The fascinating paradox of Roger Scruton’s thought lies in his commitment to scientific naturalism together with his appreciation for continental thought with its sensitivity to the human condition. Many philosophers that share his analytical background have distanced themselves from religious, or even existential, ways of thinking. It is a reflection of his deep grasp of the human predicament that he resisted what he described as the disenchantment that follows from the loss of the sacred or the transcendental and its dehumanising replacement with consumerism (FG 177-8)1. However, the understanding of the sacred that Scruton sought to articulate was one decidedly within the limits of scientific naturalism, a very Kantian echo of Religion Within The Bounds of Reason.
The cognitive dualism of Scruton is an echo of certain aspects of a conflict of views on the world that goes back to the very origins of philosophical thought. Prior to the emergence of genuinely philosophical thought with Thales (circa. 585 BC) the Greek spirit expressed itself as myth, story, narrative, which is the form of inspiration, a form that is expressed explicitly at the beginning of Hesiod’s (circa. 700 BC) Theogony, a poem of the origins of the gods and the world of nature. Hesiod looked to the Muses, the Olympian goddesses of inspiration for knowledge, a knowledge that in its content matching its form made no attempt to be intelligible. In Hesiod there is no expectation that the world should be intelligible, its reality remains distant from us having emerged from chaos, the abyss, nothingness. Which is why we need the Muses.
The first philosopher known to history, Thales, expresses a view on the world that could not conflict more with what had gone before. He sought a principle, an arche, available to human reason and that provided an explanation of all of life. This principle was to be found through observation, and thus was Thales the first rational empiricist, rational because he saw that behind the diversity and multiplicity of the natural world there lay a single principle. For Thales this was water, the one substance that persisted through the coming to be and ceasing to be of finite things. In Thales we do not yet see the later distinction that was to emerge between empiricism and rationalism, but what we do see is an attempt to make sense of the world by beginning with the world of finite and contingent objects.
The conflict then is between the seed of a scientific or naturalist world view dependent on sensory experience, and a world view that offers a very different mode of sense-giving, and one that comes from beyond, or in Scruton’s words, from the edge of the world as it were looking in, a view that derives quite consistently from his Kantianism. Scruton’s religious thought is a thorough and strenuous attempt to secure a profound and meaningful way of understanding our human condition that is clearly not satisfied by the scientific world view alone, but that nevertheless arises out of it. This then is Scruton’s cognitive dualism, in which human meaning, the manifest image of man described by Wilfred Sellars, seeks to escape the powerful gravitational pull of the scientific image of man and to somehow remain in orbit.
Three related questions arise. Firstly, was his attempt ultimately successful in any sense beyond the arguably less than intelligible inspiration of the Muses? Secondly, if it was not successful what was it that prevented it from being so? And thirdly, is there any alternative way of conceiving of human meaning other than either a reversion to a religion of sentiment or the somewhat Stoic (in the Hegelian sense) and elegiac stance offered by Scruton?
The character of the Stoic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit2 appears immediately after the Master-Slave dialectic at the end of which both parties find that they have not obtained the freedom or recognition that they expected. The response of Stoicism is the subjective turn inwards; whatever the external circumstances, whether they be social or to do with the material world, freedom is to be found within, “within thinking, I am free”, a withdrawal into the “essentiality of thought” (PS §197-9). This is the Kantian move into subjectivity which from Hegel’s perspective is also a withdrawal from the object in which “consciousness indeed abolishes the content as an alien being as it thinks it” (PS §200).
There is no doubt that Kant’s Copernican revolution and his opposition to speculative metaphysics was an attempt to put human beings back in the world they know in the face of the ultimately dehumanising3 scepticism of David Hume. His solution however relied on his double aspect theory of transcendental idealism that meant, as he put it in the preface to Critique of Pure Reason, “I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith” (B xxx). Scruton makes quite clear his Kantian commitment as the very basis of his religious thought. His articulation is “an attempt to derive the intentionality of religious awe a priori from the Kantian metaphysic upon which I have been relying throughout my argument” (FG pp. 162-3). He asks whether there is “any way of reasoning from our experience in this world to the conclusion that God is immanent within it”, and if not, and we are faced with epistemological failure, whether this has to be supplemented merely by faith, without reason (FG p.164).
There are two themes here that are worthy of comment. Firstly, Scruton follows Kant in being concerned with epistemology, and secondly his use of the idea of intentionality which belongs in the phenomenological understanding of lebenswelt. The two questions are related in that it is the decisions made on epistemology that drive the need for the alternative pole in cognition. Certainly, in Face of God and Soul of the World, the concern is much more with developing the lebenswelt perspective, but the epistemological commitments are clear to see.
Scruton draws a clear distinction between religion as characterised by membership in a community, and the practice of science which offers nothing by way of membership (FG p. 16). This is a dichotomy that seems uncharacteristically lacking in nuance. The practice of science does in fact share characteristics with religion; scientific education relies on authorities and traditions without which the individual scientist would pretty much remain in the stone age; scientific communities provide the context for both development and correction of ideas; and such things as reputation, personal ambition and emotion are hardly lacking. The fact noted by Scruton, “that somehow religion and science are at odds with each other” (FG p. 17) is less to do with the question of membership and more to do with the dualism that has been opened up as a chasm between scientific and religious knowledge. The point made by Francis Bacon was that scientific development had more to do with collaboration than individual genius. Kant, and Scruton with him, are surely correct in arguing that we cannot revert to pre-Enlightenment metaphysical speculation, but what they are both in danger of sacrificing is a concept of reason that more adequately incorporates all that it means to be human. This is something to return to when we consider the third question above, concerning whether we can conceive of an alternative account of human meaning.
The transcendental idealism of Kant is seen by some as being unique in its “capacity to harmonise the scientific image of the world with our pre-scientific conception of ourselves”.4 But is this really the case? The age of reason, that of sapere aude, ‘dare to think for yourself’, has given impetus to both a seemingly all-encompassing scientific world view and a scepticism profoundly different and more dehumanising than ancient scepticism. A scientific, or naturalist world view that regards reality as ultimately material has inevitable alienating consequences in an instrumental stance to both the natural world and to our social others. From within the naturalist camp there are some, including Scruton, that seek to overcome this alienation with some sort of re-enchantment of nature, an enlargement of naturalism to include the “space of reasons”, (McDowell) or “the manifest image of man” (Sellars). In Mark Dooley’s words, the single theme that unites Scruton’s diverse writings is ‘the affirmation of home, soil and settlement’.5 With Hegel he affirmed the value of cultural inheritance and the institutions that sustain it.
Scruton however remained thoroughly Kantian in his distinction between the world of appearances and the scientific search for the “really real”, regarding Hegel’s metaphysics as fanciful. He has Xanthippe in Xanthippic Dialogues accuse the search for the really real as peeling away the personality of the world, “it is only a superficial person who does not judge by appearances”.6 Scruton’s perspective on the world is one “that reaches from a point outside it”. We are compelled “to live forever on the edge of things, present in the world, but also apart from it” (FG p. 163). From the phenomenologists Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, Scruton takes the concept of intentionality to distinguish between scientific descriptions of the world as it is in itself and intentional descriptions that describe, “criticise and justify the world as it appears” to human consciousness: it “fills the world with the meanings implicit in our aims and emotions. It tries not so much to explain the world as to be ‘at home’ in it”.7 In a Kantian expression, Scruton puts it that whilst lacking the objectivity of science, the objectivity of this stance is “a convergence upon a common fund of superficial truth” that warrants truth claims. Intentional understanding remains on the surface of the world where the human subject is to be found and is not an attempt to discover the really real. There is an acceptance here of our estrangement from the natural world, that we are in the world but not of it, at the same time as looking to a sacred perspective to provide that sense of being at home in a world in which we are estranged.8 This echoes Kant’s postulates of God, and the noumenal self in order to ground morality and meaning. It is at heart a dualistic view, even if it is merely a cognitive dualism.
The appeal to descriptive or phenomenological approaches is, so argues Gardner, typical of the soft naturalist position which he defines as a non-reductive naturalism that purports to correct an ‘overly restrictive, unnecessarily austere conception of the natural order’.9 In the absence of idealism, it has fallen to soft naturalism to attempt to secure a place for human value, and hence Gardner regards the exploration and defence of the possibilities of soft naturalism as being central to contemporary philosophical debate.
Common to such soft naturalist views is the idea that philosophical justification can be provided by a ‘perspective’ rather than any ontological grounding. There are two problems here. Firstly, it is arguable that idealism has better resources to develop the concept of perspective, and secondly the need to maintain a distance from metaphysics by asserting different perspectives in fact relies on some kind of view from above that is able to perceive the dual-perspective structure of our existence. One wonders whether metaphysics might present the simpler solution. The mere assertion of the first person plural is insufficient to establish our perspective as equal in status to the hard realities of natural science.
Scruton takes inspiration for his theme of the face from Hegel’s notion of recognition, the process of conflict and resolution through which we become the self-conscious beings that we are. “The fracture between subject and object that runs through me” (FG p. 154) is healed through the reconciliation between my own view and the competing views of others. It should be said however that for Hegel, there remains a very long road yet for consciousness before the fracture is healed in absolute knowing. For Scruton, the face expresses a reality other than that described by natural science: “Behind our daily negotiations certain experiences cause this world to erupt through the veil of compromise and to make itself known”.10 O’Hear describes Scruton’s religion as a religio intransitiva, one lacking an object, a real being of God. This is reflected in one of his last published sentences: “I have not, as I had hoped, found in cognitive dualism an escape route to the divine.” Remaining with Kant, he rejected Hegel’s assertion that in order to see a boundary we must be able to stand both sides of it, and yet, still with Kant, regarding the religious dimension of human life as indispensable. O’Hear’s comment on the lack of an object draws attention to the essentially one-sidedness of the Kantian position. Not only has the finite object disappeared into the thing-in-itself, but the divine object has become “the deus absconditus, the hidden God” (FG p. 15). All that is left is our own individual subjectivity, cut off from flesh and blood life and finding it necessary to resort to postulates, whether of God or of the humanity we share with others.
In Scruton’s writings there is a profound sensitivity to our participation in the divine and in one another, but it is not his naturalism or his Kantianism to which he owes this achievement. It is not our place to speculate whether in his own inner life he pressed beyong the elegiac stance I referred to above, and it is with his philosophical thought that we are concerned. The first question I posed was whether he was able to secure a profound, meaningful, and philosophical way of making sense of our human condition. My reluctant conclusion is that it did not, other than in the way of inspiration, albeit the Muse within. I believe I have shown reasons why this is the case. The final question is then whether there is an alternative philosophical position that does successfully overcome the fracture between subject and object that Scruton so rightly described as running through each one of us.
I believe there is, and it takes us in the direction of Hegel’s attempt to go beyond Kant. What Scruton shared with Hegel was a concern to overcome the alienating fracture at the heart of the human condition. Both regarded art and religion as sharing a common theme of sacralising ‘the core experiences of society’ raising ‘the human person to the summit of creation’. For Scruton, it is art that ‘ennobles the human spirit and presents us with a justifying vision of ourselves, as something higher than nature and apart from it’. It enables us to ‘close again the gap between subject and object which yawns so frighteningly in the world of science’11 (Modern Culture, p. 42). An identity as well as a difference between them is the path that both Hegel and Scruton took. Hegel began from religion, as well as an appreciation of the religious significance of art, particularly of the Greeks, and he became a philosopher. It is an assertion that would need to be argued, but I suggest that Hegel realised the need to meet philosophically the challenge to religion represented by the Enlightenment. Scruton’s journey was in the opposite direction, moving as a philosopher towards religious themes. The relevance of this is that it points to the need for an adequate account of the relationship between philosophy and religion, or meaning something slightly different, between philosophy and theology. It is here that Hegel is able to give a better account, both in terms of its ability to overcome the fracture between subject and object and in terms of being properly philosophical at the same time as being theologically orthodox (noting that Hegel’s “consummate religion” is explicitly Christian). To fully defend such an assertion is beyond the remit of this paper; my intention here is necessarily limited to an intimation of lines of argument.
In his essay Faith and Knowledge, Hegel directly addresses what he sees as the deficiency in the thinking that had preceded him. The prime targets of the essay are Kant, as well as Jacobi and Fichte, who had, although in different ways, sundered human knowledge into that of the finite and the empirical on one hand, and that of the divine reality beyond:
The fundamental principle common to the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi and Fichte is, then, the absoluteness of finitude and infinity, reality and ideality, the sensuous and the supersensuous, and the beyondness of what is truly real and absolute. (FK 62)
The consequence of this dualism of thought led to what Hegel described as the bad infinite. When finitude and infinitude are opposed, or set up against each other, both are bounded. By fleeing the finite into an infinite progression we remain dependent on what we flee (EL §94Z)12, leaving us with a finite that “merely ought to be sublated”, an impotent ought that afflicted the morality of both Kant and Fichte that was no more than a “perennial approximation to the law of reason”. The fundamental problem is that Kant begins with the finite; because he presupposes the subject-object divide belonging to the world of finite objects his thought is simply not capable of healing the breach.
Here I can no more than assert that Hegel’s understanding of the relationship between the finite and the infinite is consistent with Christian orthodoxy. It is the theology of Kant, and following him of Scruton, that departs from orthodoxy. Scruton makes the following claim: “If the usual claims of faith are true, God is transcendental. He is not part of nature and not a possible object of scientific enquiry.” (FG p. 18). At first reading this sounds eminently reasonable, but it does not fully reflect the Christian understanding of God’s relationship to the world. Hegel describes this as the perspective of Verstand, we could describe it as a logic of opposition. The Church also has an understanding of God being in the world, of us sharing in the divine nature, and of course the central idea of incarnation in which finite human nature and infinite divine nature are united in one person. This is a logic of participation, the logic of Chalcedon, in which an object is itself precisely through being in its other. Is it not this logic that Scruton is seeking, a logic of communion and participation that will overcome the “metaphysical loneliness of the subject”? (FG p. 155) Scruton rightly connects the moral category of personhood with participation in a network of inter-personal relationships (FG p. 157). But even though “Persons fall under the scope of Kant’s moral law”, there is no place in Kant for participation – the fracture remains.
Scruton recognises that the Christian answer to the real presence of God amongst us lies in the incarnation, but it remains for him a concept “every bit as puzzling and mysterious as the one that it set out to explain” (FG pp. 172-3). Within a Kantian framework it is no surprise that it remains a mystery, remaining as did Kant’s own thought within a logic of opposition. Scruton raises the question of being, one that for the Kantian, as also for the analyical thinker, is ultimately a self-contradiction. He asserts that “Theologians have been seeking for a ‘ground of Being’” and continues “in other words, for an entity that provides a reason for the whole of things, rather than a cause”. Perhaps some theologians have done so, but it is certainly not representative of the tradition as a whole. The problem lies in the search for an “entity”, a search that remains locked in the logic of opposition, a search for the “bad infinite”. Quite rightly, he goes on to say that the rationale of such a being would take us out of the empirical world, “so as to obtain what Kant says to be impossible, the transcendental perspective, the view from nowhere” (FG p. 167). The remedy lies in the logic of participation, that of the incarnation which is precisely the view from somewhere, a logic, or a truth, that the Church proclaims largely in the language of Vorstellung, and the same truth which Hegel, in his Science of Logic, expounds in the language of Vernunft, the speculative thought that is able, unlike reflective thought, to unite the subject in its object in its knowing of itself.
1 Roger Scruton, The Face of God, (Continuum Books: London & New York, 2012).
2 Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Terry Pinkard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
3 Hume’s scepticism is dehumanising in that it undermines the place of human reason (“the slave of the passions”) which Kant correctly identified as the basis of human dignity, freedom and morality.
4 Sebastian Gardner, Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason, (Routledge, London & New York: 1999), p. 347.
5 Mark Dooley, Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach, (London & New York: Continuum, 2009), p. 5.
6 Roger Scruton, Xanthippic Dialogues (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993), p. 165.
7 Roger Scruton, The Philosopher on Dover Beach: Essays, (London: St. Augustine’s Press, 1997), p. 108.
8 Dooley, 2009, p. 24.
9 Sebastian Gardner, “The Limits of Naturalism”, German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Espen Hammer, (Routledge, Abingdon: 2007), p. 28.
10 cited by Anthony O’Hear, “Philosopher par excellence”, The Critic, February 2020 https://thecritic.co.uk/issues/february-2020/philosopher-par-excellence/
11 Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, (Continuum, London: 2000), p. 42.
12 Hegel, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline, Part 1: Science of Logic, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2010).
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