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Boxes with false bottoms? The challenge presented by abstract key words in English

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Comparing the early days of US democracy with aristocratic European traditions, Tocqueville noted both capability to signal new possibilities and risky latitude of interpretation in what he found during his travels to be prevalent and novel use of abstract vocabulary. Public discourse in English globally is now saturated with highly abstract key words: words that are not self-evidently either technical or ordinary but cut across (in ideal circumstances, connect) those two categories. Democratic, liberty, right, natural, education, fair, environmental, austerity and many others come to mind. This session explores how differently such words have been investigated across fields ranging from literary criticism and linguistics, through history and law, to philosophy. It also asks what challenges to public discourse such abstract key words present.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society talks series.

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