It all began with dialectical materialism. I was aware of the term, had seen or
heard it used a hundred times. But one day, finding it mentioned in a magazine
article, I realized I had no idea exactly what it is and couldn't accurately
define it. The brief dictionary definition didn't help much, and it didn't appear at all
in my desk encyclopedia.
It occurred to me that lots of other concepts, old and new, were vaguely
familiar but elusive: ideas I'd heard of or learned something about in school
but now had a faded impression of, at best.
Wouldn't it be great to have a dictionary of ideas, I thought--not things
or events, but those intangibles that fuel our thoughts: theories, philosophies,
beliefs, ideologies, and the thinkers who have articulated them. That set me
on a search through bookstores and libraries for the volume I had in mind: a
compact, alphabetical guide to significant ideas and thinkers, with entries
long enough to enlighten but short enough to digest, covering all fields of
thought and written in ordinary English.
I couldn't find it, so I wrote it.
The book you are holding represents the fruits of what I now think of as
my second college education, one pursued outside a formal institution (but
with the crucial assistance of numerous scholars) and which took as long as
the first one. My ambition was not only to get a grasp on a world's worth of
concepts but to explain them in terms that I, a nonacademic, and others like
me could understand. It was a daunting but exhilarating challenge.
Ideas, I appreciated anew, are the foundations of our culture. They inspire
our thoughts and inform our beliefs. Many of them form the very basis of our
identity. Some, such as those from non-Western traditions, are only now entering our awareness as our society becomes more genuinely multicultural.
While the ideas of the past have shaped the social, political, and religious institutions of today's world, new concepts continually challenge our perceptions, fuel debate, and pave our way to the future.
The topics of A World of Ideas' 444 entries were chosen in
consultation with a number of respected scholars in the various fields covered. The process, of course, was one of exclusion as much as selection from a nearly
limitless field of possibility. In making our decisions on which ideas and
thinkers to include in this relatively small volume, we were guided by two
main criteria: their influence on human thought and their continuing relevance
in today's discourse. The fields of knowledge gathered here include philosophy, psychology, politics, history, economics, sociology, religion, science, and the arts. Entries on ideas in these areas define them and briefly explain their history, implications, and wider significance. The 111 profiles of major thinkers provide outlines of their most influential ideas rather than purely biographical sketches.
Hundreds of additional, related ideas and thinkers are discussed in the text
and referenced in the Index. What is an "idea" in this book? Theoretically,
the term could cover everything from a philosophical argument to a nifty new invention. I've left gadgets and other "bright ideas" out of A World of Ideas
, while keeping my definition of an idea as broad as possible: a theoretical construct, a belief or guiding tenet, an essential concept in a field of study, an ideological proposition, an influential thought or opinion. I'm personally attracted to the theoretical and propositional--debatable, questionable, or unprovable notions--but not exclusively. Primarily descriptive terms are excluded, but general concepts, fields of theory, schools of thought, and similar broad categories are covered here.
A note about some of the things you will and won't find in this book. You
will find that a majority of the entries reflect European culture, the Greek
philosophical tradition, Judeo-Christian religion, etc. This simply
acknowledges the way things are: despite a growing awareness of other cultures and traditions, the ideas that are our cultural currency are still
predominantly those of "Western civilization."
Yet this book also reflects recent changes in our world-views. Where they
have wide relevance, concepts and beliefs from Asian, African, and Middle
Eastern traditions are included. You will also find more women and nonwhite
thinkers than many works of this sort recognize--people whose contributions
(and even access) to the history of ideas have for too long been neglected.
You will also find a somewhat greater emphasis on contemporary thought
than might be expected in a broad survey of ideas. This is largely because
modern theorists and their ideas are among those most currently discussedand most likely to be overlooked in other reference works. While the classic
ideas and figures in A World of Ideas
have had a decisive influence on modern thought, the newer concepts and contemporary thinkers will shape the future.
Although I have tried to be scrupulous about using gender-neutral
terminology ("he or she," "humanity") when referring to people in general, and
avoiding the discredited sexist convention of the generic masculine
("man-kind," "he"), you will find exceptions. These are in cases when to imply the feminine would misrepresent a thinker's outlook, because women have been
(and are) so often excluded from consideration. When Jefferson, for example,
wrote that "all men are created equal," he was talking about men. The same
consideration applies to almost all references to the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, who is traditionally conceived as male. You will not find main entries on any primarily literary figures or artists; no Shakespeare or Goethe, Michelangelo or Picasso (though all of these geniuses appear at least briefly in the book). This restriction was forced by the limited space between these covers, and I hope to be able to include these thinker-artists in a later edition. For the same reason, you will probably not find every idea that might be of interest to you; the world of ideas is as expansive as the world itself. However, I believe you will discover here an intriguing and useful array of concepts and consequential thinkers. And, yes, you will find dialectical materialism.
Excerpted from A World of Ideas by Chris Rohmann. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.