Friday, 4 March 2016

"Keywords" is Back!

Whilst earning my undergraduate degree in anthropology there was one book that I never let out of my reach: Raymond Williams’s Keywords. It is utterly dispensable, and should be required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the human sciences (I’ve long preferred the French sciences humaines, which encompasses in a single term what English severs artificially into the humanities and the social sciences). It is something between a dictionary and encyclopedia of the human sciences, or as the sub-title puts it, “A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.” Its focus is upon the history of the English terms that human scientists frequently use to describe the phenomena with which we work, such as, for instance, “Culture” and “Society.” Words that we take for granted are treated as themselves objects of historical investigation, with a concern to understand how they came to do the work that they do in our contemporary discourses. Through Keywords I learned two indispensable lessons: one, that language is always undergoing development, and thus many of the words that we take as givens will in fact reference multiple concepts at any given time; two, that words nonetheless have histories and thus cannot simply mean whatever one wants them to mean, except at the risk of discursive chaos. In my mind and without any of my signature hyperbole, Keywords is quite simply the single most important English-language work in the human sciences ever published, because through its meta-investigation it provides an indispensable key to understanding every other English-language work in the humanities and social sciences.

Yet, even by the time I began my university education it was already out of print. I was able to snatch up a copy only because I worked at the university’s used bookstore and grabbed the first one that came through. Already well-loved when I purchased it, this copy fell apart after several years of regular consultation by yours truly. So, imagine my excitement when I recently learned that it was back in print, in a beautiful new edition from Oxford University Press. It lacks entries on words that would be great interest specifically to scholars of religious studies, such as “religion,” but some of these lacunae can be made up by looking at, the site of the Keywords Project, a collective scholarly effort devoted to using Williams’s approach in Keywords to consider words such as “faith” and “terror.” With this handsome edition readily available and the Keywords Project as supplement students can reasonably expect to find Keywords as required reading on my future syllabi.

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