November 22, 2020

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What we think and how we came to think it
by Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
University of California Press
2019 (i-xvi, 464 pages)
        [Note: First published in Great Britain,
        the Republic of Ireland, and Australia
        by Oneworld Publications, 2019]
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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages
    Quote = "The thoughts that come out of our minds can make us seem out of our minds." By author Felipe Fernández-Armesto in Preface (xi)

    Quote = "By repositioning the human mind at the center of world history, the work is a triumph." From Choice Review by Thomas Anderson, Merrimack College.

    Quote = "A masterful paean to the human imagination from a wonderfully elegant thinker, the book shows that bad ideas are often more influential than good ones; that the oldest recoverable thoughts include some of the best; and that ideas of Western origin often issued from exchanges with the wider world." Selected from the publishers blurb.
PREFACE (xi-xvi)

1) MIND OUT OF MATTER — The Mainspring of ideas (1-31)
    [1] Big brains, big thoughts? (5-7)

    [2] The galactic overview (7-9)

    [3] Becoming imaginative (9-11)

    [4] Remembering wrongly (11-19)

    [5] Anticipating accurately (19-24)

    [6] Thinking with tongues (24-27)

    [7] Producing cultures (27-29)

    [8] The power of thought (30-31)
2) GATHERING THOUGHTS --- Thinking before agriculture (33-74)
    [1] The moral cannibals --- The earliest ideas? (33-35)

    [2] Inklings of afterlife (35-37)

    [3] The earliest ethics (37-39)

    [4] Identifying the early thoughts of Homo sapiens (39-40)

    [5] The clash of symbols (40-43)

    [6] The modern stone age --- Foraging minds (43-45)

    [7] Cold cases --- Environment and evidence of ice age ideas (45-48)

    [8] Distrusting the senses --- Undermining dumb materialism (49-51)

    [9] Discovering the imperceptible (52-56)

    [10] Magic and witchcraft (56-59)

    [11] Placed in nature --- Mana, god, and totemism (59-61)

    [12] Imagining order --- Ice age political thought (61-65)

    [13] Cosmic order --- Time and taboos (65-71)

    [14] Trading ideas --- The first political economy (71-74)
3) SETTLED MINDS — 'Civilized' thinking (75-110)
    [1] After the ice — The Mesolithic mind (76-78)

    [2] Thinking with mud --- The minds of the first agriculturists (78-82)

    [3] Farmers' politics — War and work (82-85)

    [4] Civic life (85-86)

    [5] Leadership in emerging states (87-88)

    [6] Cosmologies and power — Binarism and monism (88-91)

    [7] Oracles and kings ---- New theories of power (91-93)

    [8] Divine kings and ideas of empire (93-95)

    [9] Enter the professionals — Intellectuals and legalists in early agrarian states (95-98)

    [10] The flock and the shepherd — Social thought (98-104)

    [11] Fruits of leisure — Moral thinking (104-108)

    [12] Reading god's dreams — Cosmogony and science (108-110)
4) THE GREAT SAGES — The first named thinkers (111-152)
    [1] An overview of the age (112-114)

    [2] The Eurasian links (114-117)

    [3] New religions? (117-121)

    [4] Nothing and God (121-125)

    [5] Along with God --- Other Jewish ideas (125-130)

    [6] Jesting with Pilate --- Secular means to truth (130-131)

    [7] Realism and relativism (132-135)

    [8] Rationalism and logic (135-139)

    [9] The retreat from pure reason --- Science, scepticism, and materialism (139-146)

    [10] Morals and politics (146-148)

    [11] Pessimism and the exaltation of power (148-149)

    [12] Optimism and the enemies of the state (149-151)

    [13] Slavery (151-152)
5) THINKING FAITHS — Ideas in a religious age (153-196)
    [1] Christianity, Islam, Buddhism --- Facing the checks (154-158)

    [2] Redefining God --- The unfolding of Christian theology (158-161)

    [3] Religions as societies --- Christian and Muslim ideas (162-163) [4] Moral problems (163-171)

    [5] Aesthetic reflections by Christian and Muslim thinkers (171-173)

    [6] Expanding faith's intellectual frontiers (173-180)

    [7] The frontier of mysticism (180-183)

    [8] Faith and politics (183-190)

    [9] Social thought in Christianity and Islam — Faith, war, and ideas of nobility (190-194)

    [10] Spiritual conquest (194-196)
6 RETURN TO THE FUTURE — Thinking through plague and cold (197–234)
    [1] Forward to the past --- The Renaissance (200-206)

    [2] Spreading the Renaissance --- Exploration and ideas (206-209)

    [3] Scientific Revolution (209-218)

    [4] Political thought (219-231)

    [5] Redefining humanity (231-234)
7) GLOBAL ENLIGHTENMENTS — Joined-up thinking in a joined-up world (235-273)
    [1] An overview of the age (236-238)

    [2] Eurocentric thought — The idea of Europe (238-240)

    [3] The enlightenment — The work of the philosophes (240-243)

    [4] Confidence in progress (243-246)

    [5] Economic thought (246-251)

    [6] Political philosophies — The origins of the state (251-253)

    [7] Asian influences and the formulation of rival kinds of despotism (253-255)

    [8] The noble savage and the common man (255-259)

    [9] Universal rights (259-262)

    [10] Gropings toward democracy (262-265)

    [11] Truth and science (265-269)

    [12] Religious and romantic reactions (269-273)
8) THE CLIMACTERIC OF PROGRESS --- 19th-century certainties (275-330)
    [1] An overview of the age (276-278)

    [2] Demography and social thought (278-281)

    [3] Conservatisms and liberalism (281-284)

    [4] 'Women and children first' — New categories of social thought (285-290)

    [5] The apostles of the state (290-297)

    [6] Public enemies — Beyond and against the state (297-301)

    [7] Christian politics (302-304)

    [8] Nationalism [and its American variant] (304-313)

    [9] Effects beyond the West --- China, Japan, India, and the Islamic world (313-317)

    [10] Struggle and survival — Evolutionary thinking and its aftermath (317-327)

    [11] The balance of progress (327-330)
9) THE REVENGE OF CHAOS — Unstitching certainty (331-354)
    [1] Relativity in context (332-339)

    [2] From relativity to relativism (339-343)

    [3] The tyranny of the unconscious (344-347)

    [4] Innovation in take-off mode (347-349)

    [5] Reaction — The politics of order (349-354)
10) THE AGE OF UNCERTAINTY — 20th-century hesitancies (355-402)
    [1] The undeterminable world (357-362)

    [1] From existentialism to postmodernism (362-368)

    [2] The crisis of science (368-369)

    [3] Environmentalism, chaos, and Eastern Wisdom (370-375)

    [4] Political and economic thought after ideology (376-382)

    [5] The retrenchment of science (382-391)

    [6] Dogmatism versus pluralism (391-398)
PROSPECT --- The end of ideas? (399-402)

note = "Memory, imagination, and communication --- the faculties that generated all the ideas covered in the book so far --- are changing under the impact of robotics, genetics, and virtual socialization. Will our unprecedented experience provoke or facilitate new ways of thinking and new thoughts? Will it impede or extinguish them? I am afraid that some readers may have started this book optimistically, expecting the story to be progressive and the ideas all to be good. The story has not borne such expectations out. Some of the findings that have unfolded, chapter by chapter, are morally neutral: that minds matter, that ideas are the driving force of history (not environment or economics or demography, though they all condition what happens in our minds); that ideas, like works of art, are products of imagination." (399)

note = "Other conclusions subvert progressive illusions: a lot of good ideas are very old and bad ones very new; ideas are effective not because of their merits, but because of circumstances that make them communicable and attractive; truths are less potent than falsehoods people believe; the ideas that come out of our minds can make us seem out of our minds." (399)

note = "No machine is likely to usurp our humanity. Artificial intelligence is not intelligent enough or, more exactly, not imaginative enough or creative enough to make us resign thinking. Tests for artificial intelligence are not rigorous enough. It does not take intelligence to meet the Turing test --- impersonating a human interlocutor --- or win a game of chess or general knowledge. You will know that intelligence is artificial only when your sexbot says, 'No!' Virtual reality is too shallow and crude to make many of us abandon the real thing... So, for good and ill, we shall go on having new thoughts, crafting new ideas, devising innovative applications. I can envisage, however. an end to the acceleration characteristic of the new thinking of recent times. If my argument is right, and ideas multiply in times of intense cultural interchange, whereas isolation breeds intellectual inertia, then we can expect the rate of new thinking to slacken if exchanges diminish. (400-401)

Paradoxically, one of the effects of globalization will be diminished exchange, because in a perfectly globalized world, cultural interchange will erode difference and make all cultures increasingly like each other. By the late twentieth century, globalization was so intense that it was almost impossible for any community to opt out: even resolutely self-isolated groups in the depths of the Amazon rainforest found it hard to elude contact or withdraw from the influence of the rest of the world once contact was made. The consequences included the emergence of global culture --- more or less modeled on the United States and Western Europe, with people everywhere wearing the same clothes, consuming the same goods, practicing the same politics, listening to the same music, admiring the same images, playing the same games, crafting and discarding the same relationships, and speaking or trying to speak the same language." (401)

Of course, global culture has not displaced diversity... But over the long term, globalization does and will encourage convergence. Languages and dialects disappear or become subjects of conservation policies, like endangered species. Traditional dress and arts retreat to margins and museums. Religions expire. Local customs and antiquated values die or survive as tourist attractions. The trend is conspicuous because it represents the reversal of the human story so far." (401)

note = "At least, we did so until the 21st century, when our cultures stopped getting more unlike each other and became dramatically, overwhelmingly convergent. Sooner or later, on present showing, we shall have only one worldwide culture... We shall have no one to exchange and interact with. We shall be alone in the universe --- unless and until we find other cultures in other galaxies and resume productive exchange. The result will not be the end of ideas, but rather a return to normal rates of innovative thinking, like, say, those of the thinkers in chapter one or two of this book, who struggled with isolation, and whose thoughts were relatively few and relatively good. (402)

NOTES (403-452)

INDEX (231-232)
    American Revolution
    Ancient Greece
    Climate change
    Darwin, Charles
    Diderot, Denis
    French Revolution
    Ice Age
    Jesus Christ
    Labor [British: labour]
    Quantum mechanics
    Roman Empire
    Russell, Bertrand
    Scientific Revolution
    Sovereignty State, the
    United States of America
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AUTHOR NOTES = Felipe Fernández-Armesto is an award-winning historian and the author of several bestselling books, including 1492 , Ideas that Changed the World, and The Americas. He lives in Indiana and is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

SUMMARY = Traversing the realms of science, politics, religion, culture, philosophy, and history, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reveals the thrilling and disquieting tales of our imaginative leaps — from the first Homo sapiens to the present day.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = Through groundbreaking insights in cognitive science, Fernández-Armesto explores how and why we have ideas in the first place, providing a tantalizing glimpse into who we are and what we might yet accomplish. He unearths historical evidence and begins by reconstructing the thoughts of our Paleolithic ancestors to reveal the subtlety and profundity of the thinking of early humans.

The book is a masterful paean to the human imagination from a wonderfully elegant thinker. It shows that bad ideas are often more influential than good ones; that the oldest recoverable thoughts include some of the best; that ideas of Western origin often issued from exchanges with the wider world; and that the pace of innovative thinking is under threat. The ideas are up-to-date with current research.

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CHOICE REVIEW = In a fascinating, and provocative, global history of ideas, Fernández-Armesto argues that global exchanges led to creativity and produced new ideas that defined world history. A particular strength of the book is the early chapters that analyze examples from the time of hunter-gatherers, the Agricultural Revolution, and the emergence of political units demonstrating how profound differences in culture led to the creation of fundamental ideas.

The book proceeds by covering topics that include the rise of universal religions, a global enlightenment, and the emergence of scientific theories and political rights. More controversially, the author concludes that humans are potentially entering a period of winnowing exchanges with the emergence of a global culture that reduces differences and thus leads to a dip in creativity and ideas. Overall, the work has the strengths of Big History, revealing global patterns of humanity's history of thought as well as its weaknesses with brief and selective examples. Still, by repositioning the human mind at the center of world history, the work is a triumph. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. -- Thomas Anderson, Merrimack College.

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[1] A stimulating history of how the imagination interacted with its sibling psychological faculties --- emotion, perception and reason --- to shape the history of human mental life."-- Andrew Stark, Wall Street Journal.

[2] A fascinating, and provocative, global history of ideas... Essential. CHOICE.

[3] Beginning with cognitive science, this global survey sweeps through leaps of thought from prehistory to today — a journey from unification to uncertainty, lit by minds such as China’s fourth-century BCE master of paradox Hui Shi and paradigm-smashing mathematician Henri Poincaré. Today, Fernández-Armesto argues, the trend is shifting as our homogenized ‘global culture’ threatens the very exchanges that spark heroic ideas. -- Barbara Kiser, Nature magazine.

[4] The book covers the range of human ideas, from prehistoric man’s preoccupations to artificial intelligence. But the focus is on topics like the emergence of scientific truth and democracy—themes that seem under threat today, with talk of 'fake news' and authoritarians on the march. -- Economist

[5] Out of Our Minds is more than a clever title. It plays with human self-importance and takes us down a peg or two. Fernández-Armesto has a love/hate relationship with our intellectual history and works out his frustrations in superb detail. -- Sydney Morning Herald

[6] An outline of ideas runs the risk of being cursory — one damn intellectual after another — but [Armesto’s] easy flow from thinker to thinker, economics to ethics, microbes and their mutations to climate, means that there’s variety and interest all along the way. He is usefully judgmental: he has a personal take on existentialism and the youth culture of the Sixties, for instance. What we get here is an urbane and civilized observer, broad in his sympathies, mildly distrustful of religion, very distrustful of certainties and enthusiastic about pluralism. You may not always agree with him, but he is very good company. -- Evening Standard.

[7] Written with zing and flair, and a willingness to provoke, the book is a sparkling account of how imagination and ideas have shaped the strange history of Homo sapiens over more than two thousand years. -- David Christian, author of Origin Story: A Big History of Everything.

[8] With its majestic sweep, this refreshing book covers a great many subjects with considerable authority. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a gifted writer, guiding the reader through subtleties without failing to illustrate his complex ideas with a telling example. -- Daniel Lord Smail, author of On Deep History and the Brain

[9] Brilliant and profound, the book is a masterly survey of humanity's unique imaginative leaps, from hominid cannibalism to our current global convergence. Fernandez-Armesto is the leading practitioner of big history, and here he takes on no less than the entire span of human history. Gone are the great men, replaced instead by the ideas --- good and bad --- that have made us human. The book is written with his trademark panache and wry humor. It challenges every assumption you have ever had about who we are and where we came from. -- Jerry Brotton, author of A History of the World in 12 Maps.

[10] Praise for previous books by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's: (1) The book, Our America, is perhaps the first history to make the case for this nation's becoming a bright Latin American country... The narrative moves easily from panoramic views and exemplary cases to interpretation and reflection... Fernandez-Armesto dutifully deals with this changing landscape It is written with detail and gusto. -- New York Times Book Review of Our America

[11] Students and politicians alike could benefit from the scholarship of Fernandez-Armesto. We owe him a debt of gratitude for deepening our comprehension of Hispanics in the US and how they came to be here and how their shared narrative has shaped our nation. -- Janet Napolitano, Wall Street Journal Book Review of Our America

[12] In this readable history, Fernandez-Armesto has written a book of travels not unlike those of Marco Polo, filled with marvels and sensations, rich in description and replete with anecdote. His book, 1492, is a compendium of delights. Fernandez-Armesto is a global voyager on a cultural and intellectual odyssey through one year. -- Peter Ackroyd, The Times, London.

[13] Few scholars are as qualified as Fernandez-Armesto to write a history of exploration... He has the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding necessary to do justice to so formidable a topic. The result is the brilliant and readable book, Pathfinders. It is an illuminating and, at times, stirring examination of the divergence and convergence of cultures, a rich study of humankind's restless spirit. As intimate as Alexander the Great's deathbed wish and as vast as human migration, this book explains who we are as much as what we have done. -- New York Times Book Review about Pathfinders.

[14] Felipe Fernandez~Armesto is one of the most brilliant historians currently at work. All his books are bravura displays of erudition, fizzing with seminal thoughts, original ideas and new syntheses of existing knowledge. -- Frank McLynn, Independent.

[15] He makes history a smart art. -- Victoria Glendinning, The Times.

[16] One of the most formidable political explicators of our time is undoubtedly Felipe Fernandez-Armesto... His theses are never dull; indeed they are sometimes surprising and often memorably expressed. -- Jan Morris, New Statesman.

[17] He is in a class of his own for serious scholarship. -- John Bayley, Spectator.

[18] An Argonaut of an author, indefatigable and daring. -- Washington Post

[19] Fernandez-Armesto’s chapters on the Western Mediterranean are models of how to write popular history: accessible, provocative and full of telling detail. -- Mail on Sunday about the book, 1492.

[20] I cannot remember having read anything as intellectually deft on so ambitious a subject... an enthralling and delightful read. -- Lisa Jardine, Independent, on the book, Truth: A History. ‘One of the most dazzlingly assured Works of history I have read. -- Sunday Telegraph about the book, Millennium.

[21] A tour de force of compilation and writing... Its central thesis is provocative, its range immense. -- Financial Times about the book, Millennium.

[22] Startling comparisons and imaginative characterizations... Fernandez-Armesto wanders around the globe and across 10,000 years of history putting things together that by conventional methods are always kept apart. -- ]. R. McNeill, New York Times Book Review, on the book, Civilizations.

[23] A mix of deep learning and rigorous argument, beautifully written... delightful and indispensable. -- John Gray, Literary Review, on the book, A Foot in the River.

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[1] Francis O Walker - History: A landscape of minds = Ambrose Bierce defined History as "An account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools."

Fernandez-Armesto takes an approach suggested by Heinrich Henie's observation that: "The men of action are, after all, only the unconscious instruments of the men of thought." This book traces the history of ideas and follows their consequences on humankind. The book starts with plausible deductions about what our ancestors thought before the written word and moves through the 21st century. The law of unintended consequences tends to take center stage as the ability of humans to misinterpret ideas, or perhaps to bend them to their own selfish ends, is given suitable emphasis.

He sees technology as accelerating the rate of change of new ideas but lacking an ideological signature, technology's recent wide ranging effects on health, nutrition, and communication cannot be well-catalogued in his approach. Upon completion of the work, readers may find reasons to agree with AJP Taylor's mixed view of progress: Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness. It is well-written, thought provoking and well worth the read.

[2] Blake B. Olavin - Worth the price = An excellent review of the progress of human thinking with support that ancient humans were just as smart as we are but had less access to information. Pretty extensive research quoted. Some drift into philosophy but overall a superb read.

[3] Amazon Customer - An educated person's history of ideas = I found this book to be a tough read, but worth every second. There were so many ideas and concepts exploding off the page, it was almost overwhelming. The author's breadth of knowledge is humbling.

[4] paulw - Wide ranging, both temporally and spatially = Rarely have I encountered so many interesting points to ponder. At the same time a balanced approach is preserved.

[5] Amazon Customer - What a book! = A must read for all who are interested in the development of thought and what may be the limits to human thought.

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