Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Piss Off And Die Already

Long-term readers may recall my absolute loathing for John Gray, slanderer extraordinaire (see here and here, for example). I have recently had the misfortune to come across his handiwork again, in the Postscript to his actually pretty good book on Mill's On Liberty. I think the Mill book must have been his DPhil, and it shows; nothing else I've read by him displays anything like the level of rigour or charity to opponents, and of course none of the other things I've read by him was required to pass muster amongst a group of actual philosophers. The Postscript was added thirteen years later, and it shows. The first three or so pages, which is as far as I got before giving up in utter disgust, contained two basic claims: that, because Mill's liberalism was based on a theory of history as progress, all liberalism must be based on a theory of history as progress, and that no contemporary liberalism is based on a theory of history as progress. Now, the first claim is transparently unjustified; although everyone should hate John Gray, it is not because I hate John Gray, but because he masquerades as a respectable participant in debates in political theory when in fact he is the epitome of gratuitous misreading and misrepresentation in the service of the dubious kinds of political ends whose achievement rests on such lies. This shows that we should do x when there are good reasons for doing x, not because some other person does x: they, after all, may lack good reasons for doing x. The second claim is equally mendacious. Rawls, whom Gray mentions, does have a theory of history; it's the foundation of his theory of stability and in particular of the overlapping consensus. John Gray is only 59. It's a pity.


Ben said...

It really sounds like you have something personal against JG. What little I've read of him didn't strike me as so terrible - and it's not as if Brian Barry ever mis-read/interpreted someone... (Though I don't know whether it's worse to do it to an opponent in debate or major thinkers in textbooks)

Ben said...


Rob Jubb said...

Setting Culture and Equality aside - straw men, bad arguments and at times not very well concealed racism - Barry may well be polemical - what he says about Nozick for example is pretty rude - but usually he's right, or at least not wrong in a crazy way. He spends three long closely argued chapters trying to show that it doesn't make sense to think about bargains under conditions of to each according to his threat advantage are illegitimate, for example, which is remarkably patient. John Gray's just in a whole other category of egregiousness. The book on Mill is actually pretty good though.

Anonymous said...

Boy Rob, this is a particularly invective post. Firstly, I have studied under JG at LSE, so perhaps I have a bias that runs the other way, but all the same, I can't help but feel that you somewhat misrepresent JG's post-script; thereby doing him the same disservice you accuse him of doing to others.

JG is an impressive scholar on Mill (and also Hayek) and, while one may disagree with his politics, I have always found him to be an interesting, reflective, self-critical and - for me, most importantly - an engaged theorist. In other words, JG shows a level of passion for contemporary political issues that I find largely absent in today's theorists.


Rob Jubb said...


the book on Mill is good, really good, and not being familiar with the scholarship on Hayek I can't comment on it. I haven't got the book in front of me now, so I can't be sure that I didn't misread the postscript, but I did write the post almost immediately after having put the book down, so I'm inclined to think it's pretty accurate - although obviously I'm open to correction.

Neither do I think this should be seen in isolation; Gray has form, so far as I'm concerned. Straw Dogs was terrible, and whenever I come across his work in the media, it just clearly exploits his position to misrepresent the views of others. The review of Amaryta Sen's book from last August - http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1837216,00.html - for example is just really bad, not just because I think he probably misrepresents Sen but because he uses what he interprets Sen as saying as an exemplar of liberalism in general in a way that I think is transparently false. If engagement means systematically misrepresenting your opponents, then I'm not sure how much of a virtue it is. Neither is it the case that Gray is somehow uniquely engaged; just off the top of my head, Adam Swift's written two books aimed at popularising topics of political relevance, and Stuart's worked pretty extensively on the politics of inheritance.