Peter Watson is renowned for his work on the history of ideas and is also an intellectual historian, author and former journalist. Watson was born in 1943 during an air raid in a town just outside of London. He attended universities in Durham, London and Rome. Over the years he has worked for many American and British newspapers.
His numerous books range from history to crime novels. The abundant amount of books include The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century; The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century; The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New; The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities—From Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums (co-authored with Cecilia Todeschini); Capo; War on the Mind: The Military Uses and Abuses Psychology; The Nazi’s Wife; Landscape of Lies (Felony and Mayhem Mysteries); From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market; Sotheby’s: The Inside Story; The Caravaggio Conspiracy; The Death of Hitler: The Full Story with New Evidence from Secret Russian Archives; Terrible Beauty; Nureyev: A Biography; Wisdom and Strength; Psychology and Race; Twins: An Uncanny Relationship; Stones of Treason; Crusade; and Double Dealer: The John Blake Conspiracy. His most current book,released in 2012,is The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New. However, the most notable and inspirational to us is Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud.
In that book, Watson’s overall theme stems from ideas. He elaborates on medieval Europe, how they used concepts that were generated long before their time, and turned them into better more functional ideas. He purports, “The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a hinge period, when the great European acceleration began. From then on, the history of new ideas happened mainly in what we now call the West.” Ideas starts in Africa and then spirals around the world to include philosophies from the Mesopotamians, Romans, Greeks, Hindus, Chinese, Israelites, Muslims and Christians and then remains focused on the antiquity of Europe. Watson labels scientific method as “the purest form of democracy there is.” HarperCollins best describes Ideas as a “stimulating history of ideas from deep antiquity to the present day—from the invention of writing, mathematics, science, and philosophy to the rise of such concepts as the law, sacrifice, democracy, and the soul. It offers an illuminated path to a greater understanding of our world and ourselves.”
In October 2006, the conference The Enchantment of Ideas: A Discussion with Dr. Bill Bryson, Dr. Matt Ridley and Mr. Peter Watson was held at Durham University; Watson was a panel member. The main question, “Are you enchanted by ideas? And if you are what are they?” Watson replied, “There are two ways to me in which ideas are enchanting—if you write about regular history, which is about battles, reigns of kings and queens, political treaties and so forth, the books would be different but would include vast amounts of the same material pretty much in the same order. Whereas when I started A History of Ideas I wondered about what the definition of ideas might be … Rather than set out on that way by reading I looked out about what other people had done and this I think moves my point forward.” Additionally, Watson gave examples on three important ideas in history saying that Francis Bacon thought the three most important ideas in history, were printing, gun powder and the magnet, whereas, Thomas Carlisle overlapped with printing and gun powder but thought the Protestant religion was the third most important.
When talking about Ideas, Watson explains that his book was written based on two ideas. The first idea is the soul and the experiment. “It seems to me that most religions have a concept of the soul, which is that it is insubstantial and survives death, but equally important is this idea. In the medieval times they called it Holoplex—which means there is a different self, very often a better and higher self. It seems to me that the technology of the soul—confession, prayer, the institutions of purgatory, and limbo enabled the Church to keep control and kept man’s focus inside himself rather than outside. This is of course what happened with the advent of the experiment to eventually not just become a method but a rival form of authority.”
The second notion is the idea of tractual entrapment through observation. “Through experiment what I found in response to my book is that people loved the links and connections. An early one, for instance, was Galileo with the improved telescope studying four moons orbiting Jupiter. Just as Copernicus had said the Earth was orbiting the sun decades before. Similarly Neils Bohr spotted, before the war, the configuration of the atom and helped explain the differences and links the differences between chemistry and physics.” Additionally, he goes on to discuss the fascination of overlap. “The Earth has developed great similarities, findings, overlaps of the findings of genetics, linguistics and archaeology. They’re all coming together as if they’re telling the same reality, and that for me is utterly enchanting.”
The works of Peter Watson will most certainly extend beyond his years for future generations to continue to be inspired by his thoughts and intelligence.