Intellectual History

Josh and I have been chatting about Peter Watson’s The German Genius, and our dissatisfaction with his account of Kant’s philosophy. This led me to wonder what people’s favorite intellectual histories are. I mean the fun, lively stuff, not the exhausting, nit-picking tomes that I have to read for work. I really like the idea of these books, but they often disappoint.

I’ve talked before about the problems I had with Dreyfus and Kelly’s All Things Shining from a few years back. Again, I really liked the concept. I just got fed up with all the little details that were wrong with the authors I knew, and after a while I figured that their other readings must be equally problematic. (That said, I’ve decided to use it in my class this spring as a kind of capstone text for our year long Philosophical Perspectives sequence. For all its issues, the book does a nice job of showing how all of these ancient and early modern texts we’ve been reading can help us better understand our own contemporary way of life. So I plan to just throw it out there to the class, warts and all.

I think my favorite recent book in this genre is Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. It’s probably not a coincidence that the period covered is post-Kantian, focusing on the Romantics. Still, it’s a fascinating story, and I found it pretty convincing.

A book I have mixed feelings about is Greenblatt’s The Swerve. I definitely wasn’t sold on the claim that De Rerum Natura was the root cause of modernity — he’s way too dismissive of the Medievals. Still, I enjoyed the story of the recovery of Lucretius’ text. (The transmission of texts has always been a favorite topic of mine.)

Does anyone have other suggestions? Let’s get those summer reading lists started!

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2 Responses to Intellectual History

  1. Josh says:

    For what it’s worth, having read about 3/5 of The German Genius, I’m getting to see that Watson’s main point is not really to introduce the reader to each of the intellectuals individually. He’s more concerned to demonstrate a claim about the relationship between the evolution of the German intellect vis-a-vis Nazism, to illustrate that the relationship is neither straightforwardly causal, nor on the other hand unrelated and coincidental. But the point is – the individual portraits’ inaccuracies are probably not that important for this project. That said – if that is the point, he could have written a book that to some extent skipped all those little portraits (which often don’t fit together with the broader story he’s telling, in addition to their problems with oversimplification).

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