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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unrelenting Pessimism Has Never Been So Invigorating
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...
Published on 20 Dec 2011 by V. E. Lane

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unanswered questions, vague and muddled thinking
Gray's book is characterised by highly idiosyncratic definitions. His bÍte 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...
Published 6 months ago by Dr. John Hamilton

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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An anguished plea, 6 Nov 2003
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
John Gray concludes his book with a tragic entreaty: "Can we not think of the aim of life as simply to see?" His plea for awareness reveals the cloak of obscuratism our mythology has draped over all nature. Reading Straw Dogs is like being abruptly roused from a pleasant dream. "Wake and shake!", he cries. Wake up to the falsity of the dogmas under which you live. Shake them off and recognize that we live within reality's domain, not that of phantasms and fables. These ideas disturb the comfortable, yet offer little comfort to those seeking an easy answer to life's challenges. Gray understands our need for solace, but he knows reality isn't a tourist resort. Nature is a harsh realm and he wishes us to confront enduring questions honestly. Writing this book means he thinks we can do that.
Gray's thesis relies on aknowledging our place in the realm of nature. We are, he reminds us, merely a part of the animal kingdom. We are neither a special creation nor particularly unique. Writing alone, with the continuity it provides, sets us apart while granting significant powers. The "continuity" led to the notion of human "progress" and "perfectability". In an volutionary sense both ideas are false, and we are evolution's product. Even humanism, supposedly rational and secular, has fallen into the trap of seeking "perfectability". Gray finds this misleading and self-serving. He examines the work of Western philosophers, the guides to our thinking, finding them mistaken or misleading. In today's milieu, Lovelock's Gaia concept of the whole planet acting like a single organism, should be reconsidered. Whether the details of this idea are valid is irrelevant. It is the notion that we are apart from the remainder of nature that we must cast away. The monotheist dogma granting us "dominion over the earth" is the most pernicious idea developed by humanity, Gray asserts.
Gray's text is fragmented without sacrificing continuity. His techique allows pauses for reflection. He posits ideas, questions, suggestions, assertions freely. Stop and think about them as you read. He tumbles many icons - he indicts Christianty on the second page in a suggestion of what follows. He is resolute and articulate about how important these questions are to us. A superficial look at this work may lead the reader to feel hopeless. If there was no hope, however, Gray wouldn't have bothered to write this book. Like any thinker, he's concerned about the future. The prospects appear bleak, but not insurmountable. He assumes the reader is intelligent enough to consider and act on realistic solutions. "Perfectibility" of humanity within nature may be impossible, but with an informed outlook "accomodation" can be achieved. The first step, however, is the shedding of false dogmas.
Being informed isn't an easy task, Gray concedes. He presents the thoughts of previous philosophers, but without direct attribution. If you need references, his extensive bibliography is a fine starting point. It's also a few years' study syllabus. Taking his quotes at face value isn't the issue, however. What must be confronted are the values that you, the reader, hold and cherish. Can you "live to see", or will you remain wrapped blindly within dogma? Read Gray and make up your own mind. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars love or hate, 1 Jun 2012
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
This is the best book I have read in a long time, and I struggled to put it down.

I'm not going to go through the context of the book, as I think this has been explained throughout other reviews.

I'd like to try and give potential readers some guidance as to whether it is worth the read or not.

First, i'd recommend that if you can buy this book cheaply then it is worth a read. You may hate it, however if you don't hate it odds are you will be thoroughly glad you have read it. It is therefore worth the risk even if you're inclined after reading reviews of the book to give it a miss.

I think that perhaps too much critism is given to the way Gray has written the book. The title of the book 'Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals' does not require Gray to write a balanced evidence-fuelled account, and I would argue he purposely wrote this book with every intention for it to read very much like long thoughts and loosely linked contemplations on the matter. I personally don't feel that this takes anything away from the book. It is meant for the reader to ask questions and to ponder their own thoughts along with Gray's.
Critisms of Gray's thoughts can be found whilst reading, for it is not hard to think up critisms to someones thoughts when they are (deliberately) not concisely written and backed up with strong evidence everywhere. Regardless of this, Gray makes some very interesting points and I found whilst I disagreed with him on some points I agreed with him on others.

I'd say that if you enjoy questioning the world and debating ideologies and conventional viewpoints in your head, then this book may be one for you.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A devastating critique of secular humanism, 27 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
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 post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. In pre-Christian Europe is was taken for granted that the future would be like the past. Knowledge and invention might advance, but ethics would remain much the same. History was a series of cycles, with no overall meaning. Against this pagan view, Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.’ - Straw Dogs

It was a thoroughly enjoyable read which has led me to purchasing a number of his other books. Regardless of your worldview you will find Straw Dogs to be a fascinating and enlightening read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vanity of vanities; all is vanity, 15 Sep 2013
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
In this book, John Gray attacks every modern, western value that is bigger than the self, plus the very idea of the self. This is more rewarding than it sounds. The pessimism on display is bracing and it's always enjoyable to see those preachy Humanists get a good kicking.

Gray's style is light and breezy and the text is chopped into bite-size chunks, like a nihilism sampler. This makes it easy to read, but it also means the arguments are presented with less rigour than they deserve, given their profundity. There is too much hand waving. However, this is clearly intended as an introductory work and a comprehensive reading list is provided, should you wish to depress or invigorate yourself further.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost a masterpiece - engaging and irritating, 21 Nov 2010
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
I feel this is one of those books you are either going to like to hate. If you are open to quite challenging ideas, presented in a fairly passionate and opinionated style then you may well like this book. If you want to see full arguments, no assumptions, and no jumps in logic then you may not. But given that these are thoughts (see title) - the flaws in his arguments are forgivable.

This is a book which is pretty pessimistic about humanity, but at the same time has a positive tone - well positive if you like to hear about the robustness and capability of nature and life to survive irrespective of mankind or what mankind does to it.

I very much enjoyed the read, but at times it was also frustrating. This is an important book - but it is quite possible you will hate it! Give it a try. You will know after a few sections whether it is for you or not.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Straw Dogs, 1 Dec 2009
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
John Gray has produced an easy reading expose on the world of post-modern philosophy. The crux of the subject matter focussing on the lack of discernable difference between the thinking of theology and that of atheist humanism.

This is all very well, but I don't believe it is particularly original. I suppose it is a good way to enter into philosophical thought post nihilism, but Gray isn't the be all and end all. In fact I would argue that it is precisely because a man like John Gray feels he needs to write a book deploring our attempts at not being animal that our difference to other currently existing species' becomes apparent.

Whilst he considers the earnest efforts of Plato and Kant as 'fair game' to deconstruct, there is little mention of the scholars that have delved more deeply into his line of thought in the past 50 years. Perhaps because it isn't as easy to ridicule those who have already trod his path. I would thoroughly recommend "The Ethics of Ambiguity" by Simone De Bauvour and Jean Baudrillard's "The Illusion of the End" as more elegant examples of recent philosophical thought.

Indeed Gray may have missed the boat altogether. Across the world, most thinking has moved from "why do we exist?" to "why do we construct existence in a certain way?". Philosophy has moved out of the Universe and into the Neocortex of late. Consider the works of McGilchrist ('The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World') and Glynn & Wright ('Left in the Dark') as examples of how philosophy has rediscovered itself in the fields of sociology, history, psychology and biology.

This may read as overly critical of a book I rate quite highly. I just urge those who read it to give other literature a try before falling to the feet of Gray as the divine inspiration of 21st century culture.
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66 of 82 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Straw dogs or straw men?, 13 May 2008
Igor Clark (Portland, Oregon, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
So much of this book consists of plainly falsifiable bald assertions that I find it staggering that the famous names writing the crits have been prepared to put their names to it, let alone gush over it in the way they have. It's frustrating, because a lot of the substance of what he says, in the sense that the orthodoxy he attacks is actually incoherent, is valuable, if not exactly new; unfortunately, he obscures it with bad argumentation and structure.

Gray states, for example, that we can have no coherent, consistent 'self' because all we are (in consciousness) is a disjointed group of memories, with nothing tying them together except the illusion of continuation, to which we are genetically pre-disposed. Fine, it's a theory, and not an unreasonable one. I'm not saying (and obviously couldn't say) that it's not right, but he tosses out as though it were self-evident, when it's really not; it could quite easily be the case that we do have a continuous consciousness from which our notion of a consistent self derives, but it's our memory which is inadequate and not our perception, meaning we only remember bits of it, rather than that it's actually disjoint. Meaning there is an easy possible counter-argument; meaning his baldness is just a little bit too bald for my liking, and I'm pretty bald.

I also don't like the way he talks about "the humanist view" or "humanism" all the way through the book without really setting up any terms. I don't recognise the viewpoint he attacks as being a consistently argued or known viewpoint; he seems to be tilting at windmills a lot of the time. I suppose the counter to this criticism would be that this is a book of reflections, aimed at the sort of intelligent yet perhaps not entirely considered reader whom Dawkins addresses in The God Delusion; unfortunately this book is classed as "Philosophy" (it says so on the back), and as such I'm afraid it just doesn't stand up.

Still, even if just a set of reflections, presumably if presented bound in one volume apparently presenting a particular view, they should be consistent? At one early point he claims that the idea of human progress is a myth, plain and simple, because due to the ever-shifting sands of DNA "humanity" doesn't really exist; later on, he takes for granted a reading of "progress" under which individual humans enjoy the benefits of flush toilets and medicines by virtue of the increasing pool of human knowledge. OK, obviously we can work out interpretations of these phrases in which they're not mutually exclusive - by watering down the strong, headline-grabbing claims, of course - but if it's a set of thought-provoking reflections, should we have to go to such lengths even to work out exactly what he's saying? And if it's a book of philosophy, isn't it supposed to be clear?

Something else that bugs me is that he doesn't put any references to the bibliography (e.g. "[12]") in the text under any of the many quotations peppering the text. All are listed in the bibliography, but I reckon he knows that those remain largely unconsulted anyway, and if he doesn't put references in then it's even less likely anyone will bother as they'd have to trace through the whole bibliography in order to do so. Of course he's covered himself, because he has put the bibliography in (right?), but even under a charitable interpretation it's extremely odd.

The first time round, I gave up after a couple of (I felt) inadequately argued passages; this time, I persevered and finished reading it because despite the many problems, there are some interesting thoughts in there. I'm glad I did, because the second half contains some interesting discussion about human ecology, but even there he seems simply to have found a couple of views which suit him and which he therefore repeatedly champions (in a remarkably similar manner to the way he claims the "humanists" champion what he challenges), holding up the authors he quotes as gospel, and because he attacks so often with assertion rather than argument, the overall impression is of rhetoric, even sophistry - or some pretty darn specious arguments, anyway.

Worth a read, if only to get you thinking clearly about how muddled Gray has managed to make his own moments of clarity.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Straw Men, 22 Feb 2014
Charles Shelley (UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
Like a lot of reviewers on here, I approached this book with certain expectations, and like many reviewers on here, I was fantastically disappointed. However, it is, I believe, only fair to assess this book on its own merits.

From what I can fathom, the book claims to be an attack on the notion that humans are special, that we are different from other animals somehow. This is an idea passed down to us by Christianity and carried on by the humanist tradition. Humanism, it is claimed, is chiefly the belief that humans are special amongst animals, and the (unjustified) belief in human progress. It should be noted that these aims only become apparent after the first fifty pages or so, they are not clearly laid out in an introduction or preface. We are thrown straight into the body of work.

Which brings me to the first big problem with this book; stylistically it is just amateurish. I found myself reading the most fantastical claims with little or no justification behind them. Take the initial definition of humanism, the primary target of the book: ‘Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress’ (pp. 4). No references are offered to thinkers associated with the humanist school of thought, no argumentation is offered for this generalisation, no explanation is made as to who this ‘us’ he is referring to actually is. Examples abound of other such wild assertions made with no meat to back them up.

This is the most frustrating element to Straw Dogs. I read a bold claim, and find myself fascinated as to how he will justify it. No such justification is offered however, the dialogue moves on. It really should be called Straw Men, because the amount of ‘straw man’ arguments that are offered is astounding. He presents humanism, science, Christianity and philosophy (to name a few) as unified bodies of thought with clear aims that no one questions, defines those aims (which we are to accept without question), and then explains why they are mistaken. A lot of big words can be found in Straw Dogs, But John Gray clearly does not know how to use them. By that I do not mean that he does not know what they mean. Instead, I mean that he seems to think he can throw them in when he chooses to support a claim without properly qualifying what they mean, seemingly blind to context. This leads to ridiculous equivocations, attacks on intellectual phantoms, and frankly comes across as lazy. For instance, humanism is a dirty word in Straw Dogs, and any school of thought John Gray decides to associate with it is immediately dismissed. But no Humanist thinkers are referred to, no definitions besides his own are offered, so the book often becomes a witch hunt, chasing after phantom enemies.

He then goes on to dismiss the works of such minds as Wittgenstein, Heidigger, Kant and Hume within the space of about ten pages. If 20th Century philosophers knew it was that easy to do so they would be kicking themselves now. He takes Schopenhauer as the shining example of a mind that ‘got it’, whatever it is, is unclear. Schopenhauer’s uncompromising scepticism towards meaning and purpose in human life is held up as an example of the right way to look at life. Nietzsche’s poetic and bold philosophy and attempts to build and ultimately reject Schopenhauerian thought are dismissed in three pages. Ending with another outrageously unfounded claim:

He [Nietzsche] invented the ridiculous notion of the Superman to give history meaning it had not had before. He hoped that humankind would thereby be awakened from its long sleep. As could have been foreseen, he succeeded only in adding further nightmares to its confused dream (pp 48)

I can only assume that the last sentence is referring to Nietzsche’s intellectual inheritance often (mistakenly) being associated with Nazism. No discussion is given to the diverse and often contradictory theories on what Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’ was actually supposed to mean. I found this particularly infuriating because this unfounded claim is mixed in with the arrogance that John Gray could have foreseen the link between Nietzsche and Nazism had he only been alive at the time, along with the dismissal of the most beautiful and illusive thinkers of the 19th Century in a few poorly written pages. For a more measured account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, read ‘What Nietzsche Really Said’, by Robert C. Solomon and Kathleen M. Higgins.

Morality is then dismissed, kicking off with the example of Utz in Czechoslovakia, who collected porcelain during the Nazi occupation and Soviet takeover. This anecdotal evidence is then generalised to how we all treat morality: as a side show to what we really want out of life, in this case, porcelain. One could offer up any number of bizarre and atrocious tales describing humanity’s disregard for morality, this is nothing new. But John Gray’s claim that ‘During the Nazi and communist periods they did what most people always do – they made their murky accommodations with power’ is frankly insulting to the millions who suffered and died fighting tyranny in the 1940s and throughout the world before and since.

However, the claim that morality is fiction is a substantial one; but (as with so many ideas presented in this book) it’s nothing new! John Gray presents these scraps of information he offers as if it’s a damning attack on all we hold dear, but he’s one hundred years late to the party. I agree with a lot of what he tries to say. Science does not equal progress, humanity is not special, we are not as in control of lives as we think we are, truth does not equal good. But these ideas are far from new. 20th Century science and thought has already taught us this much, the challenge for this century is how to act in the light of these things. Straw Dogs offers no such alternative. John Gray seems to believe he has offered a damning attack on the plight of humanity from the position of a perfect observer watching over us all. But it merely recycles these ideas in a mish-mash of fragmentary chapters like a First Year philosophy student fresh out of semester one.

This book is a real shame, because I am on John Gray’s side on the whole, but he does a great disservice to the cause of human humility with Straw Dogs.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One star or Five stars? (Decided by a metaphorical coin toss), 19 Mar 2008
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
I could have gone with either five stars or one star, though not any star in between. That in itself says a lot about the book. (Update: If I could, I would give it both a one star and a five star rating simultaneously; indeed I think it just would not do justice to the book to reduce it to a score.)

The sheer rhetorical force of Gray's words makes this compelling reading. One almost feels the need to react to it by way of criticism. And so I've wanted to write a review for a long time.

Five stars because this book makes an impact. It forces one to think. It is a smorgasbord of important ideas. It is a book I'd recommend to any intelligent, critical reader -- if only so they can debunk a lot of it! This should be seen a compliment; even debunking his ideas is a truly fruitful exercise.

One star because the book is deeply flawed. Although I can and do agree with many of Gray's conclusions, the logic that gets him to those is, well, simply not logic. Despite his obvious intelligence and education, he doesn't really seem to understand modern science. And that is simply something the philosopher of today cannot afford.

Update: Despite finding flaw after flaw in this work, I can't bring myself to give it one star -- it is important, if only as an exemplar of intellectualism gone awry.

Very little that Gray says is new. On those points with which I agree, they have been expressed better in works by Pinker (The Blank Slate), Dawkins (The Extended Phenotype), Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting) amongst many others. These works have the benefit of being based on cumulative scientific evidence. The last chapter of "The End of Faith" by Harris is far better than the mere assertions of Gray because it establishes the link between neuroscience and spirituality.
As for philosophers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Santayana (to name but three) have contended with nihilism far more interestingly than Gray. And how could I not include the name of Bertrand Russell, whose essay "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" is enough to dismiss half of Gray's arguments? That is, where there actually are arguments rather than brilliantly-disguised assertions expressed with near-religious conviction!

(Second update:)

Final word: Both 1 and 5 stars. Definitely worth reading as long as you don't let yourself become hypnotized by Gray's superb rhetoric. Gray is a force to be reckoned with. If I had to choose just one book I'd recommend as an alternative (or should I say antidote) it would be "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something for the brain.., 5 Nov 2004
This review is from: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (Paperback)
An excellent book, written to challenge your view of the world. Though, as other reviewers have pointed out, the author doesn't flesh out his ideas fully, don't let this put you off - his aphorisms will make you question everything you know and hear. In an age where we are determined to bring salvation and morality to the Middle-East, any book that helps us understand what this means is worth your time.
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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray (Paperback - 1 Sep 2003)
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