am 12. März 1999
We used this as a textbook for my world studies class four years ago in high school. I think it is the best history text I have read. I found it extremely engaging and intelligent. I did not find van Doren pompous at all, as some of the worst reviews seem to indicate. The tone is not of pomposity; he seems to challenge history, stirring it up in an attempt to find a fresh analysis. In the process he certainly leaves some details out. But I think van Doren took a lot of intellectual risks, and that his analysis was both rigorous and provocative.
As for his commentary on the scientific method, it should be noted that the author has a masters in astrophysics from Columbia. I don't remember him saying that science is more about math than concepts (as one reviewer said), but I think he is correct in a way. Even Einstein complained that there was more memorization of mathematical methods than he had originally thought. But certainly van Doren has enough of a scientific background to talk intelligently about the contributions of scientists.
am 5. Dezember 1998
I have just finished this book for the third time. The first time I read it for pure pleasure (pleasure?? a history text?? Please!). Really, van Doren's mastery of his subjects is such that history really does come alive and everything begins to link together is a very understandable way. The second time I read the book was as a reference to a history course I was taking. The third time I read it was aloud to an elderly scholar friend who is going blind. On this occasion we taped it as I read, and he has listened to it several times since. I cannot tell you how much pleasure this book has brought into my friend's life, or mine. I have given copies of it to many friends and consider it to be the best $20 I have spent in a long while. Thank you Mr. Van Doren.
am 19. Dezember 2005
Charles Van Doren undertook an ambitious project in this book, which according to its cover blurb purports to be 'a compendium of everything that humankind has thought, invented, created, considered, and perfected from the beginning of civilisation into the twenty-first century.'
There are, alas, a few things missing, as this book only has a bit over 400 pages. But that does not really detract from the thesis of the book; it is certainly a worthy outline of human history, particularly approached through the lens of intellectual achievement and the advance of knowledge.
Van Doren, as you may recall, is the Van Doren who got caught up in the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Ironic that this fate should befall him, as his learning would obviously put to shame the current crop of would-be millionaires so popular on the television today. But, I digress.
Van Doren spent the two decades before writing this book as an editor for Encyclopedia Britannica. He has put together a worthy outline to knowledge, broad in scope and with just enough detail to satisfy the hunger and whet the appetite simultaneously.
`The voluminous literature dealing with the idea of human progress is decidedly a mixed bag. While some of these writings are impressive and even inspiring, many of them are superficial, perhaps even ridiculous, in their reiteration (especially during the nineteenth century) of the comforting prospect that every day in every way we are growing better and better.'
Van Doren does believe in progress, but not in inevitable progress. He distinguishes between general knowledge and knowledge of particulars, and explores the inter-relationship of knowledge and happiness:
`The desire to know, when you realise you do not know, is universal and probably irresistible. It was the original temptation of mankind, and no man or woman, and especially no child, can overcome it for long. But it is a desire, as Shakespeare said, that grows by what it feeds on. It is impossible to slake the thirst for knowledge. And the more intelligent you are, the more this is so.'
Van Doren explores the advance of knowledge by time periods, then divided into general discussions with a specific centre. I give as an example the outline of topics in the chapter entitled An Age of Revolutions
An Age of Revolutions
- The Industrial Revolution
- Human Machines and Mechanical Humans
- An Age of Reason and Revolution
- John Locke and the Revolution of 1688
- Property, Government, and Revolution
- Two Kinds of Revolution
- Thomas Jefferson and the Revolution of 1776
- The Declaration of Independence
- Property in Rights
- Robespierre, Napoleon, and the Revolution of 1789
- The Rise of Equality
- Mozart's Don Giovanni
- Goethe's Faust
Van Doren's own agenda and prejudice show through (a desire for the curbing of the rights of nation-states in favour of a one-world government, for instance -- without much detail about how that government would be constituted; after all, he is a realist who recognises that there's no point to such idle speculation in a history text), but he always returns to his charge of presenting the history of the whole through various parts.
His final chapter, entitled `The Next Hundred Years' examines the possible developments and societal changes (which we are already beginning to see) due to computers, chaos science, increased space exploration, genetic engineering and genome mapping, and an ever-present companion in history, war.
This is a well-written exploration of world history written with clarity and style. It makes an excellent companion piece for almost any intellectual field.
am 17. Februar 1998
I wish I had read this book when I was in high school or college; nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed it at age 38. The author does an exceptionally good job of summarizing the important ideas and movements in western history and showing the big picture. I'm going to buy a copy of the book so that my sons will have it available when they reach the appropriate age.
am 13. Juli 2000
This book doesn't quite accomplish what its title promises to. After reading through all the chapters, I felt that I had been given a very good overview of how things came to be the way they are for western thought. Anything not traditionally thought of as the West has been mostly ignored throughout. Sure, there are token chapters devoted to the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, and Arabs, but nothing beyond that. Chinese civilization and thought was advanced way before anything approaching it appeared in the Old World, but Van Doren does not make any in depth examination of their knowledge and their thinkers. Similarly, nothing is said of Arabic studies in astronomy, medicine, and history, though philosophy is mentioned. Same goes for the Egyptians. With that said, I think the book is a great read if one is trying to understand the History of Knowledge in the West. There is expansive coverage of the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages of Europe, the Renaissance, and so on. During his discussions, the author provides some incisive comments and thoughts on the way things are now and ties them very nicely to the great events that occurred in Western thinking.
am 11. Februar 1997
I ordinarily discount the blurbs that come on the covers of books
(and run away fast from any book or video that describes itself as a
"romp"). In the case of "A History of Knowledge", the blurb says,
"Fascinating . . . No less than the summation of the entire
experience of the human race from the birds-eye view if a tremendous,
encyclopedic intelligence." This is entirely accurate. I recommend
this book highly, especially if you think history dry and dusty
Charles Van Doren brings to the book a very objective mind, though he
focuses principally on Western ideas. He an optimist and believes
Democracy and the free expression of ideas the highest achievements
of governance and social order. He will 'call' people he profiles in
the book on their ideas or their hypocrisy. He uses a lot of commas.
Van Doren tackles the history of knowledge through several themes.
He briefly profiles contributors to the advancement of thought and
ideas such as Confucius, Mozart, Kafka and Einstein (there are well
over 150 of these profiles). He renders dramatic historical pictures
with clear and rich lines. And he shows the connections between
ideas that allowed for or caused changes in mankind's knowledge. I
particularly like his ability to illuminate historical trends clearly
and without a lot of over-detail. Take the following section about
the significance of money (I have pulled out salient points from a
much richer discussion):
"Until the end of the eighteenth century, that is, only yesterday,
most people had not yet discovered how important money can be. As a
result, their lives were very different from ours, even if
psychologically they were more like us than they were different . . .
No peoples have been discovered who did not want money, however they
conceived or counted it. That being so, it is astonishing to realize
that, until quite recently, most human beings, otherwise much like
ourselves, lacked the conception that is so obvious to us of how to
earn money. The phrase, 'to earn a living,' would have been
incomprehensible to them. Almost every man, woman, and child of
today knows what that means, although many find it hard to do. . . .
In the twentieth century almost everyone, in almost every country,
works for money, and uses the money he earns to buy the things he
needs, and wants, to make a good life. . . . The change from 1800 to
today is extraordinary. In 1800, in most places in the world, money
was almost invisible. Today, it is omnipresent. Work existed then
as now, but the notion that work is life, and life is work, has
practically disappeared. We work in order to earn a living, and we
may even dream of a day when we will no longer need to work, so that
we will have the time to 'really live.' Work and life, instead of
being inseparable parts of our existence, have become conflicting,
almost contradictory notions."
The book is not a dense philosophical tome, but nicely balances
insightful commentary with informative details. Just the Chapter
headings are interesting, for example: What the Romans Knew; What
Was Reborn in the Renaissance; and The Next Hundred Years (this last
chapter is absolutely the best in the book). I will not try to
summarize the book, as I believe the contents to be incompressible,
but Van Doren has some wonderful quotes:
· "When I was a child in the 1930s, I remember studying maps of
Africa that contained blank spaces labeled Terra Incognita. I
thought this was the name of the most interesting country."
· "The greatest artists can help us to see what is happening to our
lives and what may occur in the future. This is one of the most
important services that great art performs."
· "It began to be apparent that no attempt to know accurately and
completely how the interior of the atom worked could succeed. In a
sense, it was like trying to investigate the works of a fine Swiss
watch with the end of your thumb."
· "Fires are perceived by many as having a cleansing effect. So are wars."
· "What normal human being is unaware that sexual thoughts lie just
under the surface of consciousness, always ready to pop out at the
oddest and perhaps most inappropriate moments?"
· "Benjamin Franklin sent up a kite during a thunderstorm around 1750
and established that lightning is a form of electricity. He was
lucky to survive this experiment, which should not be repeated by
anyone not anxious to be electrocuted."
· "The problem posed by steam power--the same problem, only more
pressing, inheres in a nuclear plant--is how to control the kind of
forces that man has recently learned to unleash. It is like opening
the door and letting a lion out of its cage. This is very exciting.
And you begin to think, as the lion stretches its great muscles and
roars, if I could only harness that great energy! But then you begin
to wonder, what am I going to do with this lion? One thing is
certain: you cannot put it back in its cage, for it has now grown
bigger than the door. In the end you may be reduced to prayer."
· "Nevertheless, it is a comforting thought to a revolutionist to
believe that he is riding on a historical roller coaster, whose
progress through time is controlled by great forces."
· "If you are going to cut off the head of your enemy's wife, you had
better be prepared to defend yourself."
· "Scientists are generally reluctant to deal with the behavior of
large groups of men and women. Thus economists, for example,
struggle to be considered scientists, but usually in vain. The
external world of scientists contains some things, like quanta,
quarks and quasars, that are fully as mysterious as angels and
normally as invisible. But this does not trouble them, as they
believe they can deal effectively with the elementary particles that
they cannot see and according to the uncertainty principle never can
see, but not with angels, which will probably never appear to
scientists because scientists do not believe in them."
· "The discipline that a man must exert once he has cast himself
adrift from the support of an international church may be akin to the
self-reliance needed for success in a capitalist economy. It may
also be the character trait that makes good citizens in a democratic
· "Nothing is more conductive to progress than the widespread belief
that it can occur."
· "The history of the European Renaissance illustrates the adage that
nothing fails like success."
· "Theology had built a wall to protect itself from human reason, and
reason was no longer on its side. As with all walls, this one had
the opposite effect from what was intended."
· "The people were obsessed by health, diet and exercise. They spent
more time in health clubs than in churches, temples, libraries and
law courts. They were devoted to consumption. A man could make a
reputation by spending more than his neighbor, even if he had to
borrow the money to do it. And if he never paid back his creditors,
he was honored for having made a noble attempt to cut a fine figure
in the world." Note: he is talking about the late Roman world.
· "There have been two knowledge explosions in human history, not
just one. The second began in Europe four or five centuries ago and
is still going on. The first began in Greece during the sixth
century BC. The Greek explosion also had a long life. Like ours, it
spread quickly and finally affected the entire known world. Like
ours, it commenced with the discovery of a new communications device
and a new method for acquiring knowledge, continued with the help of
striking advances in mathematics, and culminated in revolutionary
theories about matter and force."
· "Averroes was a devout Muslim. Seeing the danger, he never ceased
to insist that, whatever Aristotle might seem to suggest, that there
was in fact only one truth, contained in the Koran. But this was
rather like warning children not to put beans up there noses. The
temptation to do such a surprising thing soon becomes irresistible.
am 18. Dezember 1997
Perhaps error and opinion are part and parcel of any book that would make so grand an assault upon the passage of time. Mr. Van Doren attempts to catalog all of history and, inevitably, fails on some counts. With a work like this I find it valuable to seek out and examine the author's discussion of the history I do know - scientific history in my case - and see how well they fare with that. My result - Van Doren parrots the typical legends of Einstein and Heisenburg but seems to understand little of who they were or what they accomplished. Careless mistakes abound as well - e.g. Galilio's date of death is given four years early (1642 vs 1646). But despite its flaws A History of Knowledge is eminently readable and, for those in pursuit of a larger context for what history they already know, quite useful. Perhaps the gravest "danger" of the work is it's confidence - when one is describing the sum events of all time there's precious little room for considering conflicting views and discussing the data that has lead to each - this is a history composed of declarative statements. However, if one can keep an ironic grin firmly in place in the face of Van Doren's confidence, his book as both knowledge and enjoyment to offer.
am 17. November 1997
Charles Van Doren does a fine job of providing an enlightening overview to history and sociology. I've enjoyed the book twice now, given it as gifts, and recommended it to many friends and aquaintenances. I found his insight and perspective on historical characters and discoveries to be most valuable. Being a technical person, I find Van Doren helps me understand the the evolution of history...he combines events, individuals, and discoveries into (what appear to be obvious) relationships. Many times throughout the book, I would think to myself: "Now I understand!"
The book comes with a delightful bonus; it provides the reader with a refreshed interest in historical events and personalities. This makes for engaging conversations... topics from Henry XIII to Marco Polo. How about: the history and significance of "zero", or the demise of the Aztecs?
Further, Van Doren provides insight into the similarities and origins of different religions.
It's a great book you can pick up and put down, read a little, skim a section... fun to have around even as reference.
am 21. August 1998
I graduate from college and finally realized I knew nuthin' bout nuthin'. To remedy this condition I set out upon a learning quest to fill in the numerous gaps that a "liberal arts" education left behind. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books later, I still return to Van Doren (and Boorstin for what it's worth). Here's why:
1. Van Doren is unintentionally pompous in such a way that we can actually follow along with his incredible intellect. You can't beat the ego factor in this.
2. If you want dates, times and other minutae, it's in there. If you want a good taste (albeit slightly biased) of "real history", there's plenty of this too. A blend achieved by few others.
3. It's a pleasurable read. No...really. While some of the topics may not be right up your alley, the speed and style of writing make these areas not only accessible, but completely bearable.
I have nothing but praise for this work. Read it once and you will feel enriched. Read it again and you just might be ready for the Jeopardy tryouts!
am 14. Januar 1998
I stumbled upon this book and read a few lines, convinced it looked like an informative book. I was unpleasantly surprised during the next week as I tried to digest it. I have a few comments: His story of Columbus's "discovery" of America fails to even briefly mention how he betrayed, slaughtered and enslaved the native americans. Unbelievable. My other brief comment: as a scientist, I was first amused, then offended, by his discussion of the scientific method. This guy has absolutely no concept of how scientists think (he claims it's all math, no ideas/concepts); his sweeping generalizations and stereotypes completely ignore current research in the neurosciences regarding learning and memory and the mind/body problem, not to mention the rest of the entire field of biomedical sciences. Overall, I found this book to be irritatingly simplified. I strongly discourage wasting your time reading it - I took my copy back to the bookstore!!