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What If Our Ignorance Outgrows Our Potential?

8/5/2019
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There is an overlooked rule in history: far more is lost and forgotten than is preserved and remembered. Humanity has made incredible progress - we know more and we’re more powerful than we’ve ever been. But, are we getting wiser? What if our ignorance outgrows our potential? What happens when rich and powerful societies lose their wisdom and forget what made them great in the first place? It's happened before, and there is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by historian Stephen Greenblatt...

Duration:00:35:02

A Battle Against Medieval Barbarism

7/1/2019
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Today, we explore the origin of the modern concept of a fact. We take facts for granted, but they represent an invaluable intellectual technology less than 400 years old, which was forged in a fight between two of history’s brightest thinkers battling over the best way to rescue their society from the madness of medieval barbarism. There is a book that gives us a front row seat to that fight: Leviathan and the Air Pump, published by the historians of science Steve Shapin and Simon...

Duration:00:36:36

What's True?

6/3/2019
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Today I'm speaking with Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It would be hard to find a scholar better equipped to enhance our historical perspective on how we decide what's true. Jennifer and I challenge each other's thinking on several questions, including: Were Enlightenment ideas about natural rights discovered or created? Does the distinction between objective truth and pragmatic truth really matter? How do we reconcile timeless values...

Duration:01:26:54

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

5/2/2019
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Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, became one of the most influential books of the last 50 years by instigating a battle over the soul of the American University that's been raging ever since. The book sold millions of copies, becoming a powerful weapon in Bloom's fight against what he identified as a morally and intellectually crippling form of relativism infecting America's educational system. Allan Bloom sought to remind us that the goal of education is...

Duration:01:10:31

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph Ellis

4/4/2019
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In this episode, we witness the debate that raged over the birth of what is perhaps the most powerful idea in history; the idea that supports our ability to make the world a better place, and the idea that defines the meaning of America. This is the idea that conversation, that argument, that free expression represent the best path to progress and to justice for all, and that to institutionalize this idea via a Constitutional right to the freedom of speech is the best way to preserve a...

Duration:00:38:54

Applied Perspective: A Conversation with Niall Ferguson

3/7/2019
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Niall Ferguson is one of the most influential historians of our generation. His professional effort extends well beyond academia to ensure that policy makers and the public better understand how to apply historical lessons to current issues. Niall and I connected to further discuss some of those issues. We talk about the changing politics of academia, the growing challenge of interpreting history productively, the problem of judging the past by the moral standards of the present, and...

Duration:00:45:45

The Square and the Tower, by Niall Ferguson

2/7/2019
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Niall Ferguson, perhaps the most famous historian of our generation, offers yet another breakthrough in his latest work, The Square and the Tower. Through groundbreaking research, Ferguson reveals how social networks, from the Freemasons of the middle ages to Facebook in the 21st century, disrupt established hierarchies to divert the course of history, both for better and for worse. Join me on Patreon for ad-free episodes and bonus content. Visit bradharris.com to learn more.

Duration:00:39:53

Why the West Rules - For Now, by Ian Morris

1/9/2019
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Is there a logic to history? Many scholars balk at the idea of searching for such logic, insisting that each culture may only be understood on its own terms. In Why the West Rules - For Now, Ian Morris counters that if we look beyond the facade of culture to how human biology, sociology, and geography interact, it is possible to discover a fundamental pattern in history to help us answer the biggest historical questions, from why the West rules for now, to what will happen next. Access...

Duration:01:31:41

The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization

12/12/2018
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Today, I’m speaking with Bryan Ward-Perkins, author of The Fall of Rome, and the End of Civilization. It has become fashionable to argue that Roman civilization never collapsed, but was merely transformed by Germanic culture. Although this counter-narrative can illuminate intellectual developments of Late Antiquity, it verges on cultural relativism that threatens to obscure real differences in how people flourish or suffer. Ward-Perkins' book is a welcome reality check of how dark the...

Duration:00:53:39

The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow

11/21/2018
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The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow was one of the most influential lectures of the 20th century, triggering an intense epistemological debate within higher education regarding the status of science that has persisted to this day. The main theme of Snow's lecture was to raise alarm about the growing knowledge gap between modern society's scientists and everyone else, and to reinvigorate respect for science among cultural elites who were increasingly dismissive of it. Support Context at...

Duration:00:28:23

Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway

10/30/2018
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Merchants of Doubt is not just a book about how illusions of scientific controversy have been constructed, it’s also about the people who constructed them, and its most shocking revelation is that the very same people used the very same strategy to prevent regulation on cigarette smoking, acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming over the span of nearly 50 years. Support Context on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/context Learn more at https://bradharris.com

Duration:00:41:06

Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, by Peter Atkins

10/8/2018
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If civilization collapsed, and our descendants could rediscover a single work to get humanity back on track scientifically and technologically, Peter Atkins’ Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science, would be a contender. If there are miracles, Atkins would argue that they are not found in the surreal conjectures of things unexplained, but in the tangible power of our otherwise small minds to achieve cosmic insights through experiment and mathematics. Here, he distills his choices...

Duration:00:55:51

Evolution's Other Narrative

9/17/2018
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In this episode, we're shifting gears and I'll read an article that I published in 2013 in the journal American Scientist called "Evolution's Other Narrative." Here is a link to the article: https://www.americanscientist.org/article/evolutions-other-narrative Given our conversation last time about the importance of disease in the history of civilization, I thought this article would be an interesting supplement to our understanding of humanity's co-evolution with microorganisms. To...

Duration:00:28:33

Plagues and Peoples, by William McNeill

9/5/2018
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The history of disease demonstrates both the accidental nature of history and the triumph of human reason that can enable us to gain some control over our fate; most of us no longer suffer the death of half our children, among other nightmares. William McNeill’s book, Plagues and Peoples, was the first comprehensive history to capture this balance, and after more than 40 years it remains one of the most insightful narratives on how disease has both shaped and been shaped by...

Duration:00:42:22

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles Mann

8/20/2018
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In 1493, Charles Mann shows us how Europeans emerged at the center of a modern, globalized world by establishing the Columbian Exchange; a system they created but could not control, and with consequences none of them could imagine. You can access all episodes of Context ad-free along with bonus content, including a 20-minute interview with author Charles Mann himself, by supporting the show on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/context or through the website at https://bradharris.com.

Duration:00:40:38

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford

8/6/2018
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Genghis Khan was so influential that, to understand how Europe began to shake off its medieval provincialism, how the Islamic world lost much of its momentum, and how China's unparalleled technology trickled beyond its borders and reshaped the fortunes of the West, it's well worth studying the legacy of this single Mongolian man. Please complete this one minute survey to help me work with new sponsors I need to grow the show: https://survey.libsyn.com/contextwithbradharris To support...

Duration:00:38:24

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn

7/24/2018
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The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a classic in the history of science, and one of the most cited books of the twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn insightfully challenged our assumptions about how science works, but his opaque style ignited a cultural movement energized around the misinterpretations that objective truth was an illusion and that scientific progress was just a conceit of western civilization. These ideas became pillars of postmodernism, and no one was more frustrated by...

Duration:00:24:19

Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West, by Margaret Jacob

7/10/2018
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Margaret Jacob’s book helps us understand how scientific knowledge became integrated into the culture of Europe through the 1600s and 1700s, and how the different social and political conditions of different European countries influenced the application of science to material prosperity. Jacob enhances our understanding of the role of science in the Industrial Revolution, and provides insight on why Britain’s distinctive approach to the utility of science enabled it to industrialize...

Duration:00:33:10

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, by David Landes

6/26/2018
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The Wealth and Poverty of Nations was published by David Landes in 1998, and it has occupied a preeminent place on the bookshelves of scholars ever since. Landes boldly argued that historically unique cultural values of curiosity, novelty, and private property empowered European society to lead the modern world; a history that offers invaluable lessons for our own time. You can support Context on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/context, or through the show's website at...

Duration:00:36:51

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond

6/6/2018
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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was published by Jared Diamond in 1997. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, along with several other awards. The fundamental question that Diamond seeks to answer through this book is, why did history unfold so differently on different continents such that Eurasian societies became so disproportionately influential in creating the modern world? You can support Context on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/context, or through the show's...

Duration:00:26:51