, 2008 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
Sep 06, 2009 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.
Tso William
Jun 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
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)

Nov 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favourite, ideas
I am actually grateful that someone on this very planet has actually taken the time and effort to read and review all these important works and ideas, and collected, organised, compared then summarised them here in this book. This book has its unequalled weight and might not because it has made any major breakthrough in some areas that blew people's mind, but because it has critically looked at other contributions in a scientific, historical and philosophical way, comprehensively.

What I read
Kim Marshall
This is a massive tome and an amazing achievement by it's author Peter Watson. It took me some weeks to devour it but the effort was rewarding. I must admit to being somewhat miffed that Watson has not gone back and added an addendum that would bring the book a bit up to date. In particular I miss a discussion of 9-11 or more the recent advent of science's ability to measure gravitational waves. Then of course there is the impact of cell-phones and social media on our lives and much more. But ...more
Vikas Datta
Jan 31, 2015 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..
Jul 27, 2010 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.
Oct 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
If I would like to summarize the book in one sentence, it would be: after science gradually showed that human race is not more than a highly evolved wild animal, and the binding force of religion, and the collective survival press that build community faded away, how the race instinctively, and consciously sought a new order, which for now is elusive.

The information conveyed in the book is as strong as the ones from *From Dawn to Decadence* By Jacque, and the message --- for the modern part,
I found the book strong and even entertaining in the paragraphs where it recounts specific discoveries and inventions. As an opus total, the work is rather disappointing, as it is no more than a collection of stories about brilliant minds, sometimes interspersed with criticism of ideas that did not turn out to be quite as brilliant.
However, I would have wished for a text that spans nearly 800 pages to take me, as its reader, more by the hand. Of course, Watson's style is directive in that he
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Over 800 pages, he name drops probably close to a thousand thinkers and discusses several hundred topics. Along the way he establishes linkages between psychology, art, literature, physics, chemistry, biology and math.

It should have been called The Western Modern Mind. I have trouble believing that the Asians, Africans, and South Americans scant descriptions here reflect their contribution to twentieth century thought.
David Small
Mar 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is really a wonderful one volume survey of twentieth century arts, culture, and science. Anyone interested in where we've been for the last one hundred years will find this book indispensable. I highly recommend it.
Praveen Kishore
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Phew! A mammoth book - an encyclopedia! A brilliant, vast, wide ranging and engaging story about intellectual history of the past century - arts, culture, science, technology, social science, music, literature, drama, architecture and what not! And it is almost exclusively about the western civilisation, naturally so, as the other civilisations have hardly produced new body of work in the realm of ideas and inventions during 20th century.
A must read!
Wray F
Jul 17, 2015 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
Gene Grant
Sep 05, 2009 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
Oct 10, 2010 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 ...more
Feb 09, 2009 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 ...more
NJ Wong
Jan 20, 2016 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 -
Jeff Kelleher
Feb 01, 2013 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
Oct 14, 2008 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.
Alexander Weber
Jun 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 4-stars
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.
Jun 21, 2013 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.
Nov 06, 2007 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.
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
“The discipline of history is particularly important in this context because while science has had a direct impact on how historians write, and what they write about, history has itself been evolving. One of the great debates in historiography is over how events move forward. One school of thought has it that ‘great men’ are mostly what matter, that the decisions of people in power can bring about significant shifts in world events and mentalities. Others believe that economic and commercial matters force change by promoting the interests of certain classes within the overall population. In the twentieth century, the actions of Stalin and Hitler in particular would certainly seem to suggest that ‘great’ men are vital to historical events. But the second half of the century was dominated by thermonuclear weapons, and can one say that any single person, great or otherwise, was really responsible for the bomb? No. In fact, I would suggest that we are living at a time of change, a crossover time in more ways than one, when what we have viewed as the causes of social movement in the past – great men or economic factors playing on social classes – are both being superseded as the engine of social development. That new engine is science.” 0 likes
“Computable Numbers’ into practice.21 This was” 0 likes
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