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On A.C. Grayling's The Meaning of Things

When I obtained A.C. Grayling's The Meaning of Things, I had hoped that it would discuss what I call attribution-meaning - the meaning that we attribute to things, such as the special meaning that my Grandmother's vase holds for me. This expectation was increased by its subtitle, "Applying Philosophy to Life".

Sadly, it is neither. It does not apply philosophy to life, nor does it discuss the meaning of objects in life. In fact, it does not even discuss meaning at all. The word "meaning" occurs in the title and on the back cover but Of the 61 small chapters, not one is entitled "Meaning". The word "meaning" does not occur in the Introduction, and I have yet to find it inside the book.

Instead, the book is a plethora of short poorly-argued polemics that are unworthy of any philosopher. Poorly argued in that Grayling tries to force his readers into narrow channels in which he can defeat what he sees as his enemies. He displays none of the self-critical thinking that one would expect of good philosophers. For example, in his first chapter he castigates "Moralising". Is this not in effect moralising against moralising? Is that not hypocrisy?

Even more striking, perhaps, is his second chapter, where he applauds "Tolerance", he shows himself intolerance of what he sees as the evil of intolerance. This also shows hypocrisy, but something else too. Though seeming to recognise this paradox, his argument for his position is more an excuse than an argument: his presumed enemy would "silence liberals because liberalism, by its nature, threatens the hegemony they wish to impose." But does not liberalism impose hegemony, which dampens down criticism in a blanket of allowing anything?

Secret recordings in Britain of conversations among German prisoners of war revealed them regretting that they had not spoken out against Nazism more strongly during the early 1930s - but had they done so, I wonder whether Grayling would have accused them of trying to impose their out-dated hegemony of decency? The result of such liberal tolerance was an even greater intolerance and hegemony.

Though castigating intolerance, it is not clear what he means. Should not a good philosopher open up discussion about what "tolerance" actually is or entails? Should he not have discussed its variety of types and the conditions under which it is meaningful or not, good or not?

The book has three sets of chapters, on Virtues and Attributes, on Foes and Fallacies, and on Amenities and Goods. He states in his brief Introduction that he includes a chapter on "religion" among the "Foes and Fallacies", alongside racism, revenge, poverty and depression, on the grounds that "religion has for the greater part been, and still remains, an affliction in human affairs".

So I looked for a chapter on "Religion" in that part and found none. Instead, I found a chapter entitled "Christianity". Why does Grayling equate "religion" with "Christianity"? There are many other religions, and Christianity in no way represents them all. Does not this equating religion with Christianity betray <1b>cultural insensitivity and illiteracy in Grayling? Might it also betray a particular hatred for Christianity, and an almost religious adherence to a Western-Humanist anti-Christianism?

This is supported by the fact that his chapter on Christianity is one of the two longest in his book (along with the one on Faith, which is also a 'Foe'). Long chapters offer space for good argument, yet both are flawed from the point of view of argument and philosophy.

First, Grayling is highly selective in the evidence. In order to show how evil Christianity it, he chooses one passage from the Bible, of a prophet slaying a king, to show how horrible the whole of Christianity is. There are two flaws here. First, one of the first rules of interpretation is to look at the context; this king had cruelly slain many others. Second, he refuses to mention the many other passages in the Bible about justice, love and mercy.

Second, he does not represent Christianity fairly. He chooses to highlight the evils of the corrupted form of Christanity that espoused the Inquisition, as though they characterized the whole of Christianity. Was it not Biblical Christianity that motivated the abolition of the slave trade and the bringing in of the factory acts and the birth of concern for animals? Then he selectively cites a bishop - a bishop who represents not the bulk of Christianity but a privileged, liberal establishment elite who takes glee in undermining faith. Real philosophers would not be so selective, and would admit that the picture is more nuanced than Grayling makes it.

Third, he is blinkered. While castigating Christianity for causing the death of many by wars, he overlooks the six million innocent people murdered by the non-religious Nazi regime and the millions murdered and oppressed by the atheistic communist regimes. Was he deliberately trying to hoodwink his readers?

Fourth, in the chapter on Faith, Grayling tries to argue that 'science' is better than 'faith', even though philosophers like Husserl, Habermas, Foucault and Dooyeweerd have shown that there is an important faith element at the very root of science.

Fifth, some of his arguments are circular. For example, he begins with the premise that the concept of God is an invention of man, selects 'evidence' though the lens that gives him and ends up with the conclusion that "God, accordingly, is the name of our ignorance", which is the premise in different words!

In the margin I find I once wrote "Your philosophical thinking has abandoned you, for tirade and dogma!" And "There are few worse hypocrites than those who claim an open mind while their own minds (and hearts) are closed."

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Created: 23 July 2017. Last updated: