Europe's long half-century between 1850 and the outbreak of the First World War is conventionally divided into unequal portions, characterised by spreading prosperity and Biedermeier complacency in the first 20 years, followed by the slow, rich, industrialised gearing-up towards total war in the remaining period. But, as J W Burrow's absorbing account of the intellectual life of Europe in this period shows, below the surface there was tumultuous dissent and change. It is a striking reflection that the fat years of the century's third quarter were launched by the revolutions of 1848-49. Both they and the increasingly pervasive liberal sentiment in western European politics were the remote consequences of a project begun a long half-century before, in 1789, at the gates of the Bastille. But that is how history works: the age of liberal democracy and market capitalism had its umbilicus cut by the defenders of the barricades in those uprisings, and those who manned them - such as Bakunin and Richard Wagner - were freed by defeat to dream other dreams with even greater consequences later.
The inspiration for the uprisings was the desire to accomplish, without the terrors, the hopes of 1789, but its failure left a temporarily disillusioned intelligentsia seemingly powerless against the strength of the new order. Burrow makes the intriguing suggestion that, in failing to achieve its ends by direct action, the spirit of the age sought to do so by equally utopian but cleverly different means: the attempt to find unification and liberation - this time of intellectual kinds - through natural science. The aim was to understand and control not only material phenomena, but also the mind, for this was the time when sociology, psychology and theories of social evolution were in their optimistic infancy. Combined with a strongly Whig view of history's upward trend, forms of perfectibility were taken for granted and influenced thinking about human nature - not least in making mankind at last able to understand the conditions of its own existence.
As is inevitable when reach exceeds grasp, this endeavour met with disillusionment, too. Burrow describes the reaction to the threats perceived by many in science. Scientific social progress was seen not as liberating but isolating, not as promoting human values but as denying and reducing them, because - in the view of its critics - it takes people out of the network of relationships that give human life meaning, and inflates the importance of the individual, who, on inspection, turns out to be hollow when removed from that network.
One result of this scepticism and anxiety was a quest for inner sources of value. For uneducated people, they were found in religious revivalism. But Burrow is mainly concerned with intellectuals who turned to theories about the Dionysian, as Nietzsche would have it, or the Unconscious, as Freud came to think of it - in either case, belief in the energising power of something non-rational, free and potentially creative, the cultivation of which came to be seen as both the goal and the hallmark of the intellectual.
Burrow's history of the movement of ideas in this period deliberately reflects not what later came to be seen as important, but what seemed important to contemporaries. A healthy corrective is introduced by this perspective, for we are inclined to think, post facto, that what Michelson and Morley were discovering about the luminiferous ether is far more important than what contemporaries thought of George Sand's novels, then huge bestsellers but now unread. It is impossible to ignore the racial theories of Gobineau or the views of Sorel and Marx on labour, and Burrow does not do so. But they cannot be adequately understood out of their context, which he provides by showing what was salient in their day, regardless of how we now evaluate it.
The method has its risks and difficulties. Discussing the later part of his chosen period, Burrow begins with the Futurist Manifesto written by Filippo Marinetti in 1909. He gives its absurdities a hearing that they scarcely deserve by making them seem to be related, even in some formative way, to movements such as the fauves, cubists, atonal composers, early Kandinsky and Kokoschka, Dresden's Die Brucke group of artists and the like. Although these resemblances are no doubt an expression of a temper of the times, it is hard to imagine that strainings after effect, and attempts to shock and be novel, were any less transparent than they are now.
Burrow's book is, however, an achievement. He is at home among the complex themes and literature of the time, which enables him to offer a wonderfully lucid narrative of the ideas and influences that flow together through it. When one sees what was being said and written, and where it was tending in its increasing rush towards the smash of 1914, one sees that the staid accounts of 19th-century history to which we grew accustomed in our formative years simply will not do, given that they leave out the blood and sinews of a time that has much to answer for - the blood and sinews consisting of ideas, which Burrow brilliantly anatomises for us.
A C Grayling is a reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London