Great accomplishments begin with ideas, and visions of how things might be.
- Everything begins with an idea. [Earl Nightingale]
- And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. [The Bible, Genesis 1:3.]
Every purposeful action begins with an idea. The architect, the composer, the author, the farmer, the coach – all begin their work with an idea. The history of ideas is rich. In fact, most of our history, in a way, is a history of ideas.
This topic does not belong at level 1. Few ideas, and none of the most creative ones, are generated at that level. On the contrary, the best ideas are at level 4: Einstein, for example, said that he had only two ideas in his life. They revolutionized physics. So I request your indulgence. This topic is out of order but it offers a rich history. Receive it, then, as a preview.
- Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud(Harper, 2005).
- Peter Watson, The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century (Harper, 2010).
- Peter Watson, The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century (HarperCollins 2001).
- Isaiah Berlin, The Power of Ideas (Princeton University Press, 2000).
- Isaiah Berlin, Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought (Chatto and Windus, 2006).
- Geoffrey J. Martin, All Possible Worlds: A History of Geographical Ideas(Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Mark Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
- Nancy Folbre, Greed, Lust & Gender: A History of Economic Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Donald R. Kelley, The Descent of Ideas: The History of Intellectual History(Ashgate, 2002).
- Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1995).
- Michael Ruse, ed., Philosophy After Darwin: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Princeton University Press, 2009).
- Franklin Le Van Baumer, Main Currents of Western Thought: Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present (Yale University Press, 1978).
- Charles van Doren, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future (Citadel, 1991).
- Jacob Bronowski and Bruce Mazlish, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel (Marboro Books, 1986).
- Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (Yale University Press, 1981).
- John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age (1926).
- Merle Goldman and Leo Ou-Fan Lee, eds., An Intellectual History of Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2002).
- Sheldon Pollock, ed., Forms of Knowledge in Early Modern Asia: Explorations in the Intellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500-1800 (Duke University Press Books, 2011).
- Andrew J. Nicholson, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (Columbia University Press, 2010).
- Shabnum Tejani, Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950 (Indiana University Press, 2008).
- Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition (Yale University Press, 1997).
- Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (Ballantine Books, 1993).
- T.Z. Lavine, From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest (Bantam Books, 1985).
- Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About Great Ideas: From the Great Books of Western Civilization (Open Court, 2000).
- Scott O. Lilenfeld and William T. O'Donohue, eds., The Great Ideas of Clinical Science: 17 Principles That Every Mental Health Professional Should Understand (Routledge, 2006).
- George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon Books, 2012): about John von Neumann, “who invented almost nothing, yet whose vision changed the world”, and others who midwifed the computer age.
- Randall Fuller, The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation (Viking, 2017): “His account of how Americans responded to the publication of Darwin’s great work in 1859 is organized as a series of lively and informative set pieces — dinners, conversations, lectures — with reactions to ‘On the Origin of Species’ usually (but not always) at the center.”
- Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (Penguin Press, 2011): Wood “went deep into primary materials and made an open-minded effort to understand the language and thought of 18th-century Americans in their own terms.”
- Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (Knopf, 2019): “ . . . Maoism was more than an amorphous idea, but a strategy pushed by China. It trained revolutionary leaders inside China, sent advisers abroad and delivered material support, from weapons to the black pajama-type uniforms of the Khmer Rouge — even portraits of Pol Pot. These are big, hefty chapters, making the book an indispensable guide to this vast movement.”
- Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age (Yale University Press, 2019) “ . . . brilliantly brings together the members’ voices. They air their opinions with the aplomb of thinkers who relish the English language, roll its tones and innuendos about their tongues and have the alertness to listen as well as speak.”
- George F. Will, The Conservative Sensibility (Hatchette Books, 2019): “Conservatism for Will is the defense of an a priori truth asserted as ‘self-evident’ by the founding fathers: that all men are created equal, and each has a “natural right” to do as he pleases with himself and his own property, and any government is tasked purely for the maintenance of such freedom.”
- Wolfram Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade that Reinvented Philosophy (Penguin Press, 2020), “begins in 1919 and ends in 1929, elegantly tracing the life and work of four figures who transformed philosophy in ways that were disparate and not infrequently at odds.”
- Katie Mack, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (Scribner, 2020): “Most of what astronomers know comes not from seeing but from deduction — complex ladders of logic, building upon one another.”
- Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “Richard Wagner: composer, conductor, dramatist, poet, polemicist, anarchist, Teutonic nationalist, anti-Semite, feminist, pacifist, vegetarian, animal rights activist — the man was the walking, talking definition of ‘protean genius.’ His life and his legacy was and remains to this day a continuum in which enchantment, even ravishment, comes hand in hand with provocation and controversy, adoration and loathing.”
- Zachary Carter, The Price of Peace: Money, Power, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes (Random House, 2020): “Ideas, no matter how abstract, always originate in lived experience. Carter situates the development of Keynes’s economic thought in relation to his social milieu.”
- Benjamin M. Friedman, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (Knopf, 2021): “What does an esoteric concept like Calvinist soteriology have to do with the rise of modern economics? Does laissez-faire have its roots in the arcane Quinquarticular Controversy? Can one find the origins of the welfare state in postmillennialist eschatology?”
- Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): the author’s “larger point, backed by a mountain of research and reams of thoughtful commentary, is that American culture ascended in this era for the right reasons: ‘Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.'”
- Gal Beckerman, The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas (Crown, 2022): “Radicals Used to Make Change. Then Social Media Happened.”
Ideas and the individual:
- Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987): “The book is propelled by Gornick’s attempts to extricate herself from the stifling sorrow of her home — first through sex and marriage, but later, and more reliably, through the life of the mind, the ‘glamorous company’ of ideas.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, 2012): the author takes on a Herculean task, probably one well beyond his reach, but at least he approaches the great question from a new angle.
- Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World (Princeton University Press, 2015): “The authors’ big four are Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and (a joint prize) Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The ideas are, of course, capitalism, socialism, evolution and liberal democracy.”
Documentary and Educational Films
Documentaries on philosophy and ideas:
- Various documentaries on the history of thought
- Histories of political thought
- Histories of Western thought
- Histories of
- Rothbard’s history of economic thought
- Richard Tarnas on Western thought: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3: “The Modern Worldview”, Part 4, Part 5.
- Quentin Skinner on the history of ideas
- Brief BBC videos on ideas in history
- “School of Life” history of ideas series
- “What is Intellectual History and Why Does It Matter?”
- Lucio Fontana, Concept Spatiale (1959)
- René Magritte, Clear Ideas (1958)
- Lucio Fontana, Concept Spatiale New York 10
- Salvador Dali, Surrealist Architecture (1932)
- René Magritte, The Cultivation of Ideas (1927)
- Mikalojus Ciulionas, The Thought (1904)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
On the power of ideas:
- Einar Englund, The Great Wall of China (1949) (approx. 20'): the work draws on oppression and tyranny in China. Max Frisch’s play, “The Chinese Wall” was the starting point. “The music, according to the composer, does not contribute to the satire of the theatrical play, but rather suggests, 'that no wall is strong enough to keep out ideas and influences.'” Eri Klas conducted the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance, in 1999.
Music history, like the history of any dynamic human endeavor, is in substantial part a history of ideas. Arnold Schoenberg’s music well represents the musical idea, in his development of the twelve-tone compositional method. Any number of other composers, or artists could be used equally well. His works include:
- 5 Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 (1909) (approx. 17’)
- Erwartung (Expectation), Op. 17 (1909) (approx. 28-31’)
- Dreimal sieben Gedichte aus Albert Girauds 'Pierrot lunaire' (Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s ‘Pierrot lunaire’), a/k/a Pierrot lunaire, Op. 21 (1912) (approx. 41-46’)
- Serenade for Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Mandolin, Guitar, Violin, Viola, Cello and a deep Male Voice, Op. 24 (1923) (approx. 32’)
- Suite for 2 Clarinets, Bass Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano, Op. 29 (1926) (approx. 22-30’)
- Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31 (1927) (approx. 22-23’)
- Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte, Op. 41 (1942) (approx. 15-16’)
Max Reger’s works for cello and piano, which, in addition to several short pieces, include:
- Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 5 (1892) (approx. 26-35’)
- Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 28 (1898) (approx. 22’)
- Cello Sonata No. 3 in F Major, Op. 78 (1904) (approx. 29’)
- Cello Sonata No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 116 (1910) (approx. 30’)
Works consisting of short pieces, little more than the germ of an idea:
- Charles Koechlin, 14 chants for flute & piano, Op. 157 (1936) (approx. 12’)
- Charles-Valentin Alkan, 48 Motifs (Esquisses), Op. 63 (1861) (approx. 120’)
- Georg Philipp Telemann, 100 Menuets, TWV 34:1-100 (1730) (approx. 134’)
- Alberto Ginastera, short piano pieces (approx. 108’)
- Gabriel Fauré, 8 Pièces Brèves, Op. 84 (1869-1902) (approx. 18-20’)
- Mieczysław Weinberg, 12 Miniatures for flute and string orchestra, Op. 29bis (1945/1983) (approx. 12’) (flute and piano)
- Anton Bruckner’s Symphony 0 in D Minor (1869) (approx. 44-45’) met with criticism that it lacked a main theme. In response, Bruckner declined to give it the status of a conventional number. Yet the work bears unmistakable imprints that would characterize Bruckner’s compositional career of nine conventionally numbered symphonies.
- Henri Dutilleux, Sur le meme accord (On Only One Chord) (2002) (approx. 8-9’): in this nocturne for violin and orchestra, the musical idea consists of six notes, which are developed in many expressions.
- Einar Englund, Symphony No. 6, "Aphorisms" (1984) (approx. 33’)
- Henry Purcell, 8 Suites for harpsichord (1696) (approx. 46’)
- Antonin Dvořák, Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66, B. 131 (1883) (approx. 12-13’)
- Robert Gibson: chamber musicKatherine Hoover: Piano works (approx. 72’)
- Idée Manu, “Oktopus: The Music of Boris Blacher” (2018) (44’) – though Blacher was not a jazz composer, apparently his musical ideas inspired this album.
- Simon Johnson, “B.A.C.H: Anatomy of a Motif” (2022) (135’): “Organist Simon Johnson presents this album as an exploration of the B-A-C-H motif in organ music, beginning with its appearance in 'The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080,' of Bach himself.”
- Bruce Wolosoff, “A Light in the Dark” (2013): “Bruce Wolosoff’s original score lends a once-upon-a-time melodic backdrop that evokes the gentility of late 19th-century society in the American South, yet supports the characters’ contrasting motifs with contemporary phrasing.”
- La Spagna, “Sopra La Spagna” (2021) (75’): an album of Renaissance and Baroque pieces, all based on the tune “La Spagna”
Histories of the development of musical forms:
- Daniel Saulnier, Gregorian Chant: A Guide to the History and Liturgy (Paraclete Press, 2009).
- Mark Everist, French Motets in the Thirteenth Century: Music, poetry and genre (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
- Suzanne Lord, (Greenwood, 2008).
- Roger Parker, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera (Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Donald Grout and Hermine Wiegel Williams, A Short History of Opera (Columbia University Press, 2003): its 1042 pages trace the development of the operatic form.
- Harold Owen, Modal and Tonal Counterpoint: From Josquin to Stravinsky (Schirmer, 1992).
- Douglass M. Green and Evan Jones, The Principles and Practice of Modal Counterpoint (Routledge, 2010).
- Gioseffo Zarlino, The Art of Counterpoint (DaCapo, 1982).
- Jean Philippe Rameau, Treatise on Harmony (1722).
- Richard Hudson, The Allemande, the Balletto, and the Tanz: volume 1, The History; volume 2, The Tanz (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
- Philip Ledger, The Oxford Book of English Madrigals (Oxford University Press, 1984).
- Alfred Dürr, The Cantatas of J.S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Eric Chafe, Analyzing Bach Cantatas (Oxford University Press, 2000).
- Michael Thomas Roeder, A History of the Concerto (Amadeus Press, 2003).
- Howard E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio, Volume 1: The Oratorio in the Baroque Era: Italy, Vienna, Paris (The University of North Carolina Press, 1977).
- Howard E. Smither, (The University of North Carolina Press, 1977).
- Howard E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio, Volume 3: The Oratorio in the Classical Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
- Howard E. Smither, A History of the Oratorio, Volume 4: The Oratorio in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (The University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
- Charles M. Joseph, Stravinsky and Balanchine: A Journey of Invention (Yale University Press, 2002).
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. [Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), Preface.]
Ideas in fiction:
- David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel (Random House, 2010): “If the book sounds dense, that’s because it is. It’s a novel of ideas, of longing, of good and evil and those who fall somewhere in between.”
- Matthew Carr, The Devils of Cardona: A Novel (Riverhead Books, 2016): “Belamar’s residents continue to observe and celebrate their Islamic faith in private while pretending to be Catholics in public. The Old Christians are suspicious of the New Christians, each side demonizing the other, resulting in frequent outbreaks of violence . . . ”
- Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me: A Novel (Nan A. Talese, 2019): “ . . . a sharply intelligent novel of ideas. McEwan’s writing about the creation of a robot’s personality allows him to speculate on the nature of personality, and thus humanity, in general.”
- Andrew Lipstein, Last Resort: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2022): “. . . a Writer Turns a Friend’s Story Into a Smash Success”.
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Franklin Jones”