From The NY Times Book Review-Thomas Nagel On John Gray’s New ‘Silence Of Animals’

Full review here.

Book here.

Simon Critchley reviews the book at the L.A. Times.

Nagel starts with:

‘John Gray’s “Silence of Animals” is an attack on humanism. He condemns this widely accepted secular faith as a form of delusional self-flattery.’


‘The question Gray poses is of fundamental importance, so one wishes the book were better. It is not a systematic argument, but a varied collection of testimonies interspersed with Gray’s comments.’

Clearly humanism could use more serious critics and pushback.

Nagel finishes with:

‘Gray thinks the belief in progress is fueled by humanists’ worship of “a divinized version of themselves.” To replace it he offers contemplation: “Contemplation can be understood as an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.” Though he distinguishes this from the ideal of mystical transcendence toward a higher order of being, it, too, seems more like a form of escape than a form of realism. Hope is a virtue, and we should not give it up so easily.’

Gray discusses the book here:

While science may proceed and real progress is taking place, in the realms of ethics and politics, Gray suggests things are learned but they don’t stay learned.

Are we rational beings?  Rational animals?


Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Related On This SiteFrom Darwinian Conservatism: ‘The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel’

From Edward Feser: ‘Nagel And His Critics Part IV’

John Gray Reviews Jonathan Haidt’s New Book At The New Republic: ‘The Knowns And The Unknowns’

Steven Pinker somewhat focused on the idea of freedom from violence, which tends to be libertarian. Yet, he’s also skeptical of the more liberal human rights and also religious natural rights. What about a World Leviathan?: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

3 thoughts on “From The NY Times Book Review-Thomas Nagel On John Gray’s New ‘Silence Of Animals’

  1. I have not read the book but I have to agree with Gray’s contention that moral progress unlike technological progress, can be forgotten. Gray studied under Isaiah Berlin and I think it fair to say that Gray has spent most of his academic life spinning out the implications of Berlin’s core insight on value pluralism.This accounts for the bitterness with which libertarians and classical liberals, whose side he was once on, now regard him. Now that he is attacking the original Enlightenment idea of progress, many will consider him to have gone over completely to the the dark side.

  2. Malcolm, got it. Thanks very much for commenting.

    To my mind he hasn’t convinced me that his ‘godless mysticism’ is sound epistemology, but it highlights the faith that many people place in progress, extending it to all areas of Western life and our institutions. I try and welcome pushback against that prevailing faith in Enlightenment reason from time to time (libertarian individualism), and liberal rationalism and its discontents (value pluralism has its place, and was welcome pushback against communism).

    I can’t really call myself a believer, but I try and remain respectful of religious liberty and its contributions towards a free civil society and constrained institutions. I loathe the false choice between the sexually liberated 60’s Leftists/progressives/boomers on one hand, and the prescriptions for life and sexual morality that say, the Catholic faith commands on the other, as I wasn’t brought up myself in the Church (It seems like it’s 1972, or 1968 right now played out again, especially in the last election).

    There’s a whiff of the dour humanist in Gray as he moves through the ‘dark side’ (in the video he uses Joseph Conrad’s trip to the Belgian Congo to parallel our current adventures against the original imperial African project).

  3. I should say that the Catholic church requires (typed from my IPhone, I did not mean ‘other’). I listen to the Aquinas crown, the prime movers, the people who don’t conflate religious belief and scientific inquiry into grand programs.

Leave a Reply