Out of Our Minds: What We Think and How We Came to Think It
(ONEWORLD, 496 PP, £25)
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • tel 020 7799 4064
If history is just one damned thing after another, then I suppose the history of ideas must be one damned think after another. Here to prove the point is Felipe Fernández-Armesto, whose Out of Our Minds is a bracing account of the central roles imagination, memory and language have played in human development around the world. World is right. This is a properly global history. Though a small-c conservativism underpins his mordant prose, Fernández-Armesto is far from being a knee-jerk west-is-best type. Yes, he knows his Aristotle from his Anselm; but he also knows his Zen from his Zoroastrianism. You’d have to have read everything not to learn something from him.
Not that his story isn’t familiar. Fernández-Armesto’s approach is broadly chronological, and the usual suspects turn up in the usual places. Starting with the Neanderthals, whose care of a half-blind cripple suggests they invented the “costly moral code” of social democracy, we race through the Ice Age, and on to the arrival of agriculture – which bringing with it war and labour slowed thought down considerably.