©2003 Jennifer Michael Hecht; (P)2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
"A bold and brilliant work and (lucky us) highly readable, thanks to the elegant and witty author." (Garrison Keillor)
"A magisterial book...Hecht's poetical prose beautifully dramatizes the struggle between belief and denial...The breadth of this work is stunning." (Publishers Weekly)
But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - J.D. Salinger ^(;,;)^
Hecht's historical survey of doubt is a lot of things and seems to do them all very well. It is a defense of doubt, a survey of doubt, a biography of doubters, a family tree of doubt's relatives. It looks at doubt both from within and external to belief. It examines the motives and believers and gives each its appropriate due.
I found the book to be highly readable. Strange to say, it was almost TOO readable. I felt myself slipping through the pages/listening to the narration* almost too fast. It has given me a whole new group of thinkers and philosophers to examine. I was very familiar with many of the doubters in Western and Classical traditions, but Hecht gave me a whole new group of Eastern, Jewish and Muslim doubters to get to know. Plus, even with those nonbelievers & skeptics I was familiar with (Lucretius, Montaigne, Spinoza, Cicero, Epicurus, Pliny, Gibbon, Paine, Jefferson, Bruno, etc.) she gave me whole new approaches and windows to see them through.
Finally, Hecht also found an appropriate way to thread the Book of Job writer, Jesus, Buddha, Qohelet (wrote Ecclesiastes), etc., into the framework of doubt. I think the book would have been crippled without it. Finally, she didn't avoid the negative, state-sponsored doubt period (Fascism, Communism) of the 20th century. Not all doubters do good things. Anyway, it was worth the money and the time for sure and will be re-read in the future.
* If you listen, I'd still get a hard copy. It is worth it just for the bibliography. You are going to want to be able to dig deeper on at least half a dozen of the men, women, skeptics and doubters she mentions.
l'enfer c'est les autres
When one has certainty, there is no more room for further knowledge or understanding. Science and Reason never prove, at the most they can just show things to be less false than other things. There is a long history of people who haven't been certain and their story makes for a much more interesting revealing of human history than the ones who pretend to have no doubt.
There are two recurring characters in this marvelous book about doubters throughout history, the Stoic, Cicero and his "On the Nature of the Gods", and the Epicurean, Lucretius, and his "On the Nature of Things". Both get major play in this book, firstly when they are introduced and secondly they keep popping up through the rest of the story because their influence with latter sages has been immense.
Survey of philosophy books with their chronological presentation can often be dull since they lack a narrative to tie the story together. This book gives that necessary narrative and gives the listener a thread to understand the connections while telling a good story that includes snippets of world history, religion and summaries of what great doubters thought throughout the ages.
The author gives enough of the major points and sometimes long quotations from the primary sources to make the book or person under consideration come alive and make the listener feel as if he understands the person who wrote it. For example, I now realize why I enjoy the book of Ecclesiastics so much more than any of the other books in the Bible (it's mostly a Epicurean type polemic on the meaning of life). Her considered amount of time she spends quoting Marcus Aurelius is well worth it for the listener. I've never found anyone who I tend to agree more with and would strongly recommend his "Meditations" which is available at audible, but it might not be necessary to read it if you listen to this book instead.
The other thing to like about this book: she does not ignore the East at all. She gives them equal weight to the West throughout the text. Eastern Religions are fully explored since there is a much richer tradition of not being certain, "the more you doubt, the more you understand" would be a typical Eastern religion answer to the refutation of the certainty found in revealed religions.
Overall, this book gives a great survey of doubt throughout the ages, with many synopsizes of great thinkers, and all within an overriding narrative tying all the pieces together. I would recommend this book for anyone who does not like to "pretend to know things that they do not know", and wants to understand the firm foundation that entails.
*Because I said so,* cost me years of knowledge as a curious child in the world of adults. This was especially frustrating in the realm of religion (thanks to the Apostle Thomas, who bestowed upon the word DOUBT it's negative connotation) where we were thusly taught that "Faith is a higher faculty than Reason." From experience I can testify that "Why?" isn't received well as a response to that inspirational quote -- meant to drop the mic on the religious lesson, not encourage discussion.
My incessant childhood questions were my accusers -- I must not posses that *higher faculty.* Oh ye little one of little faith was tough to bear in an obedient community where church and commerce were one tightly woven cloth. Not until a couple years of college philosophy did I realize that there is a limit to our current knowledge that we fill with cultural beliefs, speculation, and philosophies. The WHY points to a gap in our current knowledge and doubt is what often fuels exploration. Imagine how happy I was to see this book with this title that praises knowledge and innovation attained through doubt! I wish that I had come across this book years ago -- but I didn't, so I'd like to tell you why you should take the plunge. Hecht, with wisdom, removes the taint from Doubt. She gives it intellectual respectability and ties it to the worthwhile pursuit of knowledge.
Typically, people who study a lot of philosophy are rather condescending. Studying just the basics: Sartre, Derrida, Kafka, Nietzche, Voltaire, Kant, Descartes, initially makes them feel sure they have the answers to the great secrets of the universe that no one else could possibly understand; that they are standing on the shoulders of those giants themselves, armed for the debate and waiting for sheep without ears, and melting pieces of wax honeycomb. Such confidence quickly dissolves when they see that those shoulders are actually just the tips of the icebergs of Philosophies pondered since the Pre-Socratics, still to be humbly learned.
Men considered great thinkers, such as Carl Jung, (who said he didn't believe in God, he knew God exists) and Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins (who said he is not "sure" there is no God; he is just as sure that there is no tooth fairy) argue their opposing points equally well and better than most of us could with years of study. Doubt: A History will not give you any such certainty, but it will enlarge your arsenal, and commitment to continuing your path to knowledge. Hecht manages to include an impressive worldwide sweep of philosophies, progressively or chronologically outlined briefly and succinctly enough to keep your interest, with the major points distinguishing each *philosophy* or school of thought. What she includes and condenses so well is a great review if you've studied some philosophy previously, or if you intend on pursuing that field of study it would be an advantageous introduction that would put any beginning student of philosophy at the head of the class. Most importantly it will encourage the why and the doubt. * A longtime fan of William Blake's texts, poems and Illustrations of the Book of Job, I particularly enjoyed Hecht's section on Job. (Job's God scares me.)
My first and favorite philosophy teacher (and subsequently professor for Critical Reasoning; Existentialism, Political Philosophy, Phil. of Law, etc. for a couple of yrs.) inspired in his students the pursuit of truth, belief and knowledge (I wasn't one of his success stories). He passed out this quote the first day of class:
"A carving is made at the expense of all the stone that is thrown away.
What did our beliefs compels us to discard on our way to revealing our
image of what knowledge looks like?"
Hecht's exploration of doubt has us considering those pieces of stone, questioning what Montaigne called common opinions and popular vote vs. knowledge.
If you never went through a cavalcade of studying the works of people who called b!?&sh@/ on religion, then this is the book for you. What a great education in the scope of these works. I really felt grounded around the issue of doubt through time as a result of reading it. It also upset me in that I was left with an overall feeling of hopelessness of safe coexistence with religion. Religion seems to come back with a vengeance and kill off or at least destroy the careers of people who say "No" to the delusions of its unvalidated precepts. It seems as though doubting ends up being a game of Whack-a-Mole.
This is a history book. And though more entertaining than a typical history book, it is still a history book. That being said, it should be on every humanists digital bookcase. While Dawkins and Hitchens have provided you a reason to question your faith, Doubt: Gives you the history of brilliant people who have sought the answers before you. I find myself reliably returning to this book, and most certainly will for a long time.
It got off to a bit of an uneven start, but soon I found myself completely engrossed. As a long time nonbeliever I found it inspiring to learn about the thoughts and fates of people like myself over the millennia.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I'm a regular listener to Reasonable Doubts and Skeptics Guide, and this book provides a wealth of detail to fill in background on a broad range of topics as well as giving a complete overview of Doubt through history.
I like to read/listen to history books. Intellectual and medical history especially.
Bought this in audio and print. Read it twice, something I seldom do. The narrator sounds a little mechanical at times, but still does a very good job.
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