The death of Sir Roger Scruton has deprived academic aesthetics of one of its most creative, insightful, and wide-ranging practitioners. Roger was one of a kind: poetic, courageous, and funny. We have lost a truly great figure, but his writings remain to nourish, encourage, and educate those who value the humane conversation of mankind and the wisdom philosophy can bring to it.
I first got to know Roger forty years ago at London University’s Birkbeck College, where he was lecturing in philosophy and I was studying it. He was not one of my teachers, but I learned a good deal from listening to him in various settings—including reading parties at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park.
Eventually Roger left the academy to give himself wholly to writing, public lecturing, broadcasting, and afflicting the comfortable in the prevailing liberal-socialist establishment. Michael Dummett and Bernard Williams were leading members of the tribe that Roger taunted (sometimes needlessly), and this led to a long delay in his merited election to the Fellowship of the British Academy. In fact, however, he and Williams had much in common as philosophers.
Both had tremendous powers of comprehension, imagination, and insight, a common appreciation of the complexities of human thought and feeling, and a shared resistance to the instrumentalization and “scientization” of university study and scholarship. They were also great opera aficionados—they loved Wagner especially. Though they differed greatly on politics, Scruton and Dummett deeply appreciated the cultural value of religious practice and liturgy. Herein lies a lesson: Philosophers who hope to engage and inspire an educated and cultured public, as did Scruton and Williams, would do well to cultivate aesthetic sensibilities.
Before Roger came on the scene in 1974 with Art and Imagination, philosophical aesthetics was a marginal and rather dreary academic backwater. Philosophers of art and beauty were preoccupied with classifying and defining certain terms: “art,” “aesthetic experience,” “aesthetic qualities,” and so on. Apart from the question of whether it is possible to give strict definitions in such a diverse field, this approach tended to separate aesthetics from other parts of philosophy. It also fed off a meager diet of stereotypical examples at once overused and under-studied. Roger was a leader in a new generation of philosophers who tried to change all that.
At Cambridge, Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Tanner supervised his PhD. From the latter, he learned that art and literary criticism could be rigorous and reasoned. From Anscombe he learned little directly relevant to his specific research (aesthetics wasn’t one of her interests), but through her he came to appreciate the insights of her teacher Wittgenstein about the nature of thought and experience, and the value and importance of depth over cleverness. He once described sessions with Anscombe as consisting largely of periods of unbroken silence—from which he said he nonetheless learned much.
Art and Imagination explores the interweaving of imagination, thought, and perception involved in coming to see something in a certain way, under this or that description or aspect. This is a common feature of experience but one then neglected by philosophers. Yet “look at it like this” or “listen to it in this way” are common in contexts in which we try to reason someone into appreciating something. Developing and applying this approach became the substance and method of much of Roger’s writings on aesthetics, from The Aesthetics of Architecture (1979) and The Aesthetic Understanding (1983) to The Aesthetics of Music (1997) and Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (2004).
Through the years our friendship continued and deepened. We became battle-wearied comrades in the common enterprise of philosophizing publicly in defense of traditional positions on education, the family, marriage, and society. We often served as panelists or speakers together, and when Roger briefly re-entered academic employment, for short periods we were academic colleagues—first in Virginia and later in St Andrews (which he came to dub affectionately as “Stan Drews”). At St Andrews he gave the 2010 Gifford Lectures, published as The Face of God.
For a number of years he was a member of London’s Athenaeum Club. Later, he left that establishment institution for the Travellers next door, to which he also saw me elected. The latter’s associations with espionage, foreign adventures, and international affairs appealed to our boyish Buchanesque-cum-Le Carrean imaginations. Since my teenage years I had dreamt of being recruited by MI5, and Roger’s critics often suspected that he was a CIA stooge. Neither scenario was ever realized but in the (non-smoking) “smoking room” or in the library at the Travellers it is still possible to imagine oneself a secret player in the “great game.”
Although he is almost invariably described as a “conservative philosopher” and certainly sought to conserve what Burke termed the political “entailments” transmitted through the generations, temperamentally Scruton was somewhat Bohemian. This and his iconoclastic tendencies, together with a low boredom threshold, sometimes led him to shock “conservatives,” much as he unsettled liberals. I remember one occasion when we both spoke at a conference at Princeton dedicated to defending traditional marriage. Good things were said by a series of able speakers, but it began to feel like they were preaching to the choir. I suspected that this was Roger’s feeling, too, and feared what he would say when his turn came.
In a voice that sounded as if it were about to take the conservative argument to new heights, he observed that amid this wonderful celebration of traditional marriage, an important bulwark of the institution had been forgotten. Heads turned in curiosity. He paused, then said, “the mistress.” He went on, in a somewhat Chestertonian paradoxical manner, to argue that the mistress was a sustaining cause of fidelity, holding many a marriage together that might otherwise have fallen apart. To their credit the others resumed discussion without comment as if nothing of the sort had been said, but a few glances in our direction suggested they thought the Brits weren’t to be trusted when it came to upholding decency.
Was Roger serious? A bit, yes, for he was an ironist who believed that it is sometimes necessary to maintain appearances in order to sustain social practices whose foundations may be a bit shaky. This, I think (and to some Americans the suggestion is shocking), was also his view of religion. Nonetheless, in recent times his ironic celebration of religious authority and liturgy seemed to transform into a deeper hope for the truth of unironic, simple faith. In his last email to me he wrote, “I have been diagnosed with cancer and am now in chemotherapy, hoping to achieve remission, but not quite the man I was. All thoughts and prayers are appreciated.” I don’t think he just meant “wish me the best.”
Some years later we were back in Princeton for a symposium on “Sex and the Academy.” On that occasion Roger’s defense of traditional sexual morality was witty and without unsettling ironies. In 2017 I had the privilege of joining others again at Princeton to celebrate “The Achievements of Sir Roger Scruton.” The event had been organized by Robby George under the auspices of the James Madison Program. It honored Roger’s long-overdue knighthood the previous year.
John Haldane, Roger Scruton, and Ed Winters, Windsor c. 1980. Photo courtesy of John Haldane.
Another of the speakers was Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston who, with wife Sarah Jane Leslie, had come to know Roger. Great respect and affection had developed between them. While Mark’s career has been entirely within the academy, he shared Roger’s idea that a task of philosophy is to show that the world of experience, colored and shaped by human meaning and values, is neither an illusion nor a social construction. I think Roger recognized that while he had done what he could to display the complex riches and horrors of that world, it would take someone of Mark’s greater metaphysical gifts to reconcile the idea of the “manifest” world with the scientific conception of nature. Fittingly, Mark followed Roger as a Gifford Lecturer at St Andrews and the resulting book will unquestionably carry forward the humanistic project to which they were both deeply committed.
In November 2018 Roger became chair of the U.K. government's new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. But in April 2019, his outspokenness was mischievously exploited by a political activist in an interview with the New Statesman, a left-wing periodical for which Roger had been wine critic for most of the previous decade. A misrepresentation of what he said seeped blood into the water and the sharks attacked. Soon thereafter, Roger was sacked from the Building Better Commission. This episode revealed two things. First, that the self-righteous have little sense of personal integrity. Second, that the Conservative Party and government of the time had devoted itself entirely to managing public relations.
Scruton was without peer among contemporary philosophers. His range of intellectual, aesthetic, and practical interests was extraordinarily wide and was matched by corresponding abilities and knowledge: He was an accomplished musician, fiction writer, and horseman. As a critical thinker he was acute in perception, imaginative in reflection, and lucid and illuminating in expression. He was also dauntingly productive, with books on philosophy and its history, politics, the environment, and sexual desire as well as general aesthetics, architecture, and music. In recent years he added religion as a subject of his distinctive style of reflection, both in the form of a particular tradition (such as the Church of England in Our Church), and as a general mode of human consciousness and activity (The Face of God and The Soul of the World).
Reflecting on the growth of modern science and its impact on our experience, Max Weber wrote in 1920 of “the disenchantment of world,” and in the following decade Edmund Husserl wrote of “the mathematization of nature.” In sympathy with such observations, but in spirited defiance of scientific reductionism, Scruton sought to find a way to restore 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.
In The Soul of the World Scruton yields to Darwinian biology so far as it concerns the mass of living things. He draws the line, however, at the human mind, seeing in our self-consciousness and its intentional products something real that eludes scientific, and specifically evolutionary and neuro-physiological, explanations. His argument is 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 enter into the realms of human experience as realms of meaning and value, and in so doing we find orders of significance that engage us not as animals but as subjects. The primary locus 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.” 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 writes in The Soul of the World. 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 then extends his “personalism” 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 it is the latter that is the object of our aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual appreciation.
Happily, Scruton’s body of writing is so large and so merits re-reading that it can keep us company and continue to enlighten and inspire us; and thankfully we have many recordings of his talks and lectures. Still, for me and for many of his friends, Roger’s passing leaves a large gap in our lives that we know can never be filled. The literary products remain, but our sadness stems from the realization that we can no longer be enlivened by Roger’s animating spirit, or tell him how much it meant to us.
John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor, Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of St Andrews, and Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London.