Book review: A Brief History of Thought – Unfinished, John Bryson

If anyone is up to the ambitious task of analysing the history of thought, it is the author of 'Evil Angels'.
A Brief History of Thought. Image is on the left an upper body shot of author John Bryson, a bald-headed smiling man in a dark shirt and light jacket, on the right a book cover with an illustration of a headshot of the same man in sepia but looking dour.

There is no doubt John Bryson was an extraordinarily gifted man. His aptitude for clear thinking and his unparalleled communication skills were never more evident than when he recounted and analysed the events that led to Lindy Chamberlain’s wrongful conviction in the famous Evil Angels. Challenging as writing that book may have been, attempting a history of thought dwarfs even that ambition. For A Brief History of Thought – Unfinished, Bryson’s widow, Therese O’Neill, has collected his previously unpublished essays on the subject; it is a collection that clearly demonstrates that Bryson was up to the challenge.

One of the points Bryson drives home more than once relates to our concept of time. He reminds us that planet Earth may have begun about 4.6 billion years ago and that preparing for life with the first simple cells required waiting a billion years while ‘modern humans appeared about 200,000 years before the date on today’s newspaper’.

That puts the timescale of human thought into perspective. Such thought, however we choose to define it, has been around for a minuscule period of time in the history of our planet and even for a very short time since the emergence of Homo sapiens. Bryson forcefully and convincingly argues that the development of thought has been slowed and hindered by the emergence of various religions. He notes that, whereas biological evolution is very slow, the evolution of thought has been rapid and is accelerating.

The essays cover Bryson’s thoughts on the evolution of music, of cooking, of the arts, of architecture, of religion and of that strange human tendency to believe that repeating the same action can lead to different outcomes. He speculates on the development of learning by observation and the use of imagination to enhance perception. He considers the possible benefit of the increasing speed of communication on the propagation and advancement of knowledge. He quotes many of the great thinkers of the past and weaves some of their thoughts into his discussions – his erudition ever evident, but never bombastic or threatening.

The word ‘unfinished’ in the title is no doubt refers to the fact that Bryson unfortunately died before this collection was completed. But even had he lived, he may well have left ‘unfinished’ in the title. For while he says so very much, there is no pretence that he says it all or indeed that all can ever be said.

The book also contains a selection of Bryson’s poems, mostly sad or wistful in tone:

Painting, at a stilled pool,
Reprise an often wish,
To watch the gifted child
Painting such colours
On the scales of fish.

While his essays appeal to the intellect, his poems successfully appeal to the heart and are enhanced by some of architect Richard Leplastrier’s drawings, which first appeared at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. They are a tribute to Bryson by his friend. They are sombre in tone. The portrait of Bryson on the cover of the book is also by Leplastrier. But, to me at any rate, it projects an image of Bryson – stern, morose – that belies the erudite, warm and insightful man the author of these essays must have been.

Read: Book review: Bright Shining, Julia Baird

Leaving such matters behind, though, A Brief History of Thought – Unfinished is a monumental work. Philosophy is always challenging; Bryson brilliantly shines a light on the evolution of thought in a way that renders complex matters readily accessible. The poems are fine, but the essays are not to be missed.

A Brief History of Thought – Unfinished: Essays and Poems by John Bryson
Publisher: Broadcast Books

ISBN: 9780645844023
Format: Paperback
Pages: 200pp
Release Date: 23 October 2023
RRP: $38.59

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.