ARTYFACTS: Day 1 - John Gray

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Day 1 - John Gray

John Gray, Professor of European Thought at the LSE, is a puzzle. A genuine 21st century thinker, he delights in demolishing 20th century obsessions and openly takes Nietzsche's late 19th century agenda, the death of utopias, transcendental realms and truths, to destroy concepts such as 'progress'. But this leaves him in a precarious position, as he has to face up to the problem of nihilism and relativism.

Grey's books
'Straw Dogs' was an attack on humanism and anthropomorphism, 'Heresies' was a strong set of essays, originally published in the New Satesman, illustrating his arguments against 'progress'. They cover war, terrorism, Iraq, US politics, Europe, Blair and Thatcher. His latest book, the subject of this talk, is 'Black Mass (Apocalypitic Religion and the Death of Utopia)'. They do challenge deeply held beliefs and assumptions, on both the right and left, about basic ethics, but where does that leave him?

Torture - a modest proposal
He opened with an anecdote about 'Torture: A modest proposal' a Swiftian satire on the US reversal of the prohibition of torture. He still gets emails, mostly from the US, condemning his defence of torture! His point was that may human phenomena refuse to disappear, and that human nature determines that they resurface time and time again.

Fundamental problem
So far, so good. But there's a fundamental problem with Grey. He does become prescriptive, but on what grounds? If he has demolished science, as a pseudo-religious quest, he can't rely on science as a justification for prescriptive belief. Darwinism, climate change scientists and others are hauled in by him whenever the debate gets down to detail. He takes down the scaffolding then uses those same poles to whack you over the head.

I asked the following question:

"At one point you became prescriptive, recommending 'deep', as opposed to 'shallow', myths, but how does one distinguish between the two? How do we avoid wallowing in a sea of relativism?"

His answer was, I felt, rather weak, defaulting to general human concerns as reflected in Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare. I agree with his need for a fuller understanding of human nature, with its realistic limits and constraints. But you can't rely on art to solve the problem, as art can distort and promote wrong-headed ideas when it is used to political ends. His second line of defence, Freud, is also puzzling, as the his manifesto of probing the unconscious seemed to have failed. I'm surprised he doesn't seek refuge in the work of psychology and evolutionary psychology, which seems to be providing some answers and useful hypotheses about human nature, continuing the Humean investigation into the deeper causes behind our often puzzling and abhorrent traits.

He places the Enlightenment as the bad boy offspring of Christianity, then positions Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism as their bastard offspring. There is some, but very little, truth in this. Nazism was the offspring of an anti-Semitic movement and Marxist-Leninism, was the bastard offspring of Hegel. Enlightenment values fought back, and in the end, defeated both. The Second World War, the collapse of Communism and the eradication of Maoism have been the result of Enlightenment ideas.

He also seems to miss the distinction between improvement and perfection. Many scientists have a sophisticated view of the scientific method, disengaging it from claims about absolute truth. Most secularists lie in this middle ground of gradual improvement, rather than being victims of secular religion. And he is not beyond the personal dig, as when he derides AC Grayling, who famously wrote a stinging review of Black Mass.

Gray is a interesting thinker, but lacks the real philosophical depth to tackle these epistemological issues. He's fine when attacking religious figures, evolutionists and others with fixed systems of belief, but he struggles when he enters the realm of true philosophy.

Parental fascism
At one point a woman asked 'Are you a parent?'. 'No' he replied. 'Then I won't be buying any of your books' she retorted. He, like me, was astonished at the nature of the attack. Can only parents reflect and comment on the world? Are childless people intellectually crippled through a lack of compassion?

Actually, she had quite an interesting point, which I'm not sure she realised. The basic human need to nurture may well be an important human trait in ethics. In China the one child policy has led to a large and growing imbalance between males and females. There may be as much as 60 million more men in China in the next decade. This may lead to a disenfranchised group who resort to violence, largely a male trait. Grey himself resorted to myths of 'birth, copulation and death', an admission that these basic human needs are important.

Q What are you 'optimistic' about?
He was right to deny the simplistic distinction between 'optimism' and 'pessimism', however, he failed to deliver a real answer to the underlying question about how we proceed in the face of nihilism.

Q Is there no 'hope'?

In defence of Gray
The great thing about these events, is their ability to stimulate thought and reflection over the following days. It made me pick up 'Heresies' again. In his finale, he recommended the book Wolf Totem. This is the second time in a week I've had this book recommended to me - I'm off to buy it!


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