Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century

The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th Century
Peter Watson
Perennial, London, 2001


Wiki entry on the author

This work is a remarkable scholarly achievement. The author admits he cannot cover in detail all the relevant ideas of the last century yet he does an excellent job in providing the reader with a sweeping panorama of 20th century thought.

The writing is lucid and entertaining, though at times I found some of the material covered tedious. That is to be expected, a coverage of this extent is bound to leave the individual reader with pages tedious to read. That is not the author's fault, it is just a function of human behavior. This is a valulable text, one that should be read in its entirety and then kept handy as a reference source.

The author cites that two huge intellectual failures of the 20th century were sociology and psychology. I don't know that much about sociology except to take on board his his reference to Horowitz who asserted that sociology has become overly dominated by theorising(especially Marxist theorising) when the sociologists should have been in the field gathering data. That is very similiar to what happened in psychology. Beginning with Freud, psychology descended into this naive idea that we can think our way to understanding human behavior. When I first encountered Freudian ideas I knew it was rubbish, I was lucky enough to live in a time when most intelligent people had realised that much of the endless theorising that permeated psychology was little more than whistling in the dark. Freud wished to belong to the scientific tradition but lost his way.

Jung was an outright mystic, the text even cites one author who claims Jung falsified data in his PhD. Perhaps but now largely irrelevant. The writing of Jung contains just enough ambiguity and mysticism to beguile people into believing he held some great secret. He did not, Jung was not whistling in the dark, he celebrated the dark  and was happy to blindly lead people into an abyss of ignorance and nonsense.

I don't know if sociology can ever be redeemed but I am confident psychology will find a way forward, if only because it is being increasingly informed by neuroscience. Unfortunately for most of the 20th century psychology writ large fell prey to the same temptation as Jung, with psychologists preferring "warm and fuzzy" perspectives on human behavior with a peculiar and premature emphasis on model building. It almost seems to be a default presumption of people that any valid psychology must provide a model on human behavior. Consider behaviorism, many consider it to be a model of behavior but behaviorism is a method of creating data for later model building. Perhaps that is why Skinner is so reviled in so many quarters, and believe me Skinner is very much hated by many on the political Left, though I am at a complete loss as to why he generates so much hostility. Skinner was not trying to explain human behavior, he was trying to give psychology a new starting point in its investigation into human behavior. While neuroscientists and research psychologists are often acutely aware of the need to stick to the data and avoid overly enthusiastic theorising, the untrained prefer the models with the warm and fuzzy stuff.

The great intellectual challlenges of this century will be sociology, psychology, and economics. All three disciplines have been bedevilled by too much theorising and by entertaining flawed assumptions about human behavior. Unfortunately for sociology and economics, these disciplines lack the foundational stone that neuroscience is providing for psychology.


Steve Edney said...

I read this a few years ago, although it was called "A terrible Beauty". Anyway I really liked it as it put a lot of stuff that I knew in historical context as well as pointing out some areas that I wasn't aware. The breadth of the discussion was great I felt like a more all rounded individual afterwars!

John said...

Hey Steve,

I passed on this reference so some friends, one of whom had sent me an email regarding a new approach to genetics and molecular biology(the alternberg group). Strange and fascinating but intuitively I think these bods are onto something very important.


That stuff on the Alternberg group? I've just finished reading a tome: The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century wherein, right near the end:

He[Ian Stewart re 1998 book, Life's Other Secret] is the latest in a line that includes D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson(On Growth and Form, 1917), Stuart Kaufmann(The Origins of Order, 1993), and Brian Goodwin(How the Leopard Changed its Spots, 1994). Their collective message is that genetics is not, and never can be, a complete explanation for life. What is also needed, surprising at it may seem, is a knowledge of mathematics, because it is mathematics that governs the physical substances - the deep order - out of which, in the end, all living things are made.

He[Stewart] finds that there is a 'deep geometry' of molecules, especially of DNA, which forms knots and coils ... . if components of the virus[tobacco mosaic virus] are separated ... they spontaneously reassemble into a complete virus that can replicate.

page 749.

Hmmm, wonderful and fascinating, so much so I am tempted to see how much geometry I can learn - the key here is 'noncommunicative geometry' but I'm too old to climb that mountain.

PS: Yes, I still maintain the conviction that we ignore the macro and micro geometry of nervous systems at our peril.