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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals [Paperback]

John Gray
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Sep 2003
A radical work of philosophy, which sets out to challenge our most cherished assumptions about what it means to be human. From Plato to Christianity, from the Enlightenment to Nietzsche and Marx, the Western tradition has been based on arrogant and erroneous beliefs about human beings and their place in the world. Philosophies such as liberalism and Marxism think of humankind as a species whose destiny is to transcend natural limits and conquer the Earth. Even in the present day, despite Darwin's discoveries, nearly all schools of thought take as their starting point the belief that humans are radically different from other animals. John Gray argues that this humanist belief in human difference is an illusion and explores how the world and human life look once humanism has been finally abandoned.

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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals + False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism + The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
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Product details

  • Paperback: 246 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (1 Sep 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862075964
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862075962
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 12.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 10,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

JOHN GRAY is Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement and the author of over a dozen books, including Heresies and the bestselling Straw Dogs. False Dawn has been translated into sixteen languages.

Product Description

Amazon Review

John Gray's Straw Dogs attempts to present a world view in which humans are not central and which argues against the humanist belief in progress. The heart of the book is summed up in the idea that modern humanists have still not come to terms with Darwin, still not come to terms with the idea that humans are like other animals. Christians and modern humanists in the Platonic-Cartesian tradition typically think of humans enjoying a special relationship to God, or a special status in nature in a way that other animals do not. Even the great debunkers--philosophers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Heidegger--end up making human beings the centre of things or the end point of some world-historical process. By contrast, in a Taoist, Shinto, Hindu or animist culture Darwin's discovery would have been easily accommodated since these faiths see humans and other animals as kin.

In short, for Gray, humanism is nothing more than "a secular religion thrown together from decaying scraps of Christian myth". Gray champions James Lovelock's view of the Earth as a self-regulating system whose behaviour resembles, in some ways, that of an organism. The Gaia hypothesis is the backdrop to Gray's apparently relentless pessimism about the fate of humankind. What it teaches us is that this self-regulating system has no need of humanity, does not exist for the sake of humanity, and will regulate itself in ignorance of humanity's fate.

Straw Dogs can be usefully compared with Mary Midgely's excellent Science and Poetry since both take off from the view of man as animal while sharing similar views about the cultural role of philosophy. Both encourage us to overcome the Platonic-Cartesian-Kantian philosophical tradition while stressing the importance of Gaia in emphasising our essential continuity with the physical and natural world. For Gray, humans "think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals". Straw Dogs could have been made to stretch for 500 large pages. Instead you get 200 small pages of gold; simple, concise, riveting.--Larry Brown --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


'An essential guide to the new Millennium. Straw Dogs challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be human' -- J.G. Ballard

'Nobody can hope to understand the times in which we live unless they have read Straw Dogs’ -- Sue Corrigan, Mail on Sunday

‘Gray is one of the most consistently interesting and unpredictable thinkers in Britain…an enthralling book’ -- Observer

‘Nothing will get you thinking as much as this brilliant book…opens new vistas of understanding' -- George Walden, Sunday Telegraph

‘That rarest of things, a contemporary work of philosophy, wholly accessible, and profoundly relevant to the rapidly evolving world' -- Will Self

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unanswered questions, vague and muddled thinking 20 Mar 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Gray's book is characterised by highly idiosyncratic definitions. His bte noire is 'humanism', which he defines as the belief in human progress. Now given this definition, his rejection of humanism is quite reasonable. After a century of the bloodiest warfare in history, belief in progress seems misplaced, notwithstanding its persistence. But Gray then turns his sights to a whole range of beliefs, not necessarily logically connected. For example, he maintains that there are no moral truths that are independent of the culture in which we live. If this were the case then there would, of course, be no basis for criticising the practices of my society. To support this contention of the subjectivity of morality, he excoriates the notion that human life has any intrinsic value. Here I disagree with him. I think that values do truly come into the world with human beings. This has nothing to do with persons being 'authors' of their own lives (p. 58 of Straw Dogs, also p. 38), but rather with the fact that human subjectivity, unlike that of the animals, is characterised by self-awareness. Because Gray assumes that the claim for the moral uniqueness of human beings derives from a dubious claim to 'autonomy' rather than from the specific mode of human subjectivity, he ends up attacking a straw man.

Elsewhere in his book, Grey is sharply critical of the anthropocentrism implicit in 'postmodernism' (pp. 54-5). But his same strictures surely also apply to his own ethical relativism. Gray seems to disapprove of genocide. He certainly writes about it very moralistically. But if, as Gray maintains, human life has no intrinsic meaning or value, then what is bad about Hitler's death camps? On what basis can the Final Solution be criticised? These questions are unanswered.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The religious impulse, Gray argues in a later work elaborating on the themes first set out in 'Straw Dogs' (Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions), is as universal as the sex drive. Like the latter, when repressed, it re-emerges in the form of perversion.

Thus the Marxist faith in our passage into socialist utopia after revolution represents a perversion of the Christian belief in our passage into heaven after death - the former, heaven-on-earth, as unrealistic than the latter. Thus, communism is, as one American conservative put it, 'the opiate of the intellectuals'.

The same is true, Gray contends, of what he regards as the predominant 'secular religion' of the contemporary West - namely 'humanism'. Its secular self-image notwithstanding, Humanism is, for Gray, a substitute religion that replaces an irrational faith in an omnipotent god with an even more irrational faith in the omnipotence of mankind himself (p38).

In doing so, humanism renounces the one insight that traditional religion actually got right - namely the that humans are "radically flawed" as captured by the doctrine of 'Original Sin'.

Progress and Other Delusions

Of course, the term 'humanism' is hopelessly broad, in its ordinary usage pretty much encompassing anyone who is neither religious nor a nazi.

For his purposes, Gray defines humanism as a "belief in progress" (p4). More specifically, he seems to have in mind a belief in the inevitability of social, economic and political progress.
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95 of 108 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We cannot make the world to be for us. 13 Oct 2005
It is over a hundred years since Darwin revealed to us our animal lineage, and yet the human primate is still having difficulty coming to terms with its animal origins. All bar creationists may indeed now accept that we are descended from apes, but most of us still cling to the belief that we have somehow become different to the rest of the animal kingdom. Our ability to use language and reason, to see ourselves as selves, selves that move forward in time and, with other selves, progress by building a culture based on moral rules and a technology that seems to give us ever increasing control over our environment. Surely this is enough to set us apart from the rest of nature? No. Thankfully, a British philosopher who lives and breathes today but who speaks with the depth and clarity of a modern day Schopenhauer is here to rid you of this delusion.
Human beings are still animals claims Gray, but the more profound insight that he delivers, and that his critics seem unable to grasp or admit, is that humans, and even whatever intelligence that might emerge in a 'posthuman' future, will always be inescapably rooted in the natural world as much as the lowliest of slime moulds.
We believe that language and reason are what differentiates us, forgetting that we acquired these abilities through the blind mechanisms of evolution. This means that they are, as Hume, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche declared long ago, mere tools in the brutish struggle for survival. These same tools enabled the human animal to create the illusions of free will, self and morality and the delusion to think that with these, man has the ability to stand apart from the animal world and choose his own fate. But the fundamental import of Darwinism is that it tells us that 'we' were 'made' for the world.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A devastating critique of secular humanism
John Gray has written a devastating critique of secular humanism, exposing it for what it is. I'll let him speak for himself ‘“Humanism is not science, but religion - the... Read more
Published 6 days ago by DJRodger
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 12 days ago by Andre Macedo
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
brilliant insight into human psyche. Uplifting and cerebral.
Published 1 month ago by Brontosaurus Theorem
5.0 out of 5 stars Straw Dogs
An excellent and perceptive critique of humanist individualism. If reality is devoid of divinity it makes no sense to ascribe value, meaning or significance to anything, including... Read more
Published 4 months ago by M. Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Enrage and engage
Normally when I read reviews on book covers I think they are silly, hyperbolic or mis-quoted. For example I read on one spy book that it was 'the thinking man's Le Carre',... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Cletus
1.0 out of 5 stars Straw Men
Like a lot of reviewers on here, I approached this book with certain expectations, and like many reviewers on here, I was fantastically disappointed. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Charles Shelley
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb brain food - whether or not you agree
It’s a very beguiling work, of incredible erudition, and written in such a droll and elegant style. His thesis, that secular morality is hewn from the same anthropocentric... Read more
Published 8 months ago by C.J.L.
1.0 out of 5 stars Aptly titled book
Never have I been as disappointed in a book as I was with this one. Gray sets up one 'straw man' after another so he can argue against them. Read more
Published 9 months ago by D. M. Kelso-mitchell
5.0 out of 5 stars Believe the reviews
A time-consuming read for a short book, as the reviews warn. This is the sort of book which has you running out into the street to share insights with strangers. Read more
Published 10 months ago by C. J. Tyler
2.0 out of 5 stars Laziness does not pay
To give you some idea of what you may encounter in `Straw Dogs', consider the following selection of quotes and thoughts:

"Morality is a sickness peculiar to... Read more
Published 11 months ago by M. D. Holley
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