#7. Roger Scruton. A Short History of Modern Philosophy.

This is an article associated with the article “15 Memorable Books.” See the article for an explanation of this article.
When I was in graduate school, I became a conservative. I’ve long since given this up. I did it because I thought that people weren’t listening to me and I had a better solution to the problem of reintegration. After all, despite valiant efforts, Modernism had failed in its pretensions at reintegration of the individual with the universe. I felt that I was on the way to a more stable system of organization knowledge. In all honesty, it wasn’t until after I got out of the school that I realized that my system, too, was destined to fail as well.

My graduate school conservatism led me to a book by one of the preeminent philosophers of the conservative movement, Roger Scruton. To tell you the truth, I was never very interested in Scruton as a conservative thinker. His book The Meaning of Conservatism was filled with the meta-critical notion that if we are playing a game that we need unbreakable rules to guide our play. This seemed (and seems) to me to be awfully deterministic. There is little or no free will in such a system. We are followers in a game prescribed by others.

However, in his work A Short History of Modern Philosophy Scruton had given me a concise breakdown of philosophy into a fairly simple group of patterns. Modern Philosophy was, in Scruton’s mind, divided between the first-person perspective of Descartes’ private language and Wittgenstein’s third person argument. In first person argument, we have access to our own internal language, and this language can give us access to the metaphysical part of our soul, which Descartes gives to God. In the third person argument, Wittgenstein denies (and properly so, in my opinion) that language is dependent upon our a priori decision about what we mean. Instead, we enter into a very public agreement about what we mean. This agreement comes from the public atmosphere in which we agree about what our language will and won’t mean.We don’t need God as arbiter.

Wittgenstein had written his justly famous “beetle in a box” example, which I have taught in my philosophy class and which I reprint for you here:

293. Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle.” No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.-Here he would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.-But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language?-If so it would not be used as the name of its main. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.-No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

When I started teaching philosophy, I picked up Scruton’s book and I used it to form a syllabus. I didn’t do so because I thought he was correct in looking backwards. In fact, I think that the limitations of Scruton’s thought can be seen most clearly when he does not get the sense that Martin Heidegger knows what he’s talking about. This is, I think, because Roger Scruton has decided to focus on the conservative message of philosophy. He is perfectly happy to live in a world whose limits are held in place by firmly held meta-critical boundaries. All he feels he has to do is to explore those boundaries as fully as possible.And he does. He has written thoughtful works on all sorts of aspects of life, attempting to rationalize them. He tends to dismiss the works of others who give to much place in their systems to the “irrarional.”

Heidegger, on the other hand, is concerned with filling in the cracks that had appeared in the Modern worldview. For Roger Scruton this simply means that Heidegger was not a systematic thinker. He had tended towards “poetic metaphor,” rather than toeing the line of scientific and responsible criticism. I didn’t ever really believe Scruton here. It was not, however, that I thought that Heidegger was right. It was my sense that perhaps the entire Modern worldview was encountering something deeper: perhaps the world itself did not, and could not, makes sense to us as human beings.

Nevertheless, Roger Scruton’s book played a huge role in my life for more than 10 years, and has continued to play a role in my new life as a teacher of philosophy.


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