Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Ideas: A History of Thought From Fire to Freud

Ideas: A History of Thought From Fire to Freud

  • Peter Watson
  • October 27, 2008
  • Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy
  • Program on Teaching Innovation

History teaches above all that there is no such thing as history, only historical interpretation. In the realm of ideas, this is especially true. Once you get away from the familiar narrative and kings and queens, battles and treaties, politics and power plays, the possibilities for looking at history in different ways are if not endless, then certainly multifarious.

When I began reading for my books on the history of ideas, I came across what W. A. Dunlap called triposis—the tendency to divide intellectual history into threes. For example, Francis Bacon said that the most important inventions in history were printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. Thomas Hobbes said that there were three essential elements of human activity: physics, psychology, and politics. Giambattista Vito thought that history had been divided into three eras: of gods, of heroes, and of humans. Thomas Carlyle thought the three most powerful innovations had been gunpowder, printing, and Protestantism. Sir James Fraser thought history could be divided into the ages of magic, religion, and science. American historian Harry Elmer Barnes thought that the three great turning points in history were the Axial Age, the Renaissance, and Darwinism. Dutch philosopher and scientist Johan Goudsblom wrote that history depended on the three great uses of heat: the invention of cooking, smelting and ceramics, and the taming of steam. Each of these is at least a theoretical basis for metahistory.

These overlap and include a mix of technologies and what the French call mentalités. This mix is important, because a history of ideas, of innovation, clearly needs both elements. We need to consider the “little” ideas such as the invention of the zero, of printing, of money, of algebra, of agriculture, of writing, ceramics, of law, musical notation, and the laptop, all of which are worthy of consideration. But for a complete history of innovation, we also need to encompass the more all-embracing ideas, what James Joyce called “those big words… which make us so unhappy.” Or as Allan Bloom called them, the philosophical and moral issues that still have the power to inform us, make us wise, and move us. Matters of ethics, morals, law, religion, philosophy, and the great artistic movement—can all these be put together into one history, one overarching narrative?

Intellectual Approaches

History may be divided into two intellectual approaches. The first is when mankind has turned in to seek the truth inside himself. These are periods of great religious, philosophical, and artistic innovation. The Axial Age gave us the great religions of the world; this was a time when, as Carl Jaspers put it, modern spirituality began. Islam in the 9th century gave us Falsafa, Arabic philosophy in all its glory, the House of Wisdom, the great center of translation, the first hospitals and pharmacies. Christianity after 1000 CE brought in many new practices, including confession, new forms of penance, and the cult of the virgin. The Black Death brought new forms of piety across Europe. There was the Age of Savonarola, who was sent to aid the inward reform of the Italian people. The Reformation above all changed the relationship between laypeople and the clergy. Romanticism gave us the greatest era of music the world has known. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious revolutionized our self-understanding, for many people anyway.

Second, there are the great turnings out, which lead to exploration, travel, science, and innovations in business. Here we may begin with Ionian positivism, the foundation of the scientific approach, determining that the world may be known by examining its phenomena systematically. The Renaissance, the great age of exploration, the scientific revolution; the industrial revolution—none of these need me to list their achievements.

Three Accelerations

A second way of organizing intellectual history is around three great accelerations in terms of innovation. The first of these took place in Mesopotamia around 3,400 BCE and included the invention of writing and the first schools, clocks, arch, and legal codes—27 firsts, according to one historian. The second took place in Europe in the 11th-13th centuries, when we see the invention or development of the great cathedrals, the first universities, the invention of spectacles, musical notation, perspective, the plus and minus sign, alphabetization, modern punctuation, etc. The third took place in Europe between 1750-1950 and included the steam engine, the factory, the spinning jenny, the railway train, and then onwards and upwards.

These periods of acceleration were all extensions of the evolution of cities—of the very first cities in Mesopotamia, of the first cathedral university cities of real size in northern Europe, which attracted students from all over the continent, and of the first great metropolises with their attendant forms of urban poverty, mainly in northern Europe.

The Soul, the West, and the Experiment

I will concentrate on the third way of organizing intellectual history, which permits us to focus on what is to my mind the greatest change in the history of ideas throughout time. We each have our candidates for the greatest idea in history—agriculture, ethical monotheism, evolution, the discovery of the unconscious. I have organized my thinking around three big notions that put the history of ideas into broad relief. The three I invite you to consider give shape to who we are or have become. They are, chronologically, the idea of the soul, the idea of Europe or the West, and the idea of the experiment. It’s easier to follow the argument I wish to advance if we consider these ideas in reverse chronological order, beginning with the experiment.

The countries that make up what we call the West have long been the most successful and prosperous societies on earth both in the material advantages enjoyed by their citizens and the political and therefore moral freedoms they have. These advantages are intertwined, insofar as many material advantages—medical innovations, printing and other media, travel, technology, industrial processes—bring with them social and political freedoms in a general process of democratization. These are the fruit almost without exception of scientific innovations based on observation, experimentation, and deduction.

Experimentation is important here not just as the most effective form of inquiry, but as an independent, rational, and therefore democratic form of authority. The authority of the experiment and scientific method, independent of the scientist’s proximity to God or his king, and as revealed and reinforced by myriad technologies, which we can all share, underlines the modern world. This secular science and not democracy, I suggest, is what our modern prosperity is based upon. Why did the experiment occur first and most productively in what we call the West? The answer to this shows why the idea of Europe, of the West, the set of changes that came about between roughly 1050-1250 CE, was so important.

Certainly God has been a very powerful idea throughout history and continues to be across many parts of the globe. At the same time, there are two good reasons why the soul has been if not a more influential idea, then more useful and fecund. One reason is that, with the invention of the afterlife, which not all religions have embraced and without which any entity such as the soul would have far less meaning, the way was opened to organize religions the better to control men’s minds. People seem to have conceived of an afterlife before they conceived of souls. From 60,000 years ago certainly, people were buried in graves with grave goods. But in the mainly oral records of tribes, only special people were believed to have souls, men in some tribes, women in other tribes, in some cases only women who had died in childbirth. Primitive souls were contained in various parts of the body—the hair, the shadow, the liver, the breath, above all the heart. Early peoples trepanned the dead so the soul could leave the body by the top of the head.

If one accepts the existence of souls, then there is a need for a place for them to go after death. Here we have the ideas of the afterlife, resurrection, heaven and hell, and above all salvation. The modern concept of the immortal soul was a Greek idea. Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Plato all believe in reincarnation, metempsychosis, the idea that souls could come back in other animals and even plants. Both Socrates and Plato shared Pindar’s idea of the divine origin of the soul, and it is here that the idea took root that the soul is more precious than the body.

In the early parts of The Iliad, Athens tells Odysseus’s son Telemachus that not even the Gods can keep death off a man they love. By the later parts of The Odyssey, however, Proteus tells Menelaus he will be sent to the Elysian plains at the end of the earth. By the time of Hesiod’s works, late 8th century BCE, we hear of the islands of the blessed. Around the 6th century BCE, Greeks begin to be buried with an obols, small coins with which to pay the ferryman who takes them across the Styx to Hades.

With the invention of ethical monotheism by the Israelites, which eventually gave rise to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the concept of salvation in a future state blossomed for the hope it gave to everyone, rich and poor, sinner and saint. These ideas extended to Buddhism and were paralleled in Hinduism, where the Rig Veda recognized the soul as a light in the heart. Although Confucianism technically does not recognize souls, its idea of inner harmony is not so far away.

So during late antiquity and in the Middle Ages, the technology of the soul and its relation with the afterlife, the deity, and the clergy enabled the religious authorities to exercise an extraordinary authority. It is the idea of the soul which, though it enriched men’s minds immeasurably over many centuries, nevertheless kept thought and freedom back during those same centuries, hindering and delaying progress, keeping the largely laity enthralled to an educated clericy. During this time books all but disappeared. Think of Friar Tetzel’s assurance prior to the Reformation that one could buy indulgences for souls in purgatory, that they would fly to heaven as soon as the coin dropped in the plate. The abuses of what we might call soul technology were one of the main factors leading to the Reformation, which removed faith from the control of the clergy and hastened doubt and non-belief.

Wilhelm Dilthey, the 19th-century German philosopher, said that we all have a metaphysical impulse. Perhaps it is this which made the soul such an attractive idea for so many centuries. It was vague, invisible, a perfect vehicle for the religious authorities to maintain their “access” to the divine and in so doing to keep their authority over laypeople. The ascendancy of the soul lasted for centuries, but then it changed. That brings us back to the transformations that overtook Europe sometime between 1050 and 1250 and changed the course of world history, and world intellectual history in particular.

In the 10th century CE, the famous Arab geographer Al-Masudi said of the people of Europe. “The warm humor is lacking among them; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull, and their tongues heavy.” In 1060, two years after the Battle of Hastings, Ibn Ahmad, an Arab historian, wrote that eight nations had contributed most to knowledge, including the Indians, Persians, Greeks, Chinese, and Arabs, but no mention of Europeans. In fact, by 1500 the course of intellectual history had been altered fundamentally and we are living in a time when it may be about to change again.

Though there is no doubt that fundamental change did take place, there is as yet no absolute agreement on why this occurred. There are instead six overlapping sets of theories.

Geographical Theories

The first of the geographical was put forward by Fernand Braudel, who thought there was a broad relationship between foodstuffs and civilizations. Rice, he thought, brought high populations and therefore strict social discipline. Maize, on the other hand, demanded little effort, which allowed Native Americans plenty of time to fashion their great architecture. The crucial factor in Europe’s success was its relatively small size, the efficiency of grain, and the climate. The fact that so much of life is spent indoors in Europe, Braudel said, fostered the development of furniture, which brought about the development of tools. Poorer weather meant that fewer days could be worked, leading to a greater need for labor-saving devices, all of which brought the early development of science.

Braudel also thought the Mediterranean as an east-west sea in line with prevailing winds helped trade. Its waters were shallow, making the fishing poor, further stimulating trade and the exchange of ideas that went with it. Furthermore, the Mediterranean is full of archipelagos and islands, further facilitating sailing and trade. Finally, the Rhine, the Rhone-Saone, and the Danube form a huge Mercedes sign in the middle of Europe, helping people easily get to the center of the continent. Braudel is helpful and intriguing, but to me a touch glib. His thesis does not explain why Europe took off when it did.

Michael McCormick of Harvard argues that in fact the takeoff occurred in the 9th century, when people began traveling and trading again after the disastrous Dark Ages in the 5th-7th centuries. By this time, he says, there was enough traffic on the Danube for it to boast both pirates and toll collectors. The crucial event, he says, was the conversion of Hungary to Christianity in about 1000 CE, which opened the Danube and therefore the overland route to Constantinople.

Douglass North and Robert Thomas argue that, aided by the three great rivers, Europe became the first land mass to fill with people. This altered the feudal structure of Europe and gave more people a direct interest in the land. It was this wide ownership that would before long lead to specialization, at first in the growing of crops, then in the services. This led to a rise in trade, the spread of markets, and the development of the money economy necessary for surplus.

In agriculture, there was a switch from the two-field system to the three-field system. Under the two-field system, half the land was planted with crops and half was left fallow. In the three-field system, wheat was planted in autumn, oats, barley, or legumes in spring, and one third left fallow. This brought about a 50 percent increase in yield, and people were employed throughout the year. There was much less chance of crop failure and famine. There was also a change from oxen to horses, which are 50 percent more efficient, and a rise in the number of watermills. There were lots of small rivers in Europe, and wool and cloth became major features. People became more individualistic as a result and more efficient, because overall there was more competition.

Critics claim that these figures are simply wrong, that feudalism never had the hold North and Thomas say, and that there was plenty of land, so efficiency was never stimulated in the way they argue. But there certainly was a steady growth in technology—for example, a proliferation in the uses for the watermill. It was being used for beer making in 861, tanning in 1138, paper milling in 1266, and blast furnaces in 1384. Business methods also developed. Contracts for financing foreign trade within interest and gold coins appeared in Venice and elsewhere that became standards of value. This helped banks develop and made contracts clearer, firmer, and more fair. In Before European Hegemony, Janet L. Abu-Lughod argues that at the end of the 14th century, the fulcrum between east and west was roughly balanced. But the Orient, she says, was temporarily in disarray due to fragmentation of the overland routes that had been unified by Genghis Khan and because the depredations of Tamerlane had a much worse effect on Asia than the Crusades had. Finally, the Black Death affected the East far worse than the West. She argues that the rise of the West was preceded by the fall of the East.

Joseph Needham argues that to begin with, Europe was a much more unstable entity than China was. The alphabet system of writing, because it was so flexible, made it easy for tribes to develop mutually incomprehensible languages, in contrast to China, which had a unifying script. The peninsulas and archipelagos of the Mediterranean made it more nationalistic, with many national boundaries. All of this combined to keep Europe backward. But then Europe benefited from two Chinese inventions: the stirrup and gunpowder. The first created feudalism, the second destroyed it, enabling the rise of a mercantile class and the growth of science. In China, this just didn’t happen. China was run by a mandinarate, a scholar/elite class highly suitable to a large country heavily centralized under an emperor, where the Mandarin bureaucrats administered separate, steady progress but the mercantile class was downgraded to the lowest of the four grades, after scholars, farmers, and artisans. As a result, China never matured tools, modern business methods, or modern science.

Changes in Christianity

The final level of explanation and the one with the most scholarship attached to it concerns changes to Christianity in the year 1050-1250, where one of the main figures is Sir Richard Southern. The role of Latin was all important. Scholars went all over Europe. The embrace of Latin implied a unification of thought and rules of debate. Three activities—theology, law, and the liberal arts—were accepted as what civilization was built on. The great change took place from monasteries to cathedrals, a change from one-on-one teaching to classes with up to 300 students. People trained then in the same texts. There were many fewer texts then than today, and so people shared a great deal more knowledge.

Universities, mostly secular institutions, snowballed in the 13th-14th centuries. Beginning in Paris in 1215 there was a battle to take universities away from the control of either the emperor or the pope, and gradually this battle was won. In those days, no formal qualifications were needed to go to the university. But while you were on campus, it was accepted that you could only talk in Latin. This was unifying—more knowledge was shared. It was in a way an early form of globalization.

Some great scholars helped in this unification, first Gratian, who developed a Decretum, a Europe-wide system of canon law. Until then, bishops had largely interpreted canon law themselves in local ways. This unification had a great liberalizing effect and changed attitudes of the clergy.

Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln and Chancellor of Oxford, invented the experimental method. Roger Bacon said that before other men, Grosseteste wrote about science. It was Grosseteste who introduced the idea of systematic testing. He started by considering the rainbow, which he noticed could be seen in the sky or the spray of millwheels, in the drops of water falling from the oars of a rowing boat, even squirting water from your mouth, or sunlight through a glass of water. Theodoric of Freiburg came up with the idea of the refraction of light, which was generally regarded as the first example of deduction from the scientific method.

At the same time, Sir Thomas Aquinas came up with his ideas that a natural world as well as a religious world could exist. He insisted that there is a natural order which reason could grasp. For Aquinas, only three things could not be proved by reason: the origin of the universe, the nature of the trinity, and Jesus’s role in salvation. Everything else was discussable.

Roger Bacon, who studied under Grosseteste, concluded that some day scientific knowledge would give man mastery over nature. He forecast submarines, automobiles, and airplanes, and also a device for walking on water. Man could only realize himself, he said, by following knowledge wherever it led. Siger of Brabant claimed that the realm of reason and science must be outside the sphere of theology.

There were also great changes in individuality. Different professions proliferated outside the church, in law, medicine, and teaching. There was changing ownership of land. Primogeniture led to slower division of estates but younger sons being forced to go off elsewhere. They worked as fighters, but had time on their hands and developed the concepts of chivalry and courtly love. People had a full life outside the church, and most important, many disagreed with each other, unlike in the Roman church. The newly translated works of classical Greece showed what a pleasure secular life could be. People were forced to rely on their own arguments. This led to the individualization of faith.

Also important was that the millennium had passed without anything really happening. This brought a change in Christianity. The crucifix changed: in pre-millennium churches, Christ looked resplendent, full of life. After the millennium he’s slumped and very obviously dead or in pain. People no longer expected Christ to return to earth and save everyone. The idea of personal, individual salvation began to grow. Man should not be expected to develop to the status of angels, as the early church had said, but should fulfill his own personality.

We see at this time changes in sermons, the interpretations of the Gospels are much more individually organized. There’s a change in confession. At the Battle of Hastings, if you killed someone, you were given one kind of penance, if you maimed someone, you were given another kind, irrespective of your motivation. In the 12th century, the church changes the rules about confession—until that point most people had only had it on their deathbed. Now they had to confess at least once a year and explain their motives for sinning. The whole motivation of sin rather than its commission became far more important.

We see at this time a growth in first-person literature, personalized art, private studies, the use of names and nicknames, and biography. Identifiable artists appeared for the first time. There was an explosion of love literature, and then a whole host of new inventions of a more limited kind: spectacles, the clock is finessed, the compass, the astrolabe, libraries, private studies in houses, and clocks being adjusted for the seasons. Until that time there had been a set number of hours between dawn and dusk, so the shorter the day, the shorter the hours. Now, with the invention of proper clocks, hours become standardized and work started to occur based on time rather than daylight.

There were new innovations in counting, and word order becomes stabilized—subject, verb, object. In an extraordinary piece of research, M.T. Clanchy looked at the amount of sealing wax bought by the British chancery. In the 1220s, they spent 3.63 pounds a year; by 1250 they were spending ten times that. So letters were proliferating.

All this led to a great concern with accuracy that made the age of exploration possible, resulting in the discovery of great parts of Africa, Australia, and the Americas. After this, the West was well and truly ahead. There was no going back.


What generalizations can we derive from all this? The discovery and invention of new forms of energy bring about major change. The harnessing of fire brought about cooking, ceramics, and smelting. The switch from oxen to horses and into watermills helped create the 12th-century Renaissance. The adoption of Arab-Latin rigging on Mediterranean ships enabled them to make the most of the wind and explore the more dangerous and mysterious Atlantic. From the 18th century on, electrical appliances began to appear, though electricity required other forms of energy to generate it. The development of steam control brought about the Industrial Revolution. The discovery of the electron created 20th-century technology, culminating in the internet.

Most big ideas seem to be responses to local circumstances which then turned out to have global effects. The Israelites invented ethical monotheism because they were a small people surrounded by mighty neighbors. They needed to explain to themselves why they should keep faith with themselves. Early Christianity was a religion perfectly suited for poor people who needed hope for the future, exactly the same appeal as Marxism had later on when there was poverty in the new metropolises.

We know of several cases where more than one person had a new idea at roughly the same time: Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin with natural selection; Ernst Mach and Albert Einstein with relativity. According to Thomas Kuhn, in the 1840s at least 12 people were moving toward the idea of the conservation of energy. We saw this with Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg with atonality; Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung with the unconscious; Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Konstantine Ciurlionius with abstraction; Hans von Ohain and Frank Whittle with the jet engine. There is no magic place where ideas come from, they are responses to circumstance.

Throughout history, ideas have followed trade. Yet eras where new ideas, technological and philosophical, proliferate, such as the 12th century Renaissance, do seem to arise where new situations bring about greater freedom for individuals—in cities; in new professions, where there are new social arrangements, new forms of cooperation are needed, or when a new psychology is generated and great individuality is allowed. Closed systems, whether they are religious as in the Middle Ages or political as in China, or Russia, China, and eastern Europe in the 20th century, are not conducive to producing new ideas.

Were this meeting to have been held exactly one hundred years ago, we would have been living in a much more interesting and innovative time. Particle physics was new, the quantum and relativity were new, atonality was brand new, Picasso and Matisse’s art was new, as were Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter. Film was new, the telephone was new, flight was four years old, the car wasn’t much older, psychoanalysis was new, the gene had just been rediscovered, Zionism was in its infancy, the skyscraper had just been born, plastic was being conceived, as was symbolic logic. In medicine, adrenaline was newly isolated. Syphilis was recently cured, aspirin had just appeared. We think we are living in a brave new world, but compared to a century ago, we are not.

However, one thing has happened and another thing may be about to happen that could change all that. The genetic research that since WWII has proved that we are all one people who began in Africa around 150,000 years ago has not yet sunk in enough. Think what a difference that would have made in the 18th-early 20th centuries and their wars.

That goes together with the Internet and globalization. The first period of acceleration arrived with the first cities in Mesopotamia, the second with the cathedrals and universities in Europe in the 12th-13th centuries, the third with the metropolises of the 19th-early 20th centuries. The next step in this progression is globalization, bringing much vaster numbers of people together, even if only in a virtual way. However, I don’t think we’ve seen much yet. Apart from the PC itself and the transistor, all our so-called new technologies were invented before WWII. We are actually living in an age of consolidation, not an age of novelty.

When Max Planck took up physics in the late 19th century, he was told by his teacher not to expect much, because physics was more or less complete. We think we’re in the middle of a time of newness, though we’ve hardly started. The real innovations devolving from globalization have yet to come. We are obsessed by speed and smallness, but if what we are told about the quantum computer comes true, then we face the possibility that (1) we will eventually be able to be in two places at once, and (2) effect will precede cause. These are really new ideas. Most of us don’t understand that, but its sheer unexpectedness has echoes of Grossestest, Copernicus, Schoenberg, and Planck.

I’m a member of the advisory board of the IAS at my undergraduate university, Durham. A fellow member, a professor of physics at Cambridge, and I were talking recently. I asked him if he understood 11 dimensions. He said “If you’re talking in English, I don’t understand it, but I can do the math.” This is the world we are entering, where language breaks down and mathematics will take over. That’s the really new thing.

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