In memoriam, Robert Pinker

I have only just seen, belatedly, an obituary for Robert Pinker in the Telegraph (5th February).  Bob was the supervisor for my PhD thesis, on stigma, which he had written about in Social theory and social policy (1971).  Highlights of the supervision sessions included him accusing me of ‘unregenerative antinomialism’ and ‘intellectual joyriding’.  When it came to the viva, there was a crisis to resolve.  There was a bus and train strike, no public transport in London, and Bob had done his back in and couldn’t walk.  I borrowed my sister’s car and picked up Noel Timms, the external examiner, and we travelled together to Bob’s house.  We had the viva by his bedside, with Bob in blue pyjamas.   (I was sent out while they made a decision, which took some time.  I suspect, but don’t know, that Bob talked Noel round into letting me have the PhD without resubmission.)

Intellectually, Bob probably made the greatest splash in his defence of traditional social work for the Barclay report, but there was much more to his writing.  Talent, Schopenhauer once wrote,  is about being able to hit a target that no-one else can hit; but genius is hitting a target that no-one else can see.  In The idea of welfare, he worked through the implications of a series of relationships for welfare, finishing with the relationships between states.  The idea of global and international social policy had hardly registered at the time; Bob was too far ahead of the game to be fully appreciated.

I also fondly remember Bob performing a music-hall number, with his thumbs in his braces, at an impromptu singalong at a Social Policy conference.  He confessed that he’d thought about a career in music hall, but had opted to become a probation officer instead.



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