Best general books on how the world works?
May 12, 2009 7:57 PM   Subscribe

What are the best "grand theory" books and essays purporting to explain generally how the world works - at the macro, economic/political/historical/sociological/foreign policy scale - written in or after the 20th century?
posted by shivohum to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
One that springs to mind which I've been reading is "Small is Beautiful" by Schumacher.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:08 PM on May 12, 2009

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
posted by blithecatpie at 8:15 PM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

You might want to check out this recent thread.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:20 PM on May 12, 2009

Alvin Toffler: FutureShock, The Third Wave, Powershift, Revolutionary Wealth
David Deustch: The Theory of Everything
Howard Zinn: A Peoples History of the United States (I don't know if the A Peoples History of the American Empire is just an updated or new version - its been a while)
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:20 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers has a good predictive track record.

The only one of the predictions that it hasn't yet seen come to pass is the decline of the US due to excess spending, particularly on the military. But that is looking pretty good....
posted by sien at 8:21 PM on May 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes. FTW.
posted by mullacc at 8:48 PM on May 12, 2009

The I Ching or Book of Changes, translated by Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes. Think of it as an owner's manual for the universe.
posted by alms at 9:05 PM on May 12, 2009

What a wonderfully impossible question. One of the original polymathic preoccupations of philosophy is precisely how we could conceivably unify our knowledge, experience, and understanding such that a truly systematic macro view, or some approximation thereof, is within reach. Some philosophers argue that such metaphysical ambitions cannot be fulfilled, and that there are a priori limits to our thought.

One would of course have to read deeply in the history of philosophy (ancient, modern, Greek, Indian, Chinese, idealist, pragmatist, logic, epistemology, etc.) and the history of science, of cognitive science, of physics, of literature, history and the arts, of technology to begin to get a handle on such a thing, but if you're up for a challenge here are some very random 20th century works in intellectual history, general nonfiction and philosophy that would seem suggest themselves (note that many of them are at fundamental odds with one another, and many of them originate in and pursue totally different fields):

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
The Mechanization of the World Picture by EJ Dijksterhuis
The Character of Physical Law by Richard Feynman
Neuronal Man: The Biology of Mind by Jean-Pierre Changeux
Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson
Perspectives on General Systems Theory by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy
The Elegant Universe by Brain Greene
The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio
Time and Narrative by Paul Ricoeur
Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology, First Book by Edmund Husserl
Word and Object by WVO Quine
The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms by Ernst Cassirer
An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer
The Philosophy of Science edited by R. Boyd, P. Gasper, JD Trout
Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling by Susan Langer
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
Nature and Understanding by Nicholas Rescher
Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas
The Organism by Kurt Goldstein
Wholeness and the Implicate Order by David Bohm
Life Itself by Robert Rosen
In Search of Memory by Eric R. Kandel
Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett
Real Spaces by David Summers
Process and Reality by AN Whitehead
Mind in Life by Evan Thompson
Life's Solution by Simon Conway Morris
Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch
Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
After Virtue by Alisdair Macintyre
Complete Works of Samuel Beckett
Ulysses by James Joyce
Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country by William Greider
Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski
Science and Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham
"A" a poem by Louis Zukofsy
posted by ornate insect at 9:13 PM on May 12, 2009 [19 favorites]

The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:31 PM on May 12, 2009

Roberto Unger's three-part Politics series.
posted by paultopia at 10:33 PM on May 12, 2009

Pierre Bourdieu - Outline of a Theory of Practice. A compelling (though not very digestible) expose of how we acquire and express "culture"
Anthony Giddens - The Constitution of Society - as above for social structure and institutions
JJ Gibson - The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (much wider scope than its title suggests)
V. Gordon Childe - What Happened in History (1942) and Man Makes Himself (1951) -- social change through the lens of archaeology. Dated data, but timeless ideas.
Marcel Mauss: The Gift. Probably the most profoundly accessible work of Anthropology in the 20th century.
Clive Gamble: Timewalkers (The archaeology of human expansion out of Africa)
Barry Cunliffe: Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000 (outstanding, coherent account of European history that does not respect the usual boundaries of prehistory/history Greek/Roman etc.

(Some of the above are how the world came to be as a mode of explanation of how the world works)
posted by Rumple at 11:48 PM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few that popped into my head--not as scholarly as you might want, more about current day economics/politics.

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein.
McMafia by Mischa Glenny
The World's Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton.
posted by zardoz at 12:02 AM on May 13, 2009

So, you want a book... that explains everything?

Why not just read the Bible? Ecclesiastes, Job, Kings, it's all in there. Or, for the 20th century, The Urantia Book.
posted by shii at 12:39 AM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

So, you want a book... that explains everything?

Nope, shivohum just wants books about human culture and its developments, which does limit things considerably.

The trick with this kind of topic, though, is to ask what you really want to know. Because northing will stick if it's just facts that you're reading.

Do you want to know why you don't pee in a corner of any room anymore, like your forebears did, but go to the bathroom instead? Read Norbert Elias and his followers.

Do you want to know how people got where th ey are know, read Goudsblom's Fire and Civilization.

But the most basic question is: do you want to get a good intellectual shaking, or do you just want to confirm your beliefs?
posted by ijsbrand at 4:48 AM on May 13, 2009

There is of course a long tradition of positing large-scale schemas for human society and history. You might consult an overview (I haven't read it but something like The Riddle of History: The Great Speculators from Vico to Freud (addressing Vico, Voltaire, Condorcet, Kant, Hegel, Comte, Marx, Spengler, Toynbee, and Freud) (now apparently out of print) might be of some use) for further direction.
posted by yz at 5:55 AM on May 13, 2009

I would add Finnegans Wake to the list... truly a book about everything and everybody.
posted by naju at 8:46 AM on May 13, 2009

A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel De Landa.
posted by Casuistry at 10:25 AM on May 13, 2009

Spengler's Decline of the West
Toynbee's A Study of History

(Like the "purported")
posted by IndigoJones at 4:41 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Actually, "purported" seems a bit at odds with "the best", no?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:42 PM on May 13, 2009

What? No Dianetics?
posted by bz at 5:57 PM on May 13, 2009

Response by poster: Great stuff, thanks everyone!

Actually, "purported" seems a bit at odds with "the best", no?

Maybe I meant the best purports (purport is a noun too!) rather than the best explanations ;).
posted by shivohum at 7:59 PM on May 13, 2009

A Brief History of Everything covers the philosophy of mind well enough to think I wasted a couple of years on the subject as well as giving explanations of how we evolve.

And applause for a great question.
posted by mearls at 2:19 PM on June 25, 2009

Personally I've never found a cooler book on this sort of thing than:

Dynamics of World History
by Christopher Dawson

posted by KMH at 9:51 AM on October 8, 2009

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