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Saving the Appearances: Roger Scruton on Philosophy
Among our contemporaries, few have been more successful at maintaining a vigorous and productive balance between wonder and doubt than the English philosopher Roger Scruton.
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We seem to have reached a point where if the word “real” can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as in the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is and always has been presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body and objects are either in motion or at rest.
The same principles which at first view lead to skepticism, pursued to a certain point bring men back to common sense.
Near the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel warned that “philosophy must beware of the wish to be edifying.” Never mind that the Phenomenology is itself a brilliant specimen of nineteenth-century Teutonic edification, a dense passion play culminating in Spirit’s dizzy ascension to perfect self-comprehension in the sphere of das absolute Wissen. For anyone leafing through the pages of contemporary academic philosophy, Hegel’s scruple about edification seems almost comically misplaced. “Edifying” is about the last word one would apply to professional philosophy these days. “Sterile,” perhaps; “anemic,” possibly; “pedantic,” “supercilious,” “pointless,” “destructive”: these are the sorts of adjectives that contemporary philosophy—with a few notable exceptions—is likely to elicit. The sad truth is that many of the most talented philosophical minds seem irretrievably absorbed in arid linguistic technicalities, ever on the lookout for sharper razors with which to split thinner and thinner conceptual hairs. Many others have succumbed to—indeed, have embraced—one or another version of contemporary nihilism: the options here are many, from the lugubrious nonsense of deconstruction to the chummy fatuousness of Richard Rorty’s radical pragmatism. Aristotle famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. Today, the wonder is that anyone bothers to begin philosophy.
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Hannah Arendt somewhere remarked that in modern philosophy doubt typically appears in the place that wonder once occupied. She was thinking firstly of Descartes, who began his heroic search for certainty by embarking on the most radical program of doubt ever attempted. But her point about doubt replacing wonder was a more general one. Wonder and doubt have always been powerful motors of philosophical speculation; this is partly because both tend to disengage us from our ordinary absorption in the world. Like wonder, doubt is an efficacious solvent of complacency. It insinuates a fertile distance between us and the world: precisely the distance that philosophical reflection requires to get going. But despite this similarity, wonder and doubt point in opposing directions. Wonder tends to affirm what it contemplates; doubt distrusts it. Wonder has something in common with religious awe; doubt is often a prelude to repudiation. Given the skeptical temper of modernity, it is hardly surprising that doubt should overtake wonder as the paradigmatic philosophical attitude.
The trick is to nourish both, the affirmative impulse of wonder and the astringent counter-movement of doubt. Each is necessary to the mature philosophical temperament. Wonder without doubt breeds credulousness; doubt without wonder slips into aridity. It is certainly true that the intellectual puzzles that doubt promulgates—the conundrums of paradox, counter example, and contradiction—have always been an important resource for philosophy. Yet such puzzles fulfill a genuinely philosophical function only when they serve not merely as a stage for the exhibition of cleverness but also as an invitation to intellectual humility: knowing the limits of knowledge being itself a venerable bit of philosophical insight. The point is that if philosophy is to be more than a spur to our progressive disillusionment, it must have a positive dimension. Using the word in the broadest sense, we might speak here of philosophy’s ethical dimension: its ability to address our deepest existential questions. Plato touches on this aspect of philosophy in The Republic when he has Socrates remind Glaucon that their discussion concerns “no ordinary matter, but the right conduct of life.” Modern academic philosophy has by and large lost sight of this, which is one reason that its results so often seem pedantically irrelevant or even malevolently absurd.
Among our contemporaries, few have been more successful at maintaining a vigorous and productive balance between wonder and doubt than the English philosopher Roger Scruton. Professor Scruton is not particularly well-known in this country. He should be. He is a man of prodigious accomplishment in an irritatingly large number of endeavors. Born in 1944, Professor Scruton was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. For twenty years, he taught philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is now professor of philosophy at Boston University. That is one career. In addition, Professor Scruton is a barrister, the founder and editor of the conservative quarterly The Salisbury Review, and a frequent newspaper columnist and public polemicist. He is the author of many books, including monographs on Kant and Spinoza, The Meaning of Conservatism, Art and Imagination, The Aesthetics of Architecture, and Sexual Desire. He has published three volumes of philosophical essays, a collection of his columns from the London Times, four works of fiction, and miscellaneous political pamphlets and books. Nor is he solely a man of contemplation. In the late 1980s, he worked courageously and effectively to aid the movements to end Communist tyranny in Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Professor Scruton is a talented amateur musician and composer. His latest work, an opera for which he wrote both the music and the libretto, is about to open in London. The fact that Professor Scruton has recently become an avid rider to hounds adds a refreshing appoggiatura to this formidable list of intellectual and cultural achievements.
Professor Scruton’s latest book—as yet published only in England—is Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. The book is based on lectures Professor Scruton delivered at Birkbeck College and Boston University. His announced purpose is “to acquaint the reader with the principal arguments, concepts and questions of modern philosophy, as this subject is taught in English-speaking universities.” Modern Philosophy certainly does this. Taken all in all, it is the best and most sophisticated introduction to the subject that I know.
The first thing that strikes one about the book is the breadth of Professor Scruton’s mastery of the discipline. Most academic philosophers inhabit a relatively small corner of their field. They are specialists: in Kant or Heidegger, perhaps, or contemporary language philosophy or theories of perception; naturally they know something about the history of philosophy and are up on some current debates, but, usually, their real expertise lies in one or two narrow sub-fields.
Professor Scruton seems equally at home everywhere, discussing with robust authority Plato’s theory of forms and the intricacies of the physicist J. S. Bell’s response to the Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen objection to quantum theory. He is as conversant with the tradition leading from Brentano and Husserl through Heidegger and Sartre as he is with the work of Frege, Russell, Ayer, Wittgenstein, Tarski, and Quine. His book includes penetrating chapters on “The Soul,” “God,” and “The Devil” (an especially good one) as well as a section devoted to “The Music of the Spheres.” When he comes to write a chapter on “Necessity and the a priori,” Professor Scruton starts with Hume and Kant, but quickly moves on to discuss the refinements made by contemporaries like Grice, Kripke, Strawson, and Plantinga. He knows enough physics to explain contemporary philosophical theories of space and time, enough mathematics to guide the reader through the philosophical implications of Russell’s paradox, set theory, and Gödel’s theorem. (I particularly recommend his discussion of Russell’s paradox: it is the clearest summary I have seen.)
Some of these subjects are forbiddingly technical. Professor Scruton covers them~dash\ and a great deal else besides—because he wishes to provide serious students of philosophy with a comprehensive introduction to the subject that brings them from the history of philosophy to the “frontiers” of contemporary debate. The frontiers of any subject are controverted and difficult. It is one of the great virtues of this book that it is always as clear and straightforward as its subject allows—but never more so. Professor Scruton does not talk down to his readers, simplifying issues that are inherently complex. At the same time, he never loses sight—and he never lets us lose sight—of the philosophical implications of the subjects he discusses. The concept of induction, for example, is a powerfully complicated thing, full of thorny logical anomalies. But at bottom it concerns a problem everyone must confront one way or another: how is it that we can make true predictions about the real world? Professor Scruton is able to show how even the most rarefied logical or semantic problem has “real life” implications. The difficulty is in unraveling those impli- cations: “the truths that are most evident,” he notes, “are also the hardest to explain.”
While on the subject of difficulty, it should also be noted that Professor Scruton never indulges in technicalities for their own sake. Indeed, the excessively technical nature of much modern philosophy is itself one of his targets. “The technocratic style of modern philosophy,” he writes,
is in danger of killing all interest in the subject, and of severing its connection to humane education. Only if philosophers can rediscover the simplicity and directness of a Frege, a Russell or a Wittgenstein, so as to express the problems of the head in the language of the heart, will they really know what they are doing in the realm of abstract ideas.
Philosophy is by nature an abstract enterprise; but it remains truly philosophical only so long as it subordinates abstraction to the ultimate issues that are its real subject. Professor Scruton illustrates this with an extended architectural metaphor. “Much of analytical philosophy,” he writes,
has consisted in exercises of ontological slum clearance; demolishing the crowded tenements where gods and spirits breed. The result can be depressing, especially when the cheerful old streets with their abundance of life and mystery are replaced by regimented barracks, of Corbusian design, such as you find in Quine. We have the sense that those old gods and spirits, however dubious their ontological credentials, had something to say to us that we need to hear: something that cannot be conveyed in the clipped bureaucratic language of the new town-planners. Perhaps this is because there is more to the question of being—or at least other questions of being—than analytical philosophers have been prepared to countenance.
As this passage suggests, if Modern Philosophy is occasionally quite technical, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily lively book. This is partly because of Professor Scruton’s native insouciance. It is acknowledged that A. J. Ayer’s philistine classic, Language, Truth and Logic, should be read “if possible,” but only “provided it is read quickly and inattentively.” The many deceivers, frauds, charlatans, and mountebanks that populate the terrain of contemporary academic philosophy receive even harsher treatment:
A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is “merely relative,” is asking you not to believe him. So don’t. Deconstruction deconstructs itself, and disappears up its own behind, leaving only a disembodied smile and a faint smell of sulphur.
Anyone who has caught a whiff of Foucault, Derrida, or their many epigones will instantly recognize the aroma.
Such rhetorical sallies make Modern Philosophy a pleasure as well as a challenge to read. But in a deeper sense, Professor Scruton’s new book is lively because it invites the reader to join in a vital intellectual adventure, the discovery of truth. For philosophy, he notes, “truth is all-important, and determines the structure of the discipline… . Even those who believe that philosophical questions have no answers, assert this to be true; and the ‘discovery’ that they have no answers is made only by the attempt to find a true one.”
Most books with titles like “Modern Philosophy” are about philosophy. What distinguishes Professor Scruton’s book is that it is also a contribution to philosophy. He does not merely summarize other people’s arguments. He engages them from within, amplifying, correcting, adding something original to the debate. In this sense, Modern Philosophy is a kind of summa of Professor Scruton’s own philosophical journey. It presents, as he frequently notes, a sometimes “contentious” view of the subject. Nevertheless, it manages to be unusually evenhanded, largely through the device of underscoring its parti pris. In the hundred-page “Study Guide” at the back of the book, Professor Scruton provides an annotated bibliography for each chapter and introduces readers to alternative arguments and positions different from those set forth in the main text. Typical is his acknowledgment that “everything that I have said in this first chapter, just like most other things in philosophy, is disputed by someone, and often on very good grounds. And if it seems at times as though I am ignoring real complexities, do not be deceived: I am.” The Study Guide also teases readers with review questions and puzzles. For example, in a chapter devoted to skepticism, he discusses Descartes’s classic description of an “evil demon” who might deceive us about the nature of reality. In the corresponding section of the Study Guide he asks: “Do you have an answer to the demon? If not, what do you propose to do about it?”
Professor Scruton’s own position is heavily indebted to the later Wittgenstein and to Kant. Central to what he takes from Wittgenstein is the admonition that “you cannot use language to get between language and the world.” That is to say (in Professor Scruton’s gloss), “We cannot, in language, step outside language so as to confront an unconceptualized reality.” Our concepts of the world are always just that—concepts of the world: it never happens that they transport us toward a reality and then vanish, leaving us face-to-face with a pure, unconceptualized datum. (An unintelligible thought.)
From Kant, Professor Scruton basically takes two things. The first has to do with epistemology and begins with a similarly chastening recognition of limits. But it proceeds to an appreciation of the achievements of knowledge. Both are necessary if we are to do justice to the nature of human understanding. “We can know the world only from the point of view that is ours,” Professor Scruton writes, summarizing Kant’s argument in the Critique of Pure Reason.
We cannot step outside our concepts so as to know the world “as it is in itself,” from no point of view. Nevertheless, our concepts are shaped by the belief that judgements are representations of reality: our concepts are concepts of objectivity, and apply to the realm of “objects.” Without that underlying belief we could not begin to think.
The second thing that Professor Scruton takes from Kant has to do with what we might call the moral resources of aesthetic judgment. He has great admiration for Kant’s moral philosophy. (At one point he describes it as “one of the most beautiful cre- ations that the human mind has ever devised.”) But what seems to have had the largest influence on his own thinking is not the famous idea of the categorical imperative (“Act in such a way that your principle of action can become a universal law”) but the way in which Kant’s idea of disinterested aesthetic appreciation prefigures or gestures toward an experience of unity and completeness. “Disinterested contemplation of the world,” Professor Scruton notes, “means contemplation of the world in relation to the self, and contemplation of the self as part of the world… . Such a view would explain why aesthetic experience is so gripping: we are seeking for a home in the world: not the home of the body and its appetites, but the home of the self.”
Conceived of in this way, aesthetic experience is an important ally against the depredations of reductionism: the kind of ideological thinking that permeates Marxism, Freudianism, and other “isms” that attempt to recast the richness of human experience in the crude, alien terms of elementary “laws,” “drives,” or power relations. The verbal give-away that we are on dangerous ground are such phrases as “nothing but …” Love is “nothing but” a rationalization for the sex instinct; the legal system is “nothing but” a rationalization for the maintenance of bourgeois power relations; education is “nothing but” a means for promulgating the ideology of the ruling class, etc., etc. “Reductionism of this kind,” Professor Scruton points out,
does not merely involve a host of philosophical confusions. It is essentially anti-philosophical, based in the desire to simplify the world in favour of some foregone conclusion, whose appeal lies in its ability to disenchant and so demean us. The reductionist “opens our eyes” on to the truth of our condition. But of course, it is not the truth at all, and is believed to be true only because it is shocking. There is, here, a contempt for truth and for human experience that a philosopher should do his best to overcome.
What Professor Scruton is arguing against is the cherished modern dogma that the extent of our disillusionment is a reliable index of our wisdom: the idea that somehow the less we believe the more enlightened we are.
There is, however, an curious irony here. For there is an important sense in which philosophy must contribute to the reduction of human experience. At least, it must begin by contributing to it, and this for the same reason that philosophy cannot proceed without a large element of doubt. There is something essentially corrosive about the probing glance of philosophy: something essentially dis-illusioning. If our goal is a human understanding of the world, then the activity of philosophy must itself be part of what philosophy investigates and criticizes.
This brings us to the center of Professor Scruton’s purpose. Philosophy begins by interrogating our everyday understanding of the world. Yet all of its fancy conceptual footwork is for naught if it does not in the end lead us to affirm a fully human world. (One crucial chapter of Modern Philosophy is called “The Human World.”) This is the reason that Professor Scruton gives such a prominent place to aesthetic experience: its vision of completeness provides an alternative to the abstractions of philosophy and science.
It is a delicate matter. In one sense, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. As Professor Scruton put it elsewhere, “The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.” Science offers us an explanation of the world; it may start out as an attempt to explain appearances, “but it rapidly begins to replace them.” Philosophy seen as the search for meaning must in the end endorse the world of appearance.
If we had full access to that god-like, “perspectiveless” vision referred to above, then there would be no problem. The ghostly truths that science furnishes us would not only allow us to control reality but would also provide us with a world we could inhabit. The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. “This worry is not just philosophical,” Professor Scruton notes;
it is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not endorse: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging… . The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations… . The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description.
It is “naked truth”: in Eliot’s words: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”
This is the deep existential concern that stands behind Professor Scruton’s explorations of the technical aspects of philosophy.
The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away—a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology~dash\deprives us of our consolation.
Consolation? Indeed, more: it threatens to deprive us of our humanity. In Plato’s phrase, philosophy turns out in the end to be an effort to “save the appearances.”
We all of us inhabit a world irretrievably shaped by science; we know that the sun does not really move from east to west, just as we know that the stars are not really hung like lamps from the sky. And yet … Professor Scruton’s point is that such truths are accompanied by other, conflicting truths. “The human world,” he suggests in a note, “may be through and through the product of unscientific ways of thinking, and yet at the same time a true representation of an objective reality.” As the epigraph from Auden suggests, we recognize the legitimacy of that reality—our reality—every time we wake and find that the sun, once again, has risen.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 June 1994, on page 10
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