Peter Watson's Ideas: a History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud

Length: 746 pages of text. And 57 pages of notes and references in very small font.

Peter Watson is a Brit educated at the universities of Durham, London, and Rome. He is described as the author of thirteen books, as having presented several television programs about the arts, and since 1998 he has been a Research Associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.

Watson's work is easy reading.

His first chapter, "Ideas Before Language" lists humanity's first idea as that of standing up. He calls this a proto-idea, as too instinctive to be considered a full idea. Watson's second idea is the emergence of stone tools. He moves on to cave art, which he describes as appearing around 40,000 years ago. To give you an idea of how detailed he gets, he covers these first ideas, his first chapter, in 38 pages.

Sequence plays a significant role in the development of ideas, but Watson is inclined to present ideas in isolation.

His 746 pages are divided into five parts:

Lucy to Gilgamesh
The Evolution of Imagination

He writes: "As we have seen, for Merlin Donald the great transformation in human history was the change from episodic thinking to mimetic, because it allowed the develoment of culture, 'the great escape from the nervous system.'" The ability to mimic or learn from others made culture possible. That is not disputable. But can imitation be classified as idea? Can it be considered as sometimes an unconscious response closer to a part of the brain other than the outer cortex? Maybe another proto-idea? Watson writes that "Before this book reaches its conclusion we shall have encountered many other candidates for the single most important idea in history."

On to the appearance of agriculture: Was it an idea in response to a population crisis? How about the idea of convenience applied to recognizing that one can plant seeds for oneself rather than walk distances for the food from a plant and the transition from tiny plots to big gardens?

Watson declares writing as a major idea to be put alongside farming as the "greatest idea ever." Watson writes of culture as a product of imitation. In recognizing this, are we getting away from writing as an idea? Writing was developed in increments. Were the first records by making marks writing? Were advances from making marks in part imitation. I see more significance in sequence than Watson apparently does.

Isaiah to Zhu XI
The Romance of the Soul

Watson describes sacrifice "at its most basic" as a "gift" and as a "link with the spiritual world." Gifts are not ideas to its recipients. And as a so-called link can it not be a misconception, in other words no link at all but a disconnection with reality?

The Great Hinge of History
European Acceleration

Aquinas to Jefferson
The Attack on Authority, the Idea of the Secular and the Birth of Modern Individualism.

A lot of substance is here. One of his paragraphs begins, "One reason Montaigne never really doubted that there was a God was because to do so in his lifetime was next to impossible." Watson then quotes from The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, by Lucien Febve. When people in 16th century France called someone an atheist they were not referring to disbelief in God. It was not epistemology they were thinking about. It was an insult. It meant the kind of life one led. It meant libertine. No one called himself an atheist.

Watson describes the factory sytem as an idea, and he does so with too much singularity and separation from all of that which went into the factory system's development.

Vico to Freud
Parallel Truths: The Modern Incoherence


Checking out comments at, of 19 reviews 17 give Watson five stars. One reader gave him only two stars, complaining that the book reads like a history textbook, a common complaint about books by academics loaded with detail. Another reader gave him four stars, complaining that Watson's work often fails "to look far enough to embrace the full range of his field."

One who gave him five stars recommends the book for those who "want to be aware of how humans have evolved through History and would like to get to the roots of our many habits and traditions."