Wednesday, April 28, 2010

getting all riled up

if this guy's a philosopher, I'm a dung-beetle

Just been revisiting the risible John Gray via this Pharyngula piece, and the links connected with it, that's to say, a review by Gray of a book by A C Grayling [which turns out not to be a book review but an attempt to belittle everything Grayling stands for, without of course being particularly specific about the variety of Grayling's views on a variety of subjects], together with Grayling's brief and, I think, devastating response, which then links to an earlier critique of Gray which, at moments reads uncannily like my own critique [since lost with the loss of my laptop, damn it]. This also led me to Ophelia Benson, and her followers. A delightful discovery, and her blog is now on my roll.

What to say about Gray? Grayling has already said it - as have I, I now recall, but Grayling is more succinct. One of the main points he makes is that he's a meliorist and not a 'perfectibilist' [Grayling that is]. He also points out [and this I think is key], that he has made this point before, but Gray keeps on with the same error [remind you of any creationist writers?], and the same old anti-progress rhetoric, in spite of the masses of evidence around him. This was a point I hammered ad nauseum in my own piece, focusing on the social treatment of black people, women and homosexuals 150 years ago and today, in the west. As Grayling puts it, if you don't call it progress, what do you call it, regress? And if you're not a meliorist, if you don't want to improve things, to be a faster runner [for an athlete], to be more tolerant and accepting [for a mother], to be more cognisant of your subject [for a scientist], to leave the world a better place [for a politician, and everyone else], then why go on? Gray seems to have real trouble with this, imagining that we're living in a world of false myths by wanting to better ourselves and our world. Can he really believe this? What alternative does he have to offer?

Gray tries to mock Grayling's prolific output, his interest in such a variety of subjects and issues. Gray's own work is contemptuously abstract and lacking in detail. It's not just lacking in specific human interests, it's also lacking in analysis. It's essentially rhetoric rather than philosophy. One of the many points in which Grayling's critique uncannily reflects my own is in Gray's use of the term 'religion', generally as a term of abuse. We have terms such as 'secular religion' and 'scientific religion' and 'humanist religion' dotted throughout his work, like so many sneers in lieu of argument. It rather reminds me of adolescents sneering at the adults. Then, after all this, Gray attempts, albeit half-heartedly, to defend religion, in such vague, non-committal terms as to be meaningless.

In short, Gray has so little positive to say that he seems condemned to a repetition of adolescent sneers and lugubrious prognostications. However, I have to thank Straw Dogs for helping me to focus more clearly on what is to be valued in human life, and human striving. On that basis, I recommend the writings of A C Grayling, Simon Blackburn and other Gray critics, meliorists all, unreservedly.

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