Regular contributor, Sean Walsh, pays a touching tribute to the late Conservative philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton. Providing us with an in-depth analysis of not only Sir Roger’s career highlights but also what he meant to Sean.  

The best tribute that one philosopher can pay to another is to engage with their ideas, rather than do the obituary thing. Sir Roger Scruton has gone home after a short engagement with cancer. He was 75. I suspect he’d think that is about right: he had a bugbear thing about people living too long.

He was a good guy, I can attest to that. It was rare for him not to reply to an email if the content of the mail was well-intentioned. And he’d be horrified at the idea that people are proclaiming his virtues when he was, like all genuinely virtuous people, acutely aware of his faults.

So I’m going to pick one of his ideas….one which I think has been left out of the general encomia (all of which are well deserved). The idea is this: what is going on when we encounter “the beautiful”?

Sir Roger is remembered as a philosopher who defended conservatism. I disagree that this is, or ought to be,  his legacy; he was, professionally, a technical philosopher who did his most important work in the philosophy of mind. But it wasn’t political philosophy that concerned him in the earlier stages of his academic career. That came later.

What concerned him at that time was this: why we have lost any sense of the beautiful? Why has our culture become so coarsened? Sir Roger felt that there were deep needs of the soul which were being bilked by the culture of our day.

It would be ridiculous to say that he didn’t have a point.

Scruton was, by temperament, an analytical philosopher.  He was taught by Wittgenstein’s favourite pupil, Elizabeth Anscombe, in a Cambridge tradition that urged that the job of philosophy was not to dissolve itself (that was the Oxford lot) but to develop ways of thinking that meant we can think of the mundane in deeper ways. He had no need to codify this in the tedious ways of the current philosophical Academy – he was able to make his own contribution by the vehicle of a beautiful linguistic style.

So here’s his greatest contribution to philosophy, I suggest. Scruton rehabilitated the discipline of aesthetics, by offering a rigorous analysis of what art is. Any theory of art, he argued, must be preceded by an account of what it is we are feeling when we enjoy a piece of art. To give an account of an encounter with beauty is not to look at the thing we find beautiful but to examine what it is in us when we are having that encounter. Aesthetics, he argued, is actually a sort of subset of the philosophy of mind. This does not make art “subjective”, things have to be genuinely beautiful in order to engender in us an encounter with beauty, but the structure of that encounter is something that cannot be explained unless in terms of what we are.

And when we ask what we are, we are interrogating the nature of the human soul. To encounter a great work of art is to have an experience of a very specific type. In order to analyse the experience, it is imperative not to explain it away. The current trends in philosophy, he argued, are impoverished accounts of the nature of the mind and are therefore incomplete accounts of the nature of the aesthetic experience. The impulse to explain the mind in terms of the brain is the same impulse that encourages us to explain the Mona Lisa in terms of the pigments on the canvas: in each case, something -the most important thing- is left out.

Sir Roger placed a 20th Century analytical metaphysical structure around issues of art and aesthetics and thereby deepened our knowledge both of what art is and what analytical philosophy can do. If philosophy cannot go to work on the stuff that we care about then what’s the point of it?

But his analytical scaffolding never detracted from a need to examine the contours of the building that was being held up. He was, frankly, incredible: in defence of Wagner, he would quote Lady Gaga. I doubt that would happen the other way around.

I said I wouldn’t do the obituary thing but when you write about a man whose ideas are so deeply integrated into his life the separation becomes moot. And that’s a deep irony, isn’t it? That the greatest intellectual defender of the conservative position – a position which favours hesitation over action- was willing to put himself in harm’s way in defence of that idea.

The “conservative” as “subversive”: what a wonderful gift this man was. And God bless him.

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