A philosophical diversion

It was a holiday weekend so I indulged myself in a little philosophy: Patrick Baert’s The Existentialist Moment: The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual. Regular perusers of this blog will know I recently outed myself as a teenage existentialist, in reviewing Sarah Bakewell’s excellent new book At The Existentialist Cafe. Bakewell explains (and critiques) the philosophy, and sets it in the context of wider philosophical currents. Baert explores a few years in French history, those of the German occupation during World War 2 and the immediate post-war years, to explain why existentialism and why Sartre in particular struck a chord with the public and become so influential.

It is fascinating in its exploration of why writing came to be seen as so central to French national identity and why Sartre was particularly adept at using writing about politics to appeal to the French public at that time of national defeat and subsequent rebuilding. So, oddly, although Sartre and De Gaulle were poles apart politically, both played an important part in rebuilding the nation’s sense of cohesion and dignity.

Baert’s final chapter has some general reflections on the role of public intellectuals and writing as a performative political act. He argues that the generalist public intellectual of Sartre’s type cannot exist in modern social contexts, but have been replaced instead by public intellectuals with expert domain knowledge. Sartre wrote about social and economic issues with no knowledge of the facts or the social science, and nobody would get away with that now. I’m not sure I buy the argument about the perfomative character of people who pontificate about the economy, at least not in a straightforward way, but having said that, there’s some appeal (to a writer) in the idea that words are sufficiently powerful to shape social reality. Man the keyboards!


Poetry in statistics

In a tremendous public service, Count Bayesie (Will Kurt) has put together a series of his blog posts that amount to a superbly clear and accessible guide to Bayesian statistics. Highly recommended, especially for doctors but also for economists – great teaching material here too.

Generously, the guide starts by recommending another book, Nate Silver’s excellent The Signal and the Noise, something I would put on the reading list of all students, even those who only need to be minimally numerate to get their degree. (After all, how else can we grow them into intelligent voters?)

Encouragingly, Will Kurt himself started with an English degree before becoming a data scientist. Code is language too, and there is poetry in it. Even in probability and statistics.

Upward bound?

Lynsey Hanley is much younger than me. She cites often in her new book Respectable Richard Hoggart, and an intermediate generation of working class writers who made good via grammar school, who are much older than me. The continuity of experience, theirs and mine alike, is striking. The specifics have changed over the decades since Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy was published in 1957, but Britain remains a firmly class-based society, with the (im)possibility of social mobility mediated through the education system. Having spent decent amounts of time in the US and France, I think they are equally class-bound, and maybe only Scandinavia is really different (although actually the OECD adds Canada and Australia to its list of socially mobile countries). However, the exact mechanics of keeping people in their place differs.

Hanley wrote an excellent book, Estates, about growing up in a large council estate in outer Birmingham. Respectable takes up the story with her personal experiences of a working class education, and the lack of quality and lack of ambition for pupils in her first schools. I found the sections of the book where she describes her personal experiences the most interesting, partly because her reaction to her culture shock was so different from mine (my journey was a more ‘conventional’ social mobility story of 11 plus-grammar school-Oxbridge). I went from a northern working class household where we hardly ever had meals out, ate plain food at 5.30pm for our evening meal, had holidays in Blackpool B&Bs or Butlins holiday camps, had never been abroad to an Oxford college stuffed with southerners who had been to posh schools, listened to classical music, and knew how to tackle an artichoke. Although it was a shock, I relished it. Hanley is far more equivocal about her climb into the middle class, and seems to have felt the deracination as a far more painful process. She argues that upward social mobility leaves the individual permanently anxious in both kinds of context.

This contrast in our attitudes made the analytical parts of Respectable less compelling for me, but Hanley has many interesting observations about how monstrously hard it is for working class children to gain access to the privileges the middle classes take for granted. She is particularly astute about the lack of autonomy that goes with lack of confidence. And also on the fear – the fear of the ‘respectable’ working classes about falling downward which manifests itself as disdain for ‘chavviness’ or casual racism, and the fear of the middle classes about all of the lower orders. (This echoes the emphasis Julia Unwin places on the emotional role of fear in her excellent book Why Fight Poverty?)

Respectable is also very strong on the ideological use of the idea that all an individual child needs to do is to work hard and behave well to get on, as if individual responsibility can by itself overcome embedded social structures. However, Hanley appears to argue against the idea of early intervention in some families, and free nursery care or extended hours at school, whereas I’m persuaded that, given the family context some children experience, this is absolutely the right thing to do – even if it would of course be great to be able to sort out the thicket of social, economic, health and crime problems experienced by poor families in poor areas. One point on which I wholly agree with her, though, is in marking the use of the phrase “these people” with a red flag. (“A characteristic feature of such pronouncements [about the fecklessness of the underclass] is the use of the phrase ‘these people’. ‘These people’, over there, are not and cannot ever be people like us.”)

Even if your own experience has been different – or especially if it has – Respectable is a terrific read. There are too few writers who can describe working class life with any authenticity, and this book gives real insight into why Britain is so socially stratified.

Strolling minstrels and pedlars

Today we went to a family party and I needed a very small book to pop into my party handbag for reading on the tube. I picked, more or less randomly, Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, which I bought in the late 1970s and surely haven’t read since. My old Pelican copy has the whiff of library, brittle spine and yellow pages of an old paperback (but thank goodness no creatures living in it, as my brother once found in his college history books).

“History has been taken out of the hands of the strolling minstrels and the pedlars of stories and has been accepted as a means by which we can gain more understanding of ourselves and our place in the sun – a more clear consciousness of what we are tending to and what we are trying to do. It would even seem that we have perhaps placed too much faith in the study of this aspect of ourselves, and we have let our thinking run to history with more enthusiasm than judgement.  … Behind all the fallacies of the whig historian there lies the passionate desire to come to a judgement of values, to make history answer questions and decide issues.”

He goes on to say history is more like a travel guide describing a foreign land than an arbiter of what is true and what is false, while moral indignation and calm judgement rarely go hand in hand.

Beautiful business

I’m a big fan of small books – this is the era of the extended essay.They fit in a pocket or bag easily, and are just the right length for a moderate train/tube/bus/plane ride.

I’ve just been sent a lovely example in Alan Moore’s Design: Why beauty is the key to everything. It is, as one would expect, well, beautiful. It aims to inspire readers to create whatever they create better, whether that’s chairs or websites or a digital start-up. Each piece of advice is a page or two. The book starts with some general principles – why beauty matters, what the right mindset is to design things well. The second part then sets out 14 specific practices, grouped under the headings ‘persevere’, ‘connect’ and ‘aspire’. Two appendices look at business examples, axe-maker Gränsfors Bruk and Yeo Valley Farms. It sounds counter-intuitive to think of businesses being beautiful, certainly when the news is full of rather ugly examples, but it makes sense in this context.

There isn’t a big theory, rather a collection of insights that are intended to add up to a ‘beauty in design’ way of thinking. I’m not usually a fan of how to advice books but I have to admit this one made much sense to me and is simply a wonderful (small) object.