The Natural World Imbued with Meaning
The Soul of the World
by Roger Scruton
2014 Princeton University Press, 216 pages, $17.95
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Roger Scruton is without peer among contemporary philosophers. His range of intellectual, aesthetic, and practical interests is extraordinarily wide and is matched by corresponding abilities and knowledge. As a critical thinker he is acute in perception, imaginative in reflection, and lucid and illuminating in expression.
He is also highly productive: with books on general aesthetics as well as on architecture and music, on philosophy and its history, the environment, politics, and sexual desire. In recent years he has added religion as a subject of his distinctive style of humane reflection, both in the form of a particular tradition, viz. The Church of England in Our Church (2012), and as a general mode of human consciousness and activity. The present book and a predecessor, The Face of God (2012), are contributions of the latter type.
The World’s Richness
Reflecting on the growth of modern science and its impact on our experience, the sociologist Max Weber wrote in 1920 of “the disenchantment of world,” and in the following decade the philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote of the “the mathematization of nature.” In sympathy with such observations, but in spirited defiance of scientific reductionism, Scruton seeks to find a way of restoring the value and meaning of the world, its qualitative richness and its particularity without denying the power and success of scientific methods of quantitative analysis and causal generalization.
He yields to the sufficiency of Darwinian biology so far as it concerns the mass of living things. He draws the line, however, at human-mindedness, seeing in our self-consciousness and its intentional products something that is undeniably real but escapes capture within the nets of scientific, and specifically evolutionary and neuro-physiological, explanations. He argues that our modes of experience and thought involve conceptions, affective responses, and evaluative judgments that transcend the mere causal impingement of the world upon our senses, or animal instinct, or evolutionary adaptation.
Thus we interpret and enter into the givens of human experience as realms of meaning and value, and in so doing we find there orders of significance that engage our own nature not as animals but as subjects. The primary locus and sustaining ground of this form of thought is the interaction between persons in and around the phenomenon of mutual recognition.
For Scruton the human world is rooted in the natural order as the face in a portrait is rooted in the pigment of the painting, but it is only visible to one who can see this aspect of things. Wittgenstein wrote that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul” and Scruton extends that idea focusing on the human face to develop a notion of sensitive subjectivity (my expression).
“I lie behind my face, and yet I am present in it, speaking and looking through it at a world of others who are in turn both revealed and concealed like me.” He links this approach to what he earlier termed “cognitive dualism,” the idea that “the world can be understood in two incommensurable ways, the way of science and the way of interpersonal understanding.”
Scruton’s “personalism” is then extended in the direction of a sacralized understanding of nature. Just as we respond to a human face as a locus of expressive meaning and dignity so we respond to aspects of the natural world as imbued with meaning. This is an example of cognitive dualism. Nature can be apprehended under two guises: as material and as meaningful, and the latter is the object of our aesthetic, ethical and spiritual appreciation.
Home, Hearth, and Place
The first five of the eight chapters develop and elaborate the general approach (occasionally repetitively) but in the remainder he appears to move from the human to the transcendent: “Facing the Earth,” “The Sacred Space of Music,” and “Seeking God.”
In these chapters Scruton engages ancient notions of home, hearth, and place as linked to ideas of social and cultural identity; then explores (brilliantly) the phenomenon of musical order as inhabiting an audible space above and beyond that studied by physics; and finally considers that the subjectivity first understood in the mutual recognition of self and other reappears in the sense of reality itself as something given in which a giver is not so much rationally inferred as sensed at the edge of reason.
Readers may find special interest in a discussion of the mythic origins of the temple and the city and of the demythologized utilitarian character of modern architecture. He writes: “The ‘reference beyond’ of sacred architecture reflects the overreaching intentionality of our interpersonal attitudes. The ‘I’ of God resides in this place, and architecture makes us aware of that. It is not simply stone that surrounds us, but a witnessing stone, stone brought alive by carving, molding, light and shade, so as to stand beside us in an observing stature.”
I wrote of Scruton appearing to move from the human to the transcendent because there is a doubt whether the ideas of the sacred and the divine, and the intimations of these, are not for Scruton just aspects of our own rich consciousness, “overreaching intentionality,” spreading itself across the surface of things and producing in that shimmering layer reflected images of our own subjectivity. It sometimes seems that, for him, the sources of meaning and value we “discover” beyond ourselves are objectifications of human psychology.
Even if that is so, however, it is not individual psychology but that of encultured humanity, what one might call “The Soul of Man.” Whatever the source of meaning and value, Scruton’s great philosophical, imaginative and literary gifts help us to see their reality and to understand their importance. For that as for much else in his work we have reason to give thanks.
Editor’s note: This review was written before Roger Scruton’s death in January 2020.