Mary Douglas

Mary Douglas is the author of Purity and Danger. Her most recent book is Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation.

The title puts it fairly. Sacred books don’t spring out of thin air; there was a Bible before ever its stories and laws were fixed in writing. How the Bible Became a Book starts with the history of writing and its impact on Judaism, but as it goes along, fascinating comparisons with other histories of ‘textualisation’ crop up, together with a wide range of similar disputes...

Faith, Hope and Probability

Mary Douglas, 23 May 1991

The author of The Emergence of Probability (1975) has written another formidable book on the history of probability theory. The first described the development in the 17th and 18th centuries of a new way of legitimating knowledge: a mathematical theory of predictability under uncertainty based on observed frequencies of numbers on thrown dice. From its origins in gambling, probability theory began to meet the demand for a reliable form of authority that would release the Renaissance and the Age of Reason from religious claims to control knowledge. When it had seeped from games and mathematics to marine insurance, and thence moved on to produce what Ian Hacking calls an avalanche of numbers in every kind of public concern, established theories of causality were ready to be toppled. As he said in the earlier book, the world was about to become safe for future Galileos. But the change was slow, and not in time to divert Descartes from his project to establish in reason itself an independent arbiter for truth (and, we can add, not in time to save ourselves from a Cartesian world divided radically between primary and secondary qualities).

How to be Green

Mary Douglas, 13 September 1990

If people were running their own affairs in local self-sufficient communities, they would not need to commute long distances between home and work. Where everyone bicycles to work, who would need a second home? The Greens would make a stronger case for their programme if, instead of blaming human greed, they were to blame consumerist values on a mode of production which they want to dismantle anyway. 

A Gentle Deconstruction

Mary Douglas, 4 May 1989

‘What has been happening in anthropology since Margaret Mead died?’ This book would have helped me to answer that casual question. A study of Melanesian culture, it does refer to Mead’s field reports from New Guinea and to her interest in adolescent and sexual behaviour: it also surveys the whole record of anthropological reporting in the region. The state of the art that it reveals is rather disconcerting, but the manner of revealing it is highly original.

Ever since Mary Douglas’s anthropological foray into the laws of impurity in Leviticus in Purity and Danger (1966), her work on the Bible has been constantly stimulating and, at its best,...

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Victor Mallet, 8 December 1988

Worldwide, drinking is seen as macho; it is usually part of a ritual; and its main purpose is to make sad people happy. In that sense it is an international equaliser.

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Ian Hacking, 18 December 1986

This is the delightfully short, exuberant, slightly jerky and certainly tumultuous product of five lectures that could have been advertised under the ponderous title ‘Human Knowledge and...

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Cairo Essays

Edmund Leach, 4 December 1980

Fontana Modern Mastership has by now become so diffuse that the editorial problem may well have shifted from choosing a master who deserves the accolade to finding a biographer to bestow it. Why...

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