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The Soul of an Establishment Philosopher:
On John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette

1,318 words

John Gray
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom
London: Allen Lane, 2015

Of the current establishment philosophers, John Gray is one of the ones I like the most. My favorite of his books, Straw Dogs, is a classic of contemporary philosophy, demolishing the infantile and delusional fantasies of the myth of progress like a rational adult picking apart a children’s fairy-tale. As a philosopher-in-training, reading Straw Dogs was exhilarating. At once, Gray showed me what a philosopher could be and what he could attack: there were to be no golden sacred cows, nothing to shy and hide away from, and no commandments to bow to. This mercurial philosopher told it as he saw it, and he commanded my respect and admiration for it.

However, since I read Straw Dogs in 2002, the political and geopolitical landscape have significantly shifted, and what I respected and admired in John Gray no longer seems to exist as it turns out that there are, in fact, sacred cows he refuses to slaughter. That is, since the publication of Straw Dogs, England (where Gray resides), has incontrovertibly and fundamentally changed as a result of the 7/7 attacks, huge demographic changes that have wrought ethnic division, Brexit (which was motivated primarily by hatred for immigration and job-related policies), and the continuing migrant crisis. Yet “edgy” John Gray refuses to analyze the underlying current of these political events, as demonstrated by his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette. In this short review, my gripe with John Gray focuses on two issues: his lack of philosophical rigor and his inability to grapple with the biggest issues of his day.

Gray’s inability to deal with such issues is odd, especially considering that he prides himself for being able to see how current trends, phenomena, and idealistic thinking may not correspond to the expected utopian vision of the progressive ideology. He is to be applauded when he sets his sights on artificial intelligence, biogenetics, and the like. Yet, how is it that Gray misses the two biggest interrelated issues of the day: globalization and mass immigration? For a philosopher who is supposed to see sharply and clearly, these omissions demonstrate how spectacularly Gray has missed his target – especially when these are the two main issues that motivated the UK’s breakaway from the EU and Trump’s rise to the Presidency. Evidently, there is only one explanation that accounts for this: there are some sacred cows that you cannot talk about if you’re in the establishment.

Earlier I wrote an article, “False Equivalence,” about the Cologne Christmas Market attack, where a Muslim man drove a truck into a Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring forty-nine. In it, I said that those unsure about the benefits of immigration:

. . . oppose this migrant crisis within Europe, yet even the most deranged Liberal could confidently state that none of these refugee attacks would have happened in Europe without letting them through the front door of Europe. So, to the umbrella of the Left and the Liberal’s that fiercely kvetch about protecting the livelihood and lives of others: hasn’t the time come where it is at least an open question whether mass immigration into European countries is a good thing for Europe, the native population and the society. When refugees reap destruction into your society by claiming large welfare, raising racial tension in society, increasing crime in the cities and towns, committing massive rates of sexual assaults, rapes and harassments, shooting civilians in midday and ramming a truck in a peaceful and beautiful Christmas market, surely it is at least an open question whether they benefit Western civilization.” [Emphasis mine.]

Despite populism being on the rise across Europe and America, with anti-immigration sentiment an obvious motivating force propelling recent political events, John Gray does not question whether mass immigration and multiculturalism in Europe are aspects of progress. What is the need for an establishment philosopher when the masses have already come to the conclusion before you and used that conclusion to make real change in the world?

Secondly, throughout the text, Gray is surprisingly philosophically relaxed. His lack of philosophical rigor comes in many forms, such as in this passage early in the book:

If one of Kleist’s marionettes were somehow to achieve self-awareness, Gnosticism would be its religion. In the most ambitious versions of scientific materialism, human beings are marionettes: puppets on genetic strings, which by an accident of evolution have become self-aware. Unknown to those who most ardently profess it, the boldest secular thinkers are possessed by a version of mystical religion. At present, Gnosticism is the faith of people who believe themselves to be machines.[1]

For those who hold to ambitious versions of scientific materialism – and I would hold myself to that account – the capabilities of human beings are determined by genetic coding and genetic combinations. I would agree with Gray’s brief conception of scientific materialism. However, there is no necessary connection between those who profess “ambitious scientific materialism” and the Gnostic belief that we can transcend our physical and materialistic limitations. We can be charitable to Gray and think that surely, he doesn’t believe that all (or most) ambitious scientific materialists really profess a type of Gnosticism. Yet, if this is the case, why does he not water down his message to the following: there is a tendency amongst scientific materialists to be beholden to a type of Gnosticism where we believe that we can transcend our material and physical limitations? This is obviously less provocative but more philosophically correct. I’m sure that most thinkers who adopt a type of ambitious scientific materialism do not adopt a type of Gnosticism underneath, since there is no necessary connection between the two. Human beings are marionettes that will not be saved.

Another example of Gray’s lack of philosophical rigor:

To be sure, the picture of an inner cabal of strategic thinkers directing the course of government has no resemblance to reality. Wracked by internal conflicts, guided by unreliable impressions of volatile and nebulous public moods, seizing on one faddish notion after another, modern governments often have no clear picture of what they are doing, let alone of its unintended consequences.[2]

It seems that only Gray is unable to comprehend the uninterrupted global picture. Since the middle of the twentieth century, the EU has been pushing mass immigration into European countries without the native populations voting for it, punishing public dissent and controlling opinion via political correctness and propaganda. Moreover, the results of referendums on whether countries should join the EU have been routinely dismissed or ignored if they achieve incorrect outcomes. Famously, in 2008 the Republic of Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty, only to be forced to vote on it a second time in 2009, accompanied by a mass media and propaganda campaign, when it was finally accepted.

What use is a philosopher like Gray when he ignores the major issues that we face today: terrorism, mass immigration, globalization, and the EU? Most First World citizens doubt whether these issues belie progress as the Gnostic Left proclaims it.  Gray does not have to give a definitive answer, but he could at least raise it as an open question: is the promise of the EU and the fact of mass immigration merely the fabled myth of progress?

Would I recommend The Soul of the Marionette? Only if you want to ignore the present political and existential landscape: at one point he tells us that the singularity – which has not yet come about – may not be the utopian ideal that we believe it to be. Edgy, Professor Gray, edgy.



1. John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, Kindle ed. (London: Allen Lane, 2015), locations 123-126.

2. Ibid., locations 1195-1197.

This review originally appeared at Apotheosis Magazine, an ideas Webzine that focuses on Philosophy, Science (Neuroscience, Genetics, Bioethics), Alt-Right Politics, Literature and Film. They can be followed on Twitter at @ApotheosisMag.


  1. Proofreader
    Posted May 24, 2017 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    There’s something about John Gray’s style of thinking and writing that I dislike. He comes across as making overly drastic statements and sweeping generalizations at the expense of rigor and precision, and he seems to like taking heterodox positions largely because they are heterodox. (At the same time, his commentary relating to race, the Jews, and nationalism is annoyingly conventional.) I think it would be fair to say that his thinking is colored by “splenetic grumpiness” (Francis Wheen).

    It’s wrong to say that Gray hasn’t addressed globalization, for it’s the subject of his book False Dawn, and I think he also addresses it in Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern. However, I don’t know what Gray says or doesn’t say about it in his more recent works. (I have skimmed through The Silence of Animals, but I remember little of it now, other than that the publisher resorted to the typographic equivalent of padding: they used large print and generous linespacing to increase the number of pages.)

    • Rocketmensch
      Posted May 25, 2017 at 1:55 am | Permalink

      Proofreader, thanks for the poignant comment.

      I was not going to jump into the comments, but you’ve delivered a genuine criticism which I feel the need to reply to.

      I could have fleshed this out in a longer argument but I wanted to keep the article very short and emphasise the point that Professor Gray is unable to see that multiculturalism and mass immigration are impediments to progress despite mass evidence supporting this position. He does not even have to agree with us, but state that the question is now open due to the overwhelming evidence. But we all know this will never happen.

      In reference to the side point that Gray has missed that globalisation is not a sign of progress, whilst the electorate has. He has also discussed terrorism, populism and the EU in his articles, yet again he does not discuss whether the liberal egalitarian utopia is a facade.

      It is true that Gray has talked about globalisation in articles and False Dawn (as you mentioned). However, Gray sees no problem with cultural globalisation, which is an issue for the burgeoning alt-right and also although he believes that the global free market is unstable (and in a sense predicted the global recession of 2008), he only despises it for its hubris and underlying ideology. Gray has no issues about global markets per se, and would not object to mass immigration, multiculturalism and the like.

  2. Zero
    Posted May 25, 2017 at 3:41 am | Permalink

    There are two distinct aspects of the Gnostic faith that could be referenced . One is frequently held by great scientists, and is the faith that knowledge is possible, and can be attained with the help of intuition. The shyness of humean skepticism does not get results. This also explains why so-called philosophers of science make lousy scientists and ornithologists make lousy birds.

    Self-consistent materialist ought not hold this view. There is nothing in a clock, or a computer chip, that corresponds to truth or falsity in an absolute sense. Objects, whether they be circuits, gears, or neurons, are not actually true or false, they simply are. For every question a program answers true, one can simply flip a bit and invert all the answers. A bit is the only quantitative difference between a positive and negative response. Pure materialism destroys even the possibility of knowledge. At most we are left with the Nietzschean, “there are no facts, only interpretations” .

    Now, the second aspect of Gnosticism, I will refer to as the Gnostic sickness. It frequently appears as a compensation/reaction to the type of materialism described above. Paradoxically, it elevates mind above all else and declares matter irrelevant. “Are we machines? No. We are Gods. Trapped in contingent machines. We shall reshape the world and the self in our own mental image, and then, finally, we shall be free.” . This type of religious faith appeals to people ranging from transhumanist to transgender.

    I myself prefer a type of dual-aspect monism that avoids the traps Descartes set for us. Mind and matter are both aspects a single reality that is not reducible to either. My genes and heritage are as much part of me as is the living spark of immanence that drives them forward into a new and yet-unpredicted path. But to tear them apart by cognition so long as they are together makes as much sense as separating the adjacent faces of a cube. “Knowledge shreds the world, wisdom makes it whole.”

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