How book reviewing works – my first thoughts on Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human”

Recently my review of Raymond Tallis’ “The Mystery of Being Human” appeared in the TLS.

This review had a somewhat convoluted gestation. Put simply, I didn’t like the book much. That isn’t enough for a book review, or at least not enough for an interesting one.

There are a few dynamics in book reviewing. One is the desire to write an interesting, or witty, or stylish, or interesting and witty and stylish, piece of prose. Another is the attempt to convey to the reader – who, unlike the reviewer, will have to fork out their own cash for the book – whether it is worth spending time and money on. Another is to do justice to the author, or authors. Part of this is contextual. It is unfair to judge a purely, or mainly, academic work on the same grounds of readability that we might apply to an avowed popularisation.

I have been reviewing for the TLS since 2004. For much of that time I submitted copy, reviewed a proof, and awaited publication. Only in more recent years have I realised that the relationship with a commissioning editor is exactly that – a relationship. Communication about the piece is part of that relationship, and makes for a much better review.

My review of Tallis’ book was initially somewhat longer. It consisted, as was pointed out to me by the wonderful Maren Meinhardt, an awful lot of quotation. Perhaps I was unwilling to be direct about how much I didn’t like the book, and wished to damn Tallis with his own words. Perhaps, too, I felt a sense of justice towards him, and was unwilling to simply let rip. The “hatchet job” may be superficially enjoyable but ultimately a little puerile.

Anyhow, here is my original submitted copy. It was entirely right to ask for a revision – as well as far too much quotation, I am very wooly as to what Tallis actually argues. I am a little more generous to his NHS essay than I was in my final review (I am unsure if this is really where Tallis is at his “most persuasive”, in retrospect that would be more justly said of this writings on “neurodeterminism”)

In the preface to this volume of essays, the physician and philosopher Raymond Tallis observes that as “among my publications is 1,000 page trilogy on human consciousness, and a forthcoming treatise Of Time and Lamentation: Reflections on Transience at approximately eight hundred pages betrays I am not a consistent advocate of the short form.” He further reflects that the essay “which bears its provisional nature and incompleteness on its sleeve … is an antidote to the fantasy of gathering up the world in one sustained glance” and is therefore “an appropriate form for the humanism that I have been seeking to express for several decades often at great length.”

Tallis has been an atheist since his teens, but increasingly describes himself as a “secular humanist” because, as “believers point out with a regularity that I am inclined to call monotonous … ‘atheism’ is a negative term.” As well as this tendency towards negating, “much atheist thought is, usually unintentionally, anti-humanist” (though “it would be unfair and distracting to single out individual thinkers”, an odd approach given that in other domains the cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theologian William Lane Craig  are singled out as emblematic antagonists)

Five of the six essays are predominantly philosophical in tone and approach. In these the nature of Tallis’ humanism comes into – somewhat – clearer focus. It is most evident in the essay “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” against “neurodeterminism” and “All Is Number” against the contention that “the world is fundamentally composed of mathematical objects such that the whole, fundamental truth about it is captured in the mathematical models developed in advanced physics.” Here, the richness and mystery of human experience is powerfully conveyed; along with our location in tensed time and ability to envisage possibilities, this renders the claim that human existence can purely be explained away with neuroscience and mathematical physics untenable.


Tallis’ anti-religious passages are somewhat pro forma; when considering Craig’s arguments he writes that “most atheists could rehearse these counter-arguments in their sleep”, and there is a rote quality to his litany of religions’ debit side. For all this, in the closing pages he quotes Diarmuid McCulloch on “the seriousness a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and  concludes “a humanism that is truly mindful of religion and what It has meant may be less prone to the arrogance and ignorance that leads some thinkers to overlook the unfathomable mysteries in which we are immersed, and as a result to fall under the spell of a disenchanted naturalism that overlooks the transcendence in our shared humanity.”

The philosophical pieces illustrate the shortcomings of the essay form which Tallis himself enumerates in the preface. “I hope by this stage that you are persuaded that it is all over for determinism and that we really can be free” reads a not atypical sentence, and there is a rushed feel to much of the writing. Perhaps human consciousness is best addressed in 1,000 page works after all.  It is surprising, given the centrality of Free Will in most Christian theology, to read that “historically, the main assault on the ideas of humans as free agents has come from religion.” Tallis also mourns the “cognitive opportunity-cost of [religious] indoctrination”, this intrusion of an economic concept is surely a manifestation of the contention that “all is number.”


The seeming outlier in this collection addresses a third of the subtitle: the essay “Lord Howe’s Wicked Dream: Notes from an Undeveloping Country.” This is a passionate attack on the destruction of the NHS perpetrated by the 2010-15 Coalition and now the solo Conservative government – an extended version of Tallis’ piece in the TLS of September 7th 2016. An eloquent account of the follies, bad faith and falsehoods underlying the agenda of stealth privatisation perpetrated under Health Secretaries Lansley and Hunt, here Tallis is at his most persuasive – but an opportunity is missed.

He justifies the inclusion of this polemic amongst philosophical essays on the grounds that “being healthy is for most of us a necessary precondition of taking philosophical problems seriously” and, in the Preface, links the assault on the NHS not only to neoliberal economics but also “the increasingly prevalent idea that the universe and the human world boils down to numbers” he targets in the essay “All Is Number.” He makes less of what seems to me a more evident connection to the secular humanist project he undertakes in the other essays.

In “How On Earth Can We Be Free?” he writes, in a passage celebrating “human beings as the originators of an entire extra-natural reality”, of “the human institutions to which we relate for so much of our lives, and the social facts and preoccupations that fill our waking hours.” The NHS is surely emblematic of these institutions, and the values which Tallis espouses; indeed here is an opportunity for a secular humanism that is not about endless negation to assert itself.

Tallis’ passion for freedom, and determination to fully face “the mystery of being human” without illusions or false consolation, is clear. Ironically, by relegating philosophising behind healthcare in human needs (“To adapt Berthold Brecht’s ‘First grub, then ethics’ I would suggest ‘First analgesis, then metaphysics’”) he seems to remove the NHS essay from this philosophical concerns, and ends up subtly downgrading his own humanistic project.


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