Wednesday 25 February 2009


Sadly I’ve not been able to return to Michael Thompson’s book and its slot has been taken by other things that now need to be read more urgently for specific purposes. So the witty and insightful criticism I aspire to will just have to wait. (A sign of my pessimism on that score is that I’ve shipped the book back to my university office.)

Updating the last Housekeeping post, I’ve been invited to write a few things recently.

A chapter for a book to be published in French as a follow up to the Amiens conference that marked the French publication of Mind and World. (I see now that I didn’t report an interesting thing. I’d spotted that essays in McDowell’s first two collections had had one quite common change. ‘That’ had become ‘, which’ in a number of places. McDowell commented that in addition to a change of copy editor, he had only just become sensitive himself to the differences between them. Use ‘that’ to say which and ‘which’ to say that.)

A chapter on moral phenomenology, should a book be developed on the basis of the Durham conference last year.

A short chapter on philosophy of science issues raised by the WPA’s Programme for Psychiatry of the Person to be co-authored with Ken Shaffner. We’re working on what we might usefully say. In the light of my worries expressed here, I must resist repeating material on idiographic understanding which would, otherwise, have been the obvious choice.

Most recently I’ve been invited – in the most charming of emails – to contribute a paper for a special issue of the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice on applied philosophy. Pitching a proposal to one of the guest editors, Michael Loughlin, based on the consequences of the Dreyfus McDowell debate for thinking of a tacit dimension as a contribution to medical knowledge rather than something merely animal, he replied: “If we can get medics and people working in public health to take an interest in philosophers such as McDowell then we'll be doing well”. But it might still work!

(I guess the point of mentioning this is just in response to the thought that I would clear the decks and write nothing that I had not already planned. The temptation is, of course, to find time when, in another life, I’d have been changing nappies and write them all. That, in truth, is what I’ve said I will do. (The cost of raising a child having been recently estimated as £170,000, Lois and I keep looking in our bank account in the hope that we will suddenly find a balance of that amount. Never there.))

But perhaps the most significant update is to my post Jack Bauer Against the Principlists. In a bar in Preston, Gloria had suggested that we take a 24 style scene to think about principlism. On last week’s gripping episode of 24, the man himself was challenged by a principlist: “But it’s the rules that make us better.” As a good particularist, Bauer had no intellectual cramp in replying: “Not today”.

Monday 23 February 2009

ISCRI @ Uclan

There’s an honourable tradition in the UK of the ‘new universities’ formed in the 1990s (and which replaced the previous bearers of that title, also known as the plate glass universities, formed in the 1960s) doing applied research. They were formed from either polytechnics or accretions of other higher education colleges which usually had had connections either to industries or public sectors.

That is not to say that such new universities are without tradition. Uclan or the University of Central Lancashire, my University, was based on Lancashire Polytechnic, nee Preston Poly, itself based on the Harris Institute founded in 1882 and a history of which reports: ‘The biggest influence on the Institute s growth in the 1890s was the establishment of the School of Domestic Economy under Mrs. Arnoux, a lady of exceptional acquirements’. That institute, apparently, was itself based on the Preston Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge and the Avenham Institute.

Still, the history of the polytechnics (whose end I largely regret), is one of applied research and the particular school – ISCRI – within Uclan to which I now belong (since August) is part of that tradition. Formed by  Kamlesh Patel – Lord Patel of Bradford – it has a clear connection to the aims of social reform and the empowerment of disadvantaged communities (hence the interest in philosophy of mental health which has helped me) and practical policies of engagement with communities to produce bespoke and highly contextually sensitive research. Such research – with only a little squeezing – fits the famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.

But that in turn clashes with another obvious academic virtue: the disinterested contemplation that perhaps reaches its zenith in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations §124 that philosophy leaves everything as it is. Given that the school aims to underpin positive social change with academic research (not just a ‘community engagement’ programme but a community engagement programme within an academic institution aiming at better understanding of the social world), that puts Marx and Wittgenstein in a creative tension.

A practical example of this academic tension - which we will have to work through - cropped up the other day and suggests a genuine and for the moment unpredictable challenge for the new school. At a meeting charged with examining some of the underlying aims and values that might be used to characterise the school’s work and thus help frame its identity (in advance, as it were; the slogan “existence precedes identity” is not one of ours because the groups that make up ISCRI were to a great extent freely chosen), a number of sensible suggestions were made by groups of policy researchers, of community engagement researchers, of those who facilitate and encourage volunteering: practitioners, in a word.

This left a table of philosophers chewing over both what might be substantial and interesting values and yet values which might gather some allegiance through their intrinsic appeal. (No point in coming up with either bland or repulsive values.) These two aims were obviously in tension, however. Further, other members of the school were keen to push forward their candidate virtues or values, and to see that as the obvious thing to do with what they had come up with: again, perhaps, a reflection of Marx rather than Wittgenstein.

We were less sure of what the right approach to the event itself should be and thus settled, albeit with some diffident scepticism, on the virtue of democracy at least as something to be considered. Perhaps we ought to be democratic about democracy, we suggested, although conceding we hadn’t been able to agree on what model of democracy we might have in mind. Perhaps doubt itself was important to an academic life, too, and thus democracy was a necessary safeguard?

In the straight vote that followed, democracy came last.

(PS: For a discussion of of an attempt to see a unity in its research methods within the school see this. For an entry on the wake held to mark its disestablishment see this.)

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Life and action, penultimately

I’ve finally finished reading Thompson’s Life and Action on a train down to London and thence to the University of Hertfordshire (coffee with Luciano and Dan) and back (just possible in a day with the new railway timetable). Since I seem to have been merely summarising Life and Action (why?) I may as well finish. But I’ll come back in a day or so to try to correct the obvious errors in this and to say draw some sort of conclusions. (PS: I never did get time to do this.)

Here’s the thing that now strikes me. The introduction – which is oddly disarming – may be much more important than it first seemed. Perhaps the method – a mix of Aristotle and Frege – is much more important than the particular results / claims. So my cavalier ignoring of 6 pages on the logic of judgements about moral practices (see below) is very poor indeed. That, I suspect, is what the final section is really all about. But I just wanted to see the results. ((If I return, I may fill out the relevance of the story of Anaïs Nin writing plotless porn in my defence. Then again, perhaps not.))

We kick off with the idea that the essay will track two ideas: the early Rawls’ discussion of practices and David Gaulthier’s and Philippa Foot’s discussion of dispositions. Both express the same tendency to stress the role of something with a particular kind of generality. (At the end, practices get a better press than dispositions, I think.)

The particular focus of the essay is the moral obligation to keep promises, especially where, in a ‘tight corner’, keeping a promise has a moral disadvantage. There are cases where, had a subject not made a promise, then she/he would have different obligations. But in working out why having made a promise has the implications it does the idea that there are specific consequences of the individual act, considered in isolation, is to be played down.

On neither approach is the individual act of fidelity held to acquire the relevant characteristic, moral goodness or rationality, from the agent’s setting his sights on some benefit or excellence or merit that might reside in the individual action itself… [ibid: 153]

So, Thompson argues, Foot, Gaulthier and Rawls all realise that the perceived philosophical problem with the status of promising and its obligations arises from an over emphasis on individual acts.

[O]nce again the trouble is said to arise from the fixation of the philosopher’s attention on the individual action and the particular situation on which it bears. But in this instance [ie the case of Rawls’ practice rather than Gaulthier’s disposition] the trouble arises more precisely from a failure to recognise the so-called practice that the individual action is said to instance or embody. [156]

Now one way that an appeal to the implicit generality of a practice or rational disposition might help things is if there’s a further argument for the general practice or rational disposition. That is:

that individual acts of infidelity might lead to the loss of a profitable disposition or the weakening of a beneficial practice, whilst acts of fidelity help preserve these practices. [157]

But that is not the nature of the appeal to generality that interests Thompson (and he does not think it there in authors he considers).

Thompson then sells us two characteristic ‘marks’ of practices and/or dispositions. They are both general and actual. Generality is cashed out in its specific way between pp158-160. Crucially, it is neither the generality of a longer term intention (see essay 2) because that ‘wind[s] down under its own steam, to pass away with its execution or completion’. The actuality marks a contrast with deontological generality: ‘a norm inscribed in the nature of things, the truth of a general ‘principle’ of morality or rationality that forbids infidelity’ [160].

The next six pages [pp161-166] describe the logical form of the generality in play. Shockingly, I’m just going to omit that. It may be the most important part of the essay. Go read it!

Chapter 10 begins with the idea that the authors hold a specific kind of two tier theory of rationality. They have a transfer or transparency principle and a standard of appraisal. A practice makes actions good; a disposition makes actions rational. (The standard of appraisal is the utility or the rational ends of the practice or the rational disposition.) Other authors deploy a variety of other forms of generality and thus there will be a variety of kinds of relation between the generality and particular actions and a variety of kinds of property transmitted downwards: goodness, rightness, fairness etc.

There is then a further question of what the justification for the generality itself is (Rawls, eg, moves from utilitarian to a contractualist justification of his generality). But Thompson says he will put that questions aside. [p169].

Now a central feature of the kind of transparency principle concerned is that it is neither substantial nor action guiding. Thus is differs from, eg, forms of rule utilitarianism which claim that the goodness of an act derives from a rule so construed because for that contrasting position, the transfer principle is a substantial part of the moral theory itself to be justified along with the rest of the theoretical apparatus. (There’s a nice consideration [174] of how one might misconstrue the insubstantial view of a transparency principle and act in accord with the generality but still fail to be acting rightly.)

To get a contrasting case, Thompson describes Rawls' invocation of an analogy with the relation between actions allowed in a baseball game (I think that’s the game discussed here: much talk of taking a walk). Here there is a suitable priority of general game over individual action in so far as the action constitutively depends on the rules of the game and, indeed, on conceptual judgements. So eg. the game of promising also includes conceptual judgements that someone is promising. But, because the notion of practice so characterised includes mere games, then it isn’t enough to transmit goodness to acts of fidelity.

The chapter ends with an attempt to add some flesh to the notion of practice relevant to this moral philosophical context. Thompson outlines Rawls view that because a trivial promise can be trumped by circumstances, this allowance is written into out practice of promising. To make this case he contrasts our practice with two others: one where promises have to be kept come what may; and one in which promises made whilst asleep also count. Since these are alternative practices to ours, ours has to be distinguished from them. Thompson, however, disagrees. One consequence of Rawls’ account is that because the alternatives are clearly defective as a whole, they cannot transmit a normative standard even to the central cases where they agree with ours. But he also argues that we couldn’t easily identify these as genuine alternatives. If one or more individuals were to misapply our promising practice in the same ways, we would conclude that it was a misunderstanding, not an alternative. The same applies to the aliens. Their ways of going on are not distinct promising practices but mere misapplications of ours (in the same way that a culture who call fool’s gold ‘gold’ has misunderstood the proper extension of the substance concept ‘gold’).

It might further be objected that the account I am imaging must be circular: we want to say that individual acts of fidelity are morally good “because the practice is”, but then, apparently, let the goodness or badness of an individual action determine whether or not it falls under the practice. But we need not accept the second clause. We need only say that if the practice makes some action good, then any action the practice cannot make good does not express the practice. [188]

The final chapter considers and rejects an attempt by Rawls to specify the nature of agreement in practice in a bottom up manner. Such approaches leave a gap between the contemplative knowledge that, eg, other people are bound thus and so and one’s own choosing to act.

Though we may grant that this pile up of conditions attaches a perfectly legitimate sense to the word practice, we must reject it as beside the point. Any theory that represents the existence of the practice as a circumstance and condition of the agent’s acting in accordance with it – as a datum to which she responds – must, we said, appeal to something else as the principle that directly governs the agent’s compliant individual action. [196]

Thompson argues instead that the concept of practice has to involve a kind of self-reference.

[T]he exercise of such practice dependent concepts and the employment of such practice-dependent forms of account are themselves among the phenomena of the practice. [198]

This then allows a comparison back to the notion of life-form from the first essay. Three conditions on practices set on p199 are found also in the notion of life form. Practice is a ‘determinate form of a more abstract category, a genus that takes a different shape in the category of life-form’ [200]. Both forms include generality and actually and an implicit standard of appraisal or normality. Like practices, life-forms are implicit objects of thought in much of what we say [201]. In applying characteristics of life such as breeding and feeding we apply an interpretative structure to phenomena. Crucially, though – and like practices – it is not merely externally related to the individual bearer.

Thompson goes on to suggest ways in which expectations proper to life are built into the kind of generality of judgements made. Thus whilst saying that water is a liquid might be explained as resulting from the imposition of typical observer conditions, saying that milk is a liquid has a different kind of status, resulting from the Aristotelian categoricals discussed in essay one. Particular facts have to be brought into play only where things have gone wrong, development has failed to be normal and healthy, for example. But:

none of this is a mater of the complication of the ‘pragmatics of explanation’ by our ‘expectations’. The circumstances that go unmet where the ‘normal’ development fails are not a subjective imposition on the subject matter. They are expressed in the type of judgement that is essential to the representation of this kind of kind to begin with. If we must speak of expectations, they are those of the life-form itself. [207]

Talk of eating and breeding is made against a background of thinking of life-forms. So talk of fidelity, to return to the practice of promise keeping, is made against a background that presupposes a practice of promise keeping. That background practice is basic and not a matter to be built up from an account of individual dispositions. (And thus now practice and disposition come apart at least when the latter is misunderstood.)

We might think of fidelity as a private attainment in a sense, as something that might distinguish one of the practice bearers from another, but as such it is merely the negation of infidelity or the absence of those impediments. Thus, so considered, it is precisely not itself a source, account or ground of action. Considered as a source of action, fidelity is the practice under another name and the same for everyone. Where agents keep promises from fidelity, their actions have different sources only in the sense that they have made different promises. [210]

Sunday 15 February 2009

The value of what’s local

Here’s a half formed thought. On Friday I saw the play ‘Sabbat’ at the Round auditorium of the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster. Based on the Pendle witch trials of 1612 the play is a four-hander charting just some of the key relationships and treating fear of Catholicism as part of the underlying motivating anxiety.

Of course, any such play stands in the shadow of the Crucible and whilst I can’t imagine choosing to see the latter again, it’s hard to imagine anything which has its power and gravity. Sabbat is very much Crucible-lite. But it had a particular advantage for me. Pendle Hill is a familiar landmark when I drive over to see my parents. The main town mentioned in the play is Lancaster. And the play ends with hangings in Lancaster prison, five minutes walk away from the theatre and past which I often walk to the station. (I watched the second half with a pint of Pendle Witches Brew in hand, one of my favourite Lancashire beers.) Although such specific local connections didn’t directly enter into any interpretative judgements I might have made (although knowledge of the actual events did help me to ignore Lois’ potentially misleading comment: don’t worry, it has a happy ending!), the fact of it depicting a local matter gave the events a particular value.

But what is the value of what’s local (pictured)? Minimising food miles might be a good reason to favour local food, to prefer, for example, Hawkshead brewery beers (now brewed 7 miles away in Staveley) over others. But I don’t think that that’s why I do. Rather it’s the simple fact of a contextual connection, the opposite of general qualities, the opposite, perhaps, of globalisation.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Life and Action, again

I regret not getting back to Thompson’s Life and Action sooner because I think I am now beginning to get the hang of the style, at least, of it.

The second section seems at first a very odd change of tack (following the first rather loose anti-reductionist discussion of life). It is a defence of what he calls a naïve theory of action explanation by contrast with a sophisticated one. A naïve rationalisation is of the form: I am doing A because I am doing B. A sophisticated one is I am doing A becauseI want to do B. The latter has a ‘movement from inner to outer, from mind to world, from spirit to nature, from “desire” to “action”’[90]. It is also supported by a view of actin as ‘discrete or atomic or pointlike or eye-blink-like units’ [91]. Early on Thompson advertises the fact that he will reverse the ordinary priority of naïve and sophisticated forms and hints at the analogy with barter. It is a good idea, however, to skip ahead and read the end of the essay first: the analogy on p146 and then the meat of the analysis on pp130-134. Then read pp122-128 to get more of a clue to the end that you’ve just read. Then start again at the start. (Well it’s just a thought but this does help when reading Wittgenstein and I think it might help here.)

I should stress that there’s quite a bit going on in this essay (it seems much richer than ‘Life’ (not than life!) but this is the central thread I picked out. Working backwards we have the following closing analogy:

In a so-called credit economy, after all - one in which purchase and payment are distinguished conceptually and practically - the simple act of buying something, in which purchase and payment are not distinguished, is still possible and intelligible. In a simple money economy, in which the acts of selling and buying have been distinguished conceptually and practically, a pair of us might yet engage in a simple act of barter, or of immediate exchange - an act in which the roles of buyer and seller are not distinguished. Credit and money presuppose barter in the sense that they presuppose a structuring of life which makes barter possible and intelligible, while the reverse is not the case. We can after all speak of a system of exchange by simple barter, in which such acts provide the only possible illustration of the concept of exchange. A treatment of the concept of exchange which disallows this, or which insists that every act of barter be construed as, say, the simultaneous purchase, payment, extension of credit and cancellation of debts on the part of each of two agents, is clearly absurd. My hope is to have shown that the theory of action falls into just this sort of absurdity in neglecting what I have called naive rationalization, and the sort of connection of ground and grounded that is expressed in it. [146]

This gives a helpful outline of what the essay is attempting to do. It displays a kind of underlying conceptual structure with the aim of ‘naturalising’ (in the good non-reductive sense of showing how something can be part of a non-spooky, albeit expanded, nature) action explanation. It is, perhaps, a Wittgensteinian object of comparison. But what’s the key de-spooking move?

The key idea seems to be this:
[T]he type of explanation of action at stake in action theory, whether naive or sophisticated, is uniformly a matter of locating the action explained in what might be called a developing process [132]

Hence, in naïve theory, the idea of explaining one action in terms of another and the point (raised above) that actions need not be atomic finger movements. But the verbs that make up sophisticated explanation are also derived from this idea. They are rendered less than spooky through this idea. Just as propositional attitudes have intentional inexistence, they can be directed onto non-existent objects, so in this case:

Twisting Brentano’s vocabulary, we can say that “try,” “intend” and “want” express modes of “imperfective inexistence” (of an event- or process-form) [131]

This idea is introduced earlier in a passage worth quoting at length:

The so-called aspectual distinction among modes of predication is easiest to apprehend if we attend to the possible formulations of what are intuitively past states of affairs involving our event- or process-forms. The English past progressive, for example, imports imperfective aspect into a proposition; the English perfect and the simple past alike import perfective aspect, in application to such verb phrases as these. Thus we can say either that I was walking to school, or else that I walked, or have walked, to school. Though contemporary action theory is bent on assimilating these propositions and the states of affairs expressed by them, the thoughts they express are of course quite unlike. That I walked to school presumably entails that I was, at some point, walking to school. But that I was, at some time, walking to school does not entail that I ever walked to school; I might have been gunned down or kidnapped by aliens, or, again, it might be that I am still walking there. The former possibility, that the truth of what is expressed by the progressive and imperfective “I was walking to school” might never be followed by the truth of what is expressed by the corresponding perfective “I walked to school” belongs, I think, to the essence of what we might call ordinary, natural or pre-scientific event consciousness, and will be of paramount importance in what follows. Though the expressions are somewhat dangerous, it helps intuition, a bit, if we say that what is registered as complete or whole or as “perfected” in “I walked to school” or “I have walked to school,” is represented as incomplete or partial or as “imperfect” in “I was walking to school.” [123-4]

So with the contrast between a perfective and imperfective aspect in play, we have also the materials for a naïve explanation. It links present and future in a way that sheds light on the present:

The use of the progressive in the articulation of ordinary event consciousness seems somehow to span the present, reaching into the future (as falling over typically includes, say, striking the ground); but the “reach beyond” the present that characterizes such thought does not expose it to simple disproof on the strength of what happens next. [126]

But, further, Thompson suggests that with naïve explanation as the paradigmatic deployment of the progressive, and then of ‘imperfective inexistence’, it is merely a natural development to deploy in subtle extensions the more sophisticated forms of explanation that rely on apparently more psychological verbs like try, want, intend and thus give the impression that definitive action explanation moves from within to without.

If the distinction between imperfective and perfective modes of “inexistence” of an event- or process-form can be said to be “founded deep in the nature of things,” in Frege’s sense, then “try,” “intend” and want” merely express some of the ways in which a bearer of will or rational agency can be fitted into a particular dimension of this metaphysical structure; “is,” which figures within and without the rationalization connection, expresses another. Though it acts as a paradigm, progressive judgment, as we have it, is on the present view only one form of one pole of the corresponding conceptual opposition, mastery of which is presupposed in ordinary event consciousness and the intellectual apprehension of event- or process-forms. [131-2]

And thus we end up with a picture of sophisticated action explanation as, not so much charting inner psychological depths, but articulating subtle extra joints in the idea that one action or event can be explained through its broader context.

One other bit of the essay of interest to me: the link between sophisticated action explanation and the argument from illusion. No one will need to hear anything more than this to see how this might connect to an immanent critique of that argument:

[O]ften an agent is herself tempted to give a naive account of her action, but in a legitimate third person account of the facts of her case, a corresponding sophisticated rationalization will nevertheless have to take its place. The agent may be wrong, the world may secretly be uncooperative, it may be that the agent isn't actually doing B - replenishing the house water supply, as it might be - but only thinks that she is. The general rules governing all uses of the word “because”, we said, require the truth of the propositions linked by it; P because Q, that is, entails both P and Q. And we may grant, for the purposes of this argument, that the special rules governing the employment of this connective in rationalization in particular include something in the way of a “cognition requirement”: a requirement, namely, that the agent has me grasp of the rationalizing connection, even if only inarticulately, and thus also of its terms. If, then, the explanans, or the reason, must be something the agent grasps, and if there is nothing to distinguish the cognition of the average successful agent from that of a possible parallel unsuccessful agent, then it seems that the truth that gives the ground of the action must express something that is present and grasped in either case, the successful one and the unsuccessful one. And what can this be but the agents' wanting to do the thing? So the wanting must be the true account, the real reason, and so forth. [116-7]

Now I am at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to commenting on the essay as a whole. I’m not sure what really hangs on the debate. I can see how some conceptions of action explanation that turn of specific notions of an inner mechanism are flawed. But, given a sufficiently innocent conception of propositional attitudes, I am not sure what would be wrong with the sophisticated model, whether or not it is basic. But perhaps the way in which the third section on 'practical generality' connects back to this will make things clearer.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Less than zero sum

After day of tackling student emails and administrative tasks, I set about - with a disappointing Scottish post credit-crunch gin – re-uploading a resubmitted article to Psychopathology because they want to see some ‘track changes’.

To do that picked up on a task from last Sunday evening in front of the stove of changing the article in the light of three mixed reviews. That was a bit fiddly: judging what was the right degree of change to satisfy legitimate qualms without changing the paper so much that it required radical re-reviewing. Neither of these jobs was much fun. (Hardly to compare with coal mining, obviously!)

But neither – and this is just a personal and idiosyncratic reaction – is the original writing hugely pleasurable (though working at home on research is by far the best bit of an academic job). I first noticed this with my PhD thesis on the preconditions of judgement. Tracking Leslie Stevenson’s odd (typed in Courier!) book The Metaphysics of Experience, I needed a broadly transcendental argument to get from premises about judgement to a public world (without his 1970s assumptions). For a couple of months I reassured my supervisor Ross Harrison that I’d get one off the peg. But the knowledge that I had this need and didn’t know how to deal with it marked a pattern for all subsequent writing. To flee to the pub with an argumentative lacuna still in play is to have diminished pleasure in the face of all but the most robust pint of Old Thumper, or whatever. So the process of writing – for a journeyman philosopher like me – turns out to be not very pleasurable.

Of course, the obvious happy possibility is that the ‘debts’ incurred in the process are paid off in the final stages. A paper gets published. Yesterday, a (joint) applied philosophy paper came properly came out. But I can’t say it brought me much pleasure. (Perhaps only very good papers do; but even bad papers cost in the writing.)

So I now think that the real joy in the academic life is simply being a consumer. Forget the writing. The two new McDowell collections arrived this week and join both the (still very odd) Michael Thompson book and Daniele Moyal-Sharrock’s recentish anti-McDowellian book on On Certainty on my study shelves. The idea of simply toddling through these (on the train to Preston: no time for scholarship during the school day this year) brings me huge anticipatory pleasure.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Definite article

Waiting in the Preston station buffet post teaching, part way through a ten day period when I need to read about 150,000 words of student essays, and thus justifiably armed with a suitable stiffener, the dreary scene was suddenly improved by a song coming over the pipes by the beat combo the Divine Comedy. Or is it The Divine Comedy?

Take the national express when your life’s in a mess
It’ll make you smile
All human life is here
From the feeble old dear to the screaming child
From the student who knows that to have one of those
Would be suicide
To the family man
Manhandling the pram with paternal pride
And everybody sings ba ba ba da...
We’re going where the air is free
On the national express there’s a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She’ll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
Mini-skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle
Back in 63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
But its hard to get by when your arse is the size
Of a small country
And everybody sings ba ba ba da...
We’re going where the air is free
Tomorrow belongs to me
When you’re sad and feeling blue
With nothing better to do
Don’t just sit there feeling stressed
Take a trip on the national express

Oddly the rather mild humour in the rest of the lyrics is nothing compared to the one brilliant innovation: the introduction of the definite article before what’s usually regarded as a proper name rather than a definite description: ‘National Express’. That one change puts the banality of the action of the song into a striking contrast with what might seem a significant and formal staging. But no one who ever takes a coach in the UK would confuse National Express with a national express.

(I wonder whether additionally the loss of ‘the’ from other genuine institutions gives this reversal particular force. The Royal Mail is now ‘royal mail’ and my father playfully strips even motorways of the ‘the’ (“We’ll take M62 to Ikea!”).)