A. C. Grayling Responds

April 27, 2010 Topic: Society Region: Europe

A. C. Grayling Responds

Grayling responds to John Gray’s review of his book in the May/June National Interest.

Grayling responds to John Gray's review of his book in the May/June National Interest.


I am delighted to have been reviewed at such length in The National Interest by John Gray, whom I was beginning to suspect of too impervious a dignity ever to respond to the repeated bashings I have had to give his views over the last several years.

Anxious to appear original while in fact pushing a familiar counter-Enlightenment line, Gray has often entertained us with his assaults on logic and historical fact, each time repeating the two tenets of his faith, one acquired from Isaiah Berlin and the other from his Sunday school, namely, that we are condemned to live with the conflict between irreconcilable goods, and that we owe everything of significance in human achievement (not, he gloomily adds, that there has been much) to religion. (Does he notice the irony there?)

My delight at being reviewed by Gray is prompted by more than the fact that I have at last stirred him to revenge for having his knuckles publicly wrapped by me. It is also prompted by the flattering fact that he has read so much of my work that he can tell you how repetitious it is (though perhaps he ought to be reminded of Walter Pater's dictum, that "it is only the dullness of the eye that makes any two things seem alike"). And it is further prompted by the fact that it exposes a fallacy Gray shares with all those suspicious of what the last few centuries have brought in the way of scientific advance, personal freedom, liberal democracy and regimes of rights: namely, that because a true and right view was held in the past it is old hat to defend it now, at least without post-modern disguise to make it seem novel.

That Gray endlessly wears his own two old hats does not get in his way here. But I don't mind this. What I mind is his attributing to me the idea that the scientific and social advances of the post-sixteenth century Western world are the road to perfection, and that if only we could be reasonable, accept pluralism, respect human rights, defend the rule of law, and apply the findings of science to the improvement of mankind's lot, we would realize Utopia. No: though I do and always will champion these things ("shrilly" and "peevishly," with "adamantine certainty" and "high-minded silliness" Gray shrilly, peevishly and high-mindedly complains), I don't confuse Meliorism with Perfectibilism as Gray persists in doing, though I have before now, in print, tried to help him understand the difference. Humanity is an alloy, and we live with problems always, too many of them bequeathed by a past whose worst horrors (ideological oppressions not least among them) we strive with incomplete success to escape.

If nevertheless it is high-minded silliness to champion the cause of trying to conduct our affairs sensibly, and to free our minds and lives to the greatest extent conformable with our being social animals who owe one another moral regard, I embrace it with enthusiasm. Gray, with his shallow and rather aimless hostility to this view, is the least likely fellow to talk me out of it.


A. C. Grayling is a professor in the School of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London.