John Gray


Average rating



John Nicholas Gray is an English political philosopher and author with interests in analytic philosophy, the history of ideas, and philosophical pessimism. He retired in 2008 as a School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray regularly contributes to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer. He is an atheist.

Gray has written several influential books, including False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), which argues that free market globalization is an unstable Enlightenment project currently in the process of disintegration; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), which attacks philosophical humanism, a worldview which Gray sees as originating in religions; and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), a critique of utopian thinking in the modern world.

Gray sees volition, and hence morality, as an illusion and portrays humanity as a ravenous species engaged in wiping out other forms of life. Gray has written that "humans ... cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them."

Gray was born into a working-class family, with a docker-turned-carpenter father in South Shields, County Durham. He attended South Shields Grammar-Technical School for Boys from 1959 until 1967, then studied at Exeter College, Oxford, reading Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), completing his B.A., M.Phil. and D.Phil.

He formerly held posts as a lecturer in political theory at the University of Essex, fellow and tutor in politics at Jesus College, Oxford, and lecturer and then professor of politics at the University of Oxford. He has served as a visiting professor at Harvard University (1985–86) and Stranahan Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University (1990–1994), and has also held visiting professorships at Tulane University's Murphy Institute (1991) and Yale University (1994). 

He was a Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science until his retirement from academic life in early 2008. Among philosophers, he is known for a thorough rejection of Rawlsianism[further explanation needed] and for exploring the uneasy relationship between value pluralism and liberalism in the work of Isaiah Berlin.

Gray's political thought is noted for its mobility across the political spectrum over the years. Gray was on the left as a student and continued to vote Labour into the mid-1970s. By 1976 he had shifted towards a right-liberal New Right position on the basis that the world was changing irrevocably through technological inventions, realigned financial markets, and new economic power blocs and that the left failed to comprehend the magnitude and nature of this change.

In the 1990s, Gray became an advocate for environmentalism and New Labour. Gray considers the conventional (left-wing/right-wing) political spectrum of conservatism and social democracy as no longer viable. On liberalism, Gray identified the common strands in liberal thought as being individualist, egalitarian, meliorist, and universalist. 

The individualist element avers the ethical primacy of the human being against the pressures of social collectivism; the egalitarian element assigns the same moral worth and status to all individuals; the meliorist element asserts that successive generations can improve their sociopolitical arrangements, and the universalist element affirms the moral unity of the human species and marginalizes local cultural differences.

More recently, he has criticized neoliberalism, the global free market, and some of the central currents in Western thinking, such as humanism, while moving towards aspects of green thought, drawing on the Gaia theory of James Lovelock. It is perhaps for this critique of humanism that Gray is best known.

Central to the doctrine of humanism, in Gray's view, is the inherently utopian belief in meliorism; that is, that humans are not limited by their biological natures and that advances in ethics and politics are cumulative, and that they can alter or improve the human condition, in the same way, that advances in science and technology have altered or improved living standards.

Gray contends, in opposition to this view, that history is not progressive but cyclical. Human nature, he argues, is an inherent obstacle to cumulative ethical or political progress. Seeming improvements, if there are any, can very easily be reversed: one example he has cited has been the use of torture by the United States against terrorist suspects. "What's interesting," Gray said in an interview in 032c magazine, "is that torture not only came back but was embraced by liberals and defended by liberals. 

Now there are a lot of people, both liberal and conservative, who say, 'Well, it's a very complicated issue.' But it wasn't complicated until recently. They didn't say that five or ten years ago." Furthermore, he argues that this belief in progress, commonly imagined to be secular and liberal, is derived from an erroneous Christian notion of humans as morally autonomous beings categorically different from other animals. 

This belief, and the corresponding idea that history makes sense, or is progressing towards something, is merely a Christian prejudice in Gray's view. In Straw Dogs, he argues that the idea that humans are self-determining agents does not pass the acid test of experience. In this view, those Darwinist thinkers who believe humans can take charge of their own destiny to prevent environmental degradation are not naturalists but apostles of humanism.

He identifies the Enlightenment as the point at which the Christian doctrine of salvation was taken over by secular idealism and became a political religion with universal emancipation as its aim. Communism, fascism, and "global democratic capitalism" are characterized by Gray as Enlightenment "projects" which have led to needless suffering due to their ideological allegiance to this religion.

Best author’s book