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

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  951 ratings  ·  94 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 2000)
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Paul Bryant
This is a splendid intellectual history of 20th century ideas but I'm wondering if there's any point in me finishing it as I believe my brain is actually full. I'm very concerned that every time I learn a new fact I have to forget an old one. And the one I forget might be something significant. I don't want to have to stop a policeman on the streets of Nottingham and say "Excuse me officer, could you please tell me where I live and perhaps take me back there? And on the way I'll tell you about S ...more
Bryan Alkire
Sep 11, 2020 rated it it was ok
Not really for me. It seemed overambitious and overly long. Some things were interesting, but most wasn’t. It didn’t help that most of it was so dry there was a good chance I nodded off at least once per reading session. As far as content went, it was mostly ok though the author was fond of stringing together lists of thinkers without saying anything about them. I’m not sure this book is worth buying. Still, although it’s not written as such, it might serve as a handy reference book to the intel ...more
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. Wat
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 his
Sally Morem
Apr 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I loved it. All that great intellectual history, not just derived from philosophy and the arts, but from science, technology, politics, and the great disasters of the 20th century. A feast for any intellectual of any political persuasion.
A grand overview (more than 700 pages) overview of the developments in arts and science, starting from Freud to the modern time. Although not everything did resonate with me, it was well worth the effort.
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 possib ...more
Aug 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed every page! Very engaging and well put together.
Sep 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had finished this book long long time back and was looking at my library, and realized I haven't put note on this remarkable book.
I started Peter Watson with 'Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud' which is a seminal book on the ideas which shaped human culture, and this is another master piece on art, intellectual, scientific and technological history of 20th century. The narrative is brilliant, the content rich and thick, at the same time a pleasant, enriching read.
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
Nov 23, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A real doorstopper, this is, and rather dense. After 20 pages I thought I would never get through it: it is an encyclopaedic accumulation of especially well-known names, without much line. But I persisted and after 3 months of toil, I have to say: hats off for the erudition of Watson! The last part in particular is brilliant, because it creates order in the cultural production of the last decades of the twentieth century.

The justified criticism remains that there is no real line in the story. I
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: connection
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 wa
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 th ...more
Ahmed AlDulaijan
A truly fascinating book. Watson takes the reader into epic journey in the human intellect starting from 1900 all the way through the twentieth century, stopping at 2000. It is a concise chronological encyclopedia which works great as a guide for the evolution of many concepts we speak of daily such equality, beauty, economics, experiment, etc.

I only wish he had waited until 9/11, so we could've seen his take on the ideas that lead to this event. He may even have been forced to reconsider that o
Ananth Subramanian
Mar 09, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Ananth by: A Friend
Talks about the great thinkers and innovations of the 20th century.

It is heavy reading. However for any one one interested in learning about the ideas,innovations and thoughts that shaped the 20th century this is a authentic and good source.

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. ...more
Dec 10, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: from, c, 1900, world, history
superb tour through the ideas of the 20th century. every topic is treated with the same enthusiasm and verve. can become a bit overwhelming but damn it's a good book ...more
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, sin
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 tel
Don Powers
Aug 30, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a terrific story! Watson describes the parade of ideas that have influenced human development since around 1900. He identifies the turning points when a sudden advance in understanding or a discovery alters dramatically the playing fields of science, the arts, philosophy, religion, culture. Obvious examples are "Evolution" and "Relativity" but their repercussions are multifarious and sometimes contradictory as Watson explicates them.
Important to note: this massive tome should not be intimi
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.
Mike Eberhard
Jul 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Extraordinary book. Schlorarly, thorough, complex in that it covers so much intellectual ground, brings a huge array of thoughts together and makes sense of their importance. Not a casual read. Hard to believe one person could have organized so much complexity in a single book. Masterful. It would take an educated person 6-8 months to read it cover to cover.
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. ...more
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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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