These were originally lectures and it can sometimes read like a textbook, but you are always, eventually reminded that you are reading Scruton. To read Scruton to understand another philosopher is like reading Heidegger on Nietzsche: the purpose isn’t to understand Nietzsche, if you’re doing it right.
So, if the purpose is to understand Scruton, what is his ‘philosophy?’
Well, this is still a set of university lectures on modern philosophy, so he’ll never say. He doesn’t enunciate much positive philosophy, but his criticisms give some guidance. Maybe the closest he comes is somewhere past the halfway point where he identifies rationalism as the key to what makes man unique. He specifically, yet also implicitly, suggests that Aristotelian rationalism is something very close to correct. This fits with interest in aesthetics and high culture. He appreciate religion, without being religious, so a certain rationalist uniqueness to humanity is what gives humanity its ability to create something important through the arts. I’m struggling to put myself clearly here and I’m both butchering and bowdlerizing rationalism in the philosophical sense, but I’m hoping someone can make sense of what I’m trying to say.
He is also, seemingly a bit of a Kantian. And his strange relationship with religion reaches it pinnacle in a chapter on the Devil, which is has maybe a few words on him (it) and then twenty pages Marx, Sartre, and Derrida. I felt like he could have found a subtler way of showing his feelings here.
My hackles were raised at his dismissal of pragmatism as ‘a peculiarly American tradition.’ He seems to try to ignore James in favor of Peirce, but his real target is Rorty, who he does (not incorrectly, I would suggest) say is perhaps better understood as a post-modernist. Having done so, he suggests that the whole affair (America’s most important contribution to philosophy) is ‘casuistry.’ Vexing.
Ayers’ classic (once recommended to me by my father; I have a copy I bought in Paris many years ago), Language, Truth, and Logic, is lovingly dismissed as Sir Roger says people should read it, but read it quickly and inattentively. Hard to think of a better way dismiss an historically important work you happen to find facile.
This appears in a chapter on knowledge (I don’t believe he uses the term epistemology here, which, if I am correct in my memory, must surely be deliberate) that is rather short considering the outsized role that this study has played on western philosophy (and Scruton is not particularly concerned with any other kind). Of course, he does talk about theories of knowledge and perception throughout. But he dismisses (often snidely) and quickly moves past ideas that cast doubt or aspersion upon the possibility that, basically, an intelligent person in more or less full possession of their mental and sense faculties, is actual perceiving what he (and, let’s be frank, he is probably picturing a man, not a woman) believes he is perceiving. If I think I see a table, there probably is a table and we can, more or less, operate on that premise.
In another classic ‘Scrutonism,’ he says the tracking theory of knowledge is ‘the name usually given to the theory advanced at tedious length by Robert Nozick.’ Nozick being a famously conservative figure, I appreciated his equal opportunity wit.
Despite his attitude towards Ayers, he seems to give especial consideration to British thinkers of nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Russell is oft mentioned (yet receives little affection) and figures like Bradley and McTaggart get plenty of attention. This seems only fair. I suppose that, as a sort of conservative traditionalist, he is not terribly concerned with topics that might undermine the ability to comment on other topics.
One suspects that he felt under appreciated as a serious philosopher and this book is, in part, a statement of erudition: see, look how deeply I have read and understood within the philosophical canon. He also takes time to show off his logical chops, despite, so far as I can tell, being not much interested in formal logic in what one might call the Scrutonian project. Which, again, points to a man proving himself to his critics.
He is a wonderful stylist. Less pugilistic than Hitchens, yet equally witty (and equally well versed in his chosen field). I was most deeply struck towards the end, where he seemed to reveal something almost personal, writing, ‘Yet possession is easy, provides one does not recoil from being possessed.’ It comes during a critique of Sartrean freedom, which drifted onto the subject of sex. A brief moment, yet glancing towards a personal theory of love and desire that does not shy away from a certain earthiness, yet also not viewing that as meaning it must be spiritually meaningless. Hard to sum up and I am also bringing in memories from other writings by Scruton. I will simply reiterate that it strongly struck me.
He concludes with a rather abrupt and incomplete call to future philosophers to adopt a study a community (viewed in opposition to the supposed self-centeredness of French existentialism), but what he really means (and he seems to stumble a bit) is aesthetics, in some roundabout way. A disappointing final page to an otherwise interesting book.