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Main Currents in Roger Scruton's Philosophy

    2024-01-23
    Time to read: 12 min
    This book* has as its primary focus tradition and change in the work of Roger Scruton. Scruton believed that tradition was a living thing that changed, not in response to clamours for novelty, but on the basis of previously unforeseen problems. That is why he took the common law as the finest example of a living tradition, one which is modified only in response to new challenges or crises, and never without reference to the past. As such, he subscribed to the idea of an unwritten constitution which is not set in stone and may thus be altered in light of our present needs, but not ever to the detriment of those absent generations to which it stands as a testimony. 

    Those who are impatient with such small-scale reform tend to be radicals who wish to disregard the law and bypass institutions in order to foment revolution or anarchy. For Scruton, the radical ‘finds reason to change whatever he cannot find better reason to retain’ (The Meaning of Conservatism 3). To such people, institutions ‘like parliament and the common law courts; spiritual callings associated with churches, chapels, synagogues and mosques; schools and professional bodies, private charities, clubs and societies; Scouts, Guides and village tournaments; football teams, brass bands and orchestras’, are all ripe for repudiation. That is simply because such ‘little platoons’, as Edmund Burke called them, stand in the way of the ‘irreversible change’ envisaged by the revolutionary. The conservative does not, therefore, deny the need for change, modification, and improvement, but rather opposes change for its own sake which is the hallmark of all radicals who descend from the French Revolution. 

    Understanding this is key to grasping why the cause of Eastern Europe was so important to Scruton. ‘We should not be surprised’, he writes, ‘that, when the communists seized power in Eastern Europe, their first task was to decapitate the little platoons’ (Thinkers of the New Left 12). The response to that attack on civil society by its enemies took many decades, but when it eventually came it was from Poland. Poland was the first country that Scruton visited which was veiled by the so-called ‘iron curtain’. He gives a somewhat comical account of that visit in our book Conversations with Roger Scruton (Dooley and Scruton 2016), but he also wrote about Poland in an updated preface to his 1980 classic The Meaning of Conservatism. In that context he writes: ‘There occurred in Poland the first genuine working-class revolution in history. It was a revolution against socialism, against the planned economy, against atheism, propaganda and party government; a revolution in favour of patriotism, of a redeemed tradition and a rediscovered history, in favour of private property, autonomous institutions, religious principle, judicial independence and a rule of law’ (viii). In other words, Poland lit the spark that would, in time, put to the flame the Soviet empire of deceit and destruction.

    When Scruton writes in praise of Poland, he is doing so from a philosophical and not merely a political perspective. That is because Scruton’s politics emerge from his deeply held philosophical convictions about the human person and the repeated attempts by science and pseudo-science to undermine it. Communism is one such form of pseudo-science, but so too is hard-nosed naturalism, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, or, indeed, any of those academic disciplines that push an ideological agenda while masquerading as a ‘science’. To a lesser or greater extent, these tear aside all those ‘features of the world which constitute its personal face – rights and duties, laws and values, institutions of membership and religion.’ This leads, in turn, to a ‘peculiar society, devoid of counsel, in which decisions have the impersonality of a machine’. That is what happened in Poland during its dark years under Soviet oppression. But when the counter-revolution began, it sought to reconstitute the face of the world by breathing life into all those little platoons which had been suffocated ‘for the sake of the “liberation” of mankind’ (Modern Philosophy 475).

    Scruton’s anti-communist stance, his aesthetic theory, his belief in the sacred and the transcendental, his defence of nationhood and home, his writings on sex, music, wine, architecture, hunting, the environment, culture and animal rights, are all attempts to reenchant the Lebenswelt, or the lived human world. That is why he considers philosophy, not as the ‘handmaiden of the sciences’, but as the ‘seamstress of the Lebenswelt’. As such, the primary task of philosophy is not to undermine appearance for the sake of reality, but rather to ‘repair the rents made by science in the veil of Maya, through which the wind of nihilism now blows coldly over us.’ (The Philosopher on Dover Beach 112)

    Scruton’s use of the Lebenswelt to describe the lived human world was inspired by German phenomenology and hermeneutics. However, the use he makes of it was more directly influenced by German idealism, most especially by Kant and Hegel. If the goal of the scientist or the pseudo-scientist is to peel away the personality of the world - such as the Polish people experienced when the communists sought to destroy their culture and traditional customs – the goal of the philosopher should never be to lend intellectual assistance to such an endeavour. Rather, it should be to oppose it by demonstrating that, to cite Scruton, we cannot ‘replace our most basic everyday concepts with anything more useful than themselves’, for they ‘evolved under the pressure of human circumstance and in answer to the needs of generations’ (108). The pseudo-scientist will denounce those everyday customs as arbitrary, without rational foundation and entirely primitive. Tear them away, however, and you leave a people without consolation, direction, meaning, value, and hope. You strip them of their identity because, in destroying the Lebenswelt, you destroy their sense of home and belonging. 

    All this explains why, for Scruton, philosophy, ‘to the extent that it takes the study of the Lebenswelt as it primary concern, must return aesthetics to the place that Kant and Hegel made for it: a place at the centre of the subject, the paradigm of philosophy, and the true test of all its claims’ (112). That is a big claim, but one that Scruton spent his life defending. And I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that his aesthetic theory, as the paradigm of philosophy, was his principal weapon when, as he once put it to me, he was ‘making trouble for communists’. 

    Scruton begins his defence of philosophy as the ‘seamstress of the Lebenswelt’ by drawing the familiar Kantian distinction between the subject or the person, and the object. Kant sought to reconcile the world of Newtonian physics with the realm of reason and faith, and he did so by arguing that, like all creatures, we are objects in nature determined, no less than the animals, by its laws. However, we are also subjects that can exercise freedom in defiance of our natural impulses. The subject that says ‘I’ demonstrates that he or she is a unique individual, the bearer of rights, responsibilities, duties, and claims. The ‘I’ is the defining feature of the human being. As a locus of liberty, it permits us to stand back from our immediate condition so as to exercise self-control, self-sacrifice and love. Animals do not have the capacity for such self-reflection; they are conscious and have desires, but they are not self-conscious. Unlike persons or subjects, they have no conception of the first-person or the ‘I’, and are, thus, not free in the sense of being able to exercise personal autonomy. When they sacrifice for their young, they do so in response to impulse and not in the manner of Christ going voluntarily to the Cross as a sacrifice for salvation. 

    Such arguments form the basis of Scruton’s theory of ‘animal rights and wrongs.’ However, they also constitute his argument for what he would latterly call ‘cognitive dualism’. To say that the human being is both a subject and an object, is not to suggest that it is comprised of two things. The ‘I’ or the subject is not a separate entity that is somehow trapped inside a body. The effects of our freedom and self-conscious awareness are everywhere apparent, and yet where is the subject that exercises that freedom? Subjectivity, the soul, the ‘I’ are nowhere to be found inside the object. Put simply, we are not two things but one that can be described or understood in two distinct ways. 

    The example used most often by Scruton to explain this theory of cognitive dualism is that of a painting. From the perspective of science, the painting is nothing but the materials of which it is comprised. That is certainly true, in as much as the figure depicted in the painting cannot be separated from the materials which constitute it. There are not two things here but one. And yet the scientific understanding of the painting is not the only one, and certainly not the most important. There is also intentional understanding, which is captivated, not by the canvas or the pigments, but by the subject of the painting: the painted saint. Intentional understanding looks for the meaning in the painting and is open to being transformed by it. It does not deny that the painting is only one thing, that the saint cannot be detached from the stuff of which it is composed. It insists, nevertheless, that there are two ways of understanding this same thing, one of which transcends the material composition in the direction of the transcendental. 

    Similarly, we can explain a human smile from the scientific perspective as a contortion of the facial muscles, or we can see it as a revelation of the person, the subject, or, as William Blake described it, ‘the human form divine’. Darwinians, communists, and modernists deny the existence of the subject, and their description of the human being as one object amongst others is not essentially wrong. It is, however, to deny the most important thing about the human being. To paraphrase Scruton, when you look upon human beings as objects, you see that Darwin was right. But when you look at them as subjects, you see that the most significant thing about them has no place in Darwin’s theory. 

    The subject is not separate from the object but is somehow mingled with it, just as the painted saint is not separate from the painting but is that which gives it meaning and value. Moreover, we do not need to go digging to find the subject or the saint: they are there on the surface, as it were, revealed in the smile and on the canvas. Hence the importance that Scruton gives to the appearances, for, as he states, we live and act on the surface of the world whereas science operates at the level of ‘underlying reality’. If ‘estrangement from the world is the poisoned gift of science’ - or, more precisely, pseudo-science - homecoming and belonging are the gifts of philosophy when it answers its true vocation as the seamstress of the Lebenswelt. That means emphasising appearances, for it is there that we ‘encounter the sense of the world’ in the ‘moment of beauty’. Put simply, in trying to abstract ‘from what is given in human experience, to purge the human subject…from the archive of knowledge,’ we enter into what Scruton called ‘a kind of Stalinist history of the world, in which all persons are nonpersons.’  If, therefore, philosophy has a critical task, it is ‘to strike down the pretensions of science to give us the whole truth of what we are.’(107-108)

    The radical and revolutionary mindset seeks to de-personalize or deface the world. Scruton writes, however, that the works of Orwell, Huxley and Koestler ‘warn us what the world must inevitably become when humanity is surrendered to science. To see human beings as objects is not to see them as they are, but to change what they are, by erasing the appearance through which they relate to one another as persons. It is to create a new kind of creature, a depersonalized human being, in which subject and object drift apart, the first into a world of helpless dreams, the second to destruction.’ (Philosophy: Principles and Problems 109) If the purpose of science, pseudo-science and revolutionary ideology is to ‘sweep away appearances in favour of the underlying reality’, we are then condemned to a world barely recognisable to those of who must dwell there. If, as Scruton states, ‘the fundamental facts about John are, for me, his biological constitution, his scientific essence, his neurological organisation, then I shall find it difficult to respond to him with affection, anger, love, contempt or grief. So described, he becomes mysterious to me, since those classifications do not capture the “intentional object” of my interpersonal attitudes: the person as he is conceived.’(107) Likewise, when the subjectivity of the surrounding world is erased or defaced, we are condemned to live as aliens in a place where we can never feel at home. 

    That is why the experience of communism is that of alienation and despair. When the Lebenswelt is torn away, we ‘see the world under one aspect alone, as a world of objects.’ We are told the subject is a fiction and that ‘beyond death there is nothing’. We all know, however, that when we gaze at a painting, a landscape, or the community in which we at home, we cannot help but encounter the subjectivity of the world. That is, we encounter the very same type of thing we experience when beholding another person. It is as though the world smiles back at us from a place beyond time. Kant called this experience of the subject ‘the transcendental’, a term which Scruton also uses synonymously with ‘the sacred’. The sense of the sacred derives, he says, ‘from the fact that the meaning which we find in the human person can be found also in objects – in places, times and artefacts, in a shrine, a gathering, a place of pilgrimage or prayer’. It is our ‘homecoming’ in a world of objects, an ‘overcoming of the metaphysical isolation which is the lot of rational beings everywhere.’ (107)

    As construed by Scruton, philosophy saves the sacred from those who would deny it by revealing the smiling face of the Lebenswelt and the transcendental dimension of the human person. This explains why one of his abiding preoccupations was that of sexual desire. Indeed, his book on that subject, first published in 1986, sought to show how, despite ‘the scientistic image of sexual desire’ proffered by Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, we humans are not reduced to objects when consumed by desire for another. We desire the other as an ‘embodied subject’ and not as a ‘mere body … driven from its incarnation’. It is the subject mingled with their flesh that we long to grasp, the other ‘I’ which illumines the body with the light of self. Of course, we can always drag the human person down into the world of objects, something we do so through obscenity and pornography, both of which ignore the face in favour of the flesh. However, that does nothing to undermine the experience of falling in love, an experience that is not centrally preoccupied with the body but with the irreplaceable person revealed through the flesh and most especially through the face. It is there, in that face-to-face confrontation, in which the subject is revealed through the contours of her flesh, that the sacred dimension of the sexual experience shines forth.

    Sexology reduces us to objects in pursuit of mere physical gratification. Philosophy - at least Scruton’s type of philosophy - tells us that sexual desire is a response ‘to another individual, based in revelation and discovery’. Hence, sexology is a product of the ‘desacralized view of the world’, whereas philosophy reenchants the world with meanings and conceptions ‘like beauty, goodness and spirit which grow in the thin topsoil of human discourse’, and without which we lose sight of personality. This accounts for why Scruton argues that the ‘moral of sexology is the same as that of Marxism’, for ‘once the veil of meaning has been torn away, everything is permitted. When all I see of the other is “the skull beneath the skin”, or the flesh at the expense of the face, there is no absolute interdiction – no “thou shalt not” – which speaks to me from his features.’ (Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey 470) Both are scientistic ways of thinking which deprive us of any prospect of happiness or true fulfilment.

    Belonging to the human world, to the Lebenswelt, provides us with what Scruton nicely calls ‘intimations of the transcendental’. We catch a glimpse of the subject through the smile – the subject which mysteriously vanishes at the point of death. We catch sight of the subject in a painting, or a landscape, in a sonata, a glass of wine, or, indeed, in a building that we love.  It is as though all these things shine with a personality of their own and smile back at us with a human face. ‘In the sentiment of beauty,’ Scruton says, we feel the purposiveness and intelligibility of everything that surrounds us.’ (The Philosopher on Dover Beach  104) Human beauty, he tells us, ‘places the transcendental subject before our eyes and within our grasp.’ (Beauty 53) We will not discover the subject in the anatomical substructure, but only in what I see on the surface - in the appearance or facade which comes to us wrapped in a halo of beauty. In this I am confronted with a sacred thing, in as much as it not a means to an end but an end-in-itself.

    Beauty contains within itself a prohibition against desecration, against a form of casual consumption which would fulfil the desires and impulses of the moment. It stands in defiance of appetites that would reduce the world to a merely functional entity, or the other person to a faceless commodity which can be used or abused at will. That explains why our houses become our homes through decoration and aesthetics, why they assume character and personality when we beautify their appearance. Put simply, it is through beauty and aesthetics, civilisation and culture, that we ‘repair the rents made by science in the veil of Maya’. 

    If, in other words, we are to survive the scientistic image of man proposed by sexology, Marxism, naturalism and all the rest, we ‘cannot forswear “the priority of appearance”.’ Art, Scruton states, ‘brings us to the very same point that we are brought to by religion – to anexperience saturated by meaning, whose value overwhelms us with the force of law.  In the aesthetic experience we perceive the fittingness of the world, and of our place within it.’ (The Philosopher on Dover Beach 110) This explains why, through art and culture, we catch sight most readily of the sacred. For, as we have said, the ‘experience of the sacred is the sudden encounter with freedom; it is the recognition of personality and purposefulness in that which contains no human will. In this way, our experience may be understood as a revelation of the divine.’ And, he adds, it is our ‘hunger for that revelation which causes us, in an age without faith, to invest so many hopes in aesthetic values.’(Modern Philosophy 456)

    This experience of the divine, of the sacred, and the transcendental, of subjectivity and personality at the heart of objects, can also be found, argues Scruton, in ‘counsel, association and institution building’. Building and institutions command loyalty and love because they embody the soul of who we are as a people, and bear witness to the sacrifices of absent generations on our behalf. They possess ‘corporate personality’ in so far as they, too, have rights and responsibilities, duties, and claims. Like persons or subjects, they too can call to account and be held to account. Hence, the way they are built matters because only through the appearances can we see ‘personality and freedom shine forth from what is contingent, dependent and commonplace’. As such, a building which is devoid of true aesthetic sense will be one without personality, rendering it incapable of love by those to whom it belongs. 

    Think of those buildings in Brussels which serve as the headquarters of the European Union, and that of the Capitol Building in Washington. The assault on the Capitol in January 2021, was considered an attack on America itself. That was because the Capitol, in its beauty and majesty, speaks to America of its democratic ideals and its sacred values. It speaks to them of who they are, of the ‘we’ of membership that holds the country together. With its noble façade - or face - that smiles upon the nation, it is the voice of history enshrined in stone. Hence, when it is attacked, it is akin to an assault on a loved one. That the people of Europe would not feel similar repulsion to an attack on the faceless offices of the European Union is because it is a structure that speaks to us of nothing and nowhere. It is one that commands no loyalty or love by those who must live in its formless shadow. It is the symbolic representation of homelessness.

    Architecture reveals the personality of the world, which is why ‘institutions are inherently suspect’ for the radical. As such, monuments, statues, and civic buildings are ripe for repudiation and attack because they are perceived as the ‘sources of social power’. In giving the world a human face, they stand as a testimony to everything the revolutionary denies and rejects. And that is why, says Scruton, the ‘assault on institutions has been part of the revolutionary programme since 1789.’ Wherever they came to power, he continues, ‘the Communist and Nazi Parties expropriated, infiltrated or abolished institutions, so as to destroy every trace of corporate personality, just as they had declared war on the personality of individuals.’ When, however, the ‘Polish trade union Solidarity, drawing on Hegel, called for a restitution of the distinction between civil society and the state, this is what it meant: a return to a society of free institutions, each with its own personality, and each able to confer the benefit of membership (472)”

    What happened in Poland, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, was that the people realised – as all people realise – that, however hard you try to erase the face of the world, or the other person, or that of God, you simply cannot expunge it entirely. Scruton writes that the ‘sacred text, the sublime harmony, the forms of art, poetry and liturgy: these come back to us, whispering over again the same troubling message. The old order is sacred, they tell us, and its meaning secure.’ (477) We may have been depersonalised and ‘set down unprotected in the sterile void of science,’ but ‘those ancestral voices still murmur in the void, and prevent us from being content with our liberation.’ 

    In defending their culture, the peoples of Eastern Europe defended their home, their Lebenswelt, from a disenchanted and alienated vision of the world that was forced upon them. This was a world where everything was ugly, faceless and lifeless – a world of sterile objects without any access to the subject. Its music, such as it was, was dissonant and discordant – more like meaningless noise than heavenly harmony. Its soulless buildings sought to emancipate the ‘new socialist man’ but served only to offend and alienate those who were forced to labour in them. 

    All the while, however, those intimations of transcendence, which are the proof of intentional understanding, continued to ignite imagination and hope. The scientistic view of humanity leaves little room for subjective freedom, and yet ‘our own self-awareness, without which no description of the world makes sense to us, forces upon us the idea that we are free’. It insists that we are not only objects but also subjects, and that our world, no matter how degraded by the forces of desecration, is also one replete with personality and freedom. And so, it was to philosophy, as seamstress of the Lebenswelt, and to art and religion that the resistance turned in their darkest hours. Through art - which Scruton identified as a ‘kind of prayer’ - those subjugated peoples called the ‘timeless and the transcendental to the scene’ of their all too human tragedy.

    That is why, as Scruton provocatively put it, the Devil consistently wages war against art and culture. He does so because the culture of a nation - expressed in its literature, music, artworks, political institutions, and religious rites - is the fabric of our common home. Through them, we connect, not only with the living, but with the dead and the unborn. They root us to place, time, history, and to that homeland of the soul that we all crave as a remedy to our existential isolation. They speak of somewhere rather than nowhere, of settlement and belonging rather than estrangement and alienation. They reflect how ‘we’ see the world, something which is obvious to anyone who observes the character or personality of any nation in old Europe. 

    Through our music, painting, poetry, and literature, we experience intimations of the transcendental, the subjectivity of the dead, and the moral order that has shaped our values.  In music, for example, we can, says Scruton, ‘obtain a glimpse of what it might be, for one and the same individual, to exist in time and in eternity. And this encounter with the “point of intersection of the timeless with time” is also an encounter with the pure subject, released from the world of objects, and moving in obedience to the laws of freedom alone.’(Philosophy: Principles and Problems 151) Put simply, music brings us as close as we can get to a pure experience of the transcendental, which is why the type of music that is played in a religious setting is of immense significance.

    Likewise, wine connects us to a particular place, time, and culture. It roots us to the soil of that place to the degree that we can taste a landscape that has been settled by generations. It is, therefore, no coincidence that this drink is that through which we, quite literally, consume a culture, and that through which the Christian communes with God. In the Eucharistic drink, we are reconnected to our sacred source, the Fall having been conquered by the union of God and man. As Scruton puts it: ‘This very drink radiates the sense of self: it is addressed to the soul, not the body, and poses questions that can be formulated only in the first-person case, and only in the language of freedom…This knowledge contained in wine is put vividly to use by the Christian Eucharist…The blood in question is not the physical stuff that goes by that name, but something intimately bound up with the “I” of Christ…Bread and wine stand to each other as body and soul, as object to subject, as the thing in the world to its reflection at the edge’ (I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine 106-107). In wine, thus construed, we encounter the subjectivity of God - the ‘I am’ that confronts us face to face and makes His home among us.

    In attaching us to our common home, in giving it a face that can be known and loved, culture is a source of what Scruton called ‘oikophilia’ or love of home. This he contrasted with oikophobia or hatred of home, something which goes hand in hand with a repudiation of subjectivity, transcendence, the sacred, first-person freedom, and the ‘we’ of membership. This culture of repudiation is equivalent in many ways to what Burke meant when he spoke of ‘Jacobinism by establishment’, something which Western society as a whole is now experiencing. In denying students access to their history; in dumbing down art, music, literature, and even the liturgy itself; in redesigning the social space so that it no longer has a face; in promoting a form of sexual liberty that makes no room for the human person as that which animates the body; and in celebrating obscenity over beauty, you detach people from their past, their home, and the transcendental dimension of the human experience. You make them strangers to themselves, to the soul and the soil alike. In denying that there are objective values of taste, you ensure that art becomes kitsch, thus glorifying the profane above the sacred. 

    Scruton laments that, due to a pervasive oikophobia, we are living in the midst of a ‘kitsch epidemic’, the consequence of which is that we have fallen ‘into a world of addictive pleasures and routine desecration, a world in which the worthwhileness of human life is no longer clearly perceivable.’(Beauty 192) Our world is now one of faceless objects without any windows to the transcendental. It is a culture of amnesia which, having repudiated its memorials, monuments, and memories, is mired in a ‘cult of nihilism’.

    So, what is to be done? The answer lies, once again, in the experience of the Polish resistance that Scruton valued so highly. To repeat, those brave people refused to be content with their so-called ‘liberation’ because they never lost touch with those ancestral voices that continued to murmur in the void. They had been evicted from their common home, its face having been desecrated in an act of cultural, spiritual, and political vandalism. Unlike so many today, however, they did not respond to such desecration as though it did not matter. Rather, they kept listening for those ancestral voices, and the message they received from the void was this: You do not have to ‘live only – or even at all – in the present’. You have the freedom to despise the world that surrounds you and to live in another way. The art, literature, and music of your long-buried civilisation must you remind you of this, and thus point to the path that lies always before you: ‘the path out of desecration towards the sacred and the sacrificial’(194).

    Roger Scruton truly believed that now, as then, there is a ‘growing movement of revulsion against the prevailing nihilism – both the nihilism of the university and of the marketplace.’ (Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged 107) It is a movement which recognises that ours is a culture war in which nothing less than the survival of the sacred is at stake. Taking part in that war is not an act of violence, but one of love for the things that matter most.

     

    * This article was originally published in the book entitled Tradition and Change. Scruton’s Philosophy and its Meaning for Contemporary Europe, European Conservatives and Reformists, Warszawa 2022.

    Works Cited [single-spaced, justified]

    Dooley, Mark. Scruton, Roger. Conversations with Roger Scruton. Bloomsbury, 2016.

    Scruton, Roger. Thinkers of the New Left. Longman, 1985.

    Scruton, Roger. The Philosopher on Dover Beach: Essays. Carcanet, 1990.

    Scruton, Roger. The Meaning of Conservatism. St Augustine’s Press, 2002.

    Scruton, Roger. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. Pimlico, 2004.

    Scruton, Roger. Philosophy: Principles and Problems. Continuum, 2005. 

    Scruton, Roger. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged. Encounter Books, 2007

    Scruton, Roger. Beauty. A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2009a.

    Scruton, Roger. I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine. Bloomsbury, 2009b.

     

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