Book Review:The Shape of the New

Scott L Montgomery, Daniel Chirot

Princeton University Press

A broad survey of the ideas that have driven modern history since the 19th century—and on account of which millions of lives have been changed for good or ill.

According to Montgomery (Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research, 2013, etc.) and Chirot (Contentious Identities: Ethnic, Religious and National Conflicts in Today’s World, 2011, etc.), both professors at the University of Washington, these ideas are fourfold, resting in the single persons of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin, and then in the struggle between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over the nature of the new republic that would grow from certain parallel and antecedent ideas.

The first two are economic in nature, the third biological, and the fourth political. But all are political, of course, and the authors nicely move to depersonified history by examining deeper values: the idea embodied by Smith, for instance, that “individuals should have the freedom to make all essential decisions affecting their material and moral lives.”

The authors’ argument is fluent and mainly unobjectionable; as intellectual historians, it is their bread and butter to maintain that ideas matter, and the ideas they enumerate have inarguably “structured the modern world.” Their later elaborations sometimes seem a stretch, if by modern world one means modern ideas, which would discount some of their cases.

The book is academic in outlook and attitude and sometimes in execution. The prose is accessible, though, and the narrative is well-written, made more interesting by the authors’ willingness to tangle with tough constituencies and mount tough arguments—against, say, the narrowness of religious fundamentalists or the aridity of “postmodern pedagogy and scholarship,” with their lamentable habit of reducing the love of and insistence on reason as a species of evil.

A pleasure for students of modern history, especially useful for those seeking an introduction to the broad field of intellectual history. Barzun, Berlin, and Needham would likely argue at points, but this fits squarely in their tradition.

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