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Sex in the head

Roy Porter, 7 July 1988

The History of Sexuality. Vol. III: The Care of Self 
by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley.
Allen Lane, 279 pp., £17.95, April 1988, 0 7139 9002 3
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... How are we to read the history of sexuality? In the Introduction volume to his great multi-volume essay in critical-revisionism, Michel Foucault set out to demystify the discourse which has informed post-Victorian accounts about sex, whether therapeutic (Reich), scholarly (Bloch) or polemical (Marcuse). Such histories were traditionally cast in a progressive, Whiggish, emancipatory framework, presupposing a dialectics of drives, repression and liberation ...

English Marxists in dispute

Roy Porter, 17 July 1980

Arguments within English Marxism 
by Perry Anderson.
New Left Books, 218 pp., £3.95, May 1980, 0 86091 727 4
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Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory 
edited by Philip Corrigan.
Quartet, 232 pp., £4.95, May 1980, 0 7043 2241 2
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Writing by Candlelight 
by E.P. Thompson.
Merlin, 286 pp., £2.70, May 1980, 0 85036 257 1
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... The Englishness of English historians lies in their eclecticism. Few would admit to being unswerving Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, Cliometricians, Namierites, or even Whigs. Most believe that blooms come best in mixed bunches. They may allow themselves some guarded asides on the psychology of chiliasm, but would reject Norman Cohn’s full-frontal psychopathology of anti-semitism ...

A loaf here, a fish there

Roy Porter, 15 November 1984

Science and Medicine in France: The Emergence of Experimental Physiology 1790-1855 
by John Lesch.
Harvard, 276 pp., £20, September 1984, 0 674 79400 1
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Georges Cuvier: Vocation, Science and Authority in Post-Revolutionary France 
by Dorinda Outram.
Manchester, 299 pp., £25, October 1984, 0 7190 1077 2
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... Not the least of the debts we owe to the late Michel Foucault is that he directed our attention to the revolutions which transformed the life sciences around the dawn of the 19th century. On the one hand, traditional discourse about animals and plants, centred on such criteria as visible character and structure and geared to classification within the Great Chain of Being, was replaced by a science of form and organisation, concentrating on function and the internal subordination of parts, and directed to the problem of life itself ...

Almighty Gould

Roy Porter, 23 April 1987

Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time 
by Stephen Jay Gould.
Harvard, 219 pp., £15.50, May 1987, 0 674 89198 8
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... Years ago Sir John Plumb declared: ‘The past is dead.’ He didn’t add: ‘long live history.’ But try as historians will to put the past behind them, others are always resurrecting it and abusing it for their own purposes. Take the mindless mouthings of ‘Victorian values’, the ‘good’ (or the ‘bad’) old days, the Dunkirk spirit, the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald – in all such sloganising, the ghosts of the past are conjured up to clinch arguments about the present ...

Give Pot a Chance

Roy Porter, 8 June 1995

Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine 
by Lester Grinspoon, edited by James Bakalar.
Yale, 184 pp., £7.95, April 1995, 0 300 05994 9
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... The solution to today’s cannabis problem, this book concludes, is to legalise it ‘for all uses’ and remove it ‘entirely from the medical and criminal control systems’. The authors, respectively a professor of psychiatry and a lecturer in law at Harvard Medical School, believe legalisation is desirable for all the reasons now widely adduced in the UK, not least by some senior police officers and by last year’s Lib Dem Party Conference: that the criminalisation of cannabis is absurd given the promotion of tobacco and alcohol; that it creates black markets, police corruption and crime; that the law against it is impossible to enforce, and, manifestly lacking the endorsement of millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens – there may be twelve million users in the USA – compromises respect for the law and the police ...

Tissue Wars

Roy Porter: HIV and Aids, 2 March 2000

The River: A Journey Back to the Source of HIV and Aids 
by Edward Hooper.
Allen Lane, 1070 pp., £25, September 1999, 0 7139 9335 9
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... More than a thousand pages long and the fruit of a decade’s work, The River amounts to something more than the attempt to track down the source of Aids. It is, in fact, three books rolled into one. The investigation advertised by the title is, of course, of the highest significance. It was in 1981 that attention was first drawn to the condition, as evidence mounted that gays in New York and California were falling victim to illnesses like pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi’s sarcoma, rarely seen in otherwise healthy young people ...

Prinney, Boney, Boot

Roy Porter, 20 March 1986

The English Satirical Print 1600-1832 
edited by Michael Duffy.
Chadwyck-Healey, February 1986
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... Cherished among the bastions of our ‘invisible constitution’ is the political cartoon, the people’s daily retort to ministerial humbug and opposition hypocrisy. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the sharpest pen is surely the cartoonist’s: one palpable hit from him will do more than months of routine pounding from lumbering leader-writers ...

F for Felon

Roy Porter: Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror by J.M. Beattie., 4 April 2002

Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror 
by J.M. Beattie.
Oxford, 491 pp., £48, July 2001, 0 19 820867 7
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... Given their importance as an instrument of social regulation, it’s odd that the law and law enforcement were so long cold-shouldered by historians. From the time of Blackstone, legal history remained the province of lawyers, whose labours of love bore more relation to the apologetic hermeneutics of Bible scholars than to ‘historical method’. Common law was wisdom to be worshipped, rather than social text to be demystified ...

Oh, My Aching Back

Roy Porter, 2 November 1995

TheHistory of Pain 
by Roselyne Rey, translated by Elliott Wallace and J.A. Cadden , and S.W. Cadden.
Harvard, 394 pp., £25.50, October 1995, 0 674 39967 6
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... From the Church Fathers, through St Ignatius Loyola and Pascal to the Marquis de Sade, the problem of pain was agonisingly debated, not least because mortification was holiness and judicial torture the authorised engine of truth. But nowadays, pain, in either its medical or its metaphysical aspects, is oddly little discussed given the ubiquitous misery it causes ...

Porter for Leader

Jenny Diski, 8 December 1994

London: A Social History 
by Roy Porter.
Hamish Hamilton, 429 pp., £20, October 1994, 0 241 12944 3
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A City Full of People: Men and Women of London, 1650-1750 
by Peter Earle.
Methuen, 321 pp., £25, April 1994, 9780413681706
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... the city in its dirty yellow light. The authentic Londoner’s lament can be heard throughout Roy Porter’s history of London, which has, in addition, the other great metropolitan quality of cunning built into its very structure. What looks for all the world like yet another coffee-table picture book is in reality fat-full of angry words building to ...

Something an academic might experience

Michael Neve, 26 September 1991

The Faber Book of Madness 
edited by Roy Porter.
Faber, 572 pp., £14.99, September 1991, 0 571 14387 3
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... view shared by the social services who now look after him. It is a tribute to the social historian Roy Porter that he has devoted three books, and any number of articles, to the history of the John Sylvesters of this world. A prodigious historian, Porter has done the work that French historians can only theorise ...

Highway to Modernity

Colin Kidd: The British Enlightenment, 8 March 2001

Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World 
by Roy Porter.
Allen Lane, 728 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 7139 9152 6
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... during the Augustan age by a variegated cast of libertine rakes, deists and heterodox theologians. Roy Porter detects in Redwood’s book ‘a decidedly rum case: incapable of mounting a truly rational critique of Throne and Altar, rationalist enemies of the Establishment had, rather caddishly, stooped to raillery and ridicule.’ However, Redwood’s ...

Biting into a Pin-cushion

A.D. Nuttall: Descartes’s botch, 24 June 2004

Flesh in the Age of Reason 
by Roy Porter.
Allen Lane, 574 pp., £25, October 2003, 0 7139 9149 6
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... how different it would have been if Descartes had written: ‘We think, therefore we are.’ Roy Porter tells the story of evolving conceptions of human nature in the Enlightenment. The basic answer offered to the unstated second question is: ‘Living as we do in an originally Christian culture, we see ourselves as a mixture of flesh and ...

Pain and Hunger

Tom Shippey, 7 December 1989

Health for Sale: Quackery in England 1660-1850 
by Roy Porter.
Manchester, 280 pp., £19.95, August 1989, 0 7190 1903 6
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Popular Errors 
by Laurent Joubert and Gregory David de Rocher.
University of Alabama Press, 348 pp., $49.95, July 1989, 0 8173 0408 8
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Bread of Dreams: Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Europe 
by Piero Camporesi, translated by David Gentilcore.
Polity, 212 pp., £19.50, May 1989, 0 7456 0349 1
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Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History 
by Mary Kilbourne Matossian.
Yale, 190 pp., £18, November 1989, 0 300 03949 2
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... agony was beside the point. You were a mountebank, a charlatan, a quack. In Health for Sale Roy Porter studies, amusingly and alarmingly, the theory and practice of ‘fringe medicine’ up to the dawn of modern surgery and pharmacology. What was a ‘quack’? he asks. How could you tell one from a doctor, other than by demanding to see his ...

Possessed by the Idols

Steven Shapin: Does Medicine Work?, 30 November 2006

Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates 
by David Wootton.
Oxford, 304 pp., £16.99, June 2006, 0 19 280355 7
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... conspired to ignore that progress or been duped into denying it. Wootton’s target of choice is Roy Porter, who wrote that ‘only the most dyed-in-the-wool Whig history still polarises the past in terms of confrontations between saints and sinners, heroes and villains.’ Wootton is happy to acknowledge that his book ‘is written against the grain of ...

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