A recent profile (by Deborah Solomon in The New York Times) of someone named Peter Watson has caught my interest. Watson is the author of a new book – A History of Thought and Invention, From Fire to Freud – which claims to “chronicle all the major ideas in the world since the invention of the hand ax two million years ago.
NYT: Are you trying to be a polymath? (See Word to the Wise, below.)
WATSON: My wife says I am the know-it-all from hell.
NYT: What do you think is the single worst idea in history?
WATSON: Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history.
NYT: But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness.
WATSON: I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it.
NYT: It sounds like you’re starting your own church.
WATSON: Not at all. I do not believe in the inner world. I think that the inner world comes from the exploration of the outer world – reading, traveling, and thinking. I do not believe that meditation or cogitation leads to wisdom or peace or truth.
NYT: Then I don’t understand why you would want to write a history of ideas, since inner reflection and dreaminess surely count at least as much as scientific experiment in the formation of new ideas.
WATSON: To paraphrase the English philosopher John Gray, it is more sensible to look out on the world from a zoo than from a monastery. Science, or looking out, is better than contemplation, or looking in.
NYT: You strike me as deeply unanalyzed. Have you considered seeing a psychiatrist?
WATSON: I was a psychiatrist. I left because I thought Freud was rubbish.
NYT: Where did you train?
WATSON: At the Tavistock Clinic in London. I left in the late 60s because I thought Freudian therapy was a waste of time. I don’t believe there is any such thing as the unconscious or the id.
NYT: In that case, where do you think ideas come from?
WATSON: I don’t think they come out of daydreaming. Everybody who has had a great idea or made a great realization has been working very hard on it, and often they have failed many times. You don’t go from nothing to a great idea without doing a lot of work.
editor’s note.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]