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Doubt: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson [Paperback]

Jennifer Hecht
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 26 2004

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From Publishers Weekly

Cited midway through this magisterial book by Hecht (The End of the Soul), the Zen maxim "Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening" reveals that skepticism is the sine qua non of reflection, and discloses the centrality that doubt and disbelief have played in fueling intellectual discovery. Most scholarship focuses on the belief systems that have defined religious history while leaving doubters burnt along the wayside. Hecht's poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial, in terms of historical currents and individual wrestlings with the angel. Doubt is revealed to be the subtle stirring that has precipitated many of the more widely remembered innovations in politics, religion and science, such as medieval Jewish philosopher Gersonides's doubt of Ptolemaic cosmology 200-300 years before Copernicus, Kepler or Galileo. The breadth of this work is stunning in its coverage of nearly all extant written history. Hecht's exegesis traces doubt's meandering path from the fragments of pre-Socratics and early religious heretics in Asia, carefully elucidating the evolution of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism, through the intermingling of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought in the Middle Ages that is often left out of popular histories, to the preeminence of doubt in thrusting open the doors of modernity with the Cartesian "I am a thing... that doubts," ergo sum. Writing with acute sensitivity, Hecht draws the reader toward personal reflection on some of the most timeless questions ever posed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Let others admire cathedrals: poet and historian Hecht celebrates the creations of doubters. In this remarkably wide ranging history, Hecht recounts how doubters from Socrates to Wittgenstein have translated their misgivings about regnant orthodoxies into new philosophic insights and political horizons. Though she explores the skepticism of early Greek thinkers challenging pagan gods, the tantric doubts of Tibetan monks chanting their way to enlightenment, and the poetic unbelief of heretical Muslim poets, Hecht gives center stage to Christianity, the religion that made doubt newly visible--and subversive--by identifying faith (not law, morality, or ritual) as the very key to salvation. Readers witness the martyrdom of iconoclastic doubters such as Bruno, Dolet, and Vanini, but Hecht also illuminates the wrenching episodes of doubt in the lives of passionate believers, including Paul and Augustine. In Jesus' anguished utterances in Gethsemane and at Calvary, Hecht hears even Christ experiencing the agony of doubt. Indeed, Hecht's affinity for the doubters who have advanced secular democracy and modern art does not blind her to the hidden kinship between profound doubters and seminal believers: both have confronted the perplexing gap between human aspirations and their tragic contradictions. In her provocative conclusion, Hecht ponders the novelty of a global confrontation pitting America not against the state-sanctioned doubt of Soviet atheism but, rather, against a religious fundamentalism hostile to all doubt. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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When we look for doubt among the ancients, in the West we are going to find the most lively cases in the Hellenistic period-the few hundred years between the dominace of Classical Greece and that of Classical Rome. Read the first page
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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars teriffic! July 19 2004
This is a terrific book, whether for traditional believers or doubters. It shows that, despite the extreme polarization around matters of faith and belief, we're actually not in some dualism. Instead we're on a continuum of belief/faith and the book validates those who secretly or silently harbor doubts. Heart and mind, reason and belief must ultimately be reconciled inside each one of us or we have a shallow, untested faith.
The world is a hostile place for doubters or those with unconventional beliefs/faith. In public religious discourse these days, people get publicly shamed or humiliated for not having capital 'F' Faith, meaning a publicly identifiable faith.
But we all have to face these life questions and best to do it having read a book explicating the doubting side of the equation. I agree with Hecht that doubt (doubting, questioning, and discerning) helps us arrive at our own truth and own understanding (not some version of received wisdom). This is foundational to a life well lived.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Ronald W. Maron TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
If you have had 'doubt' about your religion, your faith or God in general and have felt that you are the only person who has experienced these thoughts, this is the book for you! For the past century we have had two camps that remain in total conflict; the religionists who fully believe in their version of holy scriptures and the materialists who feel that in order for reality to exist it must be scientifically measurable. You either belonged to one or the other, there was no room for doubt and agnosticism in between. One has to be chosen and their tenets committed to memory. This battle has been going on since the times of Socrates and Aristotle although the banners under which each side stood, over time, had a differing topic under which to stand. While the topics have changed, the conflict has remained the same.

There has been no room for true 'doubt' of either side. This book not only explores those who doubted but, in many cases, the tremendous cost they paid for doing so. The author begins with the gods of the Greek Pantheon and progresses all the way to present day Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. On the opposite side of these religious arguments lie the early philosophical arguments and latter day scientific findings that refute the existence of anything beyond our senses. The author, while maybe not meaning to do it, shows her emotional connection to studies as the text proceeds.

It is an enjoyable read that allows the reader to re-contact the doubts they have had on this journey called 'life'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doubt Is A Stone You Can Stand On. Nov. 15 2003
I've just stumbled upon this book by accident, and it is an astute and astuonding overview of *the* most important motive force in human adaptation to actuality that I've yet come across.
It's a book I wish I would have written, had I not been too lazy, preoccupied and too bloody busy with mundane things to. This is a Grand Synthesis in the best sense, performed with an historian's acuity and a poet's sensibility. This is the sort of thing you'll like, if you're the sort of person who likes this sort of thing. Read it, it's rather good.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The skeptics' tour Feb. 16 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A brilliant and lucid skeptics' tour of human thought and history. Just what the doctor ordered for naïveté and credulity.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great content; egregious errors Nov. 19 2003
A very interesting book, with great content, especially for those not more familiar with the history of doubt, above all in doubt in the East. I learned some new things about the East, such as the Carvaka of early Hinduism. I gained new insight on a few more familiar
faces from the West as well.
That said, I had a few minor comments or more serious concerns of different sorts.
1. Introduction, page xv. Hecht somewhat waves aside the arts in their attempts to deal with matters of "ultimate concern" and how they might fit in a history of doubt. She says "religion is more completely centered on contemplating the rupture -- perhaps it is because no end product (canvas, performance or text) is expected or construed as the central point of the adventure."
I would respectfully disagree. While a painting is a one-time work, it can instill different and ongoing reactions from repeated viewings. And music, theater, dance and film are all repeated works. I think of something like Bernstein's secular Mass, for example. Even literature can be approached from reader-response criticism. The arts are about the act of canvassing, performing or texting.
2. More serious complaint No. 1 -- Bad copyediting and/or bad writing. Example 1 -- "its" and "it's" being misused and confused. Happens more than once. Likewise, misplaced apostrophes with nouns ending in "s." The possessive of "Thales" is NOT "Thale's"; the possessive of "Rick Fields" is NOT "Field's." That too happens more than once. It happens enough it has to come from Hecht herself; or else, she knowingly let it slide. (I've worked as a proofreader for a book publisher; she would have gotten galleys with the incorrect usage, and should have seen it at least once.)
3. Page 467.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Mind expanding and fun June 9 2004
I loved this book. It is pretty long, and I spent about 6 weeks slowly working my way through it, looking forward to reading a little every night. The author is a very good writer. This might have been dry material in other hands, but Jennifer Hecht has a gift for language. I went to her web site and discovered she is also a poet.
I had no idea that there were so many doubters in so many
cultures over the last several thousand years. She starts
about 500BC and discusses the ancient Indians, Greeks, Chinese,
Japanese, continues through to the Moslems and Europeans of the
middle ages and all the way to current day Europeans and
It is interesting that the works of many of the great doubters
have been destroyed by the religious groups that held political
power in their day. We only know about many of them by the
books that criticized them, which represented the views of the
prevailing religious establishment and were naturally allowed
to survive. We know of the doubters during the Inquisition by
the records of the Inquisition itself, as they were trying and
often torturing these people. The actual writing of the
doubters of that time have been lost or destroyed.
The book taught me a lot. It gave me more than just a history
of doubt. It gave me a brief history of the growth and
evolution of philosophy in many major world cultures.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars relief
As a child I was forced to go to church by my parents. They didn't go them selves, except of course on holidays. There was a lot of Latin, sit, stand and kneeling. Read more
Published on June 5 2004 by twbanter
2.0 out of 5 stars A major disappointment
Know this: the book is not about doubt. It is about hostility to religious belief of any kind, but especially Christian belief. Read more
Published on June 1 2004 by Gregory Fink
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointingly Misleading
I bought Jennifer Hecht's book, Doubt, believing the book jacket's claim to be "a fascinating account of how Doubt has been a driving force in the intellectual and religious... Read more
Published on May 17 2004 by Tim Rauk
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Journey
I can't speak for typos, and know who Lyndon Johnson was - that was an error that should have been caught. Read more
Published on April 1 2004 by Mark P. Tokarski
5.0 out of 5 stars Dubito...
Doubt resurfacing in modern times hath wrought more in the way of liberating the human mind that millennia of faith--that much is clear, and this sea-breeze account of its history... Read more
Published on Feb. 23 2004 by John C. Landon
5.0 out of 5 stars What you need to know...
Amazing... in one book, the wealth of history to confirm the doubter's faith. I started to dog-ear the important pages, but it became difficult to close the book (which was hard... Read more
Published on Dec 22 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and Amazing!
This book is a must-read! My sister gave it to me and now I'm giving it to several people for Christmas. I couldn't put it down! Read more
Published on Dec 1 2003
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