on 20 December 2011
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, Marxism is, as Edmund Wilson first observed, '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 notion that humans are "radically flawed" as captured by the doctrine of 'Original Sin'.
Like Christianity, "humanism is a doctrine of salvation – the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny" (p16). However, "we do not talk of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies – why then humans?" (p3).
Progress and Other Delusions
Of course, in its ordinary usage, the term 'humanism' is hopelessly broad, 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.
Belief in the inevitability of progress is, he argues, a faith universal across the political spectrum - from neo-conservatives who think they can transform Islamic tribal societies and Soviet Republics into capitalist democracies, to Marxists who think Islamic tribal societies and capitalist democracies will themselves ultimately give way to communism.
Gray rejects this belief. "Looking for meaning in history," he contends, "is like looking for patterns in clouds" (p48).
Scientific Progress and Social Progress
Although early in the book (p20-23) Gray digresses on the supposed 'irrational origins' of modern science, Gray does not doubt the reality of scientific progress. Instead, what Gray questions is, not the reality of scientific progress, but rather the assumption that social, moral and political progress will necessarily accompany it.
Progress in science and technology, he argues, does not invariably lead to social and political progress. On the contrary, he observes, "without the railways, telegraph and poison gas, there could have been no Holocaust" (p14). Thus, according to Gray's criteria, "death camps are as modern as laser surgery" (p173)
Scientific progress is unstoppable and self-perpetuating. After all, "any country that renounces technology makes itself prey to those that do not" (p178).
However, the same is not true of political, social and economic progress. On the contrary, a country excessively preoccupied with moral and ethical restraints would surely be defeated by an enemy willing to cast aside moral constraints for the sake of victory.
In other words, "technology is not something humankind can control" but rather simply "an event that has befallen the world" (p14). Thus, "humans are no more in control of machines than they are of fire or the wheel" (p185).
As a consequence, Gray predicts, "even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war" (p123) and "if one thing about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on humanity by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it" (p14).
Gray reaches this apparently pessimistic conclusion because, according to him, although technology progresses, human nature itself remains stubbornly intransigent.
Thus, "though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive animal that is also one of the most predatory and destructive" (p4) and therefore "the uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves" (p28).
Therefore, the fatal flaw in the humanist theory that political progress will inevitably accompany scientific progress is, ironically, its failure to come to grips with one particular sphere of scientific progress - namely progress in the scientific understanding of human nature itself. In particular, sociobiological and evolutionary psychological theory and research suggest that a degree of selfishness and nepotism is universal and innate among humans and likely incompatible with the societal utopias envisaged by reformists and revolutionaries.
Evolutionary psychologists like to emphasise how natural selection has paradoxically led to the evolution of cooperation and altruism. They are also at pains to point out that innate psychological mechanisms are responsive to environmental variables and hence amenable to manipulation. This has lead some thinkers to suggest that, even if utopia is forever beyond our grasp, nevertheless society can be improved by social engineering and well-meaning reform (see Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation).
However, this analysis ignores the reality that the social engineers themselves (i.e. politicians, civil servants etc.) are possessed of the same essentially selfish and nepotistic nature as those whose behaviour they are seeking to engineer. Thus, even if they were able to improve society in this way, they would do so for their own ends, not for those of humankind as a whole or in order to create a better world for all.
Of course, human nature itself could be altered through genetic engineering or eugenics. However, even this will offer no panacea to the problems that beset humanity and the world – because, once again, those charged with doing the work (scientists) and those from whom they take their orders (politicians, big business) will, at the time their work is undertaken, be possessed of the same nature that which it is their intention to improve upon.
Therefore, Gray concludes, even if human nature itself is remodelled, "it will be done haphazardly, as an upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime and the hidden parts of government vie for control" (p6), and hence reflect the interests, not of humankind as a whole, but rather of those responsible for undertaking the project.
In contrast to the prevailing humanist vision of inevitable progress towards utopia, Gray offers a vision of the future decidedly more pessimistic.
"The human population growth that has taken place over the past few hundred years," he argues, "resembles nothing so much as the spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats" and "like them, it can only be short-lived" (p10). Thus, "humans… like any other plague animal…cannot destroy the earth, but… can easily wreck the environment that sustains them" (p12).
The future, according to Gray, will see a return to resource wars and "wars of "scarcity... waged against the world's modern states by the stateless armies of the militant poor" that are "certain to be hugely destructive" (p181-2).
This is an inevitable result of a Malthusian trap. "So long as population grows, progress will consist in labouring to keep up with it," he explains, and the only way humanity can prevent this is by "limiting its numbers" (p184). However, "limiting human numbers clashes with powerful human needs" (p184) - not just the sociobiological imperative to reproduce, but also the interests of various ethnic groups in ensuring their survival and increasing their military and electoral strength.
Therefore, "zero population growth could be enforced only by a global authority with draconian powers and unwavering determination" (p185). Unfortunately (or perhaps not, depending on your perspective) "there has never been such a power and never will be" (Ibid.).
He thus darkly prophesizes, "we may well look back on the twentieth century as a time of peace" (p182).
As Gray points out in his follow-up book, "war or revolution... may seem apocalyptic possibilities, but they are only history carrying on as it has always done" (Heresies: p67). In contrast, "what is truly apocalyptic is the belief that history will come to a stop" (Ibid.).
While Gray doubts the inevitability of social, political and moral progress, he perhaps does not question sufficiently its reality. For example, citing improvements in sanitation and healthcare, he concludes that, although "faith in progress is a superstition", progress itself "is a fact" (p155).
Yet every society, by very definition, views its own moral and political values as superior to others. They will therefore view the recent changes in moral and political values that led to the development of their own moral and political values as a form of progress.
In reality, however, what constitutes moral, social and political progress is entirely a subjective assessment. The Ancient Romans, transported to our times, would surely accept the superiority of our technology and, if they did not, we would out-compete them economically and militarily and thereby prove it ourselves. However, they would view our social and moral values as decadent and we would have no way of proving them wrong.
In other words, while scientific and technological progress exists objectively, what constitutes moral and social progress is a mere matter of opinion.
Gray occasionally hints in this direction (namely moral relativism), declaring in one of his many countless quotable aphorisms, "ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats" (p103). He even flirts with moral nihilism, describing "values" as "only human needs and the needs of other animals turned into abstractions" (p197), and at one point venturing that "the idea of morality" may be nothing more than "just an ugly superstition" (p90).
However, on this point, Gray remains somewhat confused. For example, he protests that "morality has hardly made us better people" (p104). But the meaning of 'better people' is itself dependent on a moral judgement. If we reject morality, then there is no grounds for determining if some people are 'better' than others and therefore this can hardly be a ground for rejecting morality itself.
On the issue of free will, Gray is more forthright and consistent. Relying on the controversial work of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, he contends, that "in nearly all our life willing decides nothing" (p69). On the contrary, "we just act and there is no actor standing behind what we do" (p69).
This is a further reason for rejecting morality. Whether one behaves morally or not, and what one regards as the moral way to behave, is, he contends, entirely a matter of the circumstances of one's upbringing (p107-8). Thus, "being good is good luck" and not something for which one deserves credit or blame (p104).
Thus, he concludes, "the fact that we are not autonomous subjects deals a death blow to morality - but it is the only possible ground of ethics" (p112).
The Gaia Cult
One problem with Gray's analysis is his tendency to pontificate about subjects beyond his own sphere of expertise. As a result, although his overall thesis is persuasive, Gray's gets it completely wrong on certain specific issues.
A case in point is his discussion of James Lovelock's 'Gaia theory'. According to Gaia Theory, the world as a whole is analogous to an harmonious self-regulating self-sustaining organism - which is in danger of being disrupted only by environmental damage wrought by man.
Given his otherwise cynical and pessimistic outlook, not to mention his penchant for sociobiology, Gray's enthusiasm for Gaia Theory is curious. As Richard Dawkins explains in Unweaving the Rainbow (p221), the adaptation of organisms to their environment (which consists in large part of other organisms) may give the superficial appearance of eco-systems as harmonious wholes, as some organisms exploit and come to rely on the presence of other organisms for their own survival and sustenance.
However, a Darwinian perspective demonstrates that, far from existing in benign harmony with one another, organisms in fact exist in a state of continuous competition and conflict. Indeed, it is precisely this exploitation of one another that gives the superficial appearance of harmony.
In other words, "Individuals work for Gaia only when it suits them to do so - so why bother to bring Gaia into the discussion" (Unweaving the Rainbow (linked above): p225).
Dawkins thus concludes that, far from being a science, Gaia theory is more like "a cult, almost a religion" (Unweaving the Rainbow (linked above): p223). It is therefore better viewed, within Gray's own framework, as, like humanism, yet another secular perversion of humanity's innate religious impulse.
Perhaps Gray's own curious enthusiasm for this particular pseudo-scientific cult suggests that Gray himself is no more immune from the religious impulse than those whom he attacks. If this is so, it merely strengthens his case that the religious impulse is universal and innate.
Gray rejects most of the philosophical tradition that has preceded him. "As commonly practised," Gray contends, "philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs" (p37). Thus, "in the Middle Ages, philosophy gave intellectual scaffolding to the Church", whereas "in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it served a myth of progress" (p82).
He reserves particular scorn for moral philosophers. Moral philosophy is, for Gray, "an exercise in make-believe" (p89) and "very largely a branch of fiction" (p109), albeit one "less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel" (p89), which explains why "a philosopher has yet to write a great novel" (p109). In other words, compared with outright fiction, moral philosophy is simply less realistic.
Like Schopenhauer, Gray's pessimist precursor, (who is, along with Hume, one of the few Western philosophers he mentions without disparaging), Gray purports to prefer Eastern philosophical traditions. These and other non-Western religious and philosophical traditions are, he contends, unpolluted by the influence of Christianity and therefore see mankind as merely another animal, no different from the rest.
I do not have sufficient familiarity with Eastern philosophical traditions to assess the accuracy of this claim. However, I suspect that anthropocentrism and the concomitant belief that humans are somehow special and different from all other organisms is universal and innate.
(Indeed, it may not even be limited to humans. I suspect that, to the extent they were or are capable of conceptualising such a thought, earthworms and rabbits would probably conceive of themselves as special and unique over and above all other species in just the same way we do.)
At any rate, Gray ends up by rejecting the prescriptions of eastern philosophical and religious traditions as well. There is no need, he contends, to spend lifetimes striving to achieve nirvana and the cessation of suffering. Instead, "death brings to everyone the peace Buddha promised only after lifetimes of striving" (p129).
All one needs to do is to let nature take its course, or, if one is especially impatient, perhaps hurry things along by suicide.
I generally dislike books written in a pretentious aphoristic style. They typically replace the argumentation necessary to substantiate their claims with bad poetry. Moreover, sometimes the poetic style is such that it is difficult to discern what these claims are in the first place.
This is not, however, the case with 'Straw Dogs'. Perhaps, for once, the aphoristic writing style is appropriate because Gray's arguments, though controversial, are straightforward and therefore not requiring of excessive additional explication. Indeed, one suspects the inability of other thinkers to reach the same conclusions reflects a failure of the Will rather than the Intellect – an unwillingness to face up to and come to terms with the reality of the human condition.
'A Saviour to Save us from Saviours'?
Beware that there is no sugar-coating to Gray's philosophy. "At its worst", he contends, "human life is not tragic, but unmeaning... the soul is broken but life lingers on... what remains is only suffering" (p101).
Someone expecting a 'Hollywood Ending' will be disappointed. Unlike other non-fiction works dealing with political themes, he does not conclude with a chapter proposing solutions to the problems he has identified in the preceding pages. Instead the conclusion of 'Straw Dogs' is as bleak as the pages that preceded it.
In some ways it is refreshing that Gray does not attempt to portray himself as a saviour.
He discusses the Buddhist notion that we require "A Saviour to Save Us From Saviours", but eventually renounces even this role.
We do not, he argues, take our saviours seriously enough to require saving from them. We look to our saviours, not for salvation, but rather merely "for distraction" (p121).
He thus relegates our self-appointed saviours – from philosophers and religious leaders to self-help gurus and political leaders – to little more than glorified competitors in the entertainment industry.
Distraction as Salvation?
According to Gray, it is not only saviours who function as 'distraction' for the masses. On the contrary, towards the end of 'Straw Dogs', Gray seems to view 'distraction' as central to life, at least in the affluent West.
In modern western societies, standards of living have improved to such an extent that obesity is now a far more widespread health problem than starvation. This is so even among the so-called poor - indeed, especially among the poor. Yet, on the other hand, clinical depression is rapidly expanding into the greatest health problem of all.
Thus, Gray contends, "economic life is no longer geared chiefly to production", but rather "to distraction" (p162).
In other words, where once, to acquiesce in their own subjugation, the common people required only with 'bread and circuses', now they seem to demand cake, ice cream, alcohol, soap operas, Playstations, Premiership football and reality TV.
Indeed, Gray views most human activity as little more than escapism. Thus, he contends "it is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality" but rather "the practical men and women who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance" (194).
Yet Gray does not disparage distraction as diversion from more important concerns and objectives. On the contrary, he seems to see distraction, or even escapism, as the key to, if not happiness, then at least to the closest we are able to come to this elusive state.
Most people instinctively recognise this. "Since happiness is unavailable", he writes, "the mass of mankind seeks pleasure" instead (p142).
"Fulfilment is found," he concludes in a passage which is perhaps the closest he comes to self-help, "not in daily life, but in escaping from it" (p141-2).
In other words, escapism may not be quite as bad as it is made out to be. Perhaps then something is to be said for sitting around watching TV all day after all!
By his own thesis then, it is perhaps as a form of 'distraction' that Gray's own work ought ultimately to be judged. In this light I can only say that, with its thoroughly invigorating and unrelenting cynicism and pessimism, 'Straw Dogs' distracted me immensely and, according to the precepts of Gray's own philosophy, there can surely be no higher praise than that.
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. The world was not made for us, nor can we ever make it, nor indeed any world, to be for us.
Some rather simple-minded criticisms of Gray's outlook are floating around the Internet, including on this page, so lest they deter you from reading this book, here are a few brief rejoinders that can be made to them.
1/ 'Gray teaches us nothing new. Postmodernism has been around for 40 years now.' Gray clearly isn't giving just another rehash of postmodernist thought. In fact his book is a savage attack on some of the postmodernist thought that has now been neatly incorporated into liberal thinking. The belief that the world is entirely a social construction, that this construction is determined by power relationships and that therefore by changing those power relationships society can mould the world into whatever form it chooses. The way that humans see the world may indeed be due to power relationships within society, but these arise because of the fact that humans are biological animals in an inherently competitive natural world. Postmodernism is, as Gray says, 'just the latest fad in anthropocentrism'.
2/ 'Gray criticises science as a faith but seems to hold Darwinism as a faith.' Gray is primarily attacking the faith that scientific progress leads to moral and social progress. If anything is right in science it is the broad theory of Darwinism. Yet people believe that science can enable man to take control of his destiny, when one of the most fundamental tenets of modern science teaches us that science and its consequences (as with any other sphere of human activity) is ultimately determined by the same laws that govern other animals' behaviour.
3/ 'No-one seriously believes in progress anymore'. Well the western world is without doubt led by two men who wholeheartedly believe in the vision of moral progress, as we are seeing with disastrous consequences in Iraq. As both have been re-elected as their heads of government, presumably a lot of the people who voted for them share that vision. The idea that western society is not still dominated by the belief in moral progress is absurd. A generation ago homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals were routinely sent to prison. Today, someone can be sent to prison for simply arguing that homosexuality is wrong. For this to be the case, society clearly has a conviction that the moral attitudes of today are without question a progression on the attitudes of yesterday. To give a different example, on the 10th of September 2001 not one person in a hundred could have believed that America would soon be holding a serious debate on whether or not to legalise torture.
It goes without saying that I found Straw Dogs to be an utterly rewarding intellectual experience. Read it and it may change the whole way you look at yourself and your universe...though probably together with a feeling that, like all great writers, Gray has articulated for you something profound that you always suspected about the world.
on 17 November 2004
Its not hard to find fault with Straw Dogs but that doesn't stop you reading. I read it in a largely uninterrupted single sitting of 6 hours. The prose is assertive and intoxicating and maybe its the delivery that keeps you reading, the desire to see where this glut of attitude is going to lead. Gray is self assured, well read and referenced but the scope of the books 200 pages is ambitious to say the least. Some critics say its philosophy for the commuting classes, an eclictic grab bag of philospohical snippets and quotes to give the reader whose attention span is challenged the sensation of something profound. If what you are after is a sober systematic arguement look elswhere (this is the acedemics moan) but I think that Gray is more mischevious than that and less interested in the glory of publishing notoriety. His motivations derive from a life of observation of the folly of human enterprise and a broad reading of history. And this is the strength of the novel, it drags you screaming into another perspective, one in which the accepted conventions and positions on our motivations are deeply challenged. He says we are simply animals with highly developed delusional skills and although you don't agree ( I don't) you can't help feeling that he is right or at least History is more supportive of that position than the common faith that we are somehow moving toward some vision or goal of perfection. Other critics say that he ofers no solution or maybe a half baked neo-taoist angle but I disagree. This book is not about self help. Its about self awareness, and for humans that is a bitter pill indeed.
Straw Dogs is thought provoking, sometimes challenging and well worth a read. But be prepared for a frustrating read because Gray often fails to follow through on his ideas, leaving them flapping in the wind as unrealised jottings or, perhaps, little challenges to the reader’s own world view.
That said, if you’re prepared to do some thinking of your own, Straw Dogs often makes for an exciting and stimulating read.
Gray’s opening gambit is that humans are simply the most evolved animals, rather than (as Christians, Jews, Muslims and others would have it) something created by God quite separately from the beasts. Gray mocks those atheists who continue this tradition of seeing other animals quite separately from humans, but spends the whole book repeating this mistake himself!
We learn that termite colonies respond to outside stimuli and adapt to their environments by working as a whole, leaving individual termites with no sense of self. Okay. But then we’re told this means only humans have a sense of self, as if what’s true of termites is true of all other animals. And so it goes on, with Gray continually lumping all other animals together in an attempt to separate man from the beasts in the same way as those he initially condemns.
Yet there is insight trying desperately to get out. If Gray had developed his idea, he may have suggested that termites represent an extreme in which a sense of community is absolute and the self non-existent. Developing this idea further, he may have considered that other animals (Iberian Lynx, perhaps) appear to have an extreme sense of self, but little or no sense of community. He may have concluded that there a continuum on which all species, including humans, may be placed. He may have excitedly asked what other measures might be developed from studying other animals to help us better understand the human animal.
Sadly, Gray fails to develop this or any other thoughts. So Straw Dogs is a collection of jumping off points: unfinished ideas to stimulate great debates.
on 22 August 2007
If you like your philosophy analytical, in the Anglo-American tradition, this is not for you. If, on the other hand, you're prepared to give a philosophical work the latitude to be completely bats, as long as it's stylish and thought provoking, this is for you.
Gray's book is a series of only loosely connected mini-essays which - as other reviewers point out - argue against a sort of anthropocentrist exceptionalism and in favour of a sort of misanthropic, deep-ecological nihlism. Will Self, predictably enough, loves it.
Whether or not you think the evidence is as strong as it claims to be (it isn't, quite); or whether you think, even if true, it necessarily supports Gray's conclusions (it doesn't); this is nevertheless an absolutely wonderful book. Read this as a work of literature, not philosophy. Some wonderfully challenging and thought provoking questions are lobbed at the reader in volly of intellectual non-conformism. From Lord Jim, to the organisation of ant societies, the Rwandan genocide to what it is to think of one's self as a coherent person, Lao Tzu to Karl Marx and pre-modern anthropology... just read it, it's fun!
on 1 December 2014
Whilst an interesting read I find it difficult to see what this contributes over and above Camus' deeper analysis of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Perhaps the contribution is to make the subject a little more accessible.
Unfortunately I was left thinking "so what?", humans are delusional about themselves, but is this necessarily a bad thing in the end? Supposing we were less delusional, would we be able to deal with the consequences of unwinding the delusions and going back to basics. Now I'm reading 'The Silence of Animals" in order to see if he develops things further.
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]
on 20 March 2014
The philosophical stance adumbrated in this book is one with which I have a considerable degree of sympathy, but this volume is at the same time immensely frustrating. Most modern atheists are humanists, that is, they have accepted the Enlightenment idea that human societies are capable of indefinite improvement through the spread of reason and science, and that history represents on the whole a tale of progress. At the same time, most humanists would also subscribe to some version of philosophical naturalism, that is, to the idea that humans are a product of blind Darwinian forces within the context of an indifferent and uncaring universe. What is interesting about Gray is that he holds that these two views – humanism and naturalism, that is – far from complementing each other, are incompatible. If you fully take on board the consequences of naturalism, so Gray contends, one must reject humanism with its attendant optimism about the human species. It is this view which is adumbrated in this book with great verve.
However, at the same time, this book is incredibly frustrating. The positions are not very rigorously argued, the reader is carried forward more by rhetoric than by logic. There is far too much hand-waving by the author. As other reviewers have pointed out, whole fields of human endeavour ('philosophy', 'religion', etc.) are reified as homogeneous blocks of doctrine and dismissed with a single remark. The discussion of individual philosophers is very inadequate, all of them being treated as scarcely worthy of notice – except Schopenhauer, whose philosophy is praised for anticipating Gray's. Too much is just stated as though it didn't require any argument. For example, Plato is castigated for reifying human language into transcendent Forms. But Gray doesn't deal with the philosophical difficulties which led Plato to posit Forms. In fact, as a Platonist myself, I see nothing in the positing of Forms that is inconsistent with a thoroughgoing naturalism – any more than did Santayana. There are certain inconsistencies in Gray's writing. He sometimes talks as though self-awareness were a burden that we would be better off without, and that the animals are more fortunate in this regard, but I doubt whether he would really like to exchange his life for that of a dog if he had the opportunity. Perhaps, then, there is something to be said for personhood after all. On p. 151 he writes that the human species is “not obviously worth preserving”, but at other points in the book he writes disapprovingly of genocide. Now it may be that Gray's various statements can be reconciled, but Gray does not bother to tell us how this might be done. He prefers to formulate his views in an impressionistic fashion, flitting like a hummingbird from one subject to another, in each displaying a mood rather than following a rigorous line of argument.
There are some ideas in this book which are interesting, and could be developed further. For example, the idea that what we call morality is not a set of timeless truths 'out there' which all reasonable men of good will can agree on, but something we inherit from our past. There is the interesting idea that ethics should not be about 'morality' at all, but individual virtue, and that virtue consists in living skilfully. But nothing is ever properly elaborated, all these remain seeds of ideas that are not further developed. Gray seems to prefer skating over the surface of things; he does not have the patience for philosophical spadework of any kind. This is true of all his previous writings as well, which accounts for why he has never really written a great philosophical work, but at the same time accounts for his current popularity with a wider reading public. The reader who is already sympathetic to the ideas expressed in this book, therefore, will find himself nodding in agreement, enjoying the author's criticism of Dawkins-type atheists, and delighting in the occasional aperçu. But the vaunted claims that have been made for this book by its partisans (including on the blurb on the back cover) are nonsense.
on 15 July 2013
Purposeless to review a book with 75 comments and counting but hey-ho, so is philosophy. In fact it's the reviews that prompt another tuppenceworth. They are almost as diverting as the book. But first, an admission that I recognise myself in the character of Julian Treslove from Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question: `Every few years, Treslove decided it was time he tried philosophy again. Rather than start at the beginning with Socrates or jump straight in with epistemology, he would go out and buy what promised to be a clear introduction - by someone like Roger Scruton or Bryan Magee... [Only to be paralysed at more or less at the same moment each time by] `a phrase such as "the idea derived from evolution that ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenisis"...It was like discovering that a supposedly sane person with whom one had been enjoying a perfectly normal conversation was in fact quite mad. Or if not mad, sadistic.' Precisely. For me it's Scruton's Modern Philosophy biennially and the paralysis usually sets in around about Wittgenstein.
Do I dare suggest that something of the same bafflement has overcome some of our (negative) reviewers here? I am not foolish enough to say all, nor to quote anyone's review, for fear of being kicked to death in a stampede of PhDs and PPEs. What interests me here is the outrage, the overall sense of having been `let down' by an emeritus Professor of European Thought, no less. And I think, crudely, there are two main sources of this cheek-chewing ire. The first is the demand, or the desperate desire, for evidence. These people want proof that, for example, progress is an illusion. Well, I may not know much about Wittgenstein but I know he wrote down what he thought; and I know he lived in this world. I don't need evidence for this. No one was there to photograph (alright, to produce a bas relief marble of) Plato's Cave. There weren't really prisoners chained to its wall, he was just thinking about them, and it. The various comments made about Professor Gray claiming certain positions to be `self-evident' and therefore his being in error, or even meretricious, mendacious; concerning his `bad structure' or lack of clarity; his bad `argumentation'; all these are in some part I believe born of a fear that he is right. And his right is dark and troubling. I know, I know: I've just admitted my ignorance above, so who am I to say he's got Hume or Hegel right or wrong? We could play a game of intellectual oneupmanship but I'm pretty confident Gray has read Hume and I've picked him for the five-a-side so nah. Philosophy persuades or provokes thought, or it does not persuade or provoke. John Gray's book does persuade me, which brings me to the second well spring of aggression.
From one fine author (Jacobson) to another. One of the accolades on the back cover is provided by Will Self. Now my mother (a nurse) taught me never to speak ill of the ill, so I mean no offense by this. I am too lazy to discover whether Will Self's name is given or chosen but it surely suits a man for whom the universe is sometimes but a tarnished mirror held up to his own soul. If, as John Gray states (no evidence, tut, tut): `...once we have relinquished Christianity the very idea of the person becomes suspect', then I have news for you Mr Self - you don't exist, you are a series of deliquescing narratives, (less than a series because that offers too much hope of structure). And this I think is what has caused such outrage; it's scary and the profound optimism and consolation it actually allows is lost on those who are frightened by it. We are animals. Is this, as some, say old hat? Depends how it's put. Darwin had already dealt with this? No he had not. Darwin would be shocked, disgusted even by some of Gray's ideas and would probably have been in the one-star gang. Some of the reviewers say they persevered to the end of the book to see if there was some `glimmer of hope'; I didn't finish it in case there was.
If nothing else, Straw Dogs should be read because it quotes the poet J H Prynne - completely out of context, I expect that annoyed him terribly.
Travel, habit and silence are all money
Get your money out.
on 12 March 2012
I don't write many reviews on here, but having searched this book in order to recommend it to a friend and found that it had some very mixed reviews, I feel the need to chip in:
I won't talk too much here about what Gray's main arguments are (and I will agree here with some of the negative reviewers that they are not presented at all neatly), but basically he's saying that, for all the material progress humans have made thanks to their great intelligence, we have and always will have the same failings as other animals, and that therefore any stability and betterment we have created will be partial and temporary. He is also arguing that all the mainstream political movements of the last few hundred years, from liberalism to communism, have been based (consciously or otherwise) on a fundamental Judeo-Christian belief that history is an onward march towards an eventual goal of universal human happiness/eternal life/utopia.
Obviously the book itself talks about far more than this, but these are the main messages that I remember taking away from the book. Even if the way in which I've expressed them here might make them seem like mere truisms, if you really take the time to consider how much truth there is in these ideas, I think they have the power to change the way we look at practically everything.
Somewhat confused at all the negative reviews, I went through some of them to look at the main points made against Straw Dogs. I have to say that a lot of them seemed to either not understand what Gray was trying to say, or simply complain that it was 'too depressing' (the latter may well be the case but I hardly think that's a good criticism). Some complained that Gray's book is full of facts that are demonstrably false, but I don't know what this refers to, while others refute the author's ideas about progress by simply stating that our modern lifestyle is superior to that of our ancestors- a fact that no-one could refute and that misses Gray's point about the temporary and illusory nature of progress entirely. Some complained about his setting up a 'straw man' in the form of the already defunct Soviet Union and communism, but his criticism has nothing to do with the traditional critique, and in many cases could equally be directed against the West.
For the most part, especially given the number of reviews containing sentiments along the lines of 'disgusted' and 'couldn't finish it' and 'threw it in the rubbish', I get the impression that most of the people who hated this book hated it because they can't stand how deeply and effectively it undermines the philosophies and political ideas they have based their lives on. This must surely be the mark of a genuinely powerful piece of philosophy, and I honestly think that this book will be remembered when its more famous contemporary works have been forgotten.