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A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  1,433 ratings  ·  110 reviews
A one-voume reference to the history of ideas that is a compendium of everything that humankind has thought, invented, created, considered, and perfected from the beginning of civilization into the twenty-first century. Massive in its scope, and yet totally accessible, A HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE covers not only all the great theories and discoveries of the human race, but also ...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published March 17th 1992 by Ballantine Books (first published 1991)
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Though I genuinely enjoyed the book, I feel obliged to highlight couple of glaring factual mistakes I detected. They both deal with Russia and as a Russian I could not pass them unnoticed. The Russo-Japanese War was started by Japan with a surprising attack. The author states opposite.

Next, he confuses Belorussians (literally "White Russians") with White Guards, who fought Reds in the Russian Civil War and had mostly nothing in common with these people, apart from sounding alike to a certain deg
The author takes on a subject that is too big and his lack of deeper knowledge is showing in some chapters, which are trite and sometimes even erroneous. Still an interesting read in parts, but nothing to write home about.
This is a sad and unnecessary work. Indeed, how anyone with the intellect of Van Doren could write such a flawed and careless piece is almost incomprehensible. To begin, his work is Western biased, leaving very little space devoted to the remarkable achievements of non-Western civilizations and cultures. Perhaps Mr. Van Doren would have benefited himself and his work by examining the works of such scholars as L.S. Stavrianos. Emanuel Wallerstein, Peter Stearns, and other world systems historians ...more
Oct 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The name of Charles Van Doren showed up recently as the main character of the movie "Quiz Show". Charles Van Doren is the well off and highly cultured son of a well-known university professor who made a number of appearances on a TV quiz show in the 1950s. He was later found to have conspired with the producers of the show in commiting fraud by being coached before the show on the questions to be asked and their answers.

After the quiz show scandal, Charles, who was also a professor, was banned f
Jan 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
One of the few books I return to over and over again. A wonderful supplement to History akin to Durant's Lessons of History. Van Doren breaks down the lessons learned from various historical periods: the ancient world, the Greeks (where for example, he traces the development of Thales Question through various philophers), the Romans who learned or stole from the Greeks and added their own pragmatism, the 1000 year experiment with God called the Middle Ages , the newfound Humanism of the Renaissa ...more
An enormous disappointment. I've read chunks of it but could not bring myself to read it cover to cover, just didn't seem worth it because there is absolutely no objectivity in Van Doren's writing. He considers the history of knowledge of the West as equivalent to 'everything mankind has ever thought'. This is a classic example of the west's arrogance and ignorance. It's like as if the rest of the world didn't even exist because of course they were all savages waiting for the white man to shower ...more
Sharon Cate
Jun 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
Charles Van Doren allows too much of his own personal beliefs to be evident throughout this book. One expects the author of history books to at least try and be objective and when he is not...the expectation is that he would explain why. Charles Van Doren does not explain the reason for his worldview and the book is lacking for that reason. In addition, the book was written in 1991. It was painfully dated in the latter chapters regarding the history of knowledge of the present and future. It is ...more
Aug 15, 2018 rated it liked it
I learned a lot from this book, although the first half of the book was definetily more interesting than the second half. Even though the author seem like a wise and empathic guy, he also comes along very dogmatic and arrogant when preaching his belief in progress and modernity. This made some parts of the book extremely annoying and tiresome. I wish he would have been able to rise above the current zeitgeist, but I guess that is easier said than done. All in all this was a good book with a lot ...more
Apr 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is an excellent history of knowledge, one that I think is indispensable for a broad understanding of the development of knowledge over the many thousands of years of human history. What other book begins with a discussion of ancient civilizations inventing writing and numbers and religion, and ends with a discussion of computer enslavement? None that I know of. For the vast range of knowledge discussed, and the huge amount of time over which these developments took place, it's surprising ho ...more
Jan 17, 2015 rated it liked it
This book outlines the changes that have taken place in the world. The majority of people in the world call these changes "progress". A small number may not see any improvement in the world at all. And a few might even say the world is getting worse. It is a useful, though opinionated, outline of the world's philosophical and scientific landmarks in history. What is clear in the book is the triumph of three things (or ideas): secularism/humanism, science/technology, and democracy. The author him ...more
John Ratliffe
Sep 30, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The history of knowledge and science is always interesting, and basically endless, which is to say more than can be done in 400 pages. There is so much to cover that I am never comfortable criticizing any substantial work that tries to do it. Van Doren's (RIP) technique, he of Encyclopedia Britannica, seems to be to offer recitations one after another of the lives and contributions of a long string of thinkers and doers over the centuries, interspersed with his own extensive opinions on each. It ...more
Joseph Millo
Jan 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Proclaimed to be "a compendium of everything humankind has thought, invented, created, considered, and perfected from the beginning of civilization" up to 1990. It "covers not only all the great theories and discoveries of the human race, but also explores the social conditions, political climates, and individual men and women of genius that brought ideas to fruition throughout history."
However, since it does all this in only 400 pages, this compendium is a very brief introduction to the subject
Jul 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, history, 2016
Reviewing a book on the history of human knowledge is a daunting prospect (though not perhaps as daunting as writing one). In 412 short pages, the author succinctly traces the story of human progress from the earliest recorded civilizations to the world we inhabit today. I have only read one other sweeping survey of human history before this one. Of the two, this one was more comprehensive and less prone to - shall we say - bouts of narrative journalism.

If you enjoy art, literature, philosophy,
Chris Beiser
Oct 23, 2017 marked it as given-up-on
Read about a quarter of this. This is a distillation of what might be thought of the western consensus view of human knowledge, as of 1970-something. In of itself, it’s an incredible work of narrativizing and distillation. The claim that it could be the greatest such work in the history of the world could even be made. That said, if you’re reading this review, it’s not unlikely that you in fact have consumed and reconsumed the ideas in this book over and over through the course of your life; it’ ...more
Jerry Wall
Oct 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
survey of thought and ideas through history.
in our history the collective memory retains at least some knowledge from the past to which is added every new discovery. p. xvi
Everywhere, as Thucydides wrote, the strong did what they wished and the weak suffered what they had to. p. 4 !!!!!
massive construction projects partly so that no one should suffer -- of enjoy -- the restlessness of the unemployed. . . . every tyrant in history has attempted to insulate his people from all kinds of knowledge
Alex Kartelias
Jun 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book is quite amazing in its depth. The title may seem naive, but Charles Van Doren does a brilliant job narrating the history of our species. What makes this book different from other history books is that it discusses from multiple perspectives: philosophy, literature, art, politics and technology- among others. If one is searching for a book that can give them a compete- or near to complete- survey on the history of humanity, look no further. This book is an astounding achievement and wi ...more
Michael Adamchuk
Mar 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
A rather bold title for a broad subject. The author presents a very broad outline of major facts, findings and people who have had a major and prominent effect on life, existence and the human race. It was readable but superficial, as would be expected given the title.
R.L. Calixto
Feb 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: The Good, the Oppressed and the Hungry
Recommended to R.L. by: I saw it in a duty-free shop as LAX. How appropriate!
I've given this book as a gift to about a dozen different people! If you love history, cultures, and man's progress, and seeing the "bigger picture", you will enjoy this book! If you read between the lines, this book offers "the biggest picture", that is, world peace.

Instead of writing a review, I will copy this following column I wrote about this book. It is also a subject that I am currently outlining as a book, having the same title, The Formula for World Peace. Here is the column:

The Formul
General Kutuzov
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
This book was ambitious, informative, and...deeply silly. I read it because I saw that Van Doren died about a month ago. I also knew that he was friends and co-author of a book with the great Mortimer Adler, one of the most prolific defenders of literacy and Western culture in the 20th century.

Any attempt to summarize the history of human thought in 400 pages will inevitably leave important material out, but some of Van Doren's omissions were truly unpardonable. He spends almost no time discuss
Sep 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely fascinating!

A History of Knowledge is a book of amazing depth and breadth. One might think that the constraint of pages would make this a surface level book, and in some ways it is. Ambitious is an understatement. But, it helps to know that Charles Van Doren, despite the notoriety he earned from the Quiz Show Scandal, earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts, a M.A. in Astrophysics, and a Ph.D. in English. The man was highly and broadly educated. Studying both Humanities and Sciences aided in hi
Richard Rogers
Dec 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
There's a lot to enjoy in this book. It is very readable with a suitably broad scope, and it is filled with things I didn't know or only half-knew or looked at a different way before, especially with reference to ancient times. I'll admit, that's what I was looking for most, and so that was the part I enjoyed most.

The discussion of modern times has some interesting twists--the author refers to WWI and WWII as a single war with a pause in the middle, and I found that perspective and the discussi
Carlos Miguel
Jan 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Rather than 5 stars, it would be more like a 4.6, but I really enjoyed reading this book. It summarizes a great part of the Western civilization history while being very clear, consistent and easy to understand. Every chapter is full of open questions which challenges the reader to be critical about the topic. Also, many books are referenced in case the reader wants to expand his/her knowledge in a particular subject.

One of the main topics of the book is the relationship between science and rel
Praveen Kishore
Some chapters are really very well written and are engaging.

The book suffers from that eurocentric (western) view from which many other similar books suffer, where the history and development is presented as a linear, Greek-Roman movement (with, of course European Dark ages included) of thought and ideas. After Renaissance and Reformation, this eurocentric approach is obviously more convincing and correct for examining the history of knowledge. However, before sixteenth century, focusing only o
Richard Haynes
Jul 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Interesting book beginning with the ancient philosophers in Greece where the author describes ideas and knowledge and how these evolve into the year 2000. Then he gives a futuristic look to the year 2100. While incorporating ideas from literature, poets, painters and other artists offers more insight into the history of knowledge.
May 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
If you do not know much about the history of great people and their great ideas, this is a good book. I found the beginning chapters to be the best, but truth be told I know more about the 19th century and onward. My boredom in later chapters is not the authors fault.
Daniel Parker
Excellent read. Like a semester of college in a book. Thought provoking and written in an accessible and informative manner by the author, this reads as a labor of love and a sincere interest to portray the beginnings of thought and understanding up to modern times.
Stephen Masri
Sep 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
D Calco
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Read this 20+ years ago but I remember it being very good.
Apr 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
While reading this excellent, educational and entertaining book, I could not escape the knowledge that Charles Van Doren had been involved in the game show scandal.
Apr 30, 2019 rated it did not like it
The most boring book I have ever had to read in my life.... this is more like a textbook than an actual book.
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Charles Lincoln Van Doren was an American intellectual, writer, and editor who was involved in a television quiz show scandal in the 1950s. In 1959 he confessed before the United States Congress that he had been given the correct answers by the producers of the show Twenty One.

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