A valuable civic exercise that invites “thinking about thinking.”



A historian delves into “some of the most compelling episodes and abiding preoccupations in American intellectual history.”

The term “intellectual,” used to designate a professional thinker’s “relationship to a broader public” was not coined until the turn of the 20th century, and then as an import from France. In this brief but academically dense survey, Ratner-Rosenhagen (History/Univ. of Wisconsin; American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, 2012, etc.) considers American intellectual history in the form of a survey of the broad, influential ideas that have held sway over the public mind and related institutions since America’s inception, from the Puritans’ highly literate sense of “moral mission and exceptionalism” to today’s postmodern clash of identity politics. Of course, the early definitions of “American intellectual life” are problematic: The Native-Americans left very little record of how they “made sense of the arrival of Europeans,” and then bloody warfare with them “drove their ways of understanding to fade from historical memory.” Furthermore, early European arrivals “did not belong to ‘America’ but rather to their home countries and to their local companions in their tiny enclaves.” The author emphasizes that the early colonists’ embrace of religion (“moral sense”) gave their views a distinct form from those of the European Enlightenment. However, enlightened early Americans retained crucial “blind spots”—e.g., regarding the role of women and blacks. Ratner-Rosenhagen dashes through history, picking and choosing important protagonists and movements to illustrate particular striking currents. These include Thomas Paine’s ignition of revolutionary republicanism; Noah Webster’s use of his standardizing dictionary to shape a distinct American identity; Ralph Waldo Emerson and his transcendental movement’s ability to forge an individualistic “vision befitting the experience of the new nation”; John Brown’s abolitionism; and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The book assumes that readers possess a solid grounding in American history and epistemology.

A valuable civic exercise that invites “thinking about thinking.”

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-19-062536-8

Page Count: 216

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2018

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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