This week marks the first anniversary of the passing of the philosopher Roger Scruton. It is tempting to suggest that he went home at about the right time, for he would have been appalled at the current culture of insanity. The replacement of the traditions of common law in favour of lists of permissions would have outraged him; the willing public cancellation of the self via the wearing of masks would have dismayed him; and the juvenile attitude towards the fact of death – the conflation of the concept of the “human person” with that of the “human body” – would have depressed him. It was his belief that a life is better lived deep than lived long.
The best tribute that one philosopher can offer to another is an explication and evaluation of one of their ideas. Sir Roger is rightly remembered as a defender of conservatism. But he was also a technically trained philosopher in the analytical tradition; and a central and lifelong concern was this: what is the nature of beauty? What is going on when we encounter the beautiful?
And relatedly, why have we allowed culture to become so coarsened as to bilk us out of the needs of the human soul?
Scruton rehabilitated the discipline of aesthetics by offering a technical and beautifully written analysis of the nature of art (understood in the wider sense of including music, literature, architecture etc). His argument is distributed over several books, including Art and Imagination (which was based on his doctoral thesis); The Aesthetic Understanding; The Aesthetics of Music (in his book on the philosophy of wine, I Drink Therefore I Am, Scruton writes that he thinks the nature of music – how it conveys a sense of movement, how it seems to express emotion – is the deepest of all the issues in philosophy); and the short, but deep, Beauty.
Sir Roger, you see, was prolific and was concerned to be at his desk by 7am, so that the wine could be uncorked promptly, and in good conscience at 7pm. And having resigned from his professorship at the University of London there were also the quotidian needs of his working farm to attend to.
Any theory of art, he argued, must be preceded by an account of what it is we are feeling when we enjoy a piece of art. To give an account of an encounter with beauty is not to look at the thing we find beautiful but to examine what it is in us when we are having that encounter. Aesthetics, he argued, is a sort of subset of the philosophy of mind. This does not make art “subjective”: objects, pieces of music etc must be genuinely beautiful to engender in us an encounter with beauty, but the structure of that encounter is something that cannot be explained except in terms of what we are.
To analyse the experience, it is imperative not to explain it away. The current trends in philosophy, he argued, assume impoverished accounts of the nature of the mind and therefore offer only incomplete accounts of the nature of the aesthetic experience. The tendency, for example, to explain the mind in terms of the brain is the same impulse that encourages us to explain the Mona Lisa in terms of the pigments on the canvas: in each case, something – the most important thing – is left out.
So, what is the nature of that experience? To ask that question is to ask for a theory of what we are. Scruton’s answer is essentially this: that we are both objects in the world and perspectives on the world. We are subject and object, and the current scientistic tendency to reduce us to our bodies -to assimilate the soul to the brain – is to commit a sort of category error. The aesthetic experience is one which discloses the impossibility of “scientific reductionism”.
Sir Roger placed a 20th Century analytical metaphysical structure around issues of art and aesthetics and thereby deepened our knowledge both of what art is and what analytical philosophy can do. If philosophy cannot go to work on the stuff that we care about, then what is the point of it?
But his analytical scaffolding never detracted from a need to examine the contours of the building that was being held up. He was, frankly, incredible: in defence of Wagner, he would quote Lady Gaga. I doubt that would happen the other way around.
And in many ways the philosophical worldview was deeply integrated into the character of the man himself. Scruton, philosophically and personally, was both a conservative and a subversive. He used his position as the wine critic for The New Statesman to smuggle into that bastion of leftist orthodoxy his own refined conservatism (before eventually being rumbled and sacked).
More saliently, given our current depressing context, he spent much of the 1980s setting up a network of underground seminars in the police states of Eastern Europe, at significant personal risk. I am happy, for his sake, that he did not survive cancer long enough to share in the experience of this system of petty tyrannies. But we sure could use him now.