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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals Paperback – 1 Sep 2003

3.4 out of 5 stars 113 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; New edition edition (1 Sept. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862075964
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862075962
  • Product Dimensions: 19.7 x 12.9 x 1.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 20,964 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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 the Hardcover edition.

Review

'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

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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.
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Thoughtful, eye opening and well-written.
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I have enjoyed John Gray's erudite talks on BBC radio 4, so I bought this entertaining book.
It is really just an essay about human self-deception and arrogance bulked out with snippets of oriental twaddle (Tao Te Ching) and worn out 'new age' pseudo science (Santayana, and Lovelock's 'Gaia hypothesis'). Gray is a Malthusian who believes that humans will reject population control and proceed to rape the planet until we wipe ourselves out. The Earth might be better without us, he argues.
There are many brilliant one-liners and as many absurd generalisations.
Gray is a philosopher, not a scientist, so he does not really 'get' science. He thinks science is as likely to be as shoddy as religion because the early scientists were muddled and torn between their religious upbringings and their findings. This is fair comment on Copernicus and Newton (the latter experimented with alchemy as well as refraction) but few modern scientists find their energies dispersed in this way. Science is a method of enquiry and has served us well.
Gray repeats a literary device which tires in the end; there are long quotes from writers we believe he is trying to support, only to discover that he nails them with a pithy arrow to the heart. This artificial postponement of the 'coup de grace' becomes contrived and shows that the author is more interested in style over substance.
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awesome
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Brilliant
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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.
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I really wanted to like this book, and was attracted by the gushing reviews on the cover, the fact that Will Self was so interested in the idea(s) that he arranged to meet John Gray to discuss etc. Sadly the reality was very different: almost impossible to follow in places, ranging incoherently from one idea to another without explanation or rationale. Complex philosophical idea are dismissed at a stroke (free will) leaving the reader flailing in its wake. I was left with the sense that the random approach to argument, evidence etc was of itself an attempt to make a point about the limitations and failures of "conventional" thinking. If so it failed and left nothing for the sympathetic and open-minded reader to hang on to. Perhaps I am missing something but if not it looks like a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. Two stars is probably too generous...
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