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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren

The Past and Present parts were very well done but...

...the future part was a different story. More on that later.

Van Doren's A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future is a truly remarkable book. He breaks down a number of key philosophies and religions and makes them palatable to the reader and also demonstrates their influence over time. It is a very well written book - very enjoyable to read.

He is particularly good at succintly describing why the end of the Roman Empire was such a disaster for knowledge and explaining why the Church was afraid of the astronomy discoveries of the Renaissance.

Problem areas:

-He almost exclusively focuses on Western Thought. Very little Asian philosophy, except for Confucius. How can it be a History of Knowledge when it leaves out most Asian thought?

-Sometimes he blithely labels things as fact. For example, he claims that Jesus was born on December 25th while every Christian church body on the planet merely claims that it is the observed day of his birth.

-He asserts that Martin Luther wanted his religious opponents to be murdered in the Thirty Years War. I know that Luther railed against his opponents but he also railed against religious war. Perhaps Van Doren is confusing Luther's strong support for a violent response to the incredibly violent Peasant's Uprising of his younger days. That was not so much a religious war as a response to the brutal treatment the peasants received. Luther was not sympathetic to the peasants since they had burned churches and killed priests.

-Van Doren goes onto shaky ground when discussing Darwin's Theory of Evolution when he supports it by saying that breeds of dogs are a great proof of this theory. I say that this is shaky ground because different dog breeds are not new species. This same argument is used by racists who claim that the different races are fundamentally different from each other due to breeding. It was an especially poor choice of an argument.

Van Doren's book goes off track when he gets to his future section. Until I reached that section, I had been telling my wife and my friends that I had been reading a phenomenal book - wonderfully thought out and written. Then Van Doren indulges in silly speculations about the future. His predictions about computer technology completely missed the direction that we took. He is very concerned about Artificial Intelligence, a field that is not nearly as hyped as it was when he wrote his book. Unfortunately, he sounds like he's a supporting writer for the movie I, Robot rather than a serious writer.

He also advocates the need for a World Government, but the arguments he makes sound flat when compared to the history that he has just written - a history that warns of the dangers of concentrations of power. What is the old saw about learning history so as not to repeat it?

So, if I were grading the first 85% of the book, it'd be a solid 5 stars. However, those last 50 pages are truly awful and the overall score is dropped.

Despite the fact that most of this book deals with problems I have with the book, I do heartily recommend the book - just not the last section.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren.

Reviewed July 18, 2005.

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