How to be moral

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Jane O'Grady discusses a fascinating new treatise on philosophy. AN INTELLIGENT PERSON'S GUIDE TO PHILOSOPHY By Roger Scruton Duckworth Pounds 12.95.

Modern Anglo-American analytic philosophy tends, as Roger Scruton says, to be so dry, academic and pseudo-scientific as to leave the reader cold. Yet Continental philosophy, which does tackle questions that touch us - about self, will, freedom, transcendence - lacks the stringency satisfactorily to address them. In An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Scruton seeks to combine the best of both the analytic and Continental traditions.

Most guides to philosophy are either a history of ideas, or an exposition of standard issues. Here philosophers and their philosophies are signposts,rather than stopping-points, on a philosophical pilgrimage which - taking in sex and the mysterious spaceless space of music - traverses Descartes-type doubt, Fichte's solipsism, God's death and post-modern relativism, to present a stoically optimistic hymn to humanity's transcendence.

At the end of the 20th century, says Scruton, the only widely accepted value judgment is that there are no value judgments. For science exposes us as nothing but poor, bare, forked animals bound for an indifferent death. And the "thin topsoil of human discourse" (love, goodness, spirit, custom) has been scraped away. Yet it is there, according to Scruton, that the happiness of humanity resides, and philosophy should be "a last-ditch attempt to re-enchant the world".

Strangely, Scruton reverses the traditional view of philosophy as seeking the reality underlying appearances - and in a sense reverses also his beloved Kant, whom he so lucidly expounds.

Kant says that we are obliged to experience the world under certain categories, and thus can only know appearances, never things as they are in themselves. Like the other appearances, we ourselves are subject to cause and effect, yet we hold a person responsible for their actions, even though an action, being a physical event, can only be caused by another physical event, while "persons" have no place in the world of appearance.

Therefore, as well as belonging to the world of appearances, we must also be part of the world of reality which we can never know, but through which we are free and moral beings.

For Scruton, unlike for Kant, the world of reality is the bleak, denuded world of science; the world of appearances is that of God, freedom, morality, beauty, love. His crusade is to "save the appearances". This might seem to make him like the patronisingly beneficent Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, who forces human beings to believe miracle, mystery and authority, since freedom of belief would be too agonising for them.

Scruton is restoring a neglected truth. "To see human beings as objects is not to see them as they are, but to change what they are". By doggedly following the causal chain, we ultimately "emerge . . . at the other side of the human person, in a place where he is not. And whatever we say, in obeisance to science, we should look at what we ineradicably do. How we actually behave is as though the world of objects were perforated by apertures, from each of which a subject peers, and through each of which we glimpse the 'transcendental' province of another's will."

Scruton does not mention the theory of evolution, which bridges the gap between subject and object in a less mystical way, and he is sometimes too hasty and glib in drawing grand conclusions, but, overall, this is a vital,scholarly, fascinating book.

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