History of Knowledge

History of Thought: The Ideas that Changed the World

by Piero Scaruffi

Oct 1 - Nov 12 (2015) at UC Berkeley: A six evening course
(previously named "Paradigm Shifts" until 2004)
Click here to Register (or Contact me about attending the class).
Course material | Reader for the class | View the slides

The following course complements and extends the Thinking about Thought seminar that I have been holding for several years. It provides background information on the three fundamental sources of ideas: religion, philosophy and science. It is meant as self-standing but also as complementary to the seminar on Thinking about Thought, a seminar that focuses on recent scientific research on the three fundamental mysteries of our times: Life, Mind and Consciousness, Basically, this is a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary history of human knowledge. As we proceed in this history of "ideas", we place emphasis on the "paradigm shifts" that changed the way we see the world and therefore "ourselves". This is a "comparative" study of world civilizations over the centuries, and it is an "interdisciplinary" study of the fundamental themes of human knowledge. It is also very visual: it includes hundreds of photographs taken by the instructor during his trips in over 90 countries and 1,000 museums of the world.


The purpose of this course is to provide an introduction to the ideas that, throughout the course of our history, have dramatically changed the way we think of the world, of life and of ourselves. The course presents theories that range from 3000 years ago to last year, that originated from Europe and from Asia, and spanning Physics, Biology, Religion, Mathematics, Philosophy, Psychology, etc. A "paradigm shift" is usually born out of the interaction among all these disciplines: it affects all of them, implicitly or explicitly. It redraws the entire map of human knowledge. The fascination of humans with the universe they inhabit, with the phenomenon of being and with the essence of consciousness is shared by all scientific and nonscientific disciplines around the world. Those mysteries have haunted ordinary folks as well as Nobel prizes. While they still remain mysteries, studying them has opened completely new ways of thinking. The course uses a conversational language that can be grasped by an audience of intellectually curious professionals and undergraduate students with no specialistic training in any of those disciplines. A central topic is how mind is related to matter, a theme that has roots in all civilizations. The course will therefore focus on ancient and modern theories that attempt to bridge the gap between matter and mind, between the universe and us. The paradigm shifts that changed the way we see the world are, ultimately, about that relationship: how we (living and sentient beings) fit in a universe that appears to be made of (nonliving and nonsentient) things. The sequence of paradigm shifts mankind went through has been a series of approximations that has slowly revealed our role in the world, as humbling as it can be: not the center of the universe, but a mere planet adrift in the geometry of spacematter; not the ruling organism, but an accidental product of evolution; etc. The course will review those paradigm shifts and illustrate what a paradigm shift is, entails and means. After the course you will be ready to see the world in a different way, you will be ready for your own paradigm shift. And you will be ready to speculate on what the next paradigm shift will be.


This course will provide the student with a general knowledge of the most influential themes in science and philosophy and how they are being bridged by modern theories of matter and mind. The student will gain a basic understanding of ancient and modern Philosophy, of classical and modern Physics, and of the "paradigm shifts" that have been introduced in the 20th century by disciplines as varied as Biology, Linguistics, Mathematics, Psychology, etc. The student will be explosed to ancient and modern theories that attempt to bridge the gap between matter and mind, between the universe and us. The course will enable the student to pick up a book or an article on modern science or philosophy and understand the general concepts.


Science in the last part of the 20th century has been defined not so much by the discoveries of new particles or the observation of distant galaxies, but by the "paradigm shifts" that have changed the way we think about the universe, life and ourselves. At the same time, there has been a trend towards absorbing into mainstream science themes first introduced by ancient philosopher and even religions, ranging from the mystery of form, the illusion of sensations, idealism, phenomenalism, etc. Finally, the last part of the 20th century has seen the rise of a number of different approaches to science, whether from biologists or linguists, from mathematicians or psychologists, and from physicists themselves. One can sense that these "paradigm shifts" are changing the way we think about the universe and ourselves. This class will discuss the birth of western thought, the views of ancient religions, the masters of eastern philosophy, the great western philosophers from the "age of reason" to today, the ideas of modern physics, the themes and impact of Darwinian biology, and fuse everything to get a grasp of the two sciences that are being born in our days: the science of living matter and the science of language and meaning. This class deals with immortal questions such as "where do we come from", "what is the meaning of life", "what is the universe", etc from both the western and eastern perspective, relating them to both ancient and modern science/culture.

Six-evening structure

  1. Oldest knowledge, the Ancient Near East (Sumers to Babylonia), Ancient Egypt, ancient India and China
  2. Greece, Rome, Judaism, Christianity, Islam
  3. Philosophy and Society of the Middle Ages, of Japan and of Tang/Song China
  4. Philosophy and Science of the Rinascimento (Renaissance) to the Industrial Age
  5. Philosophy and Science of the 19th century
  6. Philosophy and Science of the 20th century


1. The Birth of Western Thought
 Form and identity
 The structure of matter
 The paradoxes of logic
 Aristotle's and the "classical" view of the world
 Plato's world of ideas
 History and epics

2. The World and Us in Ancient Religions
 Monotheism: God as the force, not the vehicle
 Christianity: the "you", not the "self"
 Buddhism: the power of mind
 Hinduism: religion as cosmology
 Islam: religion as politics
 Confucius: religion as culture

3. The Masters of Eastern Philosophy
 The idea of Knowledge
 The idea of a theory of the world
 The idea of harmony

4. The Age of Reason
 The primacy of logic
 The mind-body debate

5. Idealism 
 Theories of knowledge (Locke, Kant, Hegel)
 Theories of mind (Berkeley, Freud, James)
 Theories of the human condition (Phenomenology, Existentialism)

6. Philosophy and Logic
 Logic as Thought (Frege, Russell, Hilbert, Goedel, Turing, A.I.)
 Paradigms of Science (Kuhn)
 Common Sense (Wittgenstein, Bayes, Zadeh)

7. Introduction to the Themes of Modern Physics
 Entropy and thermodynamics
 The observer and quantum theory
 Interpretations of quantum mechanics
 Spacetime events and relativity theory
 Grand unified theories
 Cosmology: Big Bang, Black Homes, etc

8. Introduction to the Themes of Modern Biology
 Design without a designer
 The modern synthesis 
 The growth of form
 Thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems

9. The science of Language and Meaning

10. The Science of living matter
 The symbolic processing paradigm
 Computational functionalism
 The reconstructive memory
 Neural selection
 Quantum consciousness


1. The Birth of Western Thought
 Thales and form;
 Democritos and atomism;
 Pythagora and numbers;
 Euclides: "Elements"
 Plato and the world of ideas;
 Aristotle: logic, matter, natural motion;
 Zeno and the paradox;

2. The World and Us in Ancient Religions
 Zoroaster and Mithraism
 Judaism and Christianity
 "Bhagavad Gita"
 "I Ching"

3. The Masters of Eastern Philosophy
 Gongsun Long
 Ibn Arabi

4. The Age of Reason
 Augustine:  "Confessiones"
 Aquinas: "Summa Theologica"
 More: "Utopia"
 Bacon: "Novum Organum"
 Descartes: "Discourse"
 Hobbes: "Leviathan"
 Spinoza's spiritualism;
 Leibniz' panpsychism;
 Newton: "Principia Mathematica"
 Vico: History
 Darwin: "Origin of Species"

5. Idealism 
 Locke: Theory of knowledge
 Berkeley: Idealism
 Hume: Epistemology
 Kant's categories;
 Freud: "Interpretation of Dreams"
 Husserl: Phenomenology
 Heidegger: Being and Time

6. Philosophy and Logic
 Kuhn: Paradigm
 Ayer: Language, Truth and Logic
 Von Neumann
 Goedel's theorem
 Turing's test

7. Introduction to the Themes of Modern Physics
 The observer and quantum theory
 Interpretations of quantum mechanics
 Spacetime events and relativity theory
 Entropy and thermodynamics
 Grand unified theories
 Wormholes and other universes

7. Introduction to the Themes of Modern Biology
 Design without a designer
 The growth of form

8. The science of Language and Meaning
 Quine: Ontological Relativism
 Kripke: Possible World Semantics
 Putnam: Functionalism
 Barthes: Semiotics
 Fodor: Computational Functionalism
 Dennett: Intentional Stance, Memes

9. The Science of living matter
 Modern synthesis of biology
 Herb Simon's symbolic processing paradigm
 Jerry Fodor's computational functionalism
 Kenneth Craik's representational paradigm
 Ilya Prigogine's thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems
 Gerard Edelman's theory of neural selection
 Fredrick Bartlett's reconstructive memory
 William James' connectionism
 Noam Chomsky's generative grammar
 Stuart Kaufman's self-organization
 Humberto Maturana's autopoiesis
 George Lakoff's cognitive metaphor
 Roger Penrose's quantum theory of consciousness
 Lotfi Zadeh's fuzzy logic
 Rodolfo Llina's brain model
 Allan Hobson's theory of dreaming
 Richard Dawkins' memes

10. Conclusions


Classes will consist of lecture and discussion. READING REQUIREMENT

A text book will be recommended, but no existing book covers the whole scope of this course. The instructor will gladly tailor the bibliography according to the specific interests of each student.

Additional course material

View the Slides (These files contain only a small portion of the slides. Ask the instructor for a CD-ROM with the entire set. It requires Powerpoint or Acrobat and about 100 Mbytes of free space). Print the Outline

Reader: "A History of Knowledge" (2004) by Piero Scaruffi.
Also see the bibliography at the end of the Reader.


Milestone books in the history of western civilization

Pictures of world monuments