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Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 [Hardcover]

Charles Murray
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 9 2003

A panoramic survey of human excellence.

"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things....Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them."

So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that rarely have been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences -- a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence.

The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.

Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions: Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? 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, humbling, and fascinating, Human Accomplishment is a brilliant 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.

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From Publishers Weekly

Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Achievements that require mental and spiritual effort are the highest forms of human endeavor, Murray says. He has scanned the most reputable biographical dictionaries and histories of the arts, philosophy, and sciences to find who and what, during 800 B.C.-1950, are mentioned in them. He came up with 4,139 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. This book probably won't get Murray in as much hot water as The Bell Curve (1994) did. Then again, with its speculations that the rate of great achievements has slowed since 1800 and that the arts are in a very bad way, maybe it will. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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"Before human accomplishment could begin, we had first of all to become human." Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charles Murray's Super Human Accomplishment Oct. 21 2003
Once a decade, Charles Murray drops a bombshell book on American intellectual life.
In 1984, it was his devastating assessment of welfare programs, "Losing Ground," which helped inspire the famous 1996 welfare reform act.
In 1994, Murray coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein the enormous bestseller "The Bell Curve." It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.
Now, after a half-decade of work, Murray, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is back with another massive book, 688 pages full of graphs and tables. "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950" (HarperCollins, $29.95) is a fascinating attempt to rank the 4,000 most important artists and scientists in human history.
Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.
Murray took some time to discuss "Human Accomplishment" with me.
Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?
A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.
In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Take a breath Dec 16 2003
The other day Charles Murray said "Good morning." His Pavlovian critics typed for a month.
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Murray (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.) offers a detailed survey of human excellence, from the time of Homer to the mid-20th century. He examines who these contributors were; which are most significant and why; how human accomplishment has been distributed and has shifted across the centuries, around the world, within Europe and the U.S.; what characterizes the great accomplishments; the roles of basic economic, political, and demographic factors; to what extent streams of accomplishment are self-reinforcing; what initiatives such streams; and prospects for future human accomplishments.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly unsurprising March 17 2004
Charles Murray presents three questions in this book. First, can historiometric techniques be used to produce a survey of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences over time and across cultures? Second, are there any obvious patterns in the data? And third, why are those patterns present?
The answer to the first question is certainly "yes". Murray uses the extent of coverage of scientists and artists in standard reference works on each field that he investigates. Basically he counts the number of times figures are mentioned and the amount of space their work is given. He makes a heroic effort to ensure that the results are not skewed by reliance on single works or works in a single language. His inventories include: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine, technology, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, western philosophy, western music, Chinese painting, Japanese art, western art, Arabic literature, Chinese literature, Indian literature, Japanese literature, and western literature.
While many may deride this methodology as bunk, the surprising thing is that the listings "look right". Who will argue that Galileo and Kepler do not belong at the top of the astronomy list, that Newton and Einstein do not belong at the top in physics, or that Shakespeare and Goethe should be lower on the western literature list? We may quibble about minor differences in rankings, but few would assert that obviously significant figures have been completely misplaced.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's a joy to see what humans can accomplish March 1 2004
This is a great book to poke around in. Of the Indians Murray cites, I'd only read Kautilya.
Why do musicians rank Wagner's dull crap so high?
Was the Catholic 'organum' method of singing prayers a joke on Aristotle's book on logic, or (massive anachronism, but Greeks sang too) the other way around?

Poke, poke.
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3.0 out of 5 stars hate of religion caused our progress Feb. 19 2004
By A Customer
the writings of nietzsche attribute human achievement to the breaking-away from societal constraints BY "uebermensch" - supermen. in nietzsche's view, achievement is due to those who can defy and innovate on what society expects. compare galileo to st augustine, for example. if galileo was not skeptical of the church's doctrines, we'd probably still not have spacecraft. i believe the basic claim he is making, viz., that the west has achieved the most, culturally, is NOT because it has protestant christianity (think of michelangelo and leonardo da vinci and plato!) - rather, i believe it is because christianity was so repulsive to intelligent persons that they strove to __defeat__ it by examining nature. now that christianity is defeated, in other words, now that secularism, capitalism, and free speech, are the moral norms, naturally, the scientists no longer have a serious real enemy, so they have slackened off.
furthermore, i believe that there are too many scientists now; in the nineteenth century, only an elite of rich "gentlemen" could afford to study science. now everyone does. so there are more monkeys looking at the same data and writing the same stuff.
hence less progress and more nitpicking about details of standard
ideas. if one reads thomas kuhn's work - the structure of scientific revolutions - one sees that science progresses in bursts where a genius steps forward to make a change. but what, actually, is left for science to do? cure aids? cure cancer? get to mars? get close-to-lightspeed space travel? and what else? not much. i conclude that science is slowing down because it's done its job.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars quick ? for "Neglects Cambodians!"
This made me very curious to learn more about that Cambodian survey of human accomplishment from 1100AD. Read more
Published on June 5 2004 by REinDC
1.0 out of 5 stars Neglects Cambodians!
Around 1100 AD, a Cambodian nobleman sat down in his study at Angkor Wat and decided to write a survey of human accomplishment. Read more
Published on March 16 2004 by Marion Bradley
2.0 out of 5 stars Strange book!
Charles Murray wrote a brilliant book called "Losing Ground," and co-authored a highly controversial book, "The Bell Curve. Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2004 by Geoff Puterbaugh
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Outstanding Thesis
Read it and weep, social "scientists." This is another terrific text by Murray that thoughtfully and systematically supports one undeniable fact: Virtually every... Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Failure
This is an interesting attempt to document the historical trajectory of human creativity/accomplishment. Read more
Published on Jan. 28 2004 by R. Albin
4.0 out of 5 stars Valid Attempt
Charles Murray is a controversy writer, ever since his "Bell Curve" it has been obvious that he poses convictions (or maybe prejudices) that moves him. Read more
Published on Jan. 27 2004 by Sergio A. Salazar Lozano
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed attempted to measure accomplishment
Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment was a disappointment. I saw Charles Murray speak on c-span promoting this book and was interested. Read more
Published on Jan. 24 2004 by "cjkhum"
3.0 out of 5 stars Doctoral Dissertation That Needs Revision
If you have done little reading or thinking about human excellence in arts and sciences, this would be a good introductory book to get a sense of the outlines and a perspective on... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2004 by Steve Booth-Butterfield
1.0 out of 5 stars Poppycock!
It's easy to dismiss this kind of book as another racist attack; and coming from Charles Murray, such a charge might be considered appropriate. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2004 by Mark M. Newdick
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