BOOK REVIEW / Wanted: old flames for new devils: Ray Monk on an amazing and ambitious view of recent philosophy's fight against the modern world: Modern Philosophy: a survey - Roger Scruton: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 25

Click to follow
Roger Scruton begins this large, intriguing and extraordinarily wide-ranging book with the following assertion: 'The technocratic style of modern philosophy - and in particular that emerging from the Anglo-American universities - is in danger of killing all interest in the subject.' Like Iris Murdoch, whose Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals was written in much the same spirit, Scruton combines a commitment to contemporary analytical philosophy with the sort of refined literary sensibility that one associates more readily with the opposed 'Continental' school. Unlike most of the philosophers whose work he summarises, Scruton writes with exemplary lucidity and accessibility. If he had wanted to, he could have written an excellent introduction to the work of contemporary analytical philosophers that attempted no more than to render in intelligible English what up to now has been expressed only in the technical and unattractively abstruse idiom that modern philosophers have made their own. 'Part of my motive', he writes in the Introduction, 'has been to rediscover the subject by presenting it in the language that seems most clear and natural to me.'

This is, however, only part of his motive, and as the book goes on one realises that Scruton has much bigger fish to fry. Scruton's conservatism is well-known, but the depth of it is rarely fully appreciated. His ideal is not the technologically advanced capitalism beloved of Margaret Thatcher, nor even the organic nationhood advocated by Edmund Burke (and certainly not, of course, John Major's 'classless society'). His ideal is rather the theocracy of the late medieval period. For Scruton, things have been going downhill since about the 14th century. He loathes the modern world, dominated as it is by science, secularism and moral and religious scepticism. Perhaps paradoxically, he admires 'modern philosophy' (that is, analytical philosophy) which he sees as an ally in the struggle to defend 'human' values. In this respect there is for him the greatest difference between 'modern' philosophy and 'modernist' philosophy - the latter is the work of those thinkers who celebrate the very features of the modern world that Scruton himself finds so loathsome.

Scruton outlines the struggle against 'modernism' in the most dramatic terms imaginable. It is, for him, no less than a fight against 'the Devil'. It is not immediately obvious that the different opinions of Marx, Nietzsche and Derrida are linked by a devilish central thread, but Scruton lumps them all together: 'The devil has one message, which is that there is no first-person plural. We are alone in the world, and the self is all that we can guarantee against it.' He realises, of course, that, on the face of it this is an odd view to foist on Marx, who insisted on the primacy of the social against the individual and also on Derrida, who is more commonly understood to have undermined the notion of 'the self'. But he is prepared, nevertheless, to argue for a reading of their work that would justify such an attribution.

In the case of Marx, this involves claiming that the central notion of alienation undermines belief in and respect for law, authority and society, not only of a 'bourgeois' kind but of all possible kinds. For Scruton, it is obvious that the sort of communal society envisaged by Marx as the successor to capitalism is impossible. Indeed, it is a 'contradictory idea', that of 'a free society without laws or institutions, in which people spontaneously group together in life-affirming globules, despite the centuries-old proof that they are capable of no such thing'.

With Derrida's thought, Scruton is, if anything, even more cavalier. Far from having shown the self to be a fiction, he says (without once quoting from Derrida's work): 'nothing looms larger in the practice of deconstruction than the self - the destruction of meaning is in reality the destruction of the other . . . All that remains thereafter is the subject, who can choose what to think, what to feel and what to do, released from external constraints, and answerable to nothing and no one.'

What Derrida and Marx have in common is that they are both 'modernist' thinkers, concerned with proving that 'there is no authority, no source of law, no value and no meaning in the culture and institutions that we have inherited'. The 'modern philosophy' to which Scruton adheres will, he hopes, be an antidote to such modernist thought. Central to this hope is the use to which Scruton (anticipated by Bryan Appleyard in Understanding the Present) puts Wittgenstein's famous Private Language Argument. There is a first person plural, and its primacy is established by Wittgenstein's argument. So much for the Devil's doctrine.

Whatever merits this argument may have (and I personally find Scruton's version of it no more persuasive than Appleyard's), what is striking is the contrast between the distortion and over-simplification that mark Scruton's account of the work of his 'devils' and the scrupulousness with which, elsewhere in the book, he summarises the work and ideas that form the canon of the analytical school of philosophy: Russell's Theory of Descriptions, Frege's distinction between sense and reference, Kripke's theory of naming, and so on. These summaries, together with the 'Study Guide' to further reading provided at the back, might make a perfect textbook for an introductory course in analytical philosophy. Of course, such a textbook would not differ much from many that are already available - its main claim to our attention would be the quality of its prose - and, compared, say, to an account of the struggle between the devil and true religion, it would make for fairly dull reading. But that's analytical philosophy for you.

The implausible notion at the heart of this book is that 'modern philosophy', analytical philosophy, receives its purpose and its importance from the fight against Scruton's devils, against modernism, postmodernism and all other secular, scientific ideas. In truth, thinkers with an extraordinarily wide range of religious and political views - from the atheist Russell to the devoutly Catholic Geach, from the socialist Carnap to the conservative Quine - can address themselves to the same set of problems, using the same language, without their religious and political differences impeding the exchange of ideas in any way. Analytical philosophy is a much duller business than Scruton makes it out to be - and that is both its strength and its weakness.