Nonino Prize 2017 ‘Master of our time’

John Gray



The philosopher John Gray has held distinguished professorships at Oxford University and the London School of Economics. Over the past decade, however, he has also become one of the leading voices in contemporary thought. In a series of remarkable, widely read, and controversial books – which include The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths; Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals; and False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism – Gray has questioned long held assumptions in social thought and political history. In the process, he has also accurately predicted recent social and political events such as the 2007 economic crisis and the current rise of populist governments.


John Nicholas Gray is an English political philosopher with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. Born on April 17th, 1948 into a working-class family, in South Shields, in County Durham, he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Exeter College, Oxford, completing his B.A., and PhD in Philosophy.
He formerly held posts as lecturer in political theory at the University of Essex, fellow and tutor in politics at Jesus College, Oxford, and lecturer and then professor of politics at the University of Oxford, visiting professor at Harvard University and Stranahan Fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University. He also held visiting professorships at Tulane University’s Murphy Institute and Yale University. He was Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science until his retirement from academic life in early 2008, the chair in LSE was created for him.
Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer. In 2011 he presented a series of talks for BBC Radio 4. Across six talks for A Point of View he reflected on a range of topical issues. He presented a second sequence in 2014.

Political and philosophical thought
He is known for a thoroughgoing rejection of Rawlsianism and for exploration of the uneasy relationship between value pluralism and liberalism in the work of Isaiah Berlin.
Gray’s political thought is famous for its mobility across the political spectrum over the years. In the 1990s he became an advocate for environmentalism and New Labour. Gray considers the conventional (left-wing/right-wing) political spectrum of conservatism and social democracy as no longer viable. He has criticized neoliberalism, the global free market and some of the central currents in Western thinking, such as humanism, while moving towards aspects of green thought, drawing on the Gaia theory of James Lovelock.
It is perhaps for this critique of humanism that Gray is best known. Central to the doctrine of humanism, in Gray’s view, is the inherently utopian belief in meliorism; that is, that humans are not limited by their biological natures and that advances in ethics and politics are cumulative. In opposition to this view, he asserts that history is not progressive, but cyclical. “Agonistic liberalism” appears in Gray’s 1995 book Isaiah Berlin. Gray uses this phrase to describe his alternative to Berlin’s theory of value pluralism and liberalism: whereas Berlin claims equal validity for conflicting liberal views, Gray’s agonistic liberalism holds that over time solutions may be found that determine which values are correct. Agonistic liberalism is the theory that conflict rather than discussion is the basis of social change.

Berlin, Fontana Modern Masters, 1995;
Liberalism – Second Edition, University of Minnesota Press, 1995;
False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, London: Granta Books, 1998;
Voltaire, London: Routledge, 1998;
Two Faces of Liberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000;
Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, London: Granta Books, 2002;
Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern, New York: The New Press, 2003;
Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, London: Granta Books, 2004;
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007;
Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, Allen Lane, 2009;
The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013;
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.