Sunday, March 03, 2013

Review of "The Silence of Animals"

My review of John Gray's new book is in The Sunday Telegraph today.  I found things to like. Gray recalls, for instance, how gloriously sardonic Freud could be. When obliged, upon emigration, to sign a document stating that he had had every opportunity in the new Germany “to live and work in full freedom,” Freud appended an uncalled-for compliment: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”

But I also found things not to like so much. Gray is unjust to leading thinkers of the Enlightenment.  Before Freud “reformulated one of the central insights of religion: [that] humans are cracked vessels,” Kant said that out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made. Hume was subtle and wise, both on reason and science:
Hence we may discover the reason why no philosopher, who is rational and modest, has ever pretended to assign the ultimate cause of any natural operation, or to show distinctly the action of that power, which produces any single effect in the universe. ... These ultimate springs and principles are totally shut up from human curiosity and enquiry. ... The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer, as perhaps the most perfect philosophy of the moral or metaphysical kind serves only to discover larger portions of it. Thus the observation of human blindness and weakness is the result of all philosophy, and meets us at every turn, in spite of our endeavours to elude or avoid it.
...and on human nature:
[It] cannot be disputed that there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent. Let these generous sentiments be supposed ever so weak; let them be insufficient to move even a hand or finger of our body; they must still direct the determinations of our mind, and where every thing else is equal, produce a cool preference of what is useful and serviceable to mankind, above what is pernicious and dangerous. 
In a review published in the FT on 22 Feb, which I hadn't read when I wrote my review, Julian Baggini writes:
...[The Silence of Animals] reads like Straw Dogs rewritten from scratch, this time drawing on more extended literary and historical examples, his punchy aphorisms punctuating rather than dominating the text...
...The arguments have lost their urgency but retain their weaknesses. As in Straw Dogs, there is too much black and white and too few shades of Gray. Most obviously, he talks of “faith in progress” and the idea that “the future can still be better” interchangeably, as though they amounted to the same thing. But, of course, they are not. You do not have to believe tomorrow must be better than today to try to make it so. Sartre recognised this half a century ago, when he argued that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work”. Abandoning the comforting delusion that good will inevitably prevail is a condition for honest work towards progress, not an obstacle to it...

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