Wandering Thoughts

January 6, 2010

Gray’s Anatomy – a very short review

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 7:13 pm
Tags: ,

[Disclaimer: review written from a hasty, lazy holiday read.]

John Gray, it has been pointed out, has worn quite a few intellectual hats in his day (Classical Liberal, Thatcherite, Classical Conservative, Green Conservative, anti-Globalist, Sceptic of Progress, Progressive Critic of Neo-Conservatism…) so the last thing I expected on opening Gray’s Anatomy, a collection of essays spanning from the 1970’s until today, was coherence.  I was in for a surprise – of sorts.

No doubt it’s partly achieved through the essays selected for re-publication, but there is a thread, a kind of coherence, to the positions taken. Start with Oakeshott (the Conservative English philosopher), and argue that knowledge is partial, humans un-perfectible and ethical schema un-completable. Then point out – persuasively I think – that there’s also a liberalism in Oakeshott: politics as process and conversation; society as civil society. This can be linked to Mill and Classical Liberalism (almost). The un-perfectibility of humans gives you grounds to argue against communism, while limits to knowledge and information (pace Hayek) provide a solid critique of the centrally planned social democracy of 1970s England. And so you can support Thatcher – a bulwark against communism, an anti-planner – up to a point, while still opposing free market and globalist utopias, for the same reason you oppose all utopias ( scepticism of grand ideas).

Environmentalism and conservatism go together well enough. And anyone sceptical of grand ideas and utopian thinking has plenty of reason to be sceptical of neo-conservatism.

As for progress, Mill and Oakeshott (according to Gray at least)  had their doubts and, after the 20th century, Gray’s position that progress, while real enough in science, is incredibly fragile in human ethics, is plausible.

Anatomy certainly has its weaves and bends but as far as trains of thought go Gray’s are coherent enough to at least avoid derailing.

Much less coherent are the passengers on the train – the policy positions Gray takes. State education systems might not work perfectly, but neither are they complete failures. Nor are they, as Mill feared, really tools of indoctrination. And it seems to me that a conservative, of Oakeshott’s ilk, in this day and age would recognise this and that if they did, they’d probably oppose, rather than propose, anything as radical as a voucher scheme for schools. They’d also probably have something similar to say about universal basic incomes, and having the NHS support alternative remedies. There are plenty of times in Anatomy when Gray seems neither conservative nor liberal at all, but simply hair-brained.

He’s also unpersuasive in his critique of progress. Sure it can be reversed, but do we gain anything by banging on, like Gray does, reiterating this point? Is there anything novel in useful in pointing this out.

Still despite these criticisms, Gray’s Anatomy was an interesting read. More or less recommended.


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