Guiding light that shines too bright

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy
November 15, 1996

The title of this book is rather perplexing. (What would Philosophy for Dimwits be like?) The least tautologous way to take it is not the one Roger Scruton intended. This guide is evidently written by an enormously intelligent person - more intelligent and better-informed than most of his likely readers - and it is full of passages of sustained brilliance.

But the author's intelligence creates problems. Like most clever people, he overestimates the capacities of those he addresses. What he means his title to convey, it turns out, is merely that he "presupposes no knowledge other than that which an intelligent person is likely to possess already". In this he deceives himself. Even if he assumes no knowledge of technical terminology (very doubtful in the case of philosophy, false in the case of his perceptive but excessively tune-dropping account of music), he certainly takes as read a philosophic disposition, and readers with no previous experience of philosophical perplexity will find much of this lucidly written but taxing book very hard going, if not downright incomprehensible.

This is not entirely Scruton's fault. There are, indeed, many passages where the pace might profitably have been slower - admittedly difficult in such a short book. No philosophical novice is going to make much of Scruton's almost casual treatment of the bizarre notion that propositions refer to their truth-values; of his defence of the view that the world is composed of facts; or of his dense discussion of time. But there is also something about the nature of philosophy that makes it uniquely resistant to introductory treatments.

The point of introductory philosophical remarks becomes fully apparent only to those who have been through the mill of thinking philosophically, rather as a map of a foreign country is only superficially informative to someone who has not traversed the terrain it represents. This is not true in the same way of other disciplines. The reason is that philosophy examines the machinery of understanding rather than one of the domains to which this machinery is applied, and this reflexive sort of examination is usually unsettling and opaque to newcomers. Paradoxically, therefore, introductions to philosophy are often most useful, retrospectively, to aficionados.

Within these (severe) limits a clear and sympathetic message does struggle out. Scruton identifies two key features of the contemporary human condition: a loss of agreed certainties and the overweening self-aggrandisement of science. Under both headings, he argues, philosophy has a vital role to perform, and one that is new in the age for which he is writing: to restore some of the certainties (by contrast with the philosopher's sceptical role in earlier times), and to defend an understanding of life from the point of view of persons against the encroachments of scientism, which treats persons as objects and is a needless destroyer of value and purpose.

On both these counts Scruton has convincing things to say, and this enables him to succeed, for readers who stay the course, in his overall aim - to bring philosophy alive, and to show that it applies to life, by demonstrating it in action. We leave the book with whetted appetite, full of pressing questions and sharp disagreements, as Scruton would surely wish.

There are some splendid moments of illumination, as when Richard Dawkins's claims for the self-sufficiency of science are implicitly demolished in the chapter entitled "Why?", by reference to the need for an explanation of the "initial conditions" from which all scientific explanations start. There are also some moments of deliberate and entertaining provocation, like silver threepennybits hidden in a Christmas pudding, when Scruton the tendentious journalist peeps out between the sober lines of Scruton the careful philosopher. Michel Foucault is a "fraud"; none of Nietzsche's judgements is fair; lucidity is "the enemy of religion"; the ontological argument for God's existence is "obviously sophistical" despite the attempts of "half-crazed logicians" to defend it; Hegel's Logic "contains only invalid arguments"; and so on. We are grateful for the light relief afforded by such remarks, even if they shake our faith in the author's apparently more measured deliverances.

There is a quite general problem, scarcely ever examined, of the proper attitude of the less intelligent to the utterances of their intellectual superiors, especially when these utterances strike them as unpersuasive in a way they cannot articulate. What deference, if any, is due to someone simply in virtue of his intelligence? Intelligence can be used to overawe and obfuscate as much as to illuminate, and notoriously does not always go hand in hand with good sense. Much of what is offered to the world as philosophy is pretentious gobbledegook.

These are not systematic difficulties here, though there are times when one wonders. Scruton's characterisation of sexual relations is a tour de force, but, for all its virtuosity, and though it is firmly on the side of the angels, it is surely far too idealised and cerebral to fit the great majority of real sexual encounters, even tacitly. ("Sexual arousal has ... an epistemic and interpersonal intentionality", for example.) Again, his acceptance of Wittgenstein's analysis of subjective experience in terms of its public criteria is at odds with the common-sense view that there is something about this experience that is irredeemably private, and there are arguments that can be deployed here on the side of common sense.

It is at moments of hesitation like this that one wishes, perversely, that this guide to philosophy were a less intelligent person, so that one might feel more confident in questioning his views.

Henry Hardy is a research fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy

Author - Roger Scruton
ISBN - 0 7156 36 8
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £12.95
Pages - 168

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