Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Charles Murray has an admirable penchant for tackling very ambitious topics, and, in the process, raising challenging questions.
Those qualities are evident even in a book as comprehensively wrong-headed as Human Accomplishment:. The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, b. First, Murray seeks to identify the key innovations and accomplishments in human history, ranging widely over the arts, literature, and the sciences. He then identifies the key individuals associated with these giant accomplishments. His book is thus an exercise in historiometry, a word with a good Victorian pedigree, and a concept that he suggests is ripe for revival.
Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, stimulates notions such as vocation and duty, encourages purposeful activity, and fosters a belief in autonomous efficacy. But they do explain a lot. Equally powerful are the implications for education, in reasserting the centrality of Western Civilization and its religious core. It is almost a manifesto for a Great Books curriculum. The problem comes when Murray tries to ground his views in a social-scientific approach, and indeed, one that is presented so confidently that unwitting readers might be tempted to accept it as authoritative.
Murray finds these names through an impressive array of standard works of reference, drawn from several nations and languages, and from a broad span of time. According to Murray, these methods give a firm quantitative basis to assertions that Shakespeare, Darwin, and Einstein are not just eminent figures, but excellent ones, leaders of human accomplishment. Such quantification gives the impression that a social-scientific process is under way, as it may well be, though just what is being measured is open to serious debate. Murray believes that his tables measure the historical significance of individuals, their excellence; but a fundamental doctrine in social science is that a theory can scarcely be regarded as credible if one can find a completely different explanation that accounts at least as well for the observed data.
Doing science is about testing and eliminating rival hypotheses. Let me now offer such a rival explanation for the numbers that are offered in the pages of Human Accomplishment. The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions. Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously.
Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good. Paperback , pages. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Human Accomplishment , please sign up. Lists with This Book. Aug 23, Todd N rated it it was amazing.
Even better, the book was really cheap and signed by the author. The person to whom the book was inscribed took a black marker and violently scribbled out their name, further endearing the book to me. I am old enough to remember when rock and roll writing, while not great by any means, at least wasn't link bait. I'm not sure how to rate it other than to give it high markings for effort.
Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
I finally decided to go with 4 stars plus a bonus star for being the only history book I've read that contains an explanation of what a p-value is. Apparently there is an entire field called histriometrics, but I've never heard of it.
Murray does is boil down human accomplishment humankind's resume, he calls it at one point into a series of graphs and tables. To figure out who these significant figures are, he counts the column inches of a bunch of references for different fields like science, math, literature, and ranks people by how much they are written about.
The period covered is BC to AD, or to as he prefers to write. This reminds me more than a little of Google's infamous PageRank algorithm in which links to a web page can boost its "authority. Murray is on to something here or the writers of reference books are copying off of each other. Murray goes stats crazy and starts figuring out what historical factors can contribute to the rise of a da Vinci, Edison, or Euler. He checks things like war slightly positive correlation , GDP strongly positive , oppressiveness of government depends -- if the government is oppressing peasants but not artists, no effect; if the government is oppressing everyone, strongly negative correlation.
Some results are very interesting, such as the positive correlation of growing up in an urban area and the positive correlation of having a large number of significant people in the previous generation. He also lays out the significant contributions on a map, which shows that it is a small triangular part of Europe that is responsible for most of the accomplishments listed in the book.
America is definitely a late bloomer in this area. And of course the Sahara Of The Bozarts has nothing to contribute. Also tucked into the book is a neat primer on statistics and an interesting but quick take on the history of civilization. As seems to be the case with Mr. Murray's books we get into some uncomfortable areas.
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For example, how come all these great people are mostly white, mostly dead, and mostly European? China, Japan, and India get their own indexes for arts, though. It turns out that we can thank Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas for this. Aristotle gave us a definition of happiness as applying your senses to the fullest, and Aquinas gave us the okay from God that it won't annoy Him if you use the reason that He gave you to its fullest extent.
The priests might burn you alive in His name though, by the way. Follow this reasoning, then maybe he should have included St. Francis of Assisi who brought the natural world back into the Church? The last few chapters have to do with decline, because one of the best parts of being old is getting to say how crappy everything is now compared to when people wore onions on their belts as was the fashion back then. The gist of our decline is two fold: Our culture has taken a nihilistic turn, which robs us of the important inspiration of feeling there is a purpose in one's life and by extension one's work.
We have largely abandoned the idea of an absolute good, truth, or beauty. As a result, we are doomed henceforth to create shallow and inconsequential art, no matter how clever it might be. Think Sistine Chapel vs.
HUMAN ACCOMPLISHMENT: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 B.C. to 1950
Simpsons; A Modest Proposal vs. I was captivated by the utter weirdness of this book. It seemed so wrong, yet it felt so right to read. I'm still not quite sure how it went from Excel tables to bar charts to Aristotle's theory of happiness, but I'm glad it did. Cody's Books, includes a web site address and the 4th St. Jan 02, Kristian rated it really liked it.
This is no light reading or a pop history book. It is, at times, very much like reading a college text book. Along with anecdotes Murray fills the book with statistics, references, theories, and in-depth qualitative and quantitative analysis. But over the top of all of this is a wonderful story of Human Accomplishment, when accomplishment happened, and why it happened.
Murray approaches the writing of Human Accomplishment much like one the writing of a resume. What, in our history are we most pr This is no light reading or a pop history book. What, in our history are we most proud of. What have we, as a species, accomplished that fundamentally advanced us as a species. Murray looks as Human Accomplishment starting at bc and going up to He picks as that is when records begin to be most reliable. He does talk about accomplishments prior to but does not include them in his statistical analysis.
A few items I learned from the book were: A] How precious genius really is and how incredibly difficult it is to accomplish anything noteworthy. By noteworthy I mean discovering or creating something that people will be talking about hundreds if not thousands of years later. Murray talks about how great accomplishments are distributed on a Lotka Curve rather than a Bell Curve. B] How awesome Europe is.
The explosion of ideas, discoveries, creations, etc. No where else and at no other time did one small part of the world produce so much genius. These four countries are largely responsible for the way the world is today. C] How the Catholic Church gets a bit of a bum wrap. Since I was young I have been told that faith and science are not compatible. I would hear stories of how the Catholic church would round up scientists who produced work that challenged the church's teachings.
A favorite story is that of Galileo. While there is no doubt this happened they are only a very small part of the story. The church, most notably articulated by Thomas Aquinas argued that human intellect was a gift from God and that to glorify God one should use ones intellect to uncover the mysteries of God and to create beautiful works of art. The adoption of this way of thinking permeated a whole continent and was one of the leading factors of the European genius explosion.
The church very much created an environment where scientific and artistic discovery could take place on an astonishing scale. While some previous cultures most notably the Greeks and Romans and to a lesser extent Egyptians and Chinese did have cultures that promoted discovery it was not on the same level as what happened in Europe around D] The world is currently experiencing a decline in significant discoveries.
While we are in a glorious age where new inventions seem to happen on a daily basis these inventions are based upon previously discovered truths. The discovery of new ways of thinking and new truths has been declining for the last years. All in all I recommend this book. It is an academic and at times challenging read. It is very thorough and well researched. Murray does a good job at stating his arguments and backing up those arguments with a mountain of data.
However, if you so choose to read the book you will gain a greater appreciation of the rarity of genius and have a much greater understanding of world accomplishment. Charles Murray surveys a very large topic and provides both direction and structure for it. The immensity of his work is difficult to appreciate for he ranks the leading 4, innovators in several fields of human accomplishment from BC to The categories of human accomplishment where significant figures are ranked in the book are as follows: In reviewing the accomplishments in these categories he argued, based on Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, that innovation is increased by beliefs that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose; by beliefs about transcendental goods and a sense of goodness, truth and beauty; and by beliefs that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals, and a culture that enables them to do so.
I found that he answered my questions as they arose during my reading and he dealt effectively with issues like the prominence of the West, the predominance of men, and others. The most satisfying sections for me were his discussion of the importance of Aristotle and his summation. The result of Murray's efforts is a worthy assay of human excellence throughout history. Mar 25, Nick rated it it was amazing.
Human Accomplishment is an excellent book, my favorite Charles Murray book so far because of its great reach and also because it's a joy to read, as a compendium of actual human accomplishment. The purpose of Human Accomplishment is twofold: The prevailing view increasingly since the latter twentieth centu Human Accomplishment is an excellent book, my favorite Charles Murray book so far because of its great reach and also because it's a joy to read, as a compendium of actual human accomplishment. The prevailing view increasingly since the latter twentieth century has been that taste is subjective, according to the eye of the beholder, and relative to different social standards.
The aesthetic standards widespread today are the result of Eurocentrism, the tendency to evaluate the world through European, and particularly male, expectations and standards. This allegedly has meant that the contributions of other peoples including women have been ignored or discounted, even on an unconscious level. Or for the most part they have simply been precluded from contributions to human accomplishment. This view is bolstered by our own changing social standards which inspire us to go back and revise history.
This is all malarkey to Charles Murray. There are objective measures of accomplishment, because first of all there are useful and meaningful standards of truth and taste. He came up with 4, persons and a list of events and ponders 20 persons in each of nine scientific, three philosophic, and nine artistic fields who were most extensively covered in the resources.
More than 80 percent are "dead white males," and Murray carefully examines why. The greatest achievements of India, China, Japan, and Islam occurred well before the West took off during the Renaissance, and each of those cultures valued duty, family, and consensus, whereas the West prefers individualism, the sine qua non of scientific debate and discovery.
Further, the scientific method was a set of Western "meta-inventions" Murray's term that arose, fortunately, simultaneously with the ratification of Thomism, with its dual emphasis on faith and reason, by the most important cultural force in the West, the Roman Catholic Church. Of overarching importance to great achievements in any culture, Murray argues, are the sense that life has purpose and belief in ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Print Hardcover and Paperback. Heinrich Wilhelm Matthias Olbers. Jan Baptist van Helmont.