Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 Hardcover – Nov 2003
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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.
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
Top Customer Reviews
Read it. Study it. Pass it along to your kids.
While the overwhelming majority of these are men, he takes feminist concerns seriously and goes to great lengths to present both social and biological explanations for the underrepresentation of women. He also discusses the acheivements of other cultures with fair-mindedness, pointing out where, when and in what way other civlizations surpassed our own while unflinchingly exploring the reasons behind the overwhelming dominance of Westerners in the arts and sciences from 1400 on. To accuse him, as some will, of chauvinism and ethnocentricism is grossly unfair, as any open-minded person who reads this book must concede.
Truly, this is an excellent and important work which lives up to its incredible ambition. Buy it now.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Human Accomplishment sets out to demolish one large, stupid idea that has society in its firm grip: that artistic and scientific accomplishment have been equally demonstrated and... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
This made me very curious to learn more about that Cambodian survey of human accomplishment from 1100AD. Read morePublished on June 5 2004 by REinDC
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. Read morePublished on April 15 2004 by B. Viberg
Around 1100 AD, a Cambodian nobleman sat down in his study at Angkor Wat and decided to write a survey of human accomplishment. Read morePublished on March 16 2004 by Marion Bradley
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? Read more
the writings of nietzsche attribute human achievement to the breaking-away from societal constraints BY "uebermensch" - supermen. Read morePublished on Feb. 19 2004
Charles Murray wrote a brilliant book called "Losing Ground," and co-authored a highly controversial book, "The Bell Curve. Read morePublished on Feb. 12 2004 by Geoff Puterbaugh
This is an interesting attempt to document the historical trajectory of human creativity/accomplishment. Read morePublished on Jan. 28 2004 by R. Albin
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 morePublished on Jan. 27 2004 by Sergio A. Salazar Lozano