Monday, 27 September 2021

What the lockdown means to me


Every day for the past five or six years I have walked the dog along the path beside the evocatively named Hobson’s Brook, a tiny stream (barely more than that) built to carry fresh water into Cambridge. Today, the path is surrounded by mature trees that, even if they don’t date back to the building of the brook in the 17th century, must be at least 100 or more years old. 

The largest single trees on the walk, which is only half a mile or so long, are over a hundred feet tall. These trees are like the elder statesmen in a parliament, looking down over their younger companions, and no doubt providing an example to the young upstarts of how to live and to behave properly. These trees are the ultimate survivors. 

Today I discovered (by looking at the leaves and consulting a tree guide) that those three or four enormous trees are actually black poplars. On examining one fallen leaf (the tree was so enormous that the lowest branches were unreachable) you could see the heart-shaped leaves with slightly serrated edges.  It wasn’t difficult to identify them, but I must admit I’ve walked past these giant trees hundreds of times, without ever bothering to know more about them. Not only do I know the tree, I can now see if each tree is male or female – black poplars are dioecious, which means each tree is either male or female, but not both. 

These black poplars form part of my everyday existence, even before I could name them. During the lockdown (which is now easing, but which last summer, the summer of 2020, was at its most restrictive), the walk by the Brook was one of the few activities outside the house left to me. You couldn’t travel, or go to offices, or meet other people, but you were still allowed to walk the dog. That discovery of a new name was, for me, something of a revelation. I’m not a tree expert. Beyond oak, sycamore, willow, and the common names, I am lost. And I saw things in a new light.

A piece by Joe Moran in the TLS (June 18, 2020) describes everyday life during the lockdown (“All cities are the same at dawn”). After describing a video posted by a BBC journalist of his car journey through a deserted West End of London, which was startling because of the emptiness of the city (“empty cities are compelling because they bear the traces of our lives as inescapably social beings”), he describes the mundane reality of everyday existence, and lists some 20th-century French writers who deal with, even celebrate, the everyday: Henri Lefebvre, Maurice Blanchot, and most of all Georges Perec. Perec recommended logging the minutiae of daily existence: what you could see from a street café, all the food you eat for one year, and other mindless tasks. The point, according to Perec, is that life is a spell that can be broken. To follow Perec's suggestion would be for me like sinking further into quicksand.  Yet, argues Moran, we really don’t want to break that spell. “Crises make us long for a return to normality, where everyday life is mere background noise … the daily grind that Parisians call metro-boulot-dodo (commute – work – sleep) had its compensations after all.” That’s a rather perverse response to what is probably the longest lockdown any of us has experienced. Perhaps my revelation from one black poplar leaf suggests otherwise. For a small moment, the boredom and repetitive seeing without knowledge was interrupted. Now I have engaged with that tree, I’ll never look at it in quite the same way again. Every time I walk past it, that black poplar will drag me out of my reverie. 


Tuesday, 24 August 2021

Why does feeding Britain require a larger navy?


The food we eat: where it comes from, how nutritious it is, if we have access to healthy food, are vitally important topics. We make food choices every day. We question why food is flown from Peru when it appears it could be grown in the UK. We see endless repetitions of slogans aimed at improving our food consumption (“five a day”!) Is there any logic behind it? 

So it’s all the more disappointing that Tim Lang’s book, Feeding Britain, is such a poor discussion. I have to report that if you are interested in the above questions, Tim Lang’s book is not the place to start. Sadly, Tim Lang, despite being Professor of Food Policy at City University, has not written a very coherent or well-argued book. Anyone trying to get an idea of food policy from this book will be left confused and, I’m afraid to say, led astray by some very curious arguments. 

Perhaps one reason for the disappointing book is that appears to be based at least in part on a 2018 report, of which Professor Lang was co-author: Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit. Notice the change in subtitle from the report, and this book: Feeding Britain: Our Food Problems and How to Fix Them. The title of the report sums up this book more accurately, but I would never have bought a book with such a subtitle, and I think I’m not alone in that opinion. This might also explain why his book is called “Feeding Britain”? Surely the problems the author describes are universal, or at least apply to all the wealthier countries of the world, as the author himself admits on page 424? 

Unfortunately, there are other echoes of what appears to be a UK Government policy document. For example [p135] “But PAS 96 took HACCP one stage further, proposing an ancillary system to HACCP it named TACCP – Threat Assessment Critical Control Points.” 

I can’t claim to have read all the book, but I have read enough to see it is not worth my time completing it. In this post, I will cover his main argument, then give some examples of problems I have with the rhetoric, and some specific examples where I think the argument plain wrong. To save you, reader, from having to plough through the entire book, here is my summary and commentary. 

Argument of the book

Mr Lang argues that Britain needs a food policy. To be precise, Britan needs a “food system” policy, by which he means a policy for the entire process of food creation, delivery, sale and consumption – not just the food supply chain. His book comprises three parts:

In the first part, he argues that Britain needs a food defence policy: Britain has to make sure that it is less reliant on imported food. He calls for government intervention to ensure this policy is carried out. To ensure this, he calls for many changes, including a larger navy to “protect” food imports.

In part two, he discusses several of the most important “food problems”. He lists 12, and some of them are central issues for discussions about the food supply. 

In part three, he suggests a “food plan”, which comprises largely a series of centralized government initiatives for managing a food policy.  After yet another repetition that “too much prime land is being built on” [p434], his recommendations are mainly exhortations for more government input and centralized planning.  For example:

o   A Food Defence Review [p445]

o   An audit of what could be grown more in the UK [p446] (an excellent idea)

o   A tax on food advertising and e-media [p449]

o   A new National Food Resilience and Sustainability Council [p450]

o   Inequality reduction must be a principle at the heart of UK food policy [p454]

You get the idea. The ideas are worthy, but have little political or economic awareness. They don’t include any discussion of the implications of trying to impose food policy on a populace that prefers Mars Bars to apples. 


Tim Lang is one of those slippery writers who claims he isn’t saying what he really wants to say. Moreover, he makes these claims not once, but several times. Saying one thing while you mean another – combined with repetition:

Page xx: “The UK has undue food reliance on external sources”.

Page 14: “Britain does not feed itself. Some say it doesn't matter. I think it does. I do not favour autarky – only food from here ... but argue that to allow the current decline is risky.”

Page 27: “There is a mismatch between what our current food system delivers and what we ought to be doing to make UK food secure … I am not arguing a “pull up the drawbridge” position; simply that we would do well to face our own contradictions”

 There are several further references to “autarky”, a word the author is clearly fond of using. The aim is to make us feel uncomfortable that we Britons do not farm more. 


Of course the term “sustainable” has become one of those words that means whatever you want it to mean. In this book, the author appears to conflate food sustainability with food security (two very different topics). It is the food security angle that leads Prof Lang to complain that the British Royal Navy has too few ships (but more about that later).


Without the above summary in mind, any reader risks getting lost in trying to follow Mr Lang’s various tangential discussions. For example (page 28)

UK land use is profligate … We keep building houses on prime land, or putting motorways across it … land is a precious resource. 

As far as I know, the UK Government is currently paying farmers not to cultivate some of their land. I did not realise the UK needs to cultivate more land. But that is one of the recommendations Lang makes in part three, as part of his “Great Food Transformation”.  

So much of the book’s excessive length is because it keeps drifting from the subject. How else can you explain, for example, the lengthy descriptions of Ro-Ro ferries (page 170), most of which, the author admits, are not carrying food at all? What is the relevance of the dividends paid by Eurotunnel? What is the relevance of the growth in capacity of Sheerness port, when it is not stated what proportion (if any) of this capacity relates to food? I cannot see any indication from the port website that it carries any food at all.  In any case, Sheerness port accounts for a fraction of a per cent of UK port traffic. 


·      Anything important will be repeated several times in the book. For example, Lang repeats descriptions of supermarket shelves: (page 14) “Britain is awash with food.” (page 26) “Supermarkets are full of food.”

Poor structure and indexing

The book is not helped by inadequate indexing. Terms such as “HFSS” are used throughout the book without, as far as I can see, ever being spelt out. “WRAP” is, in contrast, spelt out in the index, but not in the text of the book. Lang appears to differentiate “horticulture” from “agriculture”, but there is no clear definition of what he means by horticulture. He claims that horticulture represents only a tiny proportion of cultivated land in the UK, but without a clear definition of what he means by horticulture, it is difficult to respond to his assertion. 

Questionable claims

·    The author argues for greater state control of the food supply, referring mainly to rationing during and after World War II, without evidence that it improved the health of the nation. There is very little discussion of what wartime measures were implemented. The author repeatedly worries about the size of the British Navy:

In 2017, in the course of analyses of potential threats from Brexit, it emerged that the UK Border Force has just three vessels operations to protect sea borders … this remains a pathetically small border force to protect ship-borne food traffic. [p138]

Four pages (pp137-141) are devoted to the inadequacy of UK naval defences. This is the first I have heard of the UK Border Force having responsibility to protect merchant shipping. Does Mr Lane expect piracy in the English Channel, perhaps? 

Misuse of statistics

Here are two examples. The impression I get is that Prof Lang interprets statistics the way he chooses, regardless of the figures in front of him. These examples are sufficient to make me very dubious about his other arguments making use of statistics. 

Is the UK more or less self-sufficient in food today than 75 years ago? On page 8, we are told that the UK in 1939 produced a third of its food requirements. Today, we are told (on page xx) that the UK produces 50% of its food requirements. On page 14, we are asked to examine this “decline”. It looks like an increase to me. 

Two pages (pp30-31) are dedicated to graphs of life expectancy in England and Wales. The author shows statistics of increasing life expectancy over the last 100 years. However, the two graphs do not agree. Life expectancy for females is shown as higher than for males in 2001 in one graph, and lower in the other graph. Neither graph shows an absolute decline in life expectancy, although one graph shows a declining rate of increase. Neither graph includes the dotted line referred to in the text. In any case, the author continues, triumphantly: “It is true. Life expectancy has risen … but not all those life years are healthy.” How are we to interpret this? Life expectancy has not gone up, whatever the statistics tell you, and in any case, they aren’t the real measure. You could argue that life expectancy depends on many factors, of which food is only one. But the author claims (without attribution) that “food critics” who “have lost a sense of proportion” in claiming that “in the order of things British food is a great twentieth-century success story.” This is the straw man line of reasoning: misrepresenting an opposing argument in order to further one's own [Wikipedia]. 

Poor use of language

Mr Lang’s use of phrases to emphasise his message often have the result of making it more obscure. For example, the author describes “genetic chance”(not indexed) for the random way in which “a child born to affluent in-work parents thrived. Others did not.” [p10]. This is nothing to do with genetics. A child adopted by wealthy parents would thrive. And what has this got to do with food? Other dubious terminology he uses include a reference to the Whig interpretation of history, and a statement that the UK imports more food than it grows. This is true, but it is not what economists would describe as “market failure” (p78). Nelson did not look through his telescope with a “disinterested” eye [p439]. If he had, he would have seen the other ships. 


I came away from the book not much wiser about how to create a sustainable food supply, apart from thinking it would be best to start with a different book – and different publisher. 

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Wisbech: What happened “one of the most perfect streets of England”?


North Brink, Wisbech, with its pedestrian-friendly pavement

Wisbech was run down, certainly. In the main (Market) square there wasn’t much sign of any big-name shops, although Costa Coffee was busy. There were a few drunks around, and groups in the public spaces. The Wisbech Museum was surrounded by scaffolding, with a couple of drinkers admiring it from across the beautiful Georgian place in front of it.  A wine bar in a side street looked like the busiest site in the centre (at 4pm). 

But none of that explains why what Pevsner described as “one of the most perfect Georgian streets of England” was so run down – and needlessly so. North Brink and South Brink are streets facing each other across the River Nene. North Brink is the finer, including Peckover House, but it is interesting all the way down. Unfortunately it has been turned into a one-way street, which means that traffic moves down it fast. Worse, it is impossible to stand on the river-side of the street, which you need to do to get a good look at the buildings. Instead of a pavement, the surface is very large pebbles that are impossible to walk on. There are double yellow lines on both sides (although the idea of anyone trying to stop on the river side is a joke). One of the greatest streets in England cannot, in other words, be experienced properly. 

South Brink is no better. It is one of the main streets out of the centre, with a lot of traffic in both directions – which is curious, since a few hundred metres away is a dual carriageway (Churchill Street) running through the centre of Wisbech. I don’t see the need for two main arteries in the same direction out of the centre. 

I’m not expecting all the inhabitants of Wisbech to be desperate for an aesthetic experience. But all the towns I have seen in France with a historic centre, sensitively pedestrianised and made attractive, seem to have had an effect on the inhabitants. To put it bluntly, beauty rubs off on you, without you noticing. 

We tried (as many people do) to walk down North Brink and then back up South Brink. Sadly, there was no footbridge to enable you to cross from one side to the other of the river. All in all, the town planning of this wonderful street ensures that any visit will be short and not very pleasant. Few towns in the UK have managed to mangle their heritage in such a comprehensive way. The good news, I suppose, is that it could be fixed. Heritage Lottery funding, perhaps? With a bit of love and attention, Peckover House could be seen in all its glory. 

Farewell, London Review of Books

Literary periodicals such as the London Review of Books have more than one role. They provide a bridge between the academic world, which steadily, but perhaps with some justification, encroaches on every area of intellectual judgement in our lives. Was Henry VIII a good or a bad king? Your view will today be largely determined by an academic, or an academic consensus. The consensus will change over time, but it is the academy that makes the decision. Of course, there is disagreement, but in the arts, as well as in science, there is an expert view that we ignore at our peril. Hilary Mantel writes historical fiction, and she can take any attitude she likes – but she would not be taken seriously if she strayed too far from the “official” academic line.

As I have argued elsewhere, one of the challenges posed by the academy is that it is a closed world to outsiders. Not having access to the world of scholarship, we cannot see the reviews written by academics that form such an important part of defining the academic orthodoxy. So the literary periodicals, such as the TLS, the NYRB, and the LRB (to use their common abbreviations), play an essential role. These publications are aimed the perhaps mythical general reader. They enable “common readers” to follow theh debates about history, politics, the environment, and about writers.

If that is the case, why abandon reading one of them, the London Review of Books? I’ve been dutifully subscribing to this publication for several years, but with increasing dissatisfaction. The LRB, like all the literary periodicals that exist on the income they receive from subscriptions, has an element of entertainment to it. Readers don’t just want to read improving literature, they want to enjoy what they are reading.

Unfortunately, the LRB has lost sight, both of the educational role and the entertainment role. I know that Mary-Kay Wilmer, founder of the LRB, has been very heavily involved throughout its life and whatever editorial stamp the LRB has is largely her work. Perhaps then it is significant to discover something of her style in a celebratory piece by one of the LRB staff (presumably appointed by her): 

Mary-Kay once wrote a sign that was taped above the tea station at the paper’s old offices in Tavistock Square. ‘Please wash your cup,’ it said. ‘There’s nobody who doesn’t resent doing other people’s washing-up.’ When Karl Miller saw the sign, he laughed and asked whether she was responsible for its ‘Johnsonian cadences’. If you want a manifesto of an editor’s style, just read those sentences again. In them you will find the LRB’s ideal tone. [LRB, 18 February 2021, p8] 

Well, I read those sentences again, and I don’t find them particularly “Johnsonian”. I find the second sentence unnecessarily overwritten. How about “Why should others do your washing-up?” I’m afraid to say every issue of the LRB contains infelicitous phrases and poor use of English, text that cries out (to my thinking) for a good editor. How about a film review, from the same issue: 

There is plenty of angry talk in Regina King’s One Night in Miami – available on Amazon Prime and adapted from Kemp Power’s play – but the cruellest remark is very discreet … 

If you have two things to say about a film that spring to mind when you start writing your review, you could (as here) just string them together with “and”, even though they don’t have the slightest connection. It’s the sort of thing a good editor should pick up. 

My other gripe is the elitism of the contributors. I frequently feel they are not writing for a common reader, but for each other, or to demonstrate (or to reveal) their superiority from the average reader. Look, for example, at the start of a review by Patricia Lockwood: 

Do you understand what a pleasure it is not to have to begin with this little biographical section? 

We are never told what “this” refers to, but it subsequently becomes clear she is probably talking about the few lines of biography often provided on the cover or in the prelims of a book – and, presumably, the presence or absence of biographical description in the book she is reviewing. I don’t mind an arresting opening, but I object to her hectoring tone. Why not “It is a pleasure not to have to begin reading a book with …”? As it stands, from reading the very first sentence I feel I am somehow in the wrong, and it’s my fault if I don’t know what she is talking about. It might be easier if Ms Lockwood were to state that the book she is reviewing, a book by Elena Ferrante entitled in the English translation The Lying Life of Adults, has an Italian title called Frantumaglia. Would it be too much to explain somewhere that, despite one not being the translation of the other, both titles refer to the same book? We are told, several paragraphs into the review, that the book includes an essay with autobiographical questions from a magazine presented to the author.  Now we begin to understand that first sentence. 

But more important than the poor English and the cavalier approach to reviewing is the freedom given to the writers to drift away from the purpose of their writing to indulge in what can only be described as free association. Giving writers the luxury of several thousand words rather than several hundred is usually disastrous in the LRB, and it is all too common. Here is another example from Patricia Lockwood, complaining that many of the people who interviewed Elena Ferrante were too insistent: 

One journalist was so disgustingly persistent in this attack that I looked her up online. I found a picture of her wearing a green ring I coveted – and then softened, as I imagined a novel about us stealing it back and forth from each other forever. 

Is this a book review or am I expected to be wildly appreciative of Ms Lockwood’s not very relevant dreaming? I’m afraid to say the LRB increasingly appears to me to be a kind of circus, where we are admitted (after paying) to admire the reviewers/performers for their daring skills, but it is clear we are never, ever, to be close to their level of wit, elegance, and skill.  The reviewers may be on a par with the authors of the works reviewed, but they are never on a level with us. So for this reader at least, I will resign myself that I have no aspirations to being anything but a common reader who lacks the patience to remain comfortable in my role as a minor consumer of star writing. 

Most issues of the LRB have an advert (filed under “Writing and Arts Retreats”) for holiday apartments in Greece. These aren’t just holiday lets, however; they are in “the village where the great author Paddy [sic] Leigh-Fermor lived and wrote … read Leigh Fermor’s Mani and follow in his footsteps.” The advert mentions you will have a private swimming pool, no doubt the very pool that Leigh Fermor swam in daily. Yet another opportunity to pay homage to the elite. Perhaps by swimming in Paddy's pool I might learn to accept more uncomplainingly my very limited role in the world of letters as represented by the LRB. 

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (July 2021)

Exhibitions of Jean Dubuffet are, it seems, rare. This seems surprising given that Dubuffet offers what appears to be a genuine outsider, someone who did not form part of the mainstream of the artistic development of his time, but who nonetheless made significant statements through his art.

Most importantly is the idea of Art Brut: that so-called naïve art, lacking correct perspective and very close at times to caricature, can be a valid art form in its own right. Of course, it is common knowledge that Picasso and early 20th-century painters looked to early African art to give their paintings an immediacy that the official art of the day lacked. But Dubuffet takes it much further than that. Picasso, for all his modernism, retains throughout a reassuring classicism which makes the viewer feel comfortable: it’s not quite right, thinks the observer, but I can still see the talent of the line drawing and the composition.

With Dubuffet, you see the full “primitivism” of the image. Its not primitive, because Dubuffet knows exactly what he is doing, but it is still a shock to see the human body without any beautification (which is, after all, what most art has been doing since prehistoric times).

That rawness, observed from the art of the severely disturbed, has a haunting quality to it. It breaks the Western myth of the beautiful image. Not surprisingly, Dubuffet diverges from the tradition of painting beautiful images of women. His female figures are equally devoid of attractiveness, just a lump (or several lumps) of flesh presented bluntly to the viewer. 

Dubuffet’s art has a hit-or-miss quality, undoubtedly. It seems he would go off on the trail of an idea or theme and pursue it for some months with a passion, then change tack entirely. Some of these themes were covered in the Barbican Dubuffet exhibition, but it would appear there were several others as well – Dubuffet was amazingly prolific. But you forgive him the occasional lapse because of the compensation: an engagement with the immediate, the full force of the moment. Some of his best works, for me, were those done in the 1960s when he was depicting everyday reality on the Paris streets and in restaurants:


This is just a picture of people on a bus. But for some reason, the image of a crowded urban landscape is powerfully present. The painting is two-dimensional, so the pedestrians appear upside down at the top.

Most disturbing is the kind of manic smile, again, taken from children’s art and the art of the disturbed, that can be seen on the faces of the people on the bus. This fixed grin is a frightening reminder of the need to keep up appearances in the city. Don’t, whatever you do, give the impression that you are not enjoying yourself and in control.

If Dubuffet were to paint your portrait, you would not expect him to do a full likeness, but the painter, who it seems was very skilled at making controversial statements, said that his aim when portraying someone not to make any sketches from life, but to deliberately wait and then try to compose an effective portrait from memory of how that person appeared to them. Whatever the technique, the result is compelling: here is a drawing of Antonin Artaud: 


With paintings like these, who needs an art academy?

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend

Zweig and Roth in Ostend, 1936: a terrifying image of Joseph Roth

The idea of two famous Jewish writers meeting in exile in Ostend in 1936 as their world disappears around them is such a powerful image that the story could hardly fail to be fascinating, if desperate.

Yet Volker Weidermann, author of Summer before the Dark (2014) almost manages to mangle the story. Vague when he should be precise, and detailed when any reader would expect to have more evidence of where the information is obtained, he manages not to tell us what makes Zweig and Roth distinctive and leaves us guessing for more of the story to make it intelligible. It is a book with no index, no sources, no citations, no chapters. The translator appears to have added a few notes about some of the characters, but these notes are inadequate.

As for missing details, how about:

  • (page 21) “Belgium, that glorious country … that had heroically resisted all invaders over the centuries”. Since Belgium only became a nation state in 1830, that hardly seems an apt comment.
  • (page 68) “She travels to Brussels for the day. She’s been told she could get to know Hermann Kesten there.” Who is Kesten? we are told a little in the following pages, but it is typical of Weidermann’s style to introduce characters without any description, or even, at times, without any name.
  • (page 140) “From his homeland … It’s Festival time, as it is every year.” Which festival? Would you like to tell us? We guess half a page later, but why does the author play this guessing game with his readers?
  • Ostend figures loosely in the narrative, but two pages (92-94) are dedicated to a murder that took place there. An account was written by Hermann Kesten, but are we supposed to believe that Ostend is exceptional for murders? Or that the group of exiles took any interest in Ostend, apart from it being a conveniently neutral base?
  • (page 98) As for sexual politics, this is a book where the women are subservient, even to men who are drinking themselves to death. And, of course, young women are stunningly attractive:  “Wherever she goes with him, writers almost go crazy at the sight of her youth and beauty”.  This is a description of Christiane Grautoff, whom Roth met when she was 15.
  • (page 116) “Irmgard Keun loves Joseph Roth and sees into him more deeply than anyone ever has.” If this were romantic fiction, I wouldn’t question such a statement, but given Roth’s advanced alcoholism, it might perhaps be more accurate to say she is prepared to drink with him more than anyone else does – a rather different relationship.
  • (page 143) Zweig is preparing to travel to Argentina and he and his partner are learning Spanish. But on page 150 he arrives in Brazil, and spends the rest of his life there. It would be interesting to know how the switch occurred. On page 152 we learn he only planned to spend two weeks in Argentina. They don’t speak Spanish in Brazil. Am I the only one to be confused by this narrative?
Finally, it isn’t clear from this book why Zweig committed suicide, or even what happened to his wife Lotte. Weidermann writes that Zweig was received with adulation when he arrived in Brazil, and writes of Zweig’s “love for Brazil” (page 152). It’s a bit of a jump to committing joint suicide a few pages later. Here is literature reduced to Sunday newspaper journalism, sex, scandal and drinking, with little care if the pieces don’t all hang together. For me, the final straw was the quote from the FT on the cover of the English paperback edition, a club-footed and tasteless comment on what is after all the description of an alcoholic writer's decline and death:

"Death in Venice with more sex, more booze, more action". 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

The Language of Modern Ethics


First edition of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, illustrated by a Picasso painting of a thinking woman. Perhaps, it suggests, too much thinking distorts your features

A review by Julian Baggini is always worth reading, because he has the ability to make philosophy popular; or rather, to remain aware of everyday thinking alongside the sometimes strange paths that academic philosophers take.


So I turned with interest to a review article in the TLS where Baggini reviews several books on moral philosophy, and in the course of his review provides what appears to be a very useful summary of recent thinking in this area. Most helpfully, he describes many of the terms used in the current philosophical debate. So here is a mini-dictionary of current ethics. Out of interest, I have compared it with three titles published 25 or more years ago:

  • The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Honderich), first edition, published 1995
  • A Dictionary of Philosophy, by A R Lacey, 1976
  • The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Thomas Mautner, 1996

What can you do with such knowledge? Well, if you are a geek like me, you can attempt to see the trends in a subject over time. You can see if these terms appear in Wikipedia. You can use Google n-grams to track increases or decreases in usage.

  • cognitivism – the claim that statements such as “murder is wrong” are either true or false.
  • consequentialism – the theory that actions are right or wrong to the extent that they result in good or bad consequences.
  • contractarianism – the theory that morality is an implicit acceptance of mutual obligations and prohibitions.
  • deontology – the view that morality concerns duties to follow rules or fulfil obligations.
  • incommensurability – theory that you cannot compare the value (say) of museums with the value of hospitals; or individualism versus community-based ethics.
  • metaethics – thestudy of the nature of morality itself
  • moral particularism – theory that there are no general rules that determine if actions are right or wrong.
  • moral relativism
  • moral sympathy - Enlightenment theory that we should recognized that others have lives worth living. Held by Hume and Adam Smith.
  • realism – in ethics, the claim that moral values have a real, mind-independent existence.
  • virtue ethics – theory that goodness resides in character and habit.

Leaving aside "moral sympathy", which Baggini states is from 18th-century writers, that leaves us with ten terms. 


Oxford (Honderich)


Penguin (Mautner)


yes (actually under “non-cognitivism”













yes (under “ethics”)








yes (under “ethics”)


moral particularism




moral relativism

yes (under “ethical relativism”)



moral realism



yes (under “realism”)

virtue ethics

yes (under “virtue”)







What does this tell us? The Lacey Dictionary of Philosophy is rubbish, perhaps, but to be fair, it is considerably shorter than the Penguin and Oxford volumes. You could say, perhaps, it was incommensurable, because it is the work of one author who clearly does not appear to be very interested in ethics. You can also see how maddening natural language is. Do we describe an idea under “relativism”, “moral relativism”, or “ethical relativism”?

One wonderful value of the Oxford Companion is a detailed index that lists all concepts, as well as all headwords. This makes it easier to find things in a print volume. You could probably say that nobody these days finds things in a print volume; but it is reassuring to think that behind the scenes, the compiler used a list like this inex to identify where entries would be located.

Perhaps the most interesting conclusion for me is how slowly philosophy evolves. If moral philosophy has become of interest to the public and to philosophers, after many years in the wilderness, it seems that not much has changed in the last 20 years.  Perhaps the key term is “moral particularism”. None of the older works includes this. Perhaps this is the great innovation in 21st-century ethical thinking. Or perhaps, if this is the only really new idea, not much changes in the world of ethics.