As the 19th century drew to a close, humankind believed that it was drawing ever nearer to perfecting itself. The sun shone brightly on scientific achievements and on the possibility that societies around the world might coexist peacefully because they shared the same political ideals.
Very quickly, of course, a Depression and two world wars shattered such enthusiastic confidence. But the excitement of a post-war economic boom and the increasing reliance on technological advances to bolster the human spirit enabled the 20th century to end much as it had begun - optimistic about the power of humans to change their worlds through ideas.
Journalist Peter Watson, who writes for The Observer and The New York Times, chronicles this contentious century with a panoramic overview of the history of ideas in the 20th century.
Although Watson explores a number of intellectual movements and various writers and artists in their own contexts and on their own terms, he contends that the century has been "dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science." He claims that science has not only changed the things we think about but also the ways we think about those things.
Watson reads the history of ideas in the 20th century through these lenses, and he often shows the ways in which humanists incorporated or reacted against the scientific thinking of their day in their paintings or writings.
Watson follows the development of the ideas in this century in a roughly chronological fashion. So the first chapter plunges us into the year 1900 and a look at some key figures who set the stage for the rest of the century. Watson briefly examines Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams," Max Planck's contributions to physics, Arthur Evans's discovery of the Cretan Linear B scripts, advances in genetics, and Picasso's paintings.
What is amazing about this year, he claims, is "the extraordinary complementarity of many ideas at the turn of the century, the confident and optimistic search for hidden fundamentals." In addition, he argues that "the driving motor in this mentality, even when it was experienced as art, was scientific."
From this rich foray into the century's first year, Watson launches forth on an intellectual expedition that ranges rapidly through various social, philosophical, and political movements from existentialism to feminism.
In addition, he examines key figures from various disciplines and the ways their ideas have shaped the intellectual history of the 20th century. For example, he discusses the ways in which the modernist writings of Proust, Woolf, Mann, and others illustrate the writers' emphasis on the flux of time and consciousness, ideas that were being expressed scientifically in Einstein's theory of relativity.
Watson provides an evenhanded account of the development of ideas in disciplines ranging from philosophy and religion to the social sciences, economics, art, literature, history, science and film. His section on French film in the 1950s and 1960s, where he discusses the influence of French New Wave filmmakers like Francois Truffaut on the medium of film, is particularly breathtaking.
There will be plenty who will disagree with his elevation of science to such dominance. Many will argue against his contention that "the arts and humanities have always reflected the society they are part of, but over the last one hundred years, they have spoken with less and less confidence." Still others will be dissatisfied with his readings of particular thinkers, ideas, and movements.
Even so, Watson's greatest contribution in this book is to have gathered in encyclopedic fashion the intellectual currents that shaped the 20th century, and for that we are all in his debt.
Henry L. Carrigan Jr. is a freelance writer living in Lancaster, Pa.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor