Summary: a wide-ranging intellectual history of the world that prioritizes ideas over a simple catalogue of thinkers and texts. The author makes the persuasive case that ideas drive history and that much of what we believe is the result of the intellectual work of others—whether or not we’re aware of the origins of those ideas. To truly become an independent thinker, and to fully comprehend our collective history, requires understanding and grappling with the intellectual currents that made the modern world. While the book is mostly objective, the author does fail to recognize the epistemological conflict between religion and science, downplays the danger and divisiveness of faith in politics, ignores the moral element of science, and mischaracterizes atheism as “just another religion” while minimizing the importance of secular moral philosophy.
In The Ideas That Made America, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen provides a brief intellectual history of the United States from the first European contact to the present day, focusing on the movement of ideas across national and local borders and across time. Recognizing that new ideas are always dependent on the intellectual work of those who came before, Rosenhagen includes many of the European ideas that had a major impact on American intellectual life.
To summarize centuries of intellectual work in a short book of 180 pages is no easy task, but Rosenhagen does a reasonable job of presenting the major intellectual currents of each period. It’s well worth reading to get a high-level view of where our current ideas and conflicts originated.
There are several histories of philosophy available, and I’ve included five that I consider to be the best, in addition to Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, at the end of this post.
But Russell’s history stands apart from the others in three respects worth mentioning. First, it covers more general history than most books, which is necessary to fully understand the philosophers and the context in which they were writing. Second, Russell doesn’t just present the views of the various philosophers, but rather provides his interpretations and critiques of their various positions. And third, the depth of analysis is far greater than from other authors.