After the standard (but better than standardly executed) preliminaries on what philosophy is, this book starts with Descartes - like any book on 'modern' philosophy. It goes on to survey its subject by topic rather than chronology. But, as well as standard chapters on knowledge, perception, and truth, there are chapters called 'Objective Spirit' (which turns out to be a neo-Hegelian term for politics) and, rather surprisingly, 'The Devil'. Scruton says he is presenting philosophy not just as it is but as he thinks it ought to be; to counterbalance his dissent from Anglo-American philosophy, he adds a 100-page Study Guide of (often unnecessarily snide) commentary on orthodox and state-of-the-art books and articles for every topic, assessing the long-term debate on each. Anyone previously unacquainted with philosophy might be bemused and misled without this supplement, and ideally the book itself should be a supplement for study rather than a main text. Though Scruton is at his best when succinctly crystallising familiar problems, he sometimes uses the brevity needed to cover this wide-ranging material as an excuse for glib argument, whether for his likes (Adam Smith's 'hidden hand' justification for free-market economy, for instance), or against his loathings.
Scruton is as scornful of the sloppy bombast of Continental philosophy as of Anglo-American sterility. But he has a love-hate relationship with Sartre, whom he excoriates as the purveyor of modernism, socialism and subjective freedom, but respects for dealing with the human condition, that gaping lacuna in anglophone philosophical issues. 'Philosophy of mind' is now a misnomer, since virtually no English-speaking philosopher believes in the mind as such. They concentrate instead on mental states as isolated atoms - which, as Scruton implies, is not how we experience them, and in fact makes them incoherent in structure and sense, for it is psychologically and grammatically necessary to refer them to a self. The problem of the self has always been one of Scruton's central preoccupations; here, we are constantly signposted, as in a detective story, to the last two chapters, which raises an expectation that he will provide some grand solution to the mystery. He discusses Descartes' notion of the self as 'thinking thing', and then invokes Kant's repudiation of Descartes: that since the self is what the appearances of things are appearances to, it itself cannot be a thing, but is unknowable - merely the 'form of consciousness'.
Scruton links this abrogation of subjectivity to Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument, which denies that our feelings and sensations are private objects to which we have privileged access, and locates the self in the third-person objectivity of language. Scruton's own solution seems to be that the self is a grammatical illusion, a 'metaphysical shadow' cast by the self-referential use of 'I'. But linked to it is the ineluctable notion of responsibility for our actions, which situates us in the public realm. This seems to ascribe us Kantian duty, but without the transcendental freedom which Kant, and even nihilistic Sartre, give in compensation; it reduces us to animals capable of sin.
Scruton's solution may seem at odds with his espousal of the literary and mystical; it is disappointing because it gives us responsibility without freedom, duty without dignity. But it fits his Hegel-type claim that individual personality is an artefact, and that individuals are what they are only by virtue of their place in society, a position which sounds strangely totalitarian. Scruton dismisses both socialist aspirations to equality and liberal aspirations to freedom, and the notion of a social contract based on the individual's rational choice; thus leaving little room for anyone's advantage (except, presumably, those whose place in society is at the top).
In this way, his politics are not peripheral to the book, but insidiously pervade it: they seem to devalue both his humane intentions in writing it, and the humane-sounding stuff about humans finding a home in the world and needing beauty. His freshness of style is soured by the crankiness with which he carps about the devil tempting us to exalt individualism, and laments that humankind took the wrong turning in the 18th century. No doubt he yearns for the coming of a Hegelian 'world-historical man', who - so long as he advanced the World Spirit of which he is a manifestation - Hegel considered justified in causing any amount of suffering. But Scruton should remember Adorno's comment that, had Hegel lived in the 1930s, he would probably have considered Hitler's flying-bombs just such a manifestation.Reuse content