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Published: 09 July 2022

By Andy Ross

The 102 Great Ideas

A hugely ambitious task was completed in the late 1940s in the USA that aimed to record the great ideas of the Western World. 

The Great Ideas index started in the early years of the decade when the chancellor of the University of Chicago and director of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Robert M. Hutchins, decided that a 54 volume set of books would be published by the Encyclopaedia to set-out 432 books that were deemed important to the development of Western life. Each idea was subdivided into more than 30 subsections and the aim of an indexing system was so that a reader could look up any topic and trace it through the books.

Tellingly, no women were included in the list. Indeed, an article in Life magazine of January 26, 1948 has this to say on the subject: 

"Women, not a main idea, is included in Family, Man and Love." How odd that sounds today. 

Something strange happened during the writing of the books. A staff of indexers, whose job it was to read and reread two or three authors each so that they understood the ideas, began to think like those authors and even assumed their names: Mrs Freud, St Thomas Aquinas and Kant amongst them. In the same Life article, these three indexers are quoted as Idea No 51 - Man. If you follow this link you will be able to see that part of the article as well as a photograph of the team responsible for the mammoth task. 

While the idea of presenting all the Western Worlds greatest ideas in a single set of volumes is problematic perhaps the most interesting aspect of this imposing (and somewhat dry) presentation set is the marketing of the collection. Who could resist the idea of a bound collection of books containing all this knowledge? The idea itself is so persuasive that a new edition of the books and index was issued in the later 20th Century that updated the collection to 60 volumes with additions and alterations. With the rise and rise of the internet, where knowledge is a few keyboard presses and mouse clicks away, the days of books like this are numbered but they remain as an interesting historical artefact to a time when people thought that the Western World's thought could be adequately captured on paper.