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The return of big history: the long past is the

antidote to short-termism
Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have created a powerful, ambitious rebuttal to "the spectre of the short
term".

Photo Op (2006) by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps
“There never has been a time when . . . except in the most general sense, a study of history
provides so little instruction for our present day,” Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in a
speech to the US Congress in July 2003. Nowadays Blair is not exactly deemed a voice of
authority, but the opinions he expressed are still widely shared. In an era when technology
has revolutionised our daily existence – even the nature of life itself – understanding the past
may seem irrelevant when planning the future. But history does matter. And many academics
are anxious to explain why.

A striking contribution comes from the historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. At a mere
165 pages, their book The History Manifesto is modest in scale but not in ambition: its first
sentence mimics the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting our time:
the spectre of the short term.” Guldi, who teaches at Brown, and Armitage, a British-born
professor at Harvard, point to politicians trapped in the electoral cycle, business leaders
fixated on profit returns and bureaucrats obsessed by performance targets. Academics, one
might add, have also been sucked into the vortex, with the rigid six-year cycle of the Research
Excellence Framework deterring big historical projects that take time to mature.
Yet Guldi and Armitage insist that historical writing can provide the answer to short-
termism, if properly conceived and delivered. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they
argue, most historians produced scholarly monographs or doctoral dissertations about
narrow periods and specific topics, or they indulged in microhistories of “exceptionally
normal” episodes from everyday life, such as Robert Darnton’s investigation of a bizarre cat
massacre in 18th-century Paris. There seemed little appetite to explore
the longue durée, a term popularised in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel and other
scholars associated with the French journal Annales.
This obsession with the miniature reflected the increasing professionalisation of historical
writing. In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of
amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history
professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing
history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by
becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist
archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history,
women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject.
Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less.

In consequence, Guldi and Armitage lament, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of
historical perspective. They spotlight a trio of vital contemporary questions – climate change,
international governance and socio-economic inequality – that have been addressed mostly
by economists and other social scientists, often using data and assumptions that are rooted in
the short term. Yet these subjects cry out for a longue durée approach. And Guldi and
Armitage show how historians have started to respond over the past decade, exploiting the

mass of information that can now be marshalled thanks to the digitisation of archives and
other databases, combined with the ubiquity of keyword searching. In the age of IT, social
problems on a scale previously beyond the grasp of a large research group are feasible for a
lone, but digitally smart, scholar. And so, The History Manifesto proclaims, big history is
once again possible, thanks to big data.
Guldi and Armitage write with brio and passion and their ambition should be applauded. Yet
their supposedly universal panacea is in many ways very American. The Manifesto offers a
reworking for historians of a tradition of “big” thinking that has characterised American
intellectual life since the Second World War. “Big science” led the way (in projects such as the
Bomb, mainframe computers and the transistor), followed by big social science (through
foundations such as the Ford and Rockefeller and the RAND Corporation) – all closely
harnessed to the needs of the federal government. Big history, now much in fashion in
leading US history departments such as Harvard’s, is another facet of that academic-
governmental nexus: the cover of the Manifesto proclaims a desire to “speak truth to power”.
And yet, like many programmatic writings, The History Manifesto seems strangely
indifferent to practicalities. It does not make clear how these big historical projects would
grab the attention of people in power. Simply addressing topical issues such as climate
change is not enough: as Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, politicians are creatures of the
short term who prefer to ignore big problems that cannot be solved, or at least visibly
ameliorated, within an electoral cycle. They are also busy people who do not have time for
lengthy reading and reflection. All this shows that big historical truths must be served up in
politically digestible, bite-sized chunks.
A more user-centred approach is exemplified by the work of Richard Neustadt and Ernest
May – Harvard academics, now sadly deceased – who for many years taught a course on the
uses of history to American politicians, officials and senior military. The book that grew out
of it, Thinking in Time, was published way back in 1986, and The History Manifesto makes
no reference to it. Yet Neustadt and May offer an instructive alternative response to the curse
of short-termism in high places.
Their main injunction derives from Avram Goldberg, the chief executive of a New England
grocery chain. Whenever a manager came to him in a flap, he wouldn’t ask, “What’s the
problem?” but say, “Tell me the story.” That way, Goldberg said, “I find out what the problem
really is.” His maxim became the premise of the book by Neustadt and May. Rather than
focus on the crisis at hand (while already straining for a quick-fix solution), one should stand
back and ask, “How did we get into this mess?” That is the first step to seeing a way out.

Telling the story requires identifying critical events and turning points, asking what
happened when. This basic chronology then has to be fleshed out by addressing “who” and
“why” questions about personalities and motivations: what Neustadt and May call
“journalists’ questions”. Digging out this kind of human detail is as much a historical activity
as constructing a chronology. It requires probing into the past of a person or a country, just
the sort of thing that Blair, Bush and their aides did not do properly before the invasion of
Iraq.

Asking “What’s the story?” may seem a strange way to define the practice of history. Our
normal definition is content-based – the names-and-dates regime that destroyed any feel for
the subject among millions of schoolchildren and that still features in the UK citizenship test.
Nor does “What’s the story?” chime with the idea that history provides a stock of useful
analogies, such as the “lessons of appeasement” that have seduced many political leaders,
from Anthony Eden in 1956 to Blair and Bush in 2003. Instead of history as a body of facts
or a toolkit of lessons, Neustadt and May presented it as a way of thinking: thinking in the
stream of time.

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative
of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others
within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially
urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when
making decisions that relate to government.
Neustadt and May’s prescriptions still seem to me apt and perceptive. They are rooted in the
recognition that human beings fundamentally are historical animals and they provide simple,
practical advice about how people in power can be their own historians. But the Achilles heel
of Thinking in Time in 1986 was how would-be practitioners could speedily obtain the
essential historical information to put flesh on the bare bones of their narrative timelines.
Neustadt and May suggested a range of useful books, articles and bibliographies, but it
seemed implausible that most busy policymakers, or even their aides, would have time to do
the necessary research.
Nearly 30 years on, however, the IT-age tools that Guldi and Armitage identify can also help
the policymaker who wants to become historically literate. There is now a profusion of
information out there, available at a few clicks of a mouse. The new problem is quality
control: identifying the information that is reliable and that rises above mere WikiHistory.

One answer comes from History & Policy, a web-based think tank run jointly from
Cambridge and King’s College London. This posts short papers of 2,500 to 3,000 words, each
offering a historically informed view on issues of current concern. To date, nearly 200 papers
have appeared, covering a wide range of issues; recent topics include power-sharing in
Northern Ireland, the London airport debate, treatment of the mentally ill and the Ukraine
crisis. The organisation also runs specialist seminars targeted at specific interests, with the
aim of providing the busy politician, civil servant or business person with a broader
perspective but in succinct, manageable form. Although each paper suggests further reading,
it is assumed that most users won’t have the time for a long academic tutorial. The aim here
is not big history but applied history, useful at the point of decision-making.

For some traditionalist scholars, this search for relevance threatens a core value
of professional history – the recognition of the past as a foreign country. But, as John Tosh
has insisted in his book Why History Matters (2008), what we need is “a critical applied
history”, one that is attentive to both continuity and difference. Neustadt and May developed
the same point: “the future has nowhere to come from but the past”, yet “what matters for the
future in the present is departures from the past” – hence the predictive capacity and also the
potential pitfalls of historical analysis. Those departures may be slight and subtle but
recognising them is essential when trying to anticipate the future.
Public awareness of the interconnection of past, present and future has been particularly
keen at moments of dramatic rupture or transition. The end of the Second World War, with
the total collapse of Hitler’s European empire and the horrific exposure of his “Final
Solution”, constituted one such moment; another was the end of the cold war in 1989-91,
when the “Iron Curtain” disintegrated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Such evidently
“historic” moments have kindled an interest in “contemporary history”, orZeitgeschichte, as
the Germans call it. In this area, too, historical awareness has relevance for political debate,
by helping us to locate our contemporary problems in the longer sweep of events.
Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying
various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has
generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey
Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems
which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary

from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to
construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.
To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall
of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991.
Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense
of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by
globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape,
have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.
One significant trend is the vogue for “transnational” history, transcending the conventional
western focus on the evolution of nation states: what the Harvard scholar Charles Maier calls
the principle of “territoriality”. One of these new frameworks for understanding
contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American
conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another
framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union,
intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany
and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is
indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history
from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A
political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness
and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not
seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to
escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense.
It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we
have come from and where we might be going.

Big history, thinking in time, applied history, alternative narratives: these are just a few ways
that those who study the past are engaging with the present. That pioneer of “contemporary
history”, Thucydides, writing 24 centuries ago, presented his account of the Peloponnesian
wars as a warning for future decision-makers – for those who, as he put it, “want to
understand clearly the events which happened in the past and (human nature being what it
is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future”.

He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse –
triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian
democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to
foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who
marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the
haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded
out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the
intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never
recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal “human nature”, but his
proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge. His latest book is
“The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

who had left Judaism and Jewry behind. and her claims may be mocked by none. though a Prussian official. And so we must be on guard against allowing ourselves to fall victims to that most dangerous of all temptations: the fascination of abstract thought. Mendelssohn’s daughters already belonged to a group of sophisticated Jewish women with salons and “philosopher” lovers. with its social isolation and its closed system of religious culture. There had been rabbis in his mother’s family for at least a century back. Was it the conception.” So for the mind of the young Marx the bondage of social relationships already appeared as an impediment to individual self-realization. then only shall our satisfactions not be confined to poor egoistic joys. one of his uncles was a rabbi there. was evidently the first man of brains in his family decisively to abandon the rabbinate and to make himself a place in the larger community. produced a result far beyond what he had intended: instead of guiding the Jews as he had hoped to a revivified and purified Judaism. now so prevalent since Herder. one must be sure that one will not put oneself in the position of acting merely as a servile tool of others: in one’s own sphere one must obtain independence. against engaging in agriculture or crafts? Both. the traditional body of their culture seemed at once to collapse in dust like a corpse in an unsealed tomb. had brought his people into contact with the culture of the outside German world. Baron von Westphalen. the Jewish philosopher. on the border between Germany and France. In choosing a profession. composed a theme for his final examination. who were having themselves baptized Protestants and Catholics. He used to take young Karl Marx for walks among the vineyard-covered hills of the Moselle and tell him about the Frenchman. One reflection — which the examiner has specially noted — comes to limit the flood of aspiration. Karl Marx’s paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Trier. some of them distinguished teachers of the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. and had been ennobled by him. the prohibitions against holding public office. was also a product of eighteenth-century civilization: his father had been confidential secretary to the liberal Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick. the special restrictions on movement. Saint-Simon. who had been the original of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise. There had been concentrated in Karl Marx the blood of several lines of Jewish rabbis. Next door to the Marxes in Trier lived a family named van Westphalen. one can never be a really great man. Moses Mendelssohn. Hirschel Marx was a Kantian free-thinker. loved Shakespeare and knew Homer by heart. and it had been possible for him to study law and to make himself a successful career. “But we cannot always follow the profession to which we feel ourselves to have been called. a young German-Jewish boy. through his translation of the Bible into German. he changed his name to Heinrich.Karl Marx: Prometheus and Lucifer 1 . the friend of Winckelmann and Voltaire. of the molding of human cultures by physical and geographical conditions? Was it the consciousness of the disabilities which still obstructed the development of the Jews: the terrible special taxes. said Karl Marx at seventeen. The German Jews of the eighteenth century were breaking away from the world of the ghetto. In the August of 1835. We shall never be able to fulfill ourselves truly unless we are working for the welfare of our fellows: then only shall our burdens not break us. From Edmund Wilson’s landmark To the Finland Station (1940). Already our physical nature threateningly bars the way. and it was radiant with those lofty ideals which are in order on such occasions and which in the present case have attracted attention only for the reason that the aspiring young man managed to live up to his aspirations. For the young Jews. some of the restrictions on the Jews had been relaxed. and they were already by Karl Marx’s generation beginning to play a role of importance in the literature and thought of the day. Living in Trier. and one must make sure that one has a field to serve humanity — for though one may otherwise become famous as a scholar or a poet. he opened to them the doors of the Enlightenment. Hirschel Marx. It was calledReflections of a Young Man on Choosing a Profession. . no doubt. You can download a full-text PDF of the book by clicking on the link above. had his whole family baptized Christians and rose to be Justizrat and head of the Trier bar. a student at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium at Trier on the Moselle. But M endelssohn. Karl’s father. and the families of both his father’s parents had produced unbroken successions of rabbis. Under the influence of the French Revolution. When the Prussians expelled Napoleon and it became illegal agai n for Jews to hold office. who wanted society organized scientifically in the interests of Christian charity: Saint-Simon had made an . It was an incident of the liquidation of medieval institutions and ideas. Ludwig von Westphalen read seven languages. he had been nourished on Rousseau and Voltaire as well as on the p hilosophy of the Germans. our relationships in society have already to some extent been formed before we are in a position to determine them.

and most of them transferred to Trier from other provinces — in that old city. is usually quite inappropriate to his more numerous romantic ones. For better do I deem it to be bound to this rock than to spend my life as Father Zeus’ faithful messenger”. we find a woeful old man.impression on Herr von Westphalen. was much courted by the sons of officials and landlords and army officers. Karl’s sister and Jenny von Westphalen became one another’s favorite friends. would take his place at the Trier bar. a pill would quite easily expel it. too. The sirens. though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress. “Know well I would never be willing to exchange my misfortune for that bondage of yours. In another ballad. They do not count beside the soul’s aspiration. that for them in their cold abysses there burns no eternal God. feel the joy of all his forces at full strain. In these poems. and they have the insistence of jealous affection. and they leave in the mind of the reader certain recurrent symbols. Their children played together in the Westphalens’ large garden. keep his course by the changeless stars. whose bones have whitened the rocks — declares to their faces that their charms are specious. Then Karl fell in love with Jenny. She was four years older than Karl and was considered one of the belles of Trier. the poet must pull down the shade so that they may not scare off his fancies. Both the Westphalens and the Marxes belonged to a small community of Protestant officials — numbering only a scant three hundred among a population of eleven thousand Catholics. then a bishopric of the Middle Ages. sink. already harsh and tight-knotted. had been trained by a remarkable father. that his Muse must be made to understand that the higher and better things will be promoted through attention to the more humble. iron and cold. a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all.Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth: he is to prefix to his doctor’s dissertation the speech of Aeschylus’ Prometheus to Zeus. There is a man in a yellow house. that he must scrub himself every week with sponge and soap. hoped that Karl. for they are cold in heart and mind and feel nothing. half-Scotch. all the gods. are there not asses. which during the lifetimes of the Westphalens and Marxes had been ruled alternately by the Germans and the French. all bones. and under their governance no deviation is possible. damned Philistines. but she waited for Karl seven years. will put to sea. which he himself denounced as rhetorical almost as soon as he had written it. and it is of interest in presenting the whole repertoire of his characteristic impulses and emotions before they are harnessed to the pistons of his system. but that in his breast the gods preside in their might. who said that his parents had given him nothing but his existence and his mother’s love. talks of Karl’s working for the “welfare of humanity. he will leave behind him the warm and quiet towns. and let his ship’s sail swell. This early student poetry of Marx. once a stronghold of the Romans. His mother writes him that he must not neglect to keep his rooms clean. There are doctors. is nevertheless not without its power. had character. with lack of consideration for his parents — Karl rarely seems to have answered his family’s letters. but he swears that he will have his revenge. In the summer of Karl’s eighteenth year. There are also sentimental souls who weep at the idea of a calf being slaughtered: yet. then shall I stride through the wreckage a creator!” Old Heinrich. In yet another of Karl Marx’s poems. he proclaims that the grandeurs and splendors of the pygmy-giants of earth are doomed to fall to ruins. blood pounding in his breast at the danger — he will defy and he will conquer the sea. shall still build itself a throne of giant scorn: “Jenny! if we can but weld our souls together. shall the soul remain defiant. but he disapproved of what seemed to him his uncanalized energies. His letters to his son are a mixture of excited admiration and apprehe nsion — lest Karl’s genius miscarry. talked well. Poland and Italy and so back thr ough the nations and the ages. with more advantages than he had had himself. Though he. discouraged. then with contempt shall I fling my glove in the world’s face. whose psychology is confined to the notion that our dreams are due to noodles and dumplings. She was intelligent. Old Heinrich reproaches the boy with egoism. who think the world is a bag of bones. his all-embracing intellectual ambitions. Karl Marx had conceived for her a devotion which lasted through his whole life. He recognized that Karl’s abilities were exceptional. a little man with a lean horror of a wife. which suits his satirical subjects. Jenny von Westphalen promised to marry him. he spoke German and English equally well. like Balaam’s. contend with the waves and the wind. lying at the bottom of the water. which is picking the bones of his brother. He wrote her bad romantic poetry from college. after all. when he was home on his vacation from college. Ludwig von Westphalen was half-German. gives him letters to influential persons who may be of use to him in making his career. but the waves make him dance when the moon is out.” he is exceedingly anxious for his son to establish good connections. he cries out continually over Karl’s frequent demands for money: does the young gentleman think his father is made of gold? Etc. but even the lyrics have something of the hard and dark crystallization which is afterwards to distinguish Marx’s writing. whose metaphysics consists of the belief that if it were possible to locate the soul. which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. and a contemporary cartoon on the suppression of the paper he is later to edit is to show him chained to his press with the Prussian eagle preying on his vitals. . his mother was of the family of the Dukes of Argyle. a mariner is roused from his bed by the storm: he will go forth. In another. that are human enough to talk? In one of Karl Marx’s ballads. assaulted by the songs of the sirens — very different from the sailors of Heine. even vanquished. The style. The Marxes had their international background of Holland. a second skipper.

Salomon Maimon. God knows not. thundering. but neglected it in favor of philosophy. had tried to reconcile rabbinical philosophy with Kant. sits up through many nights. Why does he cause the blood to leap? Why does he lash his bow to shreds? — Why do the waves roar? the spirit demands in answer. not merely in some smoked-up room beside a bad-smelling oil-lamp. At Berlin. that he should be transferred to the University of Berlin. and Engels put it in his coffin when he was dead. when Karl Marx was eighteen.” reads gigantically. Karl must learn to present himself to the world in an agreeable and advantageous light. it was vital for the son to reject much. taken part in a row which had arisen between the plebeian tavern clubs and the aristocratic Korps associations. philosophy. undergoes many agitations both from outward and inward causes. It reaches a climax in a letter of huge length and tragic emotional force. Art: it rises from the vapors of Hell — it maddens the brain and it alters the heart. Sent away to the country to recover. 1841.” as he says. His son. contracted considerable debts. ’Tis the Devil who beats me the time and the Dead March the tune I must play. . they may crash on the cliff — that the soul may crash on the floor of Hell. plans immense labors. We shall revert to this aspect of Marx later on: but it may be said here that Karl Marx was too profoundly and completely a Jew to worry much about the Jewish problem in the terms in which it was discussed during his lifetime. Heinrich’s correspondence with Karl has a certain dramatic interest. was to play an unprecedented role as a leader in the modern world. made this same year. nor honors. He had made his social isolation complete — he was never again to encourage any friends save those who fed his intellectual interests. that the denying genius may develop into a solid thinker. In one of them a wild violinist appears. in a white gown and with a saber at his side. shut in with a crazy scholar. Above all. which give his life its heroic dignity. but with his head held high under its heavy black helmet of hair and thrown back with a look of brooding fierceness from thick and strong black brows and black eyes. the apparition replies. “repulses friendships. who is bringing to him all her devotion and sacrificing her social position: in return. which would disappear with the capitalist system. The only opinion he would express on this issue was that the usurious activities of the Jews. — It was decided. “neglects nature. and finally — in the summer of 1836 — fought a duel and got a wound over the eye. He hopes. also a teacher in the Jewish tradition but now quite free of the Judaic system and with all the thought of Western Europe at his disposal. with mockery thou tearest thy heart! That art which a bright god has lent thee thou shouldst send to swell the music of the spheres. that he will realize that art is to be acquired only through intercourse with well-bred people. the pride and independence. with his father’s emphatic approval. Karl’s daughter tells us.” become a member of a Poets’ Club suspected of subversive ideas and under the surveillance of the political police. of making those around him happy? Old Marx is impressive in his letters. seem to go back to the great days of Israel and to be unconscious of the miseries between. In a lithograph of the members of his tavern club. which was at that time in the German universities the great subject of intellectual interest and of which Karl wa s a born addict and master. he carried a picture of him about all his life. Nay. which has beep described by a contemporary as a “workhouse” in contrast to the “Bacchanalian” character of the other German universities. who was fond of Jenny and who had done what he could to promote the match. 1837 ) five months before the old man’s death — a last desperate effort to save his son from turning into something which the father dreads. Why does he fiddle so madly? asks the speaker. and he had worked himself into a decline. which had made them unpopular with their neighbors and which to him were more objectionable still. His father’s letters grow continually more troubled. where he remained till March 30. He was already on his way to becoming the great secular rabbi of his century. writes poetry. enormously admired his father and was never tired of talking about him. — But. he had read through the whole of Hegel and gone on to the works of Hegel’s disciples. already foresaw the future and felt himself helpless against it. were simply a special malignant symptom of capitalism. in the century before. he tells Karl. art and society. Karl Mar x. But much as he got from his father that was valuable. Karl had joined a convivial tavern club. got into trouble with the university authorities for “nocturnal drunkenness and riot. makes translations. he is shown in the background . musician. In his own case. he must be careful of Jenny. written (December 9. to which he had gone in the fall of 1835. Yet are they? Two of Marx’s poems he rewrote and finally published in 1841. at the University of Bonn. with this blood-black saber I pierce the soul. That. fights through many battles. he studied law in compliance with his father’s wishes. Has Karl more brains and brilliance than heart? Is it a divine or a Faustian daemon that possesses him? Will he ever be capable of domestic happiness. he must provide her with a place in actual human society. he must win consideration and affection. The old man. For Karl seems already to have shaken from him the barbarian social world of the beer-swilling and saber-brandishing German students and to have returned to the rabbinical world. Now he shuts himself up to think and study.In the meantime. the conviction of moral superiority.

speakest so strangely seldom. which allegedly accompany our utterances -. Physical objects. Wittgenstein. thou hast drunk of poison. explained. Karl Marx was married to Jenny von Westphalen in the June of 1843. and through the years of his later life he was to be familiarly known as “Old Nick. he continued. Daniela Ginsburg (tr. and other so-called 'ordinary language philosophers' have a rightful place in the current debate among philosophers of the 'analytic' or 'Anglo -Saxon' tradition. University of Kent Originally published by Vrin in 2000 under the title Du réel à l'ordinaire: Quelle philosophie du langage aujourd'hui?. she asks. o blood of youth — Darling. this denunciation of 'the myth of meaning' is simultaneously a criticism of referential or denotational theories as well as of a realism that aspires to a 'shared ontology common to different physical theories or conceptual schemes' (16). The second poem is a dialogue between sweethearts: Beloved. what is said. flee away. — With violence he clasps her to his heart. who stretches his arms toward the heavens as if he would tear down their canopy. Quine described the conceptual scheme of science as a tool with which to predict future experience in the light of past. in their different ways. but leaps. — Then. In Quine. predicted. I can no longer see the light. the later Wittgenstein. Night has fallen. and their constituent expressions. Austin and Wittgenstein share. says the lover. never more will she open her eyes.. are useful intermediaries conceptually imported not from definition in terms of experience. What.the erstwhile forefather of philosophical naturalism -. focusing in the end on what can be elicited from the practice of ordinary language philosophy. not as Sinn or 'propositional content' construed as an intermediary between expressions that 'mean the same'. it was hardly ever visible in America.” True: the devil as well as the rebel was one of the conventional masks of the romantic. written at about this time. Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy Sandra Laugier. Why We Need Ordinary Language Philosophy. Lucifer was to hover behind Prometheus through the whole of Karl Marx’s life: he was the malevolent obverse side of the rebel benefactor of man. but rather as irreducible posits or constructs . argued. thou lookest so pale. with terrified glance: My dear. too. says the lover. University of Chicago Press. Their work opened up a different way of understanding meaning. Sandra Laugier covers a wealth of authors. as they take on different 'inflections of meaning' or 'elasticities of significance' within the various situations in which they are employed to perform their multitudinous jobs. 2013. Marx is described as the “black fellow from T rier. This involves tracing what Ryle calls the 'logical powers' of the sentences. $35. thou must needs depart with me now. 147pp. the criticism of the myth was explicit in Ryle (neglected in this book) as early as 1929 as well as in Austin and. Thou hast drunken of the soul: shine. But this 'conceptual cartographical' approach (a description I prefer to 'ordinary language') has all but disappeared in Europe. thy grief stings thee — thou tremblest beneath my breath. who clenches his fist and raves as if a thousand devils had him by the hair. that is. death in his breast and breath. In postwar England.” a savage and sinewy monster. my jewel — shine.). upon his prey. two years after he had graduated at Berlin. But what to my mind is particularly special about Laugier's approach (upon which this review will focus) is that she begins with Quine -. whispering. a criticism of meaning conceived as a 'core common to different languages' or 'the idea of an intermediary entity that would guarantee equivalence or correspondence between them' (16). let us merge our souls in one. threatened. who creeps not. they pass and they shine — let us. etc.and shows that he. this timely English translation joins a welcome list of recent attempts to insist that the neglected insights of Austin. More alarming. replies the maiden.00 (hbk). expressed. most famously. shine. On this view (still in my words) to learn about meaning is to learn about what is meant. Heinrich Marx had died in May of 1838. See with what celestial music the worlds pass across the heavens! — My dear. promised. Laugier reminds us. as Laugier points out. ISBN 9780226470542.” His little son used to call him “Devil. She is pierced by a deeper pain. In a satirical poem by Engels and Edgar Bauer. but there is something other than romantic perversity in this assumption of a diabolic role. drove this particular schism in the history of analytic philosophy? As early as 'Two Dogmas'. Reviewed byJulia Tanney.but instead (in my words) as a shifting series of commitments that are implicitly undertaken as the target expressions are appropriately or correctly employed from one circumstance to another.

The problem according to Laugier is that. Although Quine's notion of logic-as-regimentation for the language of science is preferable to the logicist's dream of using formalism to discover the structures of thought and language. for example of 'about'.is at the very starting point of Quine's philosophy' (21-22). For 'all of American philosophy of language. that the irreconcilable demands in Quine -. for example. to shy away from examining our uses of 'true' as Laugier points out that Austin does in order to learn something about truth or. incidentally. but rather as 'inherent to our common use of language' (22). Rorty. Instead. Even so. Laugier says. Not as notions immanent to science and conceptual schemes. Quine is committed to saying that our objects are posits and our ontology is relativized to a choice of background theory. the translation of the object theory into the background theory will. with Laugier. claims Laugier.are relativized in a way described above.cannot be met.the question of the reality of the entities postulated by theories to account for experience. With this reclamation we can agree.' she says (concurring with Putnam) is based on the idea that 'we have "only" experience. invent language. first. For Quine. it does not follow that there is no project that involves scrutinizing 'what we say' in natural (non-formal) language in order to understand what is meant. in rejecting this dogma and perhaps empiricism tout court. as Ryle does. The interest of Laugier's project is. for example. Laugier argues.'comparable. The myth of physical objects is more efficacious than other myths insofar as it provides a structure to the flux of experience. But she also takes her readers through a journey in which they come to see. We thus learn what is true or the variety of ways of being 'about' in the senses in which these notions can be reclaimed. inherent in our use of language. There is no reason. and of the irreducibility of these entities (posits) to sensorial data -. is 'internal' to our theory of nature). as for Hume. that language does indeed speak about something' (38). our experience gives us neither knowledge nor objects. But. this starting point of Quine's work has fuelled subsequent discussions of realism in metaphysics and epistemology: 'The question of realism -. Laugier insists. Davidson himself seems to miss the 'radical' conclusion it suggests: that it is also necessary to give up on what philosophers of language (including Davidson) understand by their subject: namely. of organizing system and something waiting to be organized. In particular. though for Quine. and though his 'givens' -. construct our theories. . and about the affirmation. and from it we must produce knowledge.to affirm realism within an empiricist framework -. to the gods of Homer' (Quine. Indeed. seems in spite of everything to define something about the relation we establish between language and the world. that 'the ordinary notion of true . necessarily. the very notion of 'fact of the matter'.'sensory stimulations' and 'surface irritations' -. some of the exaggerated reactions against it. epistemologically. in the ordinary sense(s) of that word. Indeed. But is that all? Is there a deep reason this myth is successful? According to Laugier. Laugier points out. in order. 'the question of realism is in any case immanent' (24). Instead she proposes to move from Quine's rejection of the myth of meaning qua intermediary (a rejection he has in common with the 'ordinary language' philosophers) and to drop 'once and for all' the empiricist ideal. for example. especially as this has been understood by subsequent generations of metaphysicians. be indeterminate (including. to debunk the idea that there is an'aboutness relation'. which. she continues. it still inherits the problem of realism. . .how do we do it?' (25). From a Logical Point of View. the absurdity or 'spuriousness' of asking a bout language's adequacy to the world. as she eventually did. For even if Quine and Davidson are right (after Wittgenstein and others) to have renounced representational theories of language. goes too far in stating that after Quine's and Davidson's criticisms. we must renounce the kind of empiricism that 'makes us expect knowledge to come from our "nerve endings"' (22). she adds later. there is no point in studying language in order to discover anything about reality. this is the third dogma of empiricism that Davidson identified in his criticism of 'the very idea of a conceptual scheme': the dualism of scheme and content. What a miracle -. there is still a tension with his claim to be a 'robust' realist. to remind her readers that the father of naturalis m rejected many of the presuppositions that fund their own projects. Quine's reconstrual of ontology involves a 'triple relativization': one can ask what exists only in terms of what a theory says exists and what a theory says exists can only be understood against a background theory. 21). including. quoted in Laugier.

Nonetheless.Instead. 'When we examine what we should say when. To put it Wittgenstein's way. but as the place of agre ement on what we should say when. For as Austin and Wittgenstein (and Ryle) show in their arguments. but as simply "given. ibid. cited in Laugier. not as a body of statements or words. 'the examination of language is not "a way to access" phenomena: it is the examination of facts. 2015 Photo . Philosophical Papers. for Austin. part of experience' (63). Indeed. as Laugier adds on Austin's behalf. (Austin. 'the speaking of a language is part of an activity or a form of life' (Philosophical Investigations. . 66). as Austin insists. though it is often a long and difficult process. we do tend to come to agreement. what words we should use in what situations. 30. 67). .' And it is with this thought. it derives. Laugier argues. that we can find a resurrected sort of realism. we are looking again not merely at words (or 'meanings' whatever they may be) but also at the realities we use the words to talk about' (Austin. it is. §23). as Austin maintains. 'language as it was first put forward to philosophy [was] not as something made. as Laugier maintains." already there' (31). Or. . 182. cited in Laugier. from 'the inherited experience and acumen of many generations of men. Can Students Have Too Much Tech? By SUSAN PINKERJAN. Language should be construed. Language (our language) is not a reflection or form of experience. Thus to reflect on language is to reflect on what is revealed within and by the multitudinous activities that constitute it.

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In fact. most adults would do the same. But there was one thing he got wrong. with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. As part of his promise to educate American children for an increasingly competitive world. Impoverished children would thus have the power to go online and educate themselves — no school or teacher required. it will widen it. (And why not? Given their druthers. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The news was not good. Apps and videos don’t. but we can speculate. Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies.” More technology in the classroom has long been a policy-making panacea. donations poured in. We don’t know why this is. adding that license to surf the Internet was also linked to lower grades in younger children. many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork. The researchers assessed the students’ math and reading skills annually for five years. “Students who gain access to a home computer between the 5th and 8th grades tend to witness a persistent decline in reading and math scores. And when they did work. What’s worse. the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child project envisioned a digital utopia in which all students over 6 years old. With laptops for poor children initially priced at $400. troll social media and download entertainment. according tothe education researchers Mark Warschauer and Morgan Ames. their reading scores fell off a cliff. especially those from struggling families. but to play games. If anything. he vowed to “protect a free and open Internet” and “extend its reach to every classroom and every community. With no adults to supervise them. has a lot to like: health care. Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story Continue reading the main story But the program didn’t live up to the ballyhoo. .” the economists wrote. worldwide. affordable college. African-Americans) were more adversely affected than the rest. For one thing. Beginning in 2006. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success.) The problem is the differential impact on children from poor families. the students’ academic scores dropped and remained depressed for as long as the researchers kept tabs on them. the machines were buggy and often broke down. and recorded how they spent their time. When their computers arrived. the Duke University economists Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd tracked the academic progress of nearly one million disadvantaged middle-school students against the dates they were given networked computers. PRESIDENT OBAMA’s domestic agenda. why would adding more viewing and clicking to their school days be considered a good idea? An unquestioned belief in the power of gadgetry has already led to educational snafus. maternity leave. the weaker students (boys. If children who spend more time with electronic devices are also more likely to be out of sync with their peers’ behavior and learning by the fourth grade. But mounting evidence shows that showering students. would own their own laptops. which he announced in his State of the Union address this month. the impoverished students who received free laptops spent more time on games and chat rooms and less time on their homework than before. In the early 2000s. It’s drive-by education — adults distribute the laptops and then walk away.

Like so much in philosophy. just one year with a gifted teacher in middle school makes it far less likely that a student will get pregnant in high school. and forms what the English-language editor Emily Apter calls “an organising principle of the entire project”. However. of course: translation is almost never a straightforward conversion. reached through constantly evolving. and always translate each other”. then the present version is doubly so: not just a dictionary of untranslatable words. it is worth the investment only when it’s perfectly suited to the task. . said Larry Cuban. a professor of education at the University at Buffalo. As Jacques Derrida put it: “In a sense. a huge dictionary of philosophical terms from many languages. it is easy for me always to hold firm between these two hyperboles which are fundamentally the same. and “Schloss” as château . But only when such teachers are effectively trained to apply a specific application to teaching a particular topic to a particular set of students — only then does classroom technology really work. Translation is not identity of meaning. which is available every Thursday in print and via the TLS app. and translation isn’t. Derrida’s point that the two extremes or hyperboles are “fundamentally the same” amounts to this: the only reason for thinking that translation is impossible (the second extreme) is that it must require literal identity of meaning (the first extreme). One reason why the first extreme (which the editors call the “mapping or isomorphic” conception of translation) is impossible is that identity is transitive. highly trained teacher. Indeed. then A and C are identical in meaning. theorizing about translation (and. A moment’s reflection shows this cannot be right: “castle” can be translated as Schloss. and it is getting better every day thanks to the strength of its algorithms and the sheer brute force of its data - . moving the word “untranslatable” to the beginning of the English title proudly asserts the paradox even more forcefully than the original French title does. While we’re waiting to find out. at the other. if translation requires identity of meaning. and much more likely that she will go to college. the brainchild of the French philosopher Barbara Cassin. the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers. But the novelty wears off after a few months. Lisa Hilton’s Good Queen Bess – and much more. helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most. At one extreme. a necessary reappraisal of Mo Yan. Even then. tech-centric skills that students learn in the classroom transfer to novel problems that they need to solve in other areas. a new poem by John Ashbery. technology can work only when it is deployed as a tool by a terrific. Google Translate does work. it is simply impossible. live in a good neighborhood and save for retirement. and this is clearly impossible. beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools. To the extent that such a teacher can benefit from classroom technology. so that a free and open Internet. Rather than despair at the self-undermining self- referentiality of the whole idea. The philosophy of translation TIM CRANE We hope you enjoy this free piece from the TLS. Derrida was right. we still have no proof that the newly acquired. This is why it is such a fertile subject for philosophy. an emeritus education professor at Stanford. Technology does have a role in education. And. told me. Apter comments (apparently without irony) that “the extent of our translation task became clear only when we realised that a straightforward conversion of the French edition into English simply would not work”. about the related concept of meaning) lurches between two unappealing extremes. then if A translates B and B translates C. She is right. earn a decent salary. As extensive research shows. It’s true that there is often an initial uptick in students’ engagement with their studies — interactive apps can be fun. of course. he or she should get it. but the Château de Chenonceau is not a castle in anyone’s book. for example. the editors rejoice in it. originally published in 2004. This extraordinary book. translation is conceived of in terms of literal identity of meaning. it is important not to exaggerate when we reject the mapping conception of translation. in science simulations. But as Randy Yerrick. In other words. but a translation of that dictionary. everything is untranslatable . In her preface. . If the original project was paradoxical. nothing is untranslatable. but in another sense. is a translation of Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. So we do not show that translation is impossible by showing that there is no identity of meaning. of course. This week’s issue also features Thomas Pynchon adapted for the big screen. or to teach students with learning disabilities.

conciencia in Spanish). It does not provide identities of meaning. and then of French. . “Imagination” the same. and so is rarely translated (except by clunky hyphenated constructions such as “Being-there”). Many of the entries are illuminating. And some of its content is just inaccurate. the second. This distinction is not a trivial one: some see it as connected to the distinction between treating the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics (say) as an irreducible feature of reality. A famous example is Heidegger’s Dasein. Étienne Balibar’s entry on “consciousness” struggles with the conceptual and historical connections between consciousness and conscience. Although “consciousness” and “conscience” are etymologically related. Brague observes that philosophizing in the vernacular in Europe began with Ramon Llull writing in Catalan in the thirteenth century. Leibniz. the struggle is an unnecessary artefact of the original entry’s being about the French wordconscience . ‘Philosophy’ itself remained transcribed rather than translated into languages other than Greek. Things had changed by the time Heidegger . An untranslatable is defined here as either “a term that is left untranslated as it is transferred from language to language”. Many other words in the Dictionary are like this. This example illustrates that the Dictionary cannot really be used as a dictionary of philosophy in the usual way – something to which you might direct students. as when you spend time with friends and family. There: I’ve told you what it means. but for the English reader. but “Ereignis” (as used by Heidegger) gets a page and a half. But the choice and relative sizes of entries are eccentric. We have “demos” but not “democracy”. but what is most fascinating about the book is its partial vision of a fragment of European culture.mining. wrote no philosophical works in German. the word “philosophy” itself is “the untranslatable par excellence . to help them get clear accounts of complex concepts. deriving from the eighteenth-century English cleric Thomas Bayes]. One central question in this debate is whether talk about the probability of an event is attributing a property to the event itself (for example. This is why it is such a fertile subject for philosophy Other philosophical words have gained their meanings through a creative process of neologism. Cléro distinguishes between objective and subjective interpretations. but it does give word-by-word translations. through the dissection of its philosophical vocabulary. but the entry should have been called “Perception and Apperception from Leibniz to Fichte”. “Consciousness” is conscience in French (coscienza in Italian. and treating it as an expression of our ignorance (as in the so-called “hidden variable” theories). The historical material is valuable. “idea” gets half a page. calling the first “probability” and the second “chance”. Google Translate will not get very far with translating a poem. Translation is almost never a straightforward conversion. they have for centuries expressed completely different concepts in English. Hungarian invented one too – bölcselet – but the basic point remains). of course. and the unqualified “probability” for both the subjective and the objective (Cléro does not refer to a single work published after 1975). If this is a dictionary. eating well in a warm room. or with the untranslatables of this dictionary. or one that is “typically subject to mistranslation and retranslation”. as far as philosophy is concerned. the subjective sense. The first is probability in the objective sense. everyone in contemporary anglophone philosophy uses the word “chance” for objective probability. it will just take a bit longer to explain. Unfortunately. If Chevalley had consulted Jean-Pierre Cléro’s entry on “Chance/Probability”. as Rémi Brague points out in his excellent entry on “Europe”. But it took some time for national identities to impose themselves on philosophical discourse. of course). the probability of a coin landing heads is 50 per cent) or whether it is just an expression of a degree of subjective certainty or ignorance (I am 50 per cent sure that it will land heads).300 pages it presents a certain conception of some central terms from philosophy and their history and etymology. because of the international intellectual role of Latin. Sometimes considering this process in too much detail can give rise to spurious questions. the very different ideas of “description” and “depiction” get a shared entry. “Event” gets a quarter of a page. applied to a place or social event. Catherine Chevalley makes the odd comment that “it remains difficult in French to discuss the import of Bayesianism [a dominant contemporary probability-based theory of knowledge. one of the greatest German philosophers. and it does this mechanically. Spanish and Italian words can also be translated into the English “conscience”. . . she would have found there an extensive discussion of both Bayes anddifferent interpretations of probability (written originally in French. which in ordinary German means existence. it is closer to those of Pierre Bayle (1697) or Dr Johnson (1755). The best articles – among them those by historians of philosophy of the calibre of Brague or Alain de Libera – tease out the complex relations of meaning and etymology across the languages of Europe. or different interpretations of the notion of probability”. The Danish are proud of the untranslatability of their word hygge – a word conveying an atmosphere of welcoming cosiness. “Perception” is paired with “Apperception” (Leibniz’s word for self-consciousness). for example. but whose precise philosophical meaning is the subject of endless debate. and the author Michel Fichant takes the history of the subject only as far as Fichte in the mid-nineteenth century. and these French. Heidegger’sDasein is like that. In an entry on “Epistemology”. By these criteria. mistranslation and retranslation. Only the Dutch language coined a word Wijsbegeerte which was a calque of the etymology of philosophia” (actually. and these concepts are expressed by different words in other languages. In 1.

. especially given that French is “close to being an Adamic language in Badiou’s ascription”. It’s hard to know what claiming this right consisted in. But his remarks about the French language bring to mind Wittgenstein’s joke about the French politician who “wrote that it was a peculiarity of the French language that in it words occur in the order in which one thinks them”. This “skewed distribution of emphasis” is described as “clearly an important part of the polemical raison d’être of the French original”. unseating predicates through the play of substitutions and the art of the imperious question”. in an intellectual context where English has become what Apter calls “the singular language of universal knowledge”. more than anything. but this is not specific to French. Above all. Descartes. Badiou claims that philosophical French is “a language of women and the working class rather than of scientists”. in Alain Badiou’s entry on “French”. Austin. Sartre. and like it or not. English-language philosophy (not the same as “English thought”!) is conspicuously absent. Deleuze. is “strictly speaking. given that no one was stopping any of these people from writing in their native language. all claimed the right to write in their native language. “nothing is harder than to translate a witticism”. A lot must be contained in that “strictly speaking”. but it is not one that is addressed by Badiou. there is pressure on scholars worldwide. . to write in English. though. maxims and universal principles. a remarkable paean to the French language as a language of philosophy. This Dictionary is. but that its provincialism may mislead those who do not know anything about what the rest of the world thinks. The essence of language may be syntax. So perhaps it is deliberate. this is all the more odd because Badiou himself has written a book on Wittgenstein. of course. in a huge number of academic fields. in sum. then. But it gets worse. perhaps with a little embarrassment. “Anglo-analytic” philosophy dominates university departments in the United States. . and not explicitly discussed by Badiou – has nothing to do with whether Bergson et al were claiming a right to freedom of language. the French approach embodied in Cassin’s book is on the decline worldwide. a loving celebration of philosophy as conceived by French philosophers The Francocentrism is brought to self-parodic heights. the United Kingdom. Gilbert Ryle. the editors would surely demur. One way to see theDictionary. as Chomsky has argued. The editors are explicit about this: Apter says that the book is “a direct challenge to the preeminence of Anglo-analytic philosophical traditions . will understand something of how this came about. the French language is conducive to the politicisation of expression. “National ontology”. Obviously as frustrated as the editors are by the linguistic imperialism of English. ignoring consensus . Today. and has nothing to do with political freedom. In the natural sciences. or by anyone else in this Dictionary of Untranslatables. . Badiou himself is the master of the imperious question. a loving celebration of philosophy as conceived by French philosophers. Australasia and many parts of Continental Europe. The so-called “ordinary language” philosophers are here (J. In fact. and also therefore why the original edition of the Dictionary has been described as “a surprise hit” in France. the right to freedom of language”. Bergson. it is simply impossible to succeed without writing in English. But this fact – regrettable or not. L. he remarks plaintively that “the major creative figures in philosophy in French.pronounced that “only our German language has a deep and creative philosophical character to compare with the Greek”. and Lacan. Anyone familiar with how philosophy in Europe developed in the twentieth century. anathema to Badiou”. Despite the amount of attention paid to Heidegger in this book. towards Venus rather than Minerva. she says. As Barbara Cassin herself observes. Apter discusses Badiou’s entry at length. . For the Dictionary of Untranslatables is. The fact that “philosophy in French is political” is supposed to be a fac t about the language itself: “the latent universalism of any use of French. could Badiou be making fun of those “Anglo-Saxons” who strive for simplicity and clarity in their philosophical prose and mock the “obscurantism” of the French? Is the joke on the Anglo- Saxons and the “imperium of English thought”? It’s hard to tell. the imperium of English [sic] thought was strategically curtailed”. is as an extended lament for the decline of French as a “preeminent language of philosophy”. for Badiou. moving it as far as possible away from academic or scientific entrenchment”. Wittgenstein) but very little else. . The worry is not so much that it is Francocentric. and with twentieth-century history more generally. Certainly. But like it or not. rests entirely on the belief that theessence of language is syntax”. still opposed to the academy it speaks (politically) to the public and not to colleagues”. Stanley Cavell. more than anything. Brague’s long entry on “Europe” devotes only three sentences to English. Certainly. Philosophy in French is “violently polemical . What can this possibly mean? Apter struggles: “it lends itself to logical formalism. In her preface. It’s a good question what happened to French philosophical prose between Voltaire and Lacan. axioms. Tim Crane is Knightbridge Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and the Philosophy editor of the TLS. from Descartes to the present. . This bizarre association of ideas reaches its climax in Badiou’s claim that Descartes’s dedication of his Principles of Philosophyto Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia “is in reality a basic democratic intention that turns philosophical discourse towards discussion and seduction.

here’s a list of the five most awful atheists. sans wit or the wisdom to waterboard himself. but 100. Will this growing constituency become a formidable political force before global warming decimates civilization? I’m skeptical. profiling on the basis on ethnicity is useless. obtuse notion that fat. Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs. evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. he’s just not very well informed. In other words: The crap always rises to the top. Harris’ “War on Islam” zealotry is numerically unjustifiable. surely. lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight.Five atheists who ruin it for everyone else Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff. The only difference being: cervical cancer doesn’t blame its victims for failing to laugh. Most grating. So while we wait around to fully succumb to drought. Harris’ atheist fame is both wholly undeserved and utterly embarrassing. Compounding the unpleasant nature of Maher’s wheat-grass pomposity is that. For a guy who purportedly came to be an atheist through his intellect. Disbelief in a supernatural creator. for example. like. and this spring roughly 20. it’s quite another thing to defend torture and racial profiling. Harris is basically a low-rent Hitchens. You’re four times as likely to die of a lightning strike than you are from a terrorist attack. he failed to notice that torture rarely produces reliable intelligence. But for all Harris’ sometimes lofty rhetoric about science. atheism is on the rise in the United States. Harris represents a disturbing anti-Muslim confluence between atheists and neoconservatives in this here post-9/11 ‘Murka. this newfangled thing called “critical thinking” is poised to better the national discourse. and famine. or that they simply don’t believe in anything in particular. That godless number was a scant 6 percent in 1990. for someone who wrote a book titled The Moral Landscape. or say. agnostic. . so. By shamelessly trotting out the same “ticking-nuke” fairy tale as every other Jack and Jill Bauer on Fox News. thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists Like a fresh-baked loaf of sanity resting on the window of human possibility.” along with philosopher Daniel Dennett. yes? Well… The thing about the so-called “rationalist” movement in America is that disbelief in gods seems to be the only qualification to join the club. and yet this constitutes the gravest threat to Western civilization. especially as the movement becomes more popular or “hep. and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. he’s just not amenable to evidence. While it’s fine to ridicule Islam. But according to the Pew Research Center. 1 in 5 of Americans now say they’re either atheist.000 atheists showed up—rain and all—at the first ever Reason Rally in DC. in no way guarantees rationality in matters of foreign policy or economics.” as I’m pretending the kids say. poor people just need to. And according to security expert Bruce Schneier. the ridiculous story about Muhammad (PB&J) flying to Jerusalem on a Buraq (a winged and inexplicably shame-ridden horse with a dude’s face). from vaccines to the news items he discusses. despite the protestations of Texas Republicans.000 (at least) civilian casualties in Iraq is mere fodder for thought experiment apologia. shop at Whole Foods. for the oppression of women. and the late Christopher Hitchens. crop failure. Bill Maher The “Real Time” host’s thinly veiled misogyny. Harris routinely fails to demonstrate the faintest capacity to reason. Sam Harris Dubbed one of the “Four Horsemen” of “new atheism. and that it’s a wildly counterproductive jihadist recruitment tool. and self-righteous condescension in all things religious and political might be tolerable were it not for the fact that he’s on comedic par with cervical cancer.

I don’t believe… OK…care to add any Cato Institute canards? It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. they used to carry a dogeared copy of Atlas Shrugged around on tour—to give you some idea. No. Ayaan Hirsi Ali While she’s to be commended for her staunch defense of women suffering under Sharia law. Unable to call bullshit on Ayn Rand. If I don’t know. the documentary which inspired the assassination of its director Theo van Gogh. Facts are all self-righteous and bullying and lazy and objectively accurate and junk. or he needs to start reading books. Hirsi Ali notoriously received death threats for writing the screenplay to Submission. At least Teller has the decency never to speak. Translation: If the dern gubmint would just stop overtaxing the rich at gunpoint. Jillette’s profoundly illogical explanation defies deconstruction: What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist — I don’t know. you guys! While private charity is important in America. the bloviating. Maher commits a classic bandwagon fallacy by claiming it’s a “conversation worth having” because so many people believe vaccinations are harmful. the answer is obviously one Sarah Elizabeth Cupp. They’re not awesome like Glenn Beck. S. global warming denial.In ’09. But you know how facts can be. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Penn Jillette Like many skeptics. and Western aggression. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.” He then tried to “clarify” his Luddite remark with a piece on the anti-vax Huffington Post that conflated scientific consensus with…(wait for it)…religion! If one side can say anything and its not challenged. Bill. which in the United States he would not be. no worries. the co-host of . that’s not how that works. ponytailed half of Penn & Teller arrived at his disbelief via the world of magic. Color me disappointed for presuming an American atheist couldn’t possibly be so myopic. she lends an illusion of street cred to all manner of egregious “free-market” worship.E. consider this article he wrote for CNN called “I don’t know. Americans would have to give roughly 10 times what they do to cover the cost of social welfare programs. Cupp Pop quiz: Who wrote the book Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity? Although it’s tempting to presume such dreck must be the work of a religious demagogue like Bryan Fischer or John Hagee. not knowing things is not a good reason to be an atheist. it’s demonstrably wrong to suggest that it’s an apt substitute for a just tax structure. so I’m an atheist libertarian. then they could have enough money left over for charity. the smoke and mirrors of economic libertarianism has the two performers completely duped.” The consummate over-reactionary.he had the time to plot a murder. especially because of our highly regressive gunpoint tax code. As a devout Randroid and atheist outlier. like giant mystified toddlers. Hirsi Ali consistently demonstrates both galling hypocrisy and a stupefying lack of self-awareness. what could have been an inspiring career based on reason and social justice quickly devolved into one of neoconservative lunacy. But. In the same article. Constitution. However. she’s traded one form of totalitarian dogma for another—openly contending that reason must be shunted when confronting an irrational enemy. the Somali-born former Dutch politician’s few good deeds shouldn’t absolve her for being to Islam what Ayn Rand was to Communism. and her ridiculous objectivist spin on this tragedy was nothing short of shameful: “[The killer] was on welfare…. As a former Muslim and current fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. From her call to violently “crush” Islam or convert Muslims to Christianity to her desire to deny Muslims their First Amendment rights under the U. Mission accomplished.S. which is a super-accurate description of reality. For a better glimpse into Jillette’s intellectual compartmentalization. he told America that getting “[a] flu shot is the worst thing you can do. Like Rand. I have a “New Rule” that should fix everything: Bill Maher has to either stop booking half-bright libertarians who rhetorically roll his uninformed ass.” While vast ignorance is a valid reason to be an economic libertarian. then of course dissent becomes heresy in the minds of many.

” because she thinks religion serves as a “check” on presidential power.MSNBC’s newly minted phony-balance-media-abortion “The Cycle” is more at home bashing atheism than she is defending it—per market demand. In an atheist integrity contest. That’s not hyperbole. and generally publishing in areas related to fiction and the arts.” like public roads and bridges and so forth. a juxtaposition worthy of Marshall’s concern: ‘where have all the philosophers gone?’ Marshall describes 3:AM as ‘a self-proclaimed underground mag’.00. of course—is to spout moronic Americans for Prosperity talking points about the evils of “collectivism. Cupp’s biggest passion—aside from classical dance and NASCAR. “I would never vote for an atheist president. ISBN 9780199969531 reviewed by Jeffrey Petts The day I first looked at 3:AM the latest End Times interview by Richard Marshall shared the website’s homepage with a review of Russell Brand’s Revolution. Where Have All The Philosophers Gone? Richard Marshall. . When not claiming that imaginary things can affect real things. which are ostensibly destroying the American Dream. essentially iconoclastic rather than philosophical. She recently said. Philosophy at 3:AM: Questions and Answers with 25 Top Philosophers Oxford University Press. she loses to Stalin by a mustache. Cupp’s self-loathing-token-atheist-in-the-conservative-media routine seems so geared toward delegitimizing atheism. 304pp. and selling books to fundie Fox types. Ever. we’re against it’. she’s chummy with Glenn Beck because idiotic atheists and idiotic Mormons have a natural alliance. ‘Whatever it is. Like Jillette. that is strains credulity. often anti-academia. £20. she doesn’t have a mustache. His series of interviews began as an experiment in the effects of introducing philosophers and their ideas and working methods in the context of 3:AM’s contrastingly broad agenda.

distances himself from any idea that their work merely ‘rephrases philosophical questions as questions about words and concepts’. out to. Williamson. Marshall’s example. by his general interests in marriage and morals. Within that context Marshall’s interviews tend to focus on each philosopher’s method and solutions to particular problems. In the course of the interview Gutting gives the by now standard response about philosophy as ‘intellectual maintenance’. although linking the work of ‘understanding implications’ and ‘eliminating internal contradictions’ to ‘defending and modifying fundamental beliefs. philosophy of mind and language and to ethics and political philosophy. and their relations to other thinkers. Jean-Paul Sartre. and Marshall’s interview with him reveals another thematic difference between analytic and Continental philosophy when Fodor’s response to the latter is: ‘as a matter of principle I refuse to read philosophers who write that badly. for example. ‘democracy’. ‘justice’ are used. especially by drawing on cognitive science. especially. however.Marshall has been prolific – this batch of 25 interviews is from 2011-12 and the series continues (well over 100 interviews have been published). Jerry Fodor’s philosophy of mind works in that vein. notes Williamson. Williamson is unconcerned. as such one could say he’s the personification of British analytic philosophy. metaphysics and logic. set the subsequent selection criteria – he thought hisVagueness (1994) intriguingly ‘odd. past and present. what do they know? What Do Philosophers Know? is the title of a 2009 book by the last interviewee. that philosophers then turn to psychologists. leaving the field to other intellectuals – historians.’ (His book on what philosophers know is. But when asked about the possible neglect of his work in contrast to the supposed high public profiles of Continental philosophers. along with most contemporary analytic philosophers. And Bertrand Russell’s public fame in his time is explained by Williamson. If that’s what philosophers do qua philosophers. restricted to case studies in the analytic tradition). is countered as a special case because of Sartre’s literary work. His guiding idea remains that philosophers – specifically UK and American philosophers in the analytic tradition – are absent from public debates about issues in the contemporary world that should concern them. This is not to argue that it fails to properly engage matters of fundamental importance. political scientists. Gary Gutting.’ Fodor is perhaps Marshall’s most distinguished interviewee – and here too the daily work of the philosopher is explained as ‘contemplating issues about explanatory adequacy’ (reiterating the seemingly non-public nature of the work of philosophy). . cultural critics – who aren’t qualified to deal with them with appropriate philosophical rigour. perverse. Marshall’s first interview. So why aren’t there more publicly well-known philosophers in the UK and US? Are there methodological reasons perhaps that cut across their varied interests? Williamson holds the prestigious post of Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. similarly. biologists and physicists to situate and ground their work. Applying technical methods in philosophy to our beliefs is grist to Marshall’s mill – it marks the point at which philosophers in the analytic tradition can reasonably be public figures. they reveal that most philosophical fields are covered from the inner circle of epistemology. that would miss the underlying interests we all have in the ‘big questions’. engaging in debates wherever terms like ‘freedom’. unbelievable’ and Marshall’s interest is in philosophers who address ‘the big questions that pop up in the dead of night’. tellingly. But this is not necessarily a turn to the public – it’s more likely. with Timothy Williamson. economists. and nuclear disarmament. So for Williamson there’s a clear implication that philosophical analysis per se – his work – is simply not a matter of public interest. Each is prefaced with a biographical sketch.

Wittgenstein thought the comment ‘shockingly primitive’ and represented Malcolm’s failure to learn anything from philosophy. instead it returns to the analytic-Continental divide. how they lack a sense of self- importance.’ Whether that’s also related to the fundamental differences in philosophical approaches – the analytic tradition’s emphasis on common sense and logic rather than Continental transcendence and creativity that Gutting observes – is not explored further. Gutting is keener to end the interview – and the book as it happens – commenting on the progress that’s being made to get philosophers known more widely through Marshall’s own work and by various online forums like The New York Times’ The Store. He notes how impressed he is with their rigour. disinvited commencement speakers. Gutting sees the lower public profile of analytic philosophers in historical terms. So Gutting notes his waning interest in Continental philosophy (with Sartre’s influence noted as an exception) and his barb on Jacques Derrida is typical: ‘I think that his writing often has far less intellectual density than its difficulty suggests. a blogger condemned to a thousand lashes by one of our closest allies. and the massacre of French cartoonists have forced the democratic world to examine the roots of its commitment to free speech. But there are now also strong analytic traditions in political philosophy. But these qualities are not necessarily politic. but rather that they continue to work the way philosophers do. but that politics is still ours to decide. Why free speech is fundamental MORE THAN two centuries after freedom of speech was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. still worried by the incident. In his 1958 memoir of Wittgenstein he recalls his teacher’s manner as often severe. Where are these philosophers. So where have all the philosophers gone? It’s clear that they’ve not retreated from public arenas. jailed performance artists. that right is very much in the news. and it also suggests the intellectual maturity required of any political culture embracing philosophical rigour. though. before becoming a Professor of Philosophy himself at Cornell University. ethics and aesthetics. who might be expected to be more publicly engaged than say philosophers of mind? The answer might lie in Marshall’s observation about philosophers in general. The lesson seems to be that philosophy teaches rigour and demands that universally. Perhaps that is the social cost of analytic philosophy. Campus speech codes. A story from Malcolm’s memoir is illustrative. mentioning. but that’s all. exiled leakers. how they welcome interrogation and discussion. .’ Pushed a little by Marshall. In 1939 Wittgenstein fell out with his friend as well as student Malcolm because the latter had remarked that ‘British national characteristics’ made it impossible for any British government to contemplate assassinating Hitler. he writes to Malcolm: ‘what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic etc and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?’ But trying to rekindle the friendship he adds: ‘I’d very much like to see you again.The interview doesn’t pursue this. ruthless and censorious. Norman Malcolm was a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge. and again familiar stories. ‘tradition and anti-intellectualism in the US. Marshall’s recurring sense of absence is misplaced then for those working at philosophy’s core and in areas where it works closely with the sciences – an intersection of substantial coexistence with analytic philosophy. but if we meet it would be wrong to avoid talking about serious non-philosophical issues’. In 1944.

you’ve lost it. It’s important to remind ourselves why. Why do dictators brook no dissent? One can imagine autocrats who feathered their nests and jailed or killed only those who directly attempted to usurp their privileges. (The 1933 election that gave the Nazis a plurality was preceded by years of intimidation. authority. Everyone knows that the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice-versa had to overcome fierce resistance from ecclesiastical authority. science. allowing the world to falsify the mistaken ones. There’s a good reason dictatorships don’t work that way. or gurus have been vouchsafed with the truth which only they possess and which the rest of us would be foolish. dogma. of course. In talking about free speech (or anything else) we’re talking. intuition. soothsayers.) And once in power. The first reason is that the very thing we’re doing when we ask whether free speech is fundamental — exchanging and evaluating ideas — presupposes that we have the right to exchange and evaluate ideas. which are not about the material world. and violent mayhem. the workings of the body and brain — came as insults to the sacred dogma of the day. History tells us that this is not the world we live in. We now know that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified. One can imagine a world in which oracles. These include faith. “free speech for me but not for thee. the stuff we’re made of.” as the dean of a school of journalism recently opined? Or is free speech fundamental — a right which. the traditional understanding of the world was upended. imams. like a national flag or motto? Is it just one of many values that we trade off against each other? Was Pope Francis right when he said that “you cannot make fun of the faith of others”? May universities muzzle some students to protect the sensibilities of others? Did the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists “cross a line that separates free speech from toxic talk. doubtless including some we hold today. and to have the reasons at our fingertips when that right is called into question. species. visionaries. murder. charisma. while allowing their powerless subjects to complain all they want. Russia. to question. such as those in China. It is only by bruiting ideas and seeing which ones withstand attempts to refute them that we acquire knowledge. and test them against that reality. But the Copernican revolution was just the first event in a cataclysm that would make our current understanding of the world unrecognizable to our ancestors. prophesy. then. planet.Is free speech merely a symbolic talisman. indeed. in the words of Nat Hentoff. prophets.” then as soon as you show up to a debate to argue against free speech. clairvoyance. We come up with ideas about the nature of reality. How. The “conjecture” part of this formula. depends upon the exercise of free speech. and common sense. Self-proclaimed truthers have repeatedly been shown to be mistaken — often comically so — by history. and much of the Islamic world. Once this realization sank in during the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. if not absolute. conventional wisdom. the totalitarians criminalized any criticism of the regime. We offer these conjectures without any prior assurance they are correct. Unless you’re willing to discredit yourself by declaring. Those who are unimpressed by this logical argument can turn to one based on human experience. We’re not settling our disagreement by arm-wrestling or a beauty contest or a pistol duel. and subjective certainty. This is also true of the less genocidal but still brutal regimes of today. no regime has the brute force to resist them. criminal. African strongman states. A third reason that free speech is foundational to human flourishing is that it is essential to democracy and a bulwark against tyranny. can we know? Other than by proving mathematical theorems. The immiserated subjects of a tyrannical regime are not deluded that they are happy. Everything we know about the world — the age of our civilization. The reason that citizens don’t resist their overlords en masse is that they lackcommon knowledge — the awareness that . revelation. and universe. the laws that govern matter and energy. should be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases? The answer is that free speech is indeed fundamental. How did the monstrous regimes of the 20th century gain and hold power? The answer is that groups of armed fanatics silenced their critics and adversaries. augury. and if tens of millions of disaffected citizens act together. popes. Perhaps the greatest discovery in human history — one that is prior to every other discovery — is that our traditional sources of belief are in fact generators of error and should be dismissed as grounds for knowledge. the answer is the process that the philosopher Karl Popper called conjecture and refutation.

People will expose themselves to the risk of reprisal by a despotic regime only if they know that others are exposing themselves to that risk at the same time. Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard University. Curvology. Swift. review: 'strange and sometimes worrying' A study that seeks an evolutionary explanation for the shape of the female body raises as many questions as it answers You might think that the mooted abolition of Page 3 – there may soon be no more pictures of bare-chested women in the print edition of The Sun – marks a real breakthrough in male-female relations. not least by Holmes himself. and the author. and men’s too. in such a study there is much discussion of curvaceous bosoms and equally . the neighborhood enforcer of stifling norms. adds to this sense that we’ve gone one step forward and two back in our willingness to change the way we think about women’s roles. business oligarchs. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified. comedians and artists portrayed racists as thick-witted Neanderthals and Vietnam hawks and nuclear cold warriors as amoral psychopaths. the blowhard at the bar. The story reminds us why humor is no laughing matter — why satire and ridicule. and cruel practices of their day. And if you object to these arguments — if you want to expose a flaw in my logic or a lapse in my accuracy — it’s the right of free speech that allows you to do so. And that common knowledge emboldened them to challenge the emperor’s authority with their laughter.’’ Curvology: the Origins and Power of Female Body Shape by David Bainbridge. the sanctimonious preacher. Satire can stealthily challenge assumptions that are second nature to an audience by forcing them to see that those assumptions lead to consequences that everyone recognizes are absurd. and medical quacks. divulging military secrets. Britain’s lax libel laws have been used to silence critics of political figures. are terrifying to autocrats and protected by democracies. The story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes’’ illustrates the logic. oppressions. Despots in so-called “democratic republics” routinely jail their opponents on charges of treason. because now everyone knew that everyone else knew that the emperor was naked. most recently. let alone the red tops. Rarely a day passes without a glamorous female adorning the front pages of all the broadsheet newspapers. The book sets out to seek “the origins and power of female body shape”. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous exception to free speech — falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater — is easily abused. and incitement to imminent lawless action. A new book. Eighteenth-century wiseguys like Voltaire. I’m not so sure. Inevitably. he was not telling them anything they didn’t already know. Holocaust deniers. libel. He coined the meme in a 1919 Supreme Court case that upheld the conviction of a man who distributed leaflets encouraging men to resist the draft during World War I. of “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. even when puerile and tasteless. That’s why humor so often serves as an accelerant to social progress. The Soviet Union and its satellites had a rich underground current of satire. such as a broadcasted statement. When the little boy shouted that the emperor was naked. and inciting lawlessness. they are not an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many. But he was changing their knowledge nonetheless. a clear expression of opinion in a democracy.” We use barbed speech to undermine not just political dictators but the petty oppressors of everyday life: the tyrannical boss. Common knowledge is created by public information. and Johnson ridiculed the wars. It’s true that free speech has limits.everyone shares their knowledge and knows they share it. as in the common definition of the two Cold War ideologies: “Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. extortion. We carve out exceptions for fraud. libel. In the 1960s. Communism is the exact opposite. anything they couldn’t see with their own eyes.

Those curvy breasts and bottoms ensure the future health and intelligence of the next generation. appears to have been written deliberately to infuriate half its readership. But he then tells us that “a picture is emerging. with a bust and hip size almost the same. then. “and why it has turned out to be the strangest thing in existence. but as a consequence of evolution. Curvology. What are we supposed to make of comments like: “You might expect that a few thousand years of sexual selection by men would result in every woman having a body like Beyoncé or Bardot”? The book’s author. How reassuring for a man. Related Articles  Why women keep clothes they never wear 04 Nov 2014  Sexism in language? Don't read too much into it Is it any wonder. “This is a book about the female body. That’s why they’ve become the determinants of attraction. Studies. a product of the wealth and leisure of the late 20th century. but I’m not sure he does. could the human female shape be described? Yet in these supposedly enlightened times it’s odd to find yourself reading a book that talks about women with such blokeish reductionism.” Bainbridge begins. Just what the parents of teenagers want to read. is a veterinary surgeon who moved from healing animals into a broader study of animal behaviour and from there into the realms of evolutionary biology. helping us to succeed as individuals. and perhaps a slightly disheartening picture. . for example. which places visual appearance at the centre of human female life”. perhaps. or admit to university attractive women with high status”. David Bainbridge. which include Teenagers: a Natural History and Middle Age: a Natural History. alluring bottoms. have investigated human behaviour from the perspective of his zoological training. He wants to believe that his response to the female shape is part of our evolutionary heritage. give a reduced prison sentence to. in contrast. have apparently shown that “people are more likely to help. want to be friends with. But what about for a woman? Why are so many women dissatisfied with their body shape if it’s to their evolutionary advantage to be curvaceous? Bainbridge promises to answer this tricky question by the end of his book. His previous books. then it seems you’re more likely to be successful.” Strange? To whom? He says that one of the reasons he wanted to write the book was to find out why we were the only species in existence “with curvy females”. Teenage behaviour. If you’re one of the nine per cent of women blessed with an hourglass figure. That long period of rebellion enables brainpower to develop. with surprising and often controversial results. employ. But what does this tell us? He wonders why women spend so much time thinking about their bodies “and to a level of complexity and subtlety which amazes most men”. complemented by a tiny waist. was portrayed not as a social construct. and that “the elements which make the female body look so distinctive are not just superficial adornments”. How else. which he does not identify. that a reported 87 per cent of women attempt to enhance their body shape by dieting? Bainbridge is a victim of our own confused understanding of the relations between the sexes (in spite of equal pay and the proposed scrapping of Page 3). Is that true? Bainbridge’s only justification for saying so is that we would never think of describing a she-monkey as “curvaceous” or a female pig as “buxom”.

in which it soon becomes obvious that Bainbridge is uncomfortable with the idea that these might be mental illnesses. is top-and-tailed with an imagined scene from our evolutionary past: “In the rust- red light of another dawn the girl gazed down at her thighs. forecasting is a “down to earth” activity.” Data-driven algorithms fulfill a comparable function. and big data. some might say. Both kinds of forecasting use profiles to explain the past and predict the future choices we will make: Both astrological signs and psychographic categories derived from demographic data (like. rather than the men they hope to attract. More troubling to me was his chapter on eating disorders. he suggests that women who voluntarily denied themselves food. visibly shrinking in size. While Theodor Adorno was exiled in Los Angeles. but now the secret to our identity and our future happiness and success lies not in the stars but in the cloud. Though the differences between Adorno’s time and ours are vast. He claims that during puberty women lay down between 10 and 20 kilograms of extra adipose tissue (fat to you and me). a non-biologist. warning the tribe of impending famine. The first section. but it’s cheering news to those of us of more mature years who’ve discovered fat moving into places we’ve never seen it before. She pinched them… and she felt them sway slightly whenever she walked… She cupped her breasts in her hands. Adorno describes astrology’s capacity to fulfill “the longings of people who are thoroughly convinced that others (or some unknown agency) ought to know more about themselves and what they should do than they can decide for themselves. social media.To be fair. which actually makes women more physically efficient. But it sits very oddly within a study that intends to work out scientifically why women’s bodies are far more shapely than they really need to be and why women dress to impress other women. As we age and go through the menopause.” the Los Angeles Times’s astrology column. This could perhaps explain the almost primeval aggression that anorexics arouse in those who are supposed to be treating them. They’ve been around for centuries. The pseudo-rationality Adorno identifies in the astrology column shares key features with the data-driven “science” of forecasting that Nate Silver describes in his 2012 book The Signal and the Noise. Such confusions beset this strange and. he wroteThe Stars Down to Earth. Much of this is later converted into breast milk. a short book about the “pseudo-rationality” of mid-20th century American culture drawing on his study of “Astrological Forecasts. in his struggle to find an explanation. Indeed. a matter of applied knowledge that helps people figure out what to do in their daily lives. . worrying book. “college- educated women who tweet about Scandal and buy shoes online”) similarly forecast individual behavior. setting out the biological arguments for curves. We are presumably meant to take ourselves back into that past. were at one time “like canaries in a coal mine”. Cloudy Logic By ROBIN JAMES Big data doesn’t forecast the future but remakes the present in the image of down-to-earth stereotypes. Yet at the same time he suggests that a genetic basis for the condition might be found in autism.” There’s no explanation for these passages. he has to concede that they cannot be thought of as a modern condition. the human brain grows mostly after rather than before birth). For both Adorno and Silver. Adorno uses the column to demonstrate how the capitalist culture industry in 1950s America sold quasi-scientific posturing to help an audience “excluded from educational privileges” nonetheless feel in the know. they just appear at the beginning and end of that section. a response to the cult of thinness that has beset our contemporary world. which in turn is used by the suckling babe to build up brainpower (unusually in nature. to recapture a world in which body fascism was yet to emerge. his initial discussion of the body and explanation of why we women have curves is illuminating to me. without providing any research basis for this. his concept of pseudo-rationality still has something to tell us about the “rationality” of contemporary algorithmic culture. At the same time. What a female athlete would make of this I’m not sure. most of which goes on to the buttocks and thighs. say. this fat is lost or moves into the waist area.

Mills. The opacity of the analytic method lends forecasts their appearance of authoritative objectivity. On one website.” As Adorno puts it. say. “analytics companies aren’t required to reveal which data sets they are using and how they are being analyzed. Both kinds of forecasts “modulate” (to use scholar John Cheney-- Lippold’s term) themselves to user behavior. big data and social media overcome the limitations of mass media and allow forecasting to fully realize its capacity to tailor categories and output to observed user behavior.” The profiles are designed to produce the identity or frame of mind that they supposedly just describe. ability.” stars appear “entirely abstract. Upgrading the medium in which they are expressed. and activity into the hardware. Forecasting repackages old-fashioned ideas as unprecedentedly objective knowledge. means putting power in the hands of an algorithm.” Though. but the avoidance of noisy dissonances with real life that call the reliability of the underlying ideological framework into doubt. per se.When personal identity is experienced and understood as a matter of forecasting. Its goal isn’t accuracy. the software. by presenting them in empirical rather than supernatural terms—star charts and tables. unapproachable. etc.” One aspect of that danger is the “abstract authority” of astrologers. big data could be the realization of what Adorno called “the potential danger represented by astrology as a mass phenomenon. and demands. “the adage ‘be yourself’ assumes an ironical meaning.” The apparent objectivity of the stars or the data cloud intensifies forecasters’ existing biases. algorithmic media adapts to users—music- streaming services and Facebook’s Timeline algorithm “learn” what content optimizes individual users’ engagement and “tailor results according to user categorizations based on the observed web habits of ‘typical’ women and men. embodiment. That description is equally applicable to big-data methods. eugenics. social media produce the identity categories—like “typical” men and women—it claims to merely observe. “Prioritizing data—irregular.” Adorno claims. wishes.” this treats their inconsistent and unreliable measurement of both what counts as exercise and what counts as a “‘normal’ healthy body” to pass as hard evidence. in mysticism. in Adorno’s account.” Cheney-Lippold argues. it rationalizes what Charles W. and it doesn’t even aspire to be.”Google AdSense “translates cultural clichés and stereotypes into empirically verifiable data sets. now mirrored by the black-box algorithms of the cloud. a “black- identifying name was 25% more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record. systematic account of the “delusions” (in Adorno’s words) necessary to live in a capitalist society. Such forecasting doesn’t predict the future. As Latanya Sweeny has shown in her study“Discrimination in Online Ad Delivery.” figuring out “a number of typical situations” that many followers might find themselves in. allowing them to be passed off as neutral and matter-of-fact. Whereas mass media tries to mass-produce standardized audiences. In “Astrological Forecasts”. wants. Similarly. observes patterns (of behavior. Scaled up in size and in processing power. In its current big-data form.” The inaccessible logic of their proprietary algorithms is imposed on us. obsolete social myths gain new life as apparent fact. The big-data algorithm. maintains its reliability by avoiding easily falsifiable concrete details. Astrologers rely on their “knowledge of the most frequently recurring problems prescribed by the set-up of modern life and the characterological patterns [they] had frequent occasion to observe. What makes forecasting pseudo-rational is its offer of a nominally objective. and their inscrutability masquerades as proof of their objectivity. Crawford points this out: When fitness-tracking devices (like FitBit) are “used to represent objective truth for insurers or courtrooms. big data can rearticulate “unfashionable” beliefs in. unreliable data—over human reporting. Fitness-tracking systems thereby build dominant ideas of health. Astrology. like the astrologer. and anonymous” and thus more objective than mere fallible human reason. in The Racial Contract. Adorno notes “the mechanics of the astrological system are never divulged and the readers are presented only with the alleged results of astrological reasoning. Similarly. As Cecilia Esther Rabess argues in “Can Big Data Be Racist?. in part by sweeping inconsistencies under the rug of “individual responsibility. as Kate Crawford pointed out in an essay about fitness trackers for the Atlantic. “The cult of God has been replaced by the cult of facts. Forecasting itself cannot be an exact science. for example. Adorno argues that astrology rearticulates unfashionable superstitions in the occult.” Google searches for names “racially associated” with black people return promoted results that imply the person you’re searching has an arrest record. of interactivity. As Crawford argues. by presenting them in supposedly more advanced and accurate empirical terms.) across populations and ties its forecasts to this input.” This both expresses and reinforces anti-black racism. Through this feedback loop of observation and adjustment. Pseudo-rationality obscures the irrationality of social norms and makes what ought to feel outrageous seem completely down-to-earth. Adorno argues that it crafts the future in the image of “the established ways of life. a newspaper column could only “pretend” to tailor the content of each sign’s horoscope to users’ needs. calls the “cognitive dysfunctions” that make white-supremacist society fully functional. as Adorno pointed out.” “the life of those whom it embraces. and so on.” To pass the social system off as an objective artifact .” “Treated as impersonal and thing- like. and the algorithms embedded within them.

” When forecasts end up being inaccurate. if only one reads them correctly.” cost-benefit calculus updates old unfashionable beliefs in things like human rights with a supposedly much more objective and effective belief in the market. held by neoliberal economists like Gary Becker.” Cost-benefit calculus works because everything is reduced to the common denominator of “private interest.Stars Down to Earth helps us see that neoliberalism’s ideal subject. from marriage. “individualized. to crime. Big-data-enabled self-tracking foregrounds this same sort of adjustment and tries to make it seem really easy. As Whitney Erin Boesel argues in “Data Occupations. homo economicus. It can identify patterns of behavior.” Humans are beings who make choices. market-based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions. he doesn’t have to actually behave rationally—his choices don’t have to be the result of well-reasoned. Astrology’s “basic presumption” is “that everyone has to make up his mind at every moment. He has to pay for the help and solidarity he expects. can be understood ‘economically’ according to a particular calculation of cost for benefit. and race as an “obesity epidemic” assumes both that obesity is a problem and that it is a problem that can be solved by modifying individual behavior (diet. that can then be monitored and managed. “implies that all problems due to objective circumstances … can be solved in terms of private individual behavior or by psychological insight. it stresses the significance and efficacy of individual choice. Adorno explains how this can seem empowering but really isn’t: “The idea that the stars.” self-tracking apps are “a single-serving ‘solution’ to a much larger collective problem”—they encourage individuals to fix themselves rather than collectively address problematic social norms. Homo economicus is the name for the view.” Adorno echoes political theorist Andrew Dilts’s claim in “From ‘Entrepreneur of the Self’ to ‘Care of the Self’. as Read writes. class.determined by (quasi-)scientific processes. in line with a familiar stereotype. If you know enough about someone’s material.” The column advises readers. “the operative terms” in this theory of human life “are no longer rights and laws but interest.” “everything for which human beings attempt to realize their ends. social. in individuals and across populations. that. and competition. in which. Though Adorno wasn’t thinking explicitly in these terms. That is so long as they respond to ‘reality’ and adjust their (even . households. their past habits and choices. as Read notes. as Jason Read explains in “A Genealogy of Homo Economicus.” And this is where big data comes in. and that this economic pseudo-rationality is itself a trendy. As Dilts emphasizes. particularly into oneself. “has to ‘calculate’ very carefully his relationships with his family.” that this cost-benefit calculus itself has a price—it “sacrifice[s] any possibility of being critical. “but to make the best of them from the viewpoint of one’s private interests. and psychological situation. embodies the same pseudo-rationality found in both astrology and big data. For example.” First. which alternatives will seem like the most economically “rational” ones from their perspective. from college education to cosmetic surgery. Like neoliberal economic theory. like neoliberal economic theory. so I must decide which investments best serve my interests and give me relatively better choices in the future. forecasting has to scapegoat “irresponsible” individuals for failing to live up to the terms of the forecast.” “The addressee. and every choice is ultimately a cost-benefit analysis: Everything I might do. exercise). as long as we can more or less successfully predict homo economicus’s behavior. or individuals act (drawing directly from Milton Friedman) ‘as if’ they are rational. “‘to be rational’ means not questioning irrational conditions. Adorno writes that “the constant appeal of the column to find fault with oneself rather than with given conditions” is evidence of “the implicit but ubiquitous rule that one has to adjust oneself continuously to commands of the stars at a given time. “instinctual needs contrary to the rule of rational interests appear to be commandeered by rational interests. It can provide us with the unprecedented—and supposedly more objective— insight into ourselves and others that we need to solve life’s problems. “to send flowers to one’s wife not because one feels an urge to do so.” so the big-picture factors that would call into question why some choices seem better than others are necessarily factored out of this equation. but also into others.” Through the column’s pseudoscience. offer some advice mitigates the very same fear of the inexorability of social processes the stargazer himself creates. “Becker insists that economic analysis does not require ‘actual rationality’ at all. the fault lies not in the prediction methodology but the individual’s failure to adjust to the forecaster’s advice. Adorno finds this sort of economistic rationality throughout “Astrological Forecasts. investment.” Adorno writes.” “Astrological Forecasts.” for example. supposedly more objective upgrade to unfashionable superstitions.” In this example. logical thinking. All that matters is if firms. you ought to be able to predict which future choices they will make. Because. to expenditures on children. is an investment of time and resources.” like the fetishized commodification of love or heterosexual marriage. framing problems of political economy. but because one is afraid of the scene she makes if one forgets. but is perfectly consistent with a wide array of irrational behavior.” It reinforces the neoliberal myth of individual responsibility for social problems and misdirects our attention toward dumbed-down superficial solutions to complex social problems.

behaviors. and as long as that choice appears. big data makes its prosumers in the image of itspseudo-rationality. values. It offers a strong call to action that seems to actually work – to make people put their hands in their pockets. UNICEF and OXFAM claimed to have received about $660. Isn’t it wrong to risk jeopardising that given the possibility that people will focus only on the arguments I give against extreme requirements to aid? On reflection.irrational) behavior. capitalism. Could we use big data and social media to shoot for the stars. I’m arguing that Singer and Unger are wrong. 741. So. Down-to-earthness is precisely the problem with forecasting: It only ever reproduces society and its most conventional norms. who talks “as if he knew and as if the constellations of the stars provided him with satisfactory. from the outside. so failure to help must be morally equivalent. “Famine. Morality does – and must – pay attention to features such as distance. patriarchy) in new. Singer argues that any difference between the child in the pond and the child dying of poverty is morally irrelevant. a type of calculation that brings even the most irrational choices. and economic institutions (white supremacy. it is almost universally agreed that Peter Singer is one of the good guys.” Rationality. Like the forecaster. His landmark 1971 article. Living High and Letting Die. We won’t be able to do this properly if we shy away from attacking some arguments because it is good for people to believe them. 848. Moral philosophers provide arguments and critique the arguments of others. Does that make me one of the bad guys? It is true that my own position is that most people are required to give more than they do. but also led to millions in donations to famine relief. I’ve argued that Singer and Unger are wrong: failing to donate to charity is not equivalent to walking past a drowning child. to reflect “an unquestioning common-sense attitude” that pragmatically weighs costs and benefits in line with “accepted values. for all and intents and purposes. from the neoliberal point of view. To fail to give as much as you can to charities that save children dying of poverty is every bit as bad as walking past a child drowning in a pond because you don’t want to ruin your new shoes. who developed and refined Singer’s arguments in his 1996 book. “The Life You Can Save”. used to keep a running estimate of total donations generated. . hip abodes on more seemingly solid ground. it is ‘as if’ they had in fact made a rational calculation. to produce knowledge and types of sociality that transport us from this unjust world to a better one? That’s hard to predict. it just repackages tired social. Singer argues that the typical person living in an affluent country is morally required to give most of his or her money away to prevent poverty related deaths. not only launched a rich new area of philosophical discussion. this figure stood at $62. and practices. Affluence and Morality” (FAM). All that data up in the cloud opens no new vistas. political. I defend what seems to me to be the commonsense position that while most people are required to give much more than they currently do to charities such as Oxfam. When I last checked the website on 13th February 2012. I don’t think what I do is immoral philosophy. In the month after Singer restated the argument from FAM in a piece in the New York Times. personal connection and how many other people are in a position to help. is simply another word for predictability. His organisation.” then that choice is. sufficient and unequivocal answers. Singer and Unger are the good guys when it comes to debates on poverty-related death.”homo economicus makes a prediction about the outcome of an investment. For an approachable version of his argument see Peter Unger. homo economicus is a microcosm of big data: Both embody the same pseudo-rationality.” Just as Astrological Forecasts makes its readers in the image of its own pseudo-rationality. Immoral philosophy When it comes to preventing poverty related deaths. rational. The job of moral philosophers is to help people to decide what to believe about moral issues on the basis of reasoned reflection. Homo economicus’s cost-benefit analysis is thus a type of pseudo-rational forecasting. In this way. they are not required to give the extreme proportions suggested by Singer and Unger. But isn’t there still something morally dubious about arguing for weaker moral requirements to save lives? Singer and Unger’s position is clear and easy to understand. and patterns “down to earth. I’m arguing against the good guys. 000 more than they usually took in from the phone numbers given in the piece.

There is a danger that they prejudice things. He is “certainly . historical and cultural dimensions of medicine – would be an economic one. poet. Looked at in this way. essayist. There’s money in medicine and not so much in the humanities. At a time of retrenchment in some subjects at some universities. knives. A more modest understanding of morality. Blakemore says. University of London. as soon as the novel rose to prominence in the 18th century a good many doctors more than dabbled in writing. in his famous Rede lecture of 1959. as was his best-known work. this doesn’t translate into a simple answer about what we should do. By the time we get to the 19th century the number of authors combining writing and medical practice further increases. German writer. were immensely successful. the Singer/Unger position doesn’t really offer a clear. The medical humanities are instantly deemed to be at the “soft” end of medicine. my position gives a clearer and simpler answer to the question of what we should do in response to global poverty. former chief executive of the Medical Research Council. R. For. Dostoevsky. Its demands are reasonable so cannot be reasonably ignored. P. What is new is the bringing of writing and the arts more broadly into a formal. including The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). and his response was: “I sense quite a lot of hostility among the still-dominant genes and molecules approach to medicine. there is also a love of Humanity”.” It’s a pity that the adjectives “hard” and “soft” have accrued certain connotations. Providing such an answer surely can’t be immoral philosophy. in other words. nor indeed the 21st. So what does mainstream medicine think about this? I asked Colin Blakemore. Beckett. on Singer’s view. The demands of Singer’s morality are so extreme it must sometimes be reasonable to ignore them. professor of neuroscience and philosophy at the School of Advanced Study. and Keats (1795-1821) turned to poetry in part because of the trauma he suffered by the experience of physically restraining fully conscious patients in order to perform surgery without anaesthesia. overall. Kafka. In terms of literature. how the medical humanities were generally regarded. disciplines are under pressure to demonstrate their practical value. Laing was profoundly influenced by Blake. often fiction. there is a nice simple answer about what morality requires us to do: keep giving until giving more would cost us something more morally significant than the harm we could prevent. impersonal view of morality espoused by Singer. was an army surgeon before achieving fame as a writer. genes and molecules dominate the medical world. suggesting both that medicine is an “art” and that there is a crucial association between medicine and the “human” dimension of the humanities. simple conclusion about what to do. Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). His picaresque novels. avoids this problem. however slow progress is”. All this goes to show that interest in a reciprocity between medical practice and creative writing is not a new phenomenon. dramatist and friend of Goethe. we might not be rationally required or overall required to do what we are morally required to. among numerous other affiliations. Conventional approaches to medicine. This need to separate moral requirements from overall requirements is a result of the extreme.In addition. “drugs and knives remain the dominant modes of tackling resistant medical problems. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) trained as a doctor and wrote the best-selling novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). Sartre and others. There are also some important examples of psychiatrists drawing heavily on literature in the construction of their theories. which takes into account the agent’s special concern with what is near and dear to her. Drugs. However. Nevertheless. D. scientist and novelist. This is the “hard” end. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). But how new is this field or set of fields? The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates claimed that “wherever the art of Medicine is loved. The rise of the medical humanities 22 JANUARY 2015 Belinda Jack examines the growing field and considers the therapeutic effects of poetry I sense quite a lot of hostility to the medical humanities among the still-dominant genes and molecules approach to medicine The cynical account for the rise of the medical humanities – a newish interdisciplinary area that explores the social. C. Blakemore is now. the end that is assumed to make the big difference. It tells us both what is morally and rationally required. The Scottish writer Tobias Smollett (1721-71) graduated from the University of Glasgow’s School of Medicine but his passion was for writing. Snow. keep giving till you have given most of your money away. institutional relationship with medicine. particularly for medical students. And there is no let-up in the 20th century. Recent research that claims to show that reading novels promotes empathy would be an example of literature’s utility. For Singer and Unger. claimed that “two cultures” had developed and that the chasm between the arts and the sciences was deleterious to our civilisation.

Often the poem will be one that allows us to reconsider the absolute nature of death. and any lessons they may provide for clinical medicine. law. In 2013. ageing. with their nuances and insights into the complexities of human illness – and life. courses have appeared in universities both in the UK and abroad. The journal Medical Humanities is well established and Niall Boyce’s The Lancet Psychiatry has recently been launched. amuse. These included papers on short stories by Kafka and Chekhov. teach. Oxford. disconcert and so much more. the gait of one/Who finds no path where the path should be. reductive. often at times of crisis and vulnerability. A combination of a move to electronic patient records and the Freedom of Information Act have militated against doctors’ patient narratives. Over the same period. for example. which is often dogmatic. bringing something felt into clearer and thus more comforting focus. Poetry’s use of language is at the furthest extreme from the self-help book. Physicians’ notes are in some sense biographies of their patients. the grant funding and direct charitable expenditure of the trust was more than £700 million. These “places” may be real. launched its Centre for Personalised Medicine. that explain why so many doctors are also novelists Reviewing its first seven issues. medical classifications and diagnoses and their relationship to technology. Boyce. St Anne’s College. This explains why funeral services so often include poems.” In November 2013. The next category comprised essentially educational enquiries into the medical humanities themselves. genomics. It can capture – or cause us to reconstruct – experiences and feelings that we might otherwise not be conscious of. Those that are unwell have to be encouraged to find a narrative and the clinician has to tease out the significant lines in their story. concepts of disease. This is poetry at its most magical and mysterious. himself a novelist. the Sherlock Holmes tales. I’d like to consider poetry and its less obvious role within the medical humanities. Can poetry. often at times of crisis and vulnerability. Philip Davis. or imagined. medicine as an art and as a science. mimic. at least in part. and the medical ethics of Erasmus. Next came a set of articles variously concerned with literary readings and exploration. as his latest area of research interest testifies: the crossover points between philosophy and neuroscience. physical places. Medical Humanities identified various categories into which articles might be grouped. we engage. It works by suggestion. we let it go. Like the novel. and the extent of chaos theory’s relevance to medicine. illness and healing. if it fails to convince us of its truth. Blakemore’s vision is shared by the Wellcome Trust. A number of master’s courses are also coming on stream. and the Wellcome Foundation Strategic Plan 2010-20 “supports medical humanities research”. And it allows for an individual engagement with the poem. bullying even. But poetry can help us to make sense of more mundane experiences too. insistent.keen to encourage interaction between science and the humanities”. An initiative at the University of Oxford that aims to produce the world’s largest forum for medical humanities and to provide an unparalleled resource for public and professional engagement describes the area as “a richly diverse field of scholarship which draws on disciplines in the humanities. history and philosophy to discuss a range of conditions and topics: anorexia nervosa. The last category of any size was in essence cultural studies – drawing on fine art. The largest included pieces on medicine and the arts. and I’ve been struck by a good deal of fascinating work on the importance of narrative in medicine. rather than extracts from novels.Hamlet and depressive illness. which now takes the medical humanities very seriously. Here is an example from Cecil Day Lewis’ poem Walking Away: “I can see/You walking away from me towards the school/With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free/Into a wilderness. literature. in conjunction with the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics. aesthetic and ethical considerations in surgery. help young doctors? A further set of articles was made up of historical overviews. that explain. a play by Jules Romain. but rather as providing places from which our own ideas – which were Wordsworth’s too. in his excellent 2013 studyReading and the Reader. These are only two of a large number of journals involved in the medical humanities. and these are sometimes equally charged with challenging emotions. economics and ethics. these disciplines can inform the science and practice of medicine. My discipline is in essence a literary one.” . As well as providing insights into one of the most basic and universal of human concerns. and television drama’s potential lessons for clinical craft. It is the stories of private lives offered up to doctors. enlighten. medical syndromes in French 19th-century fiction. for example of dissection. It is the stories of private lives offered up to doctors. Each of us can ponder what the poem conjures for us. More than a dozen universities in the UK embrace the field and most undergraduate medical programmes offer either mandatory or optional courses in one or more humanities subjects at some point in the degree. but it does this in its own language and not the more straightforward language of prose. but this doesn’t mean that it cannot console. no doubt – may come into being. the UK’s largest non-governmental source of funds for biomedical research. poetry can tell us about human experience. the existential focus of clinical medicine. why so many doctors are also novelists. body image and distinguishing patients as persons. sees the journal in part as a point of focus for debate about the relationship between psychiatry and the humanities. describes Wordsworth’s poetry not as providing “ideas”. social sciences and the arts. which will embrace medicine. Poetry offers its language up to us and if we recognise it as true.

but it sometimes hurts. such as pride – that we experience as our children gain independence is inextricably bound up in our love for them. where the stability of “reason” and “law” should bring steadiness and what we call “peace of mind”./At least not felt…” One of the problems in the diagnosis of depression can be the individual’s lack of awareness of low mood. These two examples are about poetry and its relationships with psychology. Faced with some of life’s most painful moments poetry can reassure us that we are not alone – other have suffered too./Or thinking still my thoughts might have good end:/If rebel sense would reason’s law receive/Or reason foil’d would not in vain contend…” This is the mind thinking about itself and the degree of control – or lack of control – that it has over its conflicting voices. and that could be a useful training for medical students. It describes itself as “a community of healers and lovers of words”. But the “truth” I fully recognise strikes still more forcibly at the close of the poem: “How selfhood begins with a walking away. the pain and rage at death. the “I”. If we didn’t love them. and a wonderful lightness replaces the heart that we did not know was heavy. Yet reading the poem we are no longer alone. Great poetry makes us understand the only half-understood. rather we are in touch with the poet’s humanity. and evening soon brought on/A sober hour. One of the undersold features of poetry is its remarkable succinctness. The poem reminds us of the undertow of mood. You can’t race through a poem – as you might a textbook – looking for what you want to find. And a corollary of this is that it doesn’t take much time to read a poem. The act of recognition of truth fills the space. To fully paraphrase these lines would take pages. our only partial control of it – and that a brisk walk may be a useful medicine.) These are lines from Philip Sidney’s Certain Sonnet 19. And our feelings of ultimate physical separation from one whom we’ve loved. it enacts separation anxiety. and it can feel very physical. probably written in the 1580s: “If I could think how these my thoughts to leave. The mind contemplating a mental dialogue – which is a three-way thing. So much of life – and our responses to death – is in language. The poem can also be read as an allegory of other kinds of separation or loss that are part of life. in some small but fundamentally important way. not winning or serene. watching our child “walking away” and have experienced the pain of separation.” The pain – there are other emotions too. in other words.We have all been the “you”. we wouldn’t feel the pain. Seeing the coffin disappear is analogous. and unturned. This is essentially what the National Association for Poetry Therapy has been doing for the past 30 years. The same is not always true of textbooks. But it does have to be read with a particular attention to detail. It is the time of day and weather that imply inhospitality. then its family. But then Wordsworth manages an extraordinary feat of linguistic conjuring: “While on I walked. Doesn’t this give us insights into the mind contemplating the workings of the mind that might even be compared to brain “imaging”? The images of the poem allude to conflict – “rebel” and “foil”. or setting when I left/Our cottage door. In The Prelude the truth of sudden changes of mood is brilliantly suggested. So I see the benefits of marrying poetry reading to various aspects of medicine. This is art acting as a medicine.” The poet does not describe himself as unhappy or depressed. Or hearing that a diagnosis of an illness is terminal. and many of us have been the parent. Great poetry makes us understand the only half-understood and in that understanding comes relief and it can feel very physical There is a growing body of research that suggests that regular exercise. embarking on school. or if reason has lost out to “rebel sense”. And the space the loss has left has been filled – by the poem. . the mood at the outset reflects a low mood: “The sun was set./For cool and raw the air was./And love is proved in the letting go. to become an individual the child has to establish growing physical independence from first its mother. Wordsworth had returned to the Lake District with his sister. My final example is somewhat different. At some point after 1798. The experience can be sharply retrospective. But a great poem also allows us to make sense of feelings that might otherwise be a searing amorphous mass somewhere deep inside us. feeling discouraged after a difficult time in London. are part and parcel of that love. And we would never wish not to love them. In The Prelude. in that understanding comes relief. or at least not until after it has lifted. it would accept defeat and bring the mental battle to an end. How do we stop thinking thoughts that are uncomfortable (line 1)? Or accept the thoughts but steer them in a better direction (line 2)? If only the “rebel” part of the brain would submit to the “reasonable” part (line 3). The “truth” of the poem extends to the psychology of bereavement too. (All three poems are discussed by Davis in Reading and the Reader. long walks for example. “Selfhood begins with a walking away”. can be more therapeutic for those suffering from depression than other therapies. The poem is not so much “about” separation anxiety. Often we are not fully in touch with our melancholy. “Love is proved in the letting go” – as responsible parents we have to let our children distance themselves from us in order to develop into independent adults. the pain associated with knowing the vulnerability of a child starting school – and our no longer being at the child’s side to moderate life. a comfort seemed to touch/A heart that had not been disconsolate:/Strength came where weakness was not known to be. A good deal of child development psychology is contained in these few lines.

polarizes prejudices. Muhammad with a yellow star in his ass)—essentially different from mainstream satire? Is it crucial to Western culture that we be free to produce such images? Do they actually work as satire? Neither straight journalism nor disengaged art. By selling their children for food. baked. The satirist presents a situation in such a way that it appears grotesque and the reader who. thinking about literature from the point of view of readers who may not be as set in their ways encourages the literary reader to read differently. has a powerful therapeutic effect too.” Humour can also allow a review of self-perspective. we arrive at the grotesque: I have been assured … that a young healthy child well nursed. Byron knew this: “Always laugh when you can. shares the same cultural background and moral education agrees that it is so. “Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do ‘practice’?” The Limits of Satire Tim Parks What does satire do? What should we expect of it? Recent events in Paris inevitably prompt these questions. is. or encourage people to think in a more enlightened way. But as satire it has failed. Why so? Crucial to satire is the appeal to supposed “common sense” and a shared moral code. sometimes obscene images of religious figures (God the father. Laughing has been demonstrated to have healing powers. for example. and Holy Spirit sodomizing each other. in literature as well as in life. at a year old. In particular. a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food. This appears to be what happened with Charlie Hebdo’s images of Muhammad. The American comedian George Carlin asked. More importantly. After paragraphs of statistics on population and nutrition. or a ragoust. or if change is too grand an aspiration. or boiled. But I’d like to end on a lighter note and propose that humour. there are various ways in which the humanities are enriched by disciplines within the medical sciences. The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut. Reading Dostoevsky under the umbrella of the “medical humanities” we are forcibly struck by the author’s preoccupation with God and madness. Swift’s target was Protestant England’s economic policy in Catholic Ireland and the disastrous poverty this had created. we might say that it seeks to give us a fresh perspective on the absurdities and evils we live among. witty mockery of a political enemy can be hilarious and gratifying and can intensify our sense of being morally superior. whether stewed. and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie.At the same time. hilarious. is the kind of satire that Charlie Hebdo has made its trademark—explicit. That doesn’t mean it’s not amusing and well-observed. satire alludes to recognizable contemporary circumstances in a skewed and comic way so as to draw attention to their absurdity. such that we are eager for change. it has failed. whatever his or her private interests. Disoriented. is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal of 1729. every reader is made aware of a . for some. and provokes the very behavior it condemns. a conjunction that is very real in psychiatric patients. for example. There is mockery but with a noble motive: the desire to bring shame on some person or party behaving wrongly or ignorantly. Since satire has this practical and pragmatic purpose. in the way. it is cheap medicine. say. roasted. perhaps. The classic example. Son. the poor can save themselves an expense and guarantee themselves an income. Psychology can certainly play a part in both biography and biographical readings of literary texts. Pharmacology can enlighten us in relation to drug-induced creative states of mind. or even. the pamphlet claims. the criteria for assessing it are fairly simple: if it doesn’t point toward positive change. Its raison d’ȇtre over the long term is to bring about change through ridicule.

It is said. Comix refused to publish. or San Sebastian condoms. Islamic organizations didn’t see it that way. but also now. the paper’s editors defended themselves. the history ofCharlie Hebdo is worth noting. various politicians. Sarkozy in particular referring to the ancient French tradition of satire. In 2011Charlie Hebdo noted that while Muslims had sued the paper only once. and people would be mindful of their Lord even between the sheets. In this regard. even Irish children. rather than the normal 60. so that lovemaking would be simultaneously an indulgence and a penitence. by contrast. even Catholic children. writing satirical pieces for the Italian magazine Comix. the Muslim World League. something else in Ireland will have to give. Popularity and notoriety had arrived through mockery of a target outside French culture but with which an aggrieved minority in France now identified. Reacting to yet another Vatican condemnation of abortion. if those children are not to be left to starve. I suggested that if the Catholic Church really cared about abortion it might perhaps change its position on contraception and actually manufacture condoms with images of the saints. When it was banned in 1970 over a mocking headline about Charles de Gaulle’s death its editors reopened it under a different name to avoid the ban. It was a French affair. In 2002 the magazine hosted an article supporting controversial Italian author Oriana Fallaci and her claims that Islam in general. Wound down for lack of funds in 1981. With this explicitly international agenda the relationship between satirists.simple principle we all share: you don’t eat children. This is not entirely the case. the Catholic Church had launched thirteen cases against it. In the 1990s. Charlie Hebdo was resurrected in 1991 when cartoonists wanted to create a platform for political satire about the first Gulf War. I had my own experience of the difficulties of attacking the church through satire. Sued by the Grand Mosque. and the Union of French Islamic Organizations. This appeal to what we all know and share becomes more difficult when satire addresses itself to people from different cultures with different traditions. calling it Charlie Hebdo to distinguish it from a monthly magazine. The readers were the same left-wing French public. Its focus was on French politics and when it was felt to have overstepped the mark the democratically elected French government was in a position to impose a temporary closure.Charlie. In this case too an issue of cultural blindness was involved. but the targets sometimes lay outside France or at least outside mainstream French culture. later Hebdo Hara Kiri (where Hebdo is simply short forhebdomadaire—weekly). While President Chirac criticized satire that inflamed divisions between cultures. which was formed in 1960 to address national political issues and subsequently banned on a number of occasions. So. and targets became more complex. not at Islam itself.000 copies. insisting that their humor was aimed at violent extremists. Hollande and Sarkozy included. Charlie was Charlie Brown. It grew out of a left-wing magazine. wrote to the court to defend the cartoonists. that Christian leaders have now grown used to their religion being desecrated and pilloried in every way. even in cases of rape. Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Muhammad and reprint of the Danish cartoonist Jyllands-Posten’s controversial Muhammad cartoons led to the paper’s selling 400. used to seeing fierce attacks on all things sacred. not just the extremists. It was also uniting French politicians usually opposed to each other against a perceived threat from without.000. But the effect of the cartoons had been to inflame moderate areas of Islam.000 to 100. . readers. In 2006. that some of the same cartoonists were already running. Charles de Gaulle. The ancient French tradition of satire was creating more heat than light. Hara Kiri. Eventually the court acquitted the paper and freedom of speech was upheld. was on the march against the West. or perhaps even prickly hair-shirt condoms. comically.

it would not help them to get distance and perspective on the debate. but certainly nothing that would disturb a Western reader. They just didn’t think that the idea of people having sex with condoms showing their favorite saint was the right way to go about it. set no value on the image Muhammad. Salman Rushdie includes a dream sequence where the prostitutes have the names of Muhammad’s wives. do I make any concessions at all. For a Muslim reader perhaps the point is lost in the offense of a belittling representation of a figure they hold sacred. and homophobic insults has been notably limited.This was not. my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this? In his response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. because they. An anti-Charlie Hebdo cartoon in Echorouk. playing on char. his body obscenely split open—“from the chin right down to where men fart”—as fit punishment for his crime of religious schism. Needless to say any such representation of Christ would have been unthinkable.” and “Iraq. however. or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again. Most likely. In the Inferno Dante could imagine Muhammad in hell. Too many of their readers—mostly Catholic by culture if not practice—would be offended. I believe. Denial of the Holocaust is a crime in France. he says.” I smile and take the point. and eventually the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwacalling for Muslims to kill Rushdie. The editors of Comix were perfectly ready to attack the Church on issues of abortion and birth control. misogynist. the cartoonist Joe Sacco makes the distinction between the right to free expression and the sensible use of it. an Algerian newspaper. like me. The Divine Comedy was not intended for publication in India. French for “tank”: a tank with the sign “I am tank” is shown crushing “Gaza. Only as publication was approaching in India and the paper India Today ran an interview with Rushdie did the controversy begin in earnest. is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. deaths. In the United States and Britain. Knowing Italy and Italians better now. that same Italian public would have had no problem with the drawings of Muhammad that provoked the massacre at Charlie Hebdo last week. “It’s tough being loved by assholes. with riots. I reckon they were right. One might be free. a question of self-censorship or lack of courage on the magazine’s part. It was my Protestant background and complete carelessness about images of saints and virgins that made me unaware of the kind of response the piece would have stirred up. at least since the . It is. The following questions arise: Now that the whole world is my neighbor.” showing a weeping Muhammad saying. my immediate Internet neighbor. There are also various provocative reinterpretations of Islam. in short. Where we’re coming from and who we’re writing to is important. 2015.” “Mali. but unlike the vast majority of Muslims. In Italy and Germany it is illegal to display certain images that recall Fascism and Nazism.” “Syria. In The Satanic Verses (1988). anti-Semitic. Not all readers are the same.” January 14. and in fact the novel was on the shortlist for Britain’s Booker Prize for fiction without even a smell of scandal in the air. or a Jew counting money over the entrails of the working class. to draw—as he does to illustrate—a black man falling out of a tree with a banana in his hand. our freedom—in practice—to indulge in racist. When I see Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon entitled “Muhammad overcome by fundamentalists. this mixing of cultures and immediate globalization of so many publications through the Internet that makes satire more problematic as the Swiftian appeal to the values we share becomes more elusive. but of what possible use are these images? And actually of course we’re not free.

however. rather than remaining fixated on the question of freedom of speech.late 1980s when notions of “political correctness” became increasingly pervasive. Shoah. and toward something better – a more friendly and comfortable condition. Even Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist for anti-Semitism. Stalinism. He holds a Je suis Charlie placard and announces that all is forgiven. Archduke Ferdinand and countless others.” The current edition of the paper shows Muhammad in such a way that his white turban looks like two balls and his long pink face a penis. In raising the question of the usefulness or otherwise of a cartoon. its aim is to produce an enlightened perspective on events. this up from a standard run of 60. identifiable and named political “personalities” in the political limelight. The print run was extended to five million copies after a first run of three million sold out. At this point. and notwithstanding a profound sense of horror for the evil and stupidity of the terrorist attack on the magazine’s offices. Joe Sacco’s take on the tragedy in Paris is smart. political murders tended to be aimed at different kinds of victims. On 11 September 2001 political assassinations were directed not against specific. Aristide Briand. Violence is an un-detachable companion of inter-human antagonisms and conflicts – and those in turn are part and parcel of the human condition. None of these restrictions have proved a great loss. What’s the specificity of the islamic extremist threat we’re facing today. Abraham Lincoln. or for that matter against people held personally responsible for the wrongdoings the assassins pretended to punish. The Prophet is being dubbed a prick. but against institutions . A hundred years or so ago it was targeted mostly against politicians – personalities like Jean Jaures.000. in your view? Political assassination is as old as humanity and the chances that it will be dead before humanity dies are dim. at least for me. Is it likely this approach will help to isolate violent extremists from mainstream Muslim sentiment? The Charlie Hebdo Attack And What It Reveals About Society by Zygmunt Bauman on 13 January 2015 Zygmunt Bauman You went through the tragedies of the 20th century – two wars. ideologically varied. not to start riots. In various times. one has to wonder about Charlie Hebdo’s pride in constantly dubbing themselves a “Journal Irresponsable. located at different points of the political spectrum yet all belonging to the category of current or future power holders. However grotesque and provocative its comedy. It was widely believed at that time that with their death the world (or the country) will turn away from what was viewed as the cause of grievance. he reminds us of the essentially pragmatic nature of satire.

what his or her intentions are. A lot has been said about this attack: a prosecution of the holy wars between christians and muslims. by design or by default. Notably. manifesting at close quarters their incompatibility with one’s habitual. mode of being. And second: alongside shifting the target to another institutional realm. rancour and urge of vengeance. the 7th January barbarity crowns the lengthy process of deregulation – indeed the “de- institutionalisation”. One of them. . how would s/he responds to one’s gambit. the murderers endorsed – whether explicitly or obliquely – the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centres viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making. In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played. Knowingly or not. Many factors contribute to this profoundly complex phenomenon. one cannot – unlike when moving around the securely “online only” world – skip over the all-too-real differences. a centre of spiritual power was still missing in the combined political operation. which results in transforming the distant stranger. The close proximity of the stranger always tends to be somewhat unnerving. an assault on freedom of expression. More importantly yet. that of public opinion.symbolising the economic (in the case of the World Trade Centre) and military (in the case of the Pentagon) power. and thus feeling homely. And away from social to individual responsibility. It was the people engaged in such activities that the assault was meant to point out as culprits to be punished for causing the assassins’ bitterness. If the 11 September atrocity chimed in with the then tendency to “depersonalise” political violence (following the pour ainsi dire“democratisation” of violence by mass-media publicity that divided its attention according to the quantity of its – mostly anonymous and incidental – victims. or briefly visiting stranger. public facilities. and the volume of spilt blood). What do you think? Each of the causes suggested to have their part in inflaming the christian – muslim antagonism contains a grain of truth but none offers the whole truth. or passing-by stranger. as well as the perception of public affairs shifting away from the management of established aggregated bodies to the sphere of individual “life politics”. perhaps the most decisive. the armed assault against Charlie Hebdo was also an act of personalized vendetta (going back to the pattern set by Ayatollah Khomeini in his 1989 Fatva imposed on Salman Rushdie). individualization and privatisation of the human condition. There were two aspects of the Charlie Hebdo murders that set them apart from the two previous cases: First: on 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. cozy and secure. often jarring and repellent. One doesn’t know what to expect from a stranger. workplace and school. a symbolic challenge to Paris as the cradle of Western values. is the ongoing diasporisation of the world. into a next-door neighbour – sharing the street.

s/he adds offence to the injury: a humiliation to the wound. other genders. blatantly failed to realize. it would be naïve not to expect that both the outlets and the targets are avidly sought and keenly pinpointed. Boutique multiculturalism is exactly what all this global consumerism nonsense in the Facebook status message means. The tandem is anything but accidental. In his Trouble with Principle (Harvard University Press 1999) Stanley Fish distinguished two varieties of that strategy: a “boutique” and the “strong” multiculturalism. humiliation of a jovial and benevolent dismissal of a “you can’t be serious.How do we react to that situation? The snag is. The distinctiveness that marks it as unique and self-defining will resist the appeal of moderation or incorporation into a larger scale. as it does all around increasingly diasporised Europe that the boundaries between humiliating and the humiliated overlap with the boundaries between socially privileged and socially deprived. I’d say. Hopes for freedom of self-assertion and for arresting the rise of social inequality. that we’ve failed thus far to develop. Purveyors of this superficial brand of multiculturalism appreciate. “A boutique multiculturalist”. the 2022 French elections are won by Mohammed Ben Abbes following a neck and neck race with Marine Le Pen. let alone to entrench. and yet more the trust in democracy as the . Michel Houllebecq’s second grand dystopia sketching an alternative (to the triumph of individualized consumer) path to disaster. We presently live on a minefield of which we know (or at least we should) that it is spattered with explosives. Fish wrote: The trouble with stipulating tolerance as your first principle (…) is that you cannot possibly be faithful to it because sooner or later the culture whose core values you are tolerating will reveal itself to be intolerant at that same core. It is in the nature of offence and humiliation to seek an outlet through which it can be discharged and a target. and high-profile flirtations with the Other. Democratic politics. the offence of disregarding or flatly rejecting what the “stranger” next door holds sacrosanct. other races. you can’t mean it” kind. Boutique multiculturalism. Prophetic? It could happen like this. The strategy widely seen as progressive is a policy known under the name of “multiculturalism”. a satisfactory response. Fish suggests.” By the same token. weekend festivals. Radical islamic ideology or economic “structural” inequalities: what component plays a major role in determining this phenomenon of radicalization and terrorism in Europe and the world? Why do you reduce the issue of “radicalization and terrorism in Europe” to the phenomenon of “radical islamic ideology”? In Soumission. other classes – a beleaguered culture will fight back with everything from discriminatory legislation to violence. And when it so happens. and “recognise the legitimacy” of cultures other than their own. enjoy. sympathise with. But they always stop short of approving these radically. Confronted with a demand that it surrender its viewpoint or enlarge it to include the practices of its natural enemies – other religions. is a superficial fascination with the Other: ethnic food. as Fish defines it. Explosions occur. though there is no way to predict when and where. invested in democracy. in case we are unable or unwilling to change course. “does not and cannot take seriously the core values of the culture he tolerates.

they merely reap the benefits of distrust of their opponents and predecessors. left of social leash capitalism. frightened. is just one of the banners deployed to rally the humiliated and deprived. and inequality is increasingly evident. unbridled. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. Those in power no longer enjoy the confidence of the voters. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure. the way for ethics to defeat fundamentalism? In his first Esortazione Apostolica. As Pierre Rosanvallon argues. but something new. angry and vengeance-seething desperadoes. the spokesman of Allah.best road to the solution of the most haunting social problems. A number of diseases are spreading. That’s the opposite of fundamentalism. At the same time we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day. the affirmation of individual identity. left behind and abandoned. As a consequence. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. All around Europe we witness a rising tide of anti-democratic sentiment – and a massive “secession of plebeians” (in their current reincarnation as precarians) to the camps located on the opposite extremes of the political spectrum though promising in unison to replace the already discredited high- mindedness with yet to be tried high-handedness of autocracy. We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care. but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. not a “We”. (…) Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life. education and communications. You asserted ethics always needs an “I”. Such an economy kills. Spectacular acts of violence may be seen as reconnaissance sallies into that. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest. Is the “I”. It is a struggle to live and. without any means of escape. The word of the Prophet. lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise. cast-out and excluded. as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the . without possibilities. often. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation. masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work. The joy of living frequently fades. dazzled by its lust for gain and blind to human misery. (…) Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. to live with precious little dignity. Pope Francis restored the lost-from view moral dimension to our soumission – surrender – to the licentious. even in the so-called rich countries. where the powerful feed upon the powerless. today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. You won’t find a more profound and comprehensive answer to your question: In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history. with dire consequences. are in crisis. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression.

Elizabeth. As word got out. and the Today Show. Photo by Lloyd Arnold/Hulton Archive/Getty Back in the fall of 1999. the “leftovers”. those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. October 1939. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast. intending to dig them up again after the war so she could tell them their real identities. Megan pored over the story of Irena Sendler. and during her free time.500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43. Megan could appreciate just how difficult her life-threatening choices must have been.society in which we live. ‘Irena Sendler saved 2. NPR.800 The inspirational power of narrative: American writer Ernest Hemingway in Idaho. To sneak the children past Nazi guards. Imagining herself in the young nurse’s position.’ Elizabeth asked her fellow ninth-grader Megan Stewart to help her with her project. and two other friends wrote a play about Sendler. asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report. Nothing to add. While brainstorming ideas. She was so moved by Sendler’s gumption and selflessness that she. They called itLife in a Jar and performed it at schools and theatres. a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas. Norman Conard. The story included the line. She also wrote out lists of the children’s names and buried them in jars. The power of story Across time and culture. stories have been agents of personal transformation – in part because they change our brains by Elizabeth Svoboda 2. nothing to detract. The power of Sendler’s story had turned the project into something much bigger than the girls expected. Hemingway disapproved of the photo saying 'I don't work like this'. Sendler hid them under piles of potatoes and loaded them into gunny sacks. She learned about how this unassuming young Polish nurse had created thousands of false identity papers to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. . the students’ quest to share what Sendler had done appeared on CNN.

When we think of this first section of the Bible. While the Old Testament certainly reflected the values and priorities of the culture from which it emerged. O ne of the earliest narratives to wield such influence was the Old Testament. the image powerfully illustrated the fate that may await anyone who ignores a divine order. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books. a non-profit organisation that teaches students about the lives of past luminaries such as Sendler. has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak.’ Our storytelling ability. survived the great deluge that followed – and personified the rewards in store for one willing to conform to God’s will. story is an inextricable part of our DNA. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’. the way we act. who still marvels at the way a single story cracked her own life wide open. a uniquely human trait. steeped in stories like these. bringing God’s punishment upon herself and Adam. by extension. some of them my own. ‘I continue to be inspired by Irena Sendler daily. but many of the most gripping Old Testament stories do not contain an overtly stated moral. poems.’ The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption. and I am not who I was. It was no coincidence that. those values came embedded in powerful tales that invited readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions. Across time and across cultures. ‘We want young people to be inspired by the stories they hear and realise that they also can change the world. conscious or not. Megan Stewart – now Megan Felt – is programme director for the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development. stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides. we tend to recall its long sequences of ‘thou shalt nots’.Today. and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even. . ‘I have walked through many lives. movies. completely altering its course. written down starting in the seventh century BCE and then revised over the course of hundreds of years. Noah. who carried out God’s cryptic command to build an ark. that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it.’ says Felt. When Eve ate the fruit from the Garden of Eden’s tree of knowledge. but as agents of personal transformation.

The historian J E Lendon points out that the Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy. Meanwhile. in ancient Greece. the way we engage with the world. over and over again. each storyteller adding tweaks as he saw fit. who endured a painful and protracted journey to return to his homeland. In a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesstudy.’ wrote William Harris. and selflessness. Like Homer’s Odysseus. we’ve known intuitively that stories alter our thinking and. especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. Vermont. not just because it was old and reverenced. as many learning processes do.the ancient Hebrews emerged as a unified society of people devoted to God and his commands. in turn.’ In their quest to lead a good life. often possessed of superhuman abilities. generations of Greeks looked to the epics for inspiration. Though the characters in these epics were larger-than-life figures. underscoring the tales’ impact not just on minds. they faced hardship head-on and persevered against great odds. it was still natural for people to identify with them. sacrifice. Using modern technology like functional MRI (fMRI) scanning. But only recently has research begun to shed light on how this transformation takes place from inside. with mimicry. ‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text. but on cultural norms and behaviours. scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story- inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? Our mental response to story begins. but only if it were read carefully. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character. One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit. F or thousands of years. Epic heroes rarely conquered their foes with ease. but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life. a way of thinking under stress. the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College. the psychologist Uri Hasson and his Princeton University colleagues had a graduate student tell an unrehearsed story . a formidable oral storytelling tradition was taking hold – one in which epic stories such as Homer’s Iliad andOdyssey were passed from generation to generation. giving rise to ancient hero cults that worshipped the exploits of characters like Achilles and Odysseus.

As the researchers analysed the data. The Ohio State University psychologist Lisa Libby studied a group of people who engaged in ‘experience-taking’. Which is my sign of something really touching. subjects also reported strong feelings of moral motivation. such as digestion and heartbeat. Libby and her colleagues found in 2012. for instance. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction. even though he was quite hungry. As they reacted to the stories. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation. Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up. it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound. . they found some striking similarities. ‘I can almost feel the physical sensations. stories help our brains map that of the storyteller. Then they scanned the brains of 11 volunteers listening to a recording of the story. for instance. High levels of experience-taking predicted observable changes in behaviour. the stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does. which governs basic physical functions. was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. or putting themselves in a character’s place while reading. When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories. too.while her brain was being scanned in an fMRI machine. People identified similarly with story characters in a 2013 study at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit. What’s more. they were more likely themselves to vote later on. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story. When people identified with a protagonist who voted in the face of challenges. then. he talked about how it had made him reflect on his relationship with his parents and what they’d given up for him. When one participant listened to a story about a Chinese boy giving a warm cake to his mother. In certain essential ways. ‘This one is like there’s a balloon under my sternum inflating and moving up and out. where fiction readers who felt emotionally transported into a story scored higher on a scale of empathic concern one week after their reading experience. their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level.’ one of Immordino- Yang’s subjects remarked after hearing one of the stories.’ Immordino-Yang reported her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 and in Emotion Review in 2011. which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. It’s this kind of gut-level empathetic story response that can inspire people to behave differently in the real world.

many story messages don’t translate into action as neatly as controlled studies might suggest. with ourselves as well as with others. The men would sit around a table with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and talk about a variety of different books – from Jack London’s Sea-Wolf to James Dickey’sDeliverance. brings students lessons that feature true stories from historical conflicts. such as whether they should stand up for a friend who’s being badmouthed. ‘We teach specific pieces in history that have a connection to the present. smashed windows and looted Jewish shops while most ordinary Germans just watched. We denounce. T he alternative sentencing programme Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) is proving that well-told stories can also re-orient the lives of adult offenders. but they’re also thinking about similar matters closer to home. in part because of all theother stories that have changed our perception in the interim. We talk back. internal and external. This real-life story prompts class discussion that touches on what it means to be a bystander. We respond to The Diary of Anne Frank differently at age 42 than we do at 12. and they are more likely than controls to intervene when other students are bullied. Kids consider how they might have reacted when Jewish people were persecuted under Nazi rule. happen when children actively engage – even empathise – with a particular narrative. ‘We’re looking for ways in which kids see that history is connected to their own lives. describing how Nazis burned synagogues. When students explore the significance of stories in this way. says Facing History executive Marty Sleeper. . their thoughts and choices shift measurably.’ Sleeper says. active in school districts around the US. are exactly what educators are counting on to unleash story’s change-creating potential. recognising how it matters to them. someone who does nothing while someone else gets hurt. Every story is the beginning of a conversation.Of course. We praise. CLTL began in the early 1990s with a pilot programme that included eight men. We argue with stories.’ One lesson about the 1938 Kristallnacht attacks delves into the historical narrative. some with several convictions to their names. Children who complete the Facing History curriculum show more empathy and concern for others. The biggest transformations. Those kinds of conversations. The non-profit Facing History and Ourselves. internally or out loud.

‘It was not an exaggeration to say that a story had caught this student’s attention and perhaps saved his life that day. a virtue. One man talked about his identification with Santiago. an inspiration. CG began to let Skean in. people would always reject him – that were not necessarily true.’ Waxler writes.’ But little by little. “What do you hope readers take from your books?” ’ Newbery . One day. he often told Skean. and convinced others were out to get him. After his therapy concluded. It was a watershed moment. CG ‘began to cry and said that he just realised there had never been anyone in his life who gave him a feeling that he should be happy. a glimpse at the evolution of CG’s internal narrative. In return. At the beginning of treatment. surprising perspectives.’ In a study of 600 participants. In a 2005 case study. a graduate student in his late twenties called CG who was the child of abusive.’ Counsellors who practice psychodynamic therapy help clients discard these stagnant inner monologues and substitute fresh ones. in itself. CG went on to thrive and to take high-ranking positions in his academic field. Living out this narrative had made him lonely.As they read and discussed the stories. and worthy of the good things in life. Skean helped him see how his early struggles had led him to tell himself certain stories – the world was hostile and cold. CG believed close relationships with others could only hurt him. the beleaguered fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. rates of criminal activity declined by 60 per cent compared to only 16 per cent in a control group. he was beginning to see himself as capable. many artists bristle at the idea that they tell stories to get people to think or act in any particular way. forgotten child who saw so many forces arrayed against him. CG reported that he had actually asked a woman on a date and that he’d enjoyed himself the whole time. a stranger become a friend. some enthralling inner narratives can damage mental horizons. And sensibly enough. but that Santiago’s will to persevere motivated him to stay a sober course. Of course. The man said he sometimes felt an inner pull to go back to his drug habit. withdrawn. the students came away with new. No longer the abused. Depressed people often cling to long-established internal narratives with refrains like ‘I’m not good enough to achieve much. ‘I’m often asked. ‘I’m not sure how helpful today’s session has been. The success of Adolf Hitler’s oratory bid to dominate 1930s Germany should convince us that a narrative’s surface persuasiveness is not. ‘The fictional character was alive for the student at that crucial moment. neglectful parents. Rutgers University psychologist Karen Riggs Skean describes one of her patients. valuable.’ or ‘My mother dashes all my most important dreams. When Skean expressed happiness. too. should do things that brought him pleasure’. The stories we tell ourselves are integral to our wellbeing. she recalls. telling her stories from his difficult past.

It’s always up to us whether to turn our backs on a story’s landscape or to step into the fresh possibilities it offers. Narratives that tell us point-blank who we should be. Whether they describe a young nurse risking her life to smuggle children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. 2010. The most enduring stories. perhaps unexpected. ‘I have a hard time answering that question. or a hotel manager who shelters refugees marked out for death (Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda). how we should behave.Award winner Shannon Hale wrote on her blog. Charb kept drawing and projecting vignettes about his comrade Daniel. whose book. sometimes exhilarating – that inspire and steel us to navigate uncharted territories in real life. versions of ourselves. Marx: Mode d’Emploi. a meek older woman who shows grit and selflessness after a surprising tragedy (Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs). Waxler’s students. Is Solidarity without Identity Possible? On the Charlie Hebdo attack January 10th. Stories allow us to travel. and CG – we emerge as revised. I just hope that a reader takes whatever she needs. because I never write toward a purpose or moral. featuring one of its controversial covers © Valentina Calà | Flickr The time I saw Charb in Paris was January 24. During the speeches. It is these journeys – sometimes tenuous. 2015 | 14 responses A vigil in Luxembourg for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. the day of the crowded commemoration of the French philosopher and activist Daniel Bensaïd at La Mutualité. he had illustrated a year earlier. In the deep sadness that filled the big room his . they present us with an arresting alternative to the way we see the world.’ When story is at its best – as yarn-spinners like Hale can testify – its effect is expansive rather than nakedly persuasive. outside the circumscribed spaces of what we believe and what we think possible. by contrast. time and again. But when we do decide to venture into an unfamiliar story – as did Megan Felt. are better described as dictates or propaganda. broaden our mental and moral outlook without demanding that we hew to a certain standard.

Nor is the narrative about attacks on freedom of speech and of press sufficient to understand what is really happening. this means that the attack might have been a successful one. shotguns have been fired against two mosques. Its defenders. Of all the targets the attackers could choose. in the ferocious attack of January 7. the distinctively French pride of being free to satirize both God and the King. together with two policemen.vignettes constantly reminded us of Bensaïd’s subtle humor. The strategy behind the attack aims at a polarization of French society.” It further isolates the Muslim population in France (around five million people) and exposes it to a further escalation of the already worrying and rampant Islamophobia. Its covers alternate denouncing and criticizing French policies against immigrants and Houellebecq’s Islamophobic paranoia with an endless series of vignettes targeting “les islamistes. Charb was one of the ten cartoonists and journalists killed. A magazine. slowly helping us to heal the loss. at an escalation of the conflict. of his little malicious smile with which he used to charm us all. as in some sort of mechanical cause-and-effect connection. a massive manhunt to capture the killers is taking place.” Following the killing of a thousand Muslim Brothers in the 2013 Rabaa massacre in Egypt. in the wake of the criticisms and accusations of Islamophobia Charlie Hebdo started to receive. The narrative about the direct correspondence between the publication of irreverent vignettes of Muhammad and the attack. the mirror upon which white Europeans project their deepest nightmares and fears. that is. ça n’arrête pas les balles” (The Quran is a piece of shit: it doesn’t stop bullets). they are increasingly becoming the scapegoat of the economic crisis. a kebab shop has been bombed. Every single week in Germany several thousands of people gather in various cities under the organizational denomination of PEGIDA for demonstrations against the “Islamization des Abendlandes” ( PEGIDA stands for “Patrotic Europeans against the Islamization . moreover. CHpublished a cover with a vignette saying: “Le Coran. 2015. it is hitting the French Left. where it hurts the most: in its troubles in dealing with France’s colonial past and legacy and in reformulating universalism in such a way as to give full inclusion to Arab and Muslim people. this answer shows a fundamental misunderstanding about context — that same misunderstanding that led part of the French left to capitulate in favor of an abstract republican secularism on the occasion of the discussions regarding the scarf law. And. enjoying dwelling in the trivial obscenities of the genre. still had credibility among the French Left. that embodied a distinctively French tradition of secularist irreverence. and all French political leaders have appealed to national unity in defense of the République. The target was politically and carefully chosen. in order not to leave any option of resistance other than radical Islamism to the Muslim population. in spite of the controversies about the quite Islamophobic vignettes it published. It is pushing the white population to gather behind the banners of the national republican unity and identity perceived as under attack from the new French.” this image features a “responsible journal” that is empty of content © Emiline Broussard | Flickr Charlie Hebdo is an extreme symptom of the troubles of the French Left. and above all at the resuscitation of the mantra of “the clash of civilizations. Director of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. the Muslim French. c’est de la merde. they deliberately chose a magazine that. the only barrier against an uncontrolled proliferation of Islamophobia in the country. Since then messages of solidarity stating “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie — have been flooding the web and other media. In contrast to Charlie Hebdo’s self-description as an “irresponsible journal. kept pointing out that its satire was addressed to all religions indiscriminately. is over-simplistic. Sadly enough. Muslims are not only a largely oppressed and exploited minority in France. Whether this is true or not (and I think it is not entirely true).

willingly or unwillingly. This attack and these murders push people like me into a corner. the repeated publication of vignettes caricaturizing Islamists by adopting religious symbols and stereotypical representations that by the same token identify five million oppressed people living in France was not an act of courage. and honestly scary. and moving vignettes about Daniel Bensaïd. in the renewed farce of the clash of civilizations. I cannot bring myself to participate in the choir and say that “I am Charlie. as they make it extremely difficult for us to say that we find this act of violence disgusting and unacceptable. An Italian rightwing newspaper published the photo of the attack on Charlie Hebdo under the title “This is Islam.of the West”). forcing all of us to participate. and means of radical Islamists. humorous. that we deeply loathe the politics. rather than reinforcing or restating them. for a solidarity that does not need the affirmation of a common identity to express itself. context. that we are in pain for the people who have been murdered. . In this worrying. but that yet we cannot identify ourselves with Charlie Hebdo. is the space that the attack against Charlie Hebdo risks closing. strategy. In spite of my very dear memory of Charb’s sweet. This tiny space.” But here is the problem.” and a large part of the Italian population would be perfectly happy to let Muslim immigrants sink without help in the Mediterranean. the space for a solidarity capable of challenging identities. directly or indirectly. And we cannot deploy the expected slogan of “We are all French” in this moment in which a specific version of French national identity was mobilized to oppress those French citizens who cannot possibly identify with it.