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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The right to give offence

I've never read a word of Phillip Pullman's fiction, maybe I will when my daughter is older, but I admire his response to a christian antagonist at the Oxford Literary Festival last weekend. Nobody has the right not to be offended whether they be athiest, agnostic, christian, jew, muslim, hindu, sikh or whatever. If you think otherwise, then you don't understand what freedom of expression (under the law) means in a liberal society. Not gratuitously giving offence in everyday life is, of course, a matter of decency, good manners and prudence: but it is not a moral imperative.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Words from the wise 1

The avocation of assessing the failures of better men can be turned into a comfortable livelihood, providing you back it up with a Ph.D.

Nelson Algren

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Research Assistant Job

If you want to do some number crunching for me you might take a look at this advert.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Social Poetry

The epigram at the start of a book I read recently was from the art historian Kenneth Clark:

Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality.

Quite so, but what does it mean? It is a syntactically correct English sentence that fails to convey anything very definite to me. I can parse it but I can't tell you what exactly is being asserted about the world. The only conclusion I can reach is that it is a species of poetry. It would be absurd though, I think, to say that the sentence or indeed poetry in general is meaningless. What poetry conveys about the outer or indeed the inner world depends on symbolism - which is just a vocabulary of associations that is, to an extent, culturally learned. If I'm right it makes, belated, sense to me of an important part of studying poetry at school - "learning how to respond". To be sure learning to do science is also a culturally acquired behaviour, but what is learned is rather different from what is required if one's modus operandi is social poetry. The great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga hit the nail on the head:

From the causal point of view, symbolism appears as a sort of short-circuit of thought. Instead of looking for the relation between two things by following the hidden detours of their causal connexions, thought makes a leap and discovers their relation, not in a connexion of cause and effects, but in a connexion of signification or finality.

He was writing about the medieval mentality, but he might have been writing about an influential strand of contemporary British sociology.

Friday, 12 March 2010

More advice on writing

It's coming round to that time of the year when MSc students begin to think seriously about writing their dissertations. Starting to write anything is daunting and sometimes it's helpful to listen to somebody talk about the process. I think this interview with Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane contains some useful advice.