My Old Dissertation Supervisor

When I went to Oxford for my doctoral studies, my first supervisor was John Gray. He provided some very competent critiques of my writing, as well as some very good strategic advice about getting the dissertation written. I benefited from his supervision. That said, he was rapidly becoming a very serious crank. (As my later supervisor, after John had left Oxford, noted, “I have had a fairly consistent approach, changing in details over the years as I learned more, but during that time John has gyrated wildly across the heavens, occupying virtually every position in modern political thought.” Almost.)

Carlin Romano’s review of John’s latest book (“The Triumph of ‘Smugism,’Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2008) provides a useful appraisal of what John has accomplished. But there is so much more to be said, such as how John would write that no serious person could believe X, despite X being the position he had advanced with equal certainty only a few years before. It seems that every viewpoint he discovered and then adopted had….lacunae, flaws, problems!!!….and that meant that it was of no value at all. As my late friend Roy Childs noted in one of his last essays before his death, in a review of one of Gray’s attacks on classical liberalism, one can’t compare a theory to perfection; one compares theories against other theories. Gray had complained that libertarian theories had no clear answer to such questions as when do children become adults and whether abortion violates rights (i.e., libertarians can take a number of positions on the latter issue). But, asked Roy, what theory does answer those questions clearly and without problems?

13 Responses to “My Old Dissertation Supervisor”

  1. I must admit that I’ve only read four of Gray’s books, most recently Black Mass. But from my vantage point, Gray has been moving in a clear direction: against utopianism. This seems to be the core of his criticism of reason, socialism, libertarianism, neoconservatism, etc.

    Sure, he’s moved along the ideological spectrum (I don’t know if I could say where he falls now), but I think there has been at least some consistency to his evolution.

  2. Tom G. Palmer

    I’m in a terrible hurry (have to hail a taxi and catch a flight), so I’ll have to return to this when I get back (and can consult my copies of his books). But….a question:

    How is it a move against utopianism to embrace the (to my opinion odd, mystical, and unfalsifiable) Gaia hypothesis and to consider humanity an infection? It’s a denial of the notion that human life is even worth living. It seems that John’s been on the road to nihilism, which is away from utopianism, to be sure, but not toward anywhere rational people would consider an improvement.

  3. Drew Perraut

    That’s funny–I was actually in Gray’s very last class as a professor a few months ago at LSE.

    I always thought that the most recent editions of his books were amusing. The first two-thirds would be the work as originally published. The final third was invariably a post-script on why every previous page had been wrong.

  4. Tom,

    I think the “crank” reference is too harsh on John Gray.

    I agree with Jude in the sense that are at least some (ambiguous) lines of consistency (anti-utopianism, some topics of traditional counter-enlightenment thought, etc) in Gray’s latest work.

    In my opinion it’s ultimately very flawed work, but I think many libertarians tend to be extra harsh because he was once “one of us”.

    That said, what Drew mentions is quite insightful if one thinks of his short book on Hayek. The post-script is very entertaining reading in light of the book that preceeds it…

  5. Tom G. Palmer

    AAA has mentioned John’s work on Hayek, which I read many years ago and found wanting, mainly because he never understood the arguments about the socialist calculation debate, garbled it, misinterpreted Mises (whom he didn’t read), etc. But he is generally smart as a critic, finding faults in the works of others. That’s a valuable skill, to be sure, but doesn’t get you that far. (It’s like being a graduate student forever.)

    What’s annoying is not that he was among us (for a time, as he was among many others over the years), but that he condemns with over-the-top dismissals those who don’t hold views he holds (but used to), denying them even any claim to rationality or seriousness.

    I remember his review of a book on the history of fascism, published in the New York Times, which he should never have been asked to write, as he doesn’t know anything about the topic [true of his understanding of history, generally] and doesn’t even read Italian or German, and probably not even French. In it he dismissed any concerns about such creeps as Joerg Haider of Austria, who really is a scary person, and instead insisted that the real threats to Europe are….people who like Herbert Spencer, one of the 19th century’s greatest enemies of war and militarism! It didn’t make a lick of sense and had nothing to do with the book he was reviewing, which he seemed not to have read.

  6. London Libertarian

    An academic friend, now living in DC and a friend of Tom’s, suggested that John Gray’s views change according to whom he is sleeping with. If he finds a new libertarian lover, he will soon repudiate his repudiations!!

  7. Tom,

    Going back to your original comment, Gray doesn’t strike me as a system builder, and so I don’t find it necessary to find an “end destination” in his thought to appreciate some of his critiques of reason, libertarianism, etc. His belief in the Gaia hypothesis, I think, is beside the point: it is merely a theory that hopes to provide a window through which to look at the workings of the natural world. It’s not an ideology, and while I don’t pretend to know much about Lovelock’s work, as a theory it seems absolutely falsifiable: just prove that the world is not a cybernetic feedback loop.

    Again, Gray is most certainly wrong on many things, but I feel like he’s the recipient of many cheap shots. Being called a “crank” is one of them.

  8. Tom G. Palmer


    Here is John’s review of Payne’s history ( Very weird and very uninformed.

    Now, given the bizarre comments about the “he chief danger to liberal democracy now,” is referring to John becoming a “crank” a cheap shot? What would it take to be characterized as “becoming a crank”? What to make of the Gaia hypothesis, strange and deeply ignorant musings about international trade (in “False Dawn,” he demonstrated that he did not understand the meaning of the term “comparative advantage”), systematic misunderstanding of complicated issues issued with absolute certainty, and the string of absurd statements issued ex cathedra (see the review by Romano for a small sample)?

    I’m not saying that John’s a bad person. But a crank? Yep.

  9. Fine, he’s a crank. But I think we’ve moved the goal posts a bit. Your original assertion was that he’s scattershot; I replied that, at least for now, his general direction was anti-utopianism. Believing in the Gaia hypthesis and holding odd views on trade don’t detract from this.

    Again, this is based on his last two books, and nothing’s to say he won’t change his point of view again, but for the past several years, there *has* been some consistency, even if it is bookended by some stupid statements.

  10. I wonder how many American intellectuals would be disqualified from writing reviews in the New York Times by the requirement they had to read Italian, German, and probably French?

  11. Tom G. Palmer

    Well, reviews of histories are usually assigned to people who have some competence in the field. A history of Russia that drew on Russian sources would be assigned, normally, to someone who knows something about Russian history and that would normally mean someone with knowledge of the sources, which means, of the Russian language. Similarly of a history that draws on Italian, French, and German sources.

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