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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans & Other Animals: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals Hardcover – 29 Aug 2002
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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
'A book of hallucinatory power that leaves conventional wisdom in ruins...unquestionably, one of the great works of our time' -- Bryan Appleyard
'An essential guide to the new Millennium...the most exhilarating book I have read since Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'' -- J G Ballard
'Gray is one of the most consistently interesting and unpredictable thinkers in Britain' -- Jason Cowley, Observer
'Straw Dogs challenges our assumptions about what it is to be human...convincingly shows that most of them are delusions' -- J G Ballard
'Straw Dogs contains so many arresting points and thought provoking ideas...its hard to imagine any reader not being moved -- Focus
'a...work of philosophy devoid of jargon, wholly accessible, and profoundly relevant to the rapidly evolving world we live in -- Will Self, Independent
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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. 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.
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.
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.
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