What is the point of philosophy? As a philosopher — and also, let’s be honest, as someone who has been haunted throughout his life by a profound sense of his own superfluity — that’s a question I think about a lot. Recently, I came across an answer I quite like, in the last book Mary Midgley published before her death in 2018, called What Is Philosophy For?
“Philosophizing... is not a matter of solving one fixed set of puzzles. Instead, it involves finding the many particular ways of thinking that will be most helpful as we try to explore this constantly changing world. Because the world — including human life — does constantly change, philosophical thoughts are never final. Their aim is always to help us through the present difficulty.”
In some of her earlier work, Midgley likened philosophy to plumbing: since both are “activities that arise because elaborate cultures like ours have, beneath their surface, a fairly complex system which is usually unnoticed, but which sometimes goes wrong. In both cases, this can have serious consequences,” and so experts are needed to help fix them. Philosophical problems are like great conceptual fatbergs — congealed masses of trash and grease, festering in the creaking, outdated pipes of our society and culture. It is the duty of philosophers to flush these blockages out; to find some way of preventing them from ever coagulating again.
For Midgley then, the need for philosophy is “not just a need felt by highly educated people” — trained academic philosophers, for instance, inquiring into such urgently pressing issues as whether you can love a merely logically possible girlfriend, or whether or not anyone really has hands. “Learning,” as Midgley put it, “is not a playground for the learned.” All sorts of people are exposed to philosophical need, whether they like it or not: just consider an issue such as climate change, which Midgley herself described as presenting us with a “conceptual emergency.” Or the birth of the internet, and how it has radically transformed communication, and with it human consciousness.
For this reason, true philosophers need to be able to do something that few thinkers seem able to, nowadays: to reach beyond the academy, and “look at the confusions where the problems are actually arising, in real life.” Yes philosophers need a lot of specialist training, but they must also be a sort of public figure.
It would be easy to see how, for people on the political right at least, Roger Scruton — who died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 75 — would fit Midgley’s image of the philosopher. Scruton was a sometime professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London, and a prolific writer of philosophical studies of music, architecture, sex, and conservative political thought. He was also energetically publicly engaged as a journalist (most prominently, as editor of the right-wing intellectual magazine The Salisbury Review), as an anti-communist activist in the former Czechoslovakia, and as an advisor to the government on housing. Scruton ran a consultancy firm, owned a farm, taught a private summer school (albeit with the wonderfully stupid name of “Scrutopia”), and wrote both novels and operas. In 2016, he was knighted. In a sense then, it is hardly surprising that Scruton’s passing would see him heralded by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as “the greatest modern conservative thinker.”
RIP Sir Roger Scruton. We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker - who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) January 13, 2020
And yet. For someone like me whose views are, er... starkly opposed to the ones he held, it is hard to conceive of Scruton as a philosopher at all. When I think of “Roger Scruton,” I don’t think of any particular distinctive philosophical position, the stuff of hearty seminar room debates: I think of a man who used his academic credentials as a license to be able to do things like claim that Islamophobia doesn’t exist, or that date rape isn’t really a crime. A man whose actual philosophy is hard to extract from his arguments against women masturbating during sex with a partner (an “obscene display of her body,” apparently, in which any (?) partner would “perceive (his) own irrelevance”), or praise of Enoch Powell (whose notoriously racist 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech Scruton saw as “(raising) in its acutest form the question of truth: what place there is for truth in public life”).
Scruton was a “green” conservative whose image of harmony with nature involved taking transatlantic flights every weekend to participate in fox hunts, which he saw as expressing man’s place within the natural world through the “unity of opposites” — one of those unified opposites, I suppose, merely happening to be a wholly innocent animal that has been pursued by hounds and mauled to death. A man who claimed to want to defend tradition and the social contract, but who constantly aligned himself with some of the most destructive political forces our world has ever known. A man who posed as an antiquated idealist while receiving thousands of pounds a month from tobacco firms to write pro-smoking articles in newspapers. A self-styled fighter of totalitarianism who cultivated links with Victor Orban, the authoritarian, anti-Semitic Prime Minister of Hungary.
Perhaps the key to Scruton’s thought can be found in an essay called “How I Became a Conservative,” originally published in his 2005 memoir Gentle Regrets. In its opening passages, Scruton describes the moment he discovered his vocation, as a visiting student in Paris in May 1968.
“In the narrow street below my window the students were shouting and smashing. The plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground. Cars rose into the air and landed on their sides, their juices flowing from unseen wounds. The air was filled with triumphant shouts, as one by one lamp- posts and bollards were uprooted and piled on the tarmac, to form a barricade against the next van-load of policemen.
The van... came cautiously round the corner from the Rue Descartes, jerked to a halt, and disgorged a score of frightened policemen. They were greeted by flying cobble-stones and several of them fell. One rolled over on the ground clutching his face, from which the blood streamed through tightly clenched fingers. There was an exultant shout, the injured policeman was helped into the van, and the students ran off down a side-street, sneering at the cochons and throwing Parthian cobbles as they went.”
Scruton, in short, saw the protesting students as a rampaging menace — with the policemen, the armed representatives of state power, their terrified, almost helpless victims. This inversion — the identification of the powerful as the victims of the powerless — is crucial to Scruton’s conservatism.
When I think of Roger Scruton, I think of a man who used his academic credentials as a license to be able to do things like claim that Islamophobia doesn’t exist, or that date rape isn’t really a crime.
The Gentle Regrets essay is full of references to how conservatives like Scruton have been marginalized and excluded from public life. “Almost all English intellectuals regarded ’conservative’ as a term of abuse” … “So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birkbeck, and that was Nunzia (the lunchlady)” … “Vociferous conservatives are accepted in politics, but not in the intellectual world” … “On the whole, however, the communist secret police treated one rather better than (protesters at English universities)” … “It became a matter of honour among English-speaking intellectuals to dissociate themselves from me, to write, if possible, damning and contemptuous reviews of my books, and to block my chances of promotion.” For Scruton, almost all of his intellectual colleagues are in thrall to trendy New Left, “postmodernist” thinkers like Foucault, who want — and this explains, I suppose, the threat they pose to the powerful — to abolish power wholesale (this, incidentally, is a flagrant misreading of Foucault, who did not see “power” as something bad in itself — but hey ho).
At one point in the essay, Scruton complains that his 1979 book The Meaning of Conservatism “blighted what remained of my academic career.” He was promoted to reader in philosophy at Birkbeck in 1980, and then became a full professor in 1985. After leaving Birkbeck in 1992, he held positions at Boston University, Blackfriars’ Hall, Oxford, and the University of St. Andrews. This was during a period when cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government saw a number of philosophy departments — such as the one Midgley taught at, at Newcastle University — closed wholesale; when “postmodernist” academics such as Jacques Derrida were both viciously and publicly vilified by their own colleagues. In a sense, Scruton’s academic victim pose is the analogue of the one he assigns his hero Enoch Powell, whom he describes as having been “cost his political career” by choosing to make the “Rivers of Blood” speech. In truth, Powell sat as a conservative member of Parliament until 1974, and was so popular among a certain sort of Tory voter that he was widely credited with swinging the 1974 election to Labour after abandoning the Tories over their support for membership in the European Economic Community. He also sat as an MP for the Northern Irish Ulster Unionist party until 1987.
Scruton’s victim pose came to a sort of logical head last year, when an interview in the traditionally left-wing New Statesman — at which the philosopher had previously been employed as a wine columnist — quoted him as making conspiratorial remarks about Jews in Hungary, and claiming things like “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.” Scruton was forced to resign from his role as a government advisor, the interviewer — then-New Statesman Deputy Editor George Eaton — posted an image of himself on social media drinking from a big bottle of champagne, and an almighty shitshow ensued. The right-wing Spectator magazine campaigned to have the tapes of the interview released, found a few instances where Scruton’s remarks might have given slightly more context than Eaton provided, and loudly claimed a hit job. Astonishingly, the New Statesman then completely capitulated, penning a bizarre apology in which they described Eaton as having “approached the interview as a political activist, not as a journalist,” and suspending him before slapping him with a demotion.
But then, by 2018, everyone on the right had adopted Scruton’s pose — from the transphobic feminists who claim they are being victimized by any expression of support for trans people, to the moneyed insider “renegades” who comprise the so-called “intellectual dark web”. As Barbara McClay wrote for this website, the 2010s should be remembered as a “decade of sore winners,” in which the people in charge have consistently been at pains to deny they have any power whatsoever.
This pose is a very powerful one. Like any piece of sophistry, it helps turn the weaker argument into the stronger. The pose can turn the interests of the powerful into a noble struggle against some imagined all-pervasive left-wing establishment; can turn precariously-employed grad students into a howling mob threatening the livelihoods of their tenured senior colleagues; can turn a government advisor being questioned on what look like some pretty racist attitudes into the unsuspecting victim of a politically-motivated character assassination by a “woke” PC thug. Every conceptual emergency can be dismissed; everything bad can be attributed to the impudent actions of the people attempting to do anything about bad things (thus Scruton is able, for instance, to dismiss modernist buildings as symbols of “alienation” — without also considering that maybe they feel symbolic of alienation because they are in fact responses to it).
For Midgley, the role of philosophy is to “help us through the present difficulty.” But Scruton’s thought seems aimed only at compounding it — at helping the people responsible for the present difficulty get away with things, to make the people trying to do something about it look like violent, unscrupulous fools. If philosophy is indeed like plumbing, then Scruton was the intellectual equivalent of the guy who fitted the pipes in the bathroom of the flat I currently rent — all of which slant slightly upwards, meaning that the water always takes ages to drain.