Reading: A. C. Grayling

  • The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life (25 Nov 2008)
  • The Reason of Things: Living with Philosophy (19 Jul 2009)

The Reason of Things

This is another collection of very short essays on various topics, essentially just another installment of The Meaning of Things. While it was readable and mildly stimulating, more often I found it frustratingly wrongheaded, full of errors and infelicities both minor and major. One can forgive an otherwise good writer who uses peninsular as a noun (repeatedly!), and perhaps only an English teacher would bristle at “Pushkin’s grandfather was thought to be an African slave in Moscow” — but what to do with a book that tells us that every culture throughout history, except those dominated by the Abrahamic religions, is marked by “a complete absence of pornography”? Has the author ever heard of, say, Japan? Does he just pull these fun facts out of a place that Judeo-Christian prudery forbids me to mention directly?

Then, in an essay entitled “Monsters,” Grayling offers this explanation of the Mosaic dietary code: “Ancient zoology identified three classes of creatures: feathered birds, furred quadrupeds, and scaly fish — and therefore Israel was forbidden to eat anything which failed to fit those categories neatly, such as snakes, rodents with their human-like hands, sea-dwellers without scales, and pigs because they have the wrong kind of feet.” Uh, actually, Mr. Grayling, the Bible goes out of its way to say explicitly that pigs have the right kind of feet; their problem is that they don’t chew their cud. But it’s not just the pigs; his whole theory is ridiculous. Are we really supposed to believe that the reason such everyday animals as horses, rabbits, donkeys, and dogs are unkosher is that the Jews considered them unclassifiable freaks of nature?

Grayling is so often wrong when writing about fields I’m familiar with that I found myself unable to trust him as an authority on anything else. Even his charming historical anecdotes left me thinking, “That’s a cool story. I’ll have to look it up and see if it really happened like that.”

Nor does he exactly inspire confidence in his discussions of morality. “What,” he asks, “is the source of the moralists’ strange idea that sex is wrong, bad, dirty, and in need of control? One answer is: the consequences of just such control.” Of course we enlightened moderns will all smile along with him at the idea that sex is wrong, bad, and dirty — but what to make of someone who so lightly dismisses the idea that it is in need of control? If Grayling really means what he implies here, then he’s a monster, and I don’t just mean that he’s got the wrong kind of feet! I suspect he doesn’t, though; while he seems to be okay with adultery and such, he’s far too much a man of his time to be pro-rape or pro-pedophilia. More likely he simply hasn’t thought out what he’s saying — which, while clearly a lesser sin here, is still not exactly what one looks for in a philosopher.

The Meaning of Things

This is a light but stimulating read, consisting of 61 very short essays on a wide variety of philosophical and moral issues. It’s not the sort of book that will convince you of anything — at three or four pages per topic, there is little room for sustained argument — but serves more as a lightly annotated list of interesting questions to think about. The author’s views are invariably conventional and in some cases (generally wherever biology is involved) obtuse — he assures us, for example, that concern for chastity is an arbitrary artifact of religion, and that racism is wrong because there is actually no such thing as race. On less politically charged topics his embrace of conventional wisdom is more thoughtful and thought-provoking. He points out several times that clichés are, after all, usually true and deserve to be thought about, which is true enough.

The words “famously” and “commonplace” are overused throughout the book, as are allusions to Hitler and the Holocaust, which turn up in at least 13 of the essays (I skimmed the book counting them to quantify my sense that the book seemed oddly Nazicentric). Other than that, the style is graceful and readable, which, combined with the shortness of the chapters, makes it all too easy to read just one more chapter and then just one more and end up going to bed far too late.

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