I have enjoyed reading books that trace the history of some concept or idea over long periods of time. For example, how has the age of earth changed over time? How has our approach to migraines changed over time? How has the philosophy of war changed over time? I browsed through many books on these topics. A few good titles are listed here.
The Worldly Philosophers (7th Ed)
The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers

by Robert L Heilbroner, 368 pages, 1999 (Amazon link).

The history of modern economics is presented in simple English through narration of the lives and contributions of economists like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Keynes. The book does not pause to explain economic terms like money supply and inflation. Thus it complements an introductory course in Economics by providing historical context for economic ideas. I found the first 40 pages very interesting: a whirlwind tour of how the wheels of industrial revolution were set in motion, how the ideas of 'innovation' received social acceptance, how land became commodity and how 'making profit' was gradually accepted by Christianity.

Paradigms Lost
Tacking the Unanswered Mysteries of Modern Science

by John L Casti, 592 pages, 1990 (Amazon link).

The book traces the history of six popular debates in the West: Origin of Life, Language Acquisition, Sociobiology and Genetic Determinism, Artificial Intelligence, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the Mysteries of Quantum Physics. The book shows how opinions have swayed between polar opposites without any resolution for two thousand years.

This book played an important role in my outlook. What I learnt from this book is that the many of these debates have no resolution -- these debates merely demonstrate co-existence of opposites in the human experience, and the limitations of rational thinking to capture reality (co-existence of opposites). This is an important concept to understand. This concept is also the essence of the Yin-Yang symbol.

The book is packed with facts and details, not an easy read. However, it would form a good starting point to get an overview of any of the six topics it discusses. For example, you could read the chapter on Language Acquisition before delving into Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker's writings for specific viewpoints.

Crest of the Peacock
Non-European Roots of Mathematics

by George Gheverghese Joseph, 400 pages, 1992 (Amazon link).

A book that explains how mathematics developed in various cultures: Egypt, China, India, Africa and Europe. Readers who are accustomed to Eurocentric history of Mathematics (Greeks — Dark Ages — Renaissance) shall be pleasantly surprised at how much of modern mathematics was developed by non-Europeans.

The Lessons of History

by William Durant and Ariel Durant, 117 pages, 1968 (Amazon link).

This book showcases insights developed by the Durants after 40 years of writing European history under the title The Story of Civilization - 10 Volume Set (I have not read these volumes). The 10-volume set gets rave reviews for its humane treatment of historical characters.

Lessons of History has insights like 'Freedom and equality are inconsistent goals for society'. The only wrinkle in the book is the strong influence of Darwinism on Durants' thinking.

© Copyright 2008—2018, Gurmeet Manku.