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I just finished Peter Watson's "The Modern Mind" this weekend. Given the omnibus nature if the work (an overview of the intellectual history of the 20th Century) it is not too surprising that the book, at times, descends to the level of listing the important actors in given fields without really giving them any meaningful depth. Watson seems to have been well aware of this tendency and does try to limit his scope to some extent and focus his attention down to a few themes. I would say that he is moderately successful at this -- much more so in the later chapters of the book where it seems that he is getting around to his real interests and theses.

The central theses of the book should probably come as little surprise to anyone. Watson argues that the 20th Century has seen the triumph of an empirical scientific paradigm, especially in the Anglophone world. He distinguishes this from the scientism and positivism of the early 20th Century -- one of the turning points he cites is the one that comes naturally to me as a mathemstician, namely the Incompleteness Theorem of Godel which showed that the goals of Russell and Whitehead to categorize and encyclopedize all of mathematics was a quixotic endeavor. Despite the gigantic strides science has taken this century, we now know there are limits to attainable knowledge -- that the scientific vision can never be perfect and complete nor can we ever know how close to perfect and complete we can get.

He traces how we arrived at what he argues is a post- grand ideological world by illustrating the rise, fall, and discrediting of the the major ideologies of the 20th Century -- the three of which he focuses on most strongly are Marxism, Freudianism, and (Social) Darwinism. He casts much of the non-scientific work of the 20th Century as wasted effort to develop these flawed ideologies and, in some cases, to marry them together in various combinations.

The book would have been much more worthy, IMO, had he stuck more narrowly to this thesis. Instead, the book digresses and meanders around through various lists of important personages and works and the thread of his argument gets lost amid a pile of non-germane details.

That being said, his argument, after picking it out of the bloated text, is an interesting one. It has been made before by others and it is somewhat akin to the standard wisdom that we live in a postmodern, post-ideological world. Still, it is sort of fun to see the the dots connected.

Overall, a worthy book that could have used more focus.

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