To imagine—to see what is not there—is the startling ability that has fueled human development and innovation through the centuries. As a species we stand alone in our remarkable capacity to refashion the world after the picture in our minds. Traversing the realms of science, politics, religion, culture, philosophy, and history, Felipe Fernández-Armesto reveals the thrilling and disquieting tales of our imaginative leaps—from the first Homo sapiens to the present day.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a big-canvas historian...and he’s sticking with the broad-brush approach in his latest ... The book is, in fact, a very useful crib of the intellectual history of the West — mostly dead white males then — though [Fernández-Armesto] does roam further afield at intervals and is at pains to express the debt Europe owes to China for some of its most important technological innovations. His section on Mao, incidentally, is admirably savage ... What we get here is an urbane and civilised observer, broad in his sympathies, mildly distrustful of religion, very distrustful of certainties and enthusiastic about pluralism. You may not always agree with him, but he’s very good company.
My highlighted passages average about one on every four of his nearly 500pages. Fernández-Armesto combines a knack for aphorism with a hunch for speculation ... His prose sustains a reflective style. He rarely intersperses first-person intrusions, but his tone and gaze stay steady ... Necessarily brisk, Fernández-Armesto must pace himself as he crams so much into relatively so small a space. He pivots from taboos about food and sex, fundamentals of materialism and 'semblance', into agriculture...then to labor massed under tyranny. He conflates massacre with radical utopianism, shows how rulers concocted 'elaborate justifications for making others toil', and avers how 'imperialism suited monism' ...This professor distrusts visionaries, who promise perfection ... It's a testament to the care with which Out of Our Minds has been composed that, as Fernández-Armesto edges into our tumultuous era of Brexit, Trump, Catalonian unrest and Venezuelan implosion, he remains collected and measured in his judgments.
[Fernández-Armesto's] new book...is an effort to bring the methods of Big History to bear on the history of ideas ... ... Out of Our Minds is an oddly indeterminate book. Its author often sounds like a half- redundant humanist struggling to ingratiate himself with the new bosses. He deploys plenty of brain science, socio-biology, and the like, but the humanist breaks through, and regularly deflates the overbearing self- assurance of these disciplines. Fernández- Armesto acknowledges the outstanding intellectual particularities of the human species, hesitates to reduce these to mere evolutionary adaptations, and thus risks condemnation for the heresy of 'anthropocentrism'. But it is this nonconformity that saves his book ... He presents the intellectual achievements of premodern humanity with open-minded regard, and his book thus has a (small c) conservative tone. A great deal of Big History is marked by anti-humanistic (and anti-religious) propensities, by a cheerless desire to drain any existential awe from the cognitive experience of being a human. Fernández- Armesto is admirably incapable of playing that dreary game.