Roger Scruton is one of the most eminent English-speaking philosophers; a scholar in aesthetics, political philosophy, Spinoza, and Kant (and subsequently Kantianism and post-Kantianism), he is a well-known conservative in the proper sense and use of the term. A skeptic toward market fundamentalism, a critic of the faux virtue and “care” pretentiously claimed in socialism, he is a man with few establishment friends as he robs left-liberals (social liberals) and right-liberals (erroneously called “conservatives”) and leftists the wrong way. In 2014 he published what he regarded, and wants, to be his legacy treatise: The Soul of the World.
The Soul of the World is a dense, yet concise (and precise), short philosophical treatise that grew out of his Stanton Lectures at the University of Cambridge in 2011. In the work Scruton offers a vigorous defense, and revision, of the philosophical concept of Lebenswelt. Lebenswelt roughly translates into “life world” in German. It was an emergent concept in post-Kantian idealist and German phenomenological philosophy in Edmund Husserl through Martin Heidegger. In this regard Scruton has joined the ranks of the German idealists who were skeptical of the pretensions of the post-Baconian new science utilitarianism which was the core of philosophical liberalism. Though the back-cover blurb reviews the book as a defense of “the experience of the sacred against today’s fashionable forms of atheism,” the work is really far from that from a philosophical perspective—which Scruton writes from; the work only vaguely stands in opposition to those fashionable forms of modern atheism.
Scruton’s main target isn’t necessarily atheism, per se, but the most recent iterations of the new science in new fields: cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, which continue to promote the reductionist materialist view of the world (even as more recent scientific discoveries have cast much doubt on the monistic materialist worldview). While this hollow materialism does, inevitably, exhaust itself into atheism and the elimination of the “transcendent,” what Scruton means by transcendent is the Lebenswelt—which is not a world hereafter but a world that is very much present in the now. The sacred, for Scruton, is not wholly “other” (e.g. the non-material realm of heaven as conceived in classical theologies) but the “other” world of the subject-object, object-subject, or as he terms it, the “You-I” encounter.
For Scruton, the problem with materialist readings of the world is not that they’re wrong; it is that they are incapable of grasping the Lebenswelt. What is the Lebenswelt? As mentioned, it roughly translates into “life world” which was a common idea in late German idealist and early phenomenological philosophy. For Husserl, but especially Heidegger, the Lebenswelt was the cultural consciousness bequeathed to the present generation by the past generations through stages of organic growth and the development untouched by the forced utopian dreams of social engineering. As Heidegger claimed, the Lebenswelt emerges from leaving the “world to be world in its worlding.” What Heidegger meant was when you leave the world, and all of its intricate webs and parts alone to do what they do: “world in its worlding,” what is produced is a marvelous organic organism that gives life, meaning, and sustenance to those who partake in this unfolding organic growth in its deep roots and flourishing phenomenological (experiential) life. Scruton is very much following this tradition but offering a more anthropological, rather than metaphysical, revision.
According to Scruton, as becomes clear by the end of the fourth chapter, the Lebenswelt is more than this world of rootedness and culture that Heidegger claimed. It is the world of the web of interrelational human experiences, relationships, and encounters; bonds, duties, and obligations—it is transcendent in the sense that this world of human experience is composed of social animals in relationships with each other, with rooted bonds, duties, and obligations to each other which transcends the mere individual. We have bonds and duties to our parents and ancestors (linking us to the past), we have bonds and duties to our spouses, neighbors, and countrymen (linking us with each other in the present), and we have bonds and duties to our children/progeny (thus linking us to the future). In this way Scruton is offering a sort of “secular” soteriology deeply rooted in Christian tradition.
The problem of the new science is that science cannot penetrate into this world of the Lebenswelt. When it does it reduces the person, human relations and relationships, love, sex, desire, duties, and commitments, to mere neurological firing of atoms in the brain. The reduction of the human being to mere matter in motion, a continuation of the Baconinan-Hobbesian anthropology, is, for Scruton, a metaphysical, but more importantly, ontological poverty. We become, in a sense, less than human as we cut ourselves off from the deep bonds and meaning in the world of the Lebenswelt: the world of human relations, relationships, human-to-human encounters, human-to-nature encounters, and so on. For Scruton, the triumph of the new science is to reduce the world to objects colliding with other objects and nothing more than that. Consciousness, subjectivity, person commitments, attachments, and bonds of duties, are all lost in the triumph of this purely materialist anthropology and phenomenology. As he borrows from other philosophers before him—this reduction of the world to material atoms firing or moving in a particular way to give us the current world of sensation and impressions is the “nothing buttery” argument: the world is nothing but (atoms firing and moving in certain sequences giving us the impressions of X, Y, Z).
In very telling, and critiquing passages, Scruton turns to art and music to make his case. He argues, quite convincingly to many, that the world of materialist science and robotic cognition makes art and music into a nihilistic playground. In rendering art and music as just soundwaves and beats—“nothing but sound”—or that beautiful works of art, or the world, as random colorations and compositions of matter—“nothing but color pigmentation”—the monistic materialism of the new science is deeply nihilistic. If this outlook comes to dominate the world of human consciousness, i.e. the acceptance of the world as “nothing but,” we, as humans, and the world, would suffer tremendously from this hollow type of existence and living. And who cannot see, with all going on today, the point that the German Romantics, to now Roger Scruton, have been making?
Scruton’s philosophy of music, which unfolds in the phenomenological realm of the “acousmatic space of music,” is the phenomenological sphere in which humans are moved into a relationship with music. As Scruton explains, music tells a story, it invites participation through dance, it teaches us sympathy and has a moral dimension to it. Scruton is perpetuating in his philosophy of music the more ancient union of aesthetics and morality common to the Greeks, Romans, and Christians who linked the aesthetical with the moral, and thus linked aesthetics with virtue. We still, perhaps, see the residue of this outlook when we call someone’s “good” actions in the world “beautiful.” For instance, “That was a beautiful thing to do.” Music unfolds in the space of music which binds us together; music is not simply “nothing but” pitches and frequencies at a certain tone blasting through the air and hitting our ears at a certain frequency which makes “sound.”
At the heart of Scruton’s world—the “soul of the world”—is human experience and encounter. But Scruton is no empiricist. He is a pluralist in the Kantian tradition: he keeps human subjectivity, or rationality, united with the empirical and experiential. His phenomenology is not the reductive materialism of the new science. His phenomenology is the classical phenomenology of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel, all of whom factor prominently in his text. This world of experience, of relations, relationships, duties, obligations, and aesthetics, for Scruton, point to the reality of the Lebenswelt.
Perhaps controversially, and unsatisfactorily for fundamentalists, Scruton’s defense of religion is not the religious fundamentalism of the Abrahamic religions which dominates media coverage (which he treats with much sympathy, along with Hinduism and Buddhism). Though Scruton is an Anglican in practice, his understanding of religion is that the world which religion is describing, or attempting to describe, is this world that is very much present with us: the world of human relations, experiences, of the encounter with other subject-consciousnesses (the “You-I” encounter), encounter with the natural/created world—the Lebenswelt in other words. As he says at end, “Religion, as I have been considering it, does not describe the natural world but the Lebenswelt, the world of subjects, using allegories and myths in order to remind us at the deepest level of who we are. And God is the all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature.” Scruton’s ruminations on religion, from someone who also practices a religious faith, is not necessarily something new.
As Scruton makes clear in other sections of the book, traditional Judaism and Catholicism very much describe—in their hermeneutical traditions, rituals, and sacraments—this world of the Lebenswelt. In some sense, Scruton (again, an Anglican) is attempting to recover this spirit within the world of Protestantism which has always had a problematic relationship to this concept of the life-world of subjects and sacred nature (sounding too Pagan and too Catholic in nature, pardon the pun). Scruton also maintains that the real impetus of religion is not the promise of an afterlife, but the promise of living a good and joyful life in this world in preparation for death. Religion helps to complete the transcendental circle insofar that our ancestors have given to us, we receive and improve, and we pass on to progeny. Those familiar with Augustine’s reading of the Fall of Man will see how Scruton attempts to resolve the problem of rupture with self, rupture with others, rupture with God, and rupture with nature; this is the great impetus of religion in his mind.
What Roger Scruton is really trying to save is the world of transcendental experience—and by that he means the world of human relationships, human-to-human encounter, human-to-nature encounter, and human-to-beauty encounter (especially in the realms of music, art, and architecture). According to Scruton these encounters are calling us to that which lies beyond the purely natural world; this is the world of covenant which he speaks of: the world of relationships and vows which are greater than ourselves, but it is also our encounter with beauty which moves us to something greater than ourselves as well. We can find peace and home in the world. Hence, the transcendental character and quality to these encounters. Our intuitions and judgments of the good, true, and beautiful, are not reflections of White, male, patriarchal, bias or prejudice, as is commonplace today, but true indications of the a priori. In this way Scruton is updating Kant for the 21st century while avoiding the pitfall of fatalistic libertarianism as in Jean-Paul Sartre.
Ethically, Scruton seems to be something of a deontological insofar that duties are what makes rights viable. Without obligations that are recognized by us, to others, the entire philosophy of rights collapses. Rights, as Scruton makes clear, allow individuals to carve out spaces of personal sovereignty—like being miniature gods with their own spheres of control that cannot, or should not, be violated by others. But rights require the recognition duties and obligations on part of others. For example, Scruton highlights the “right to life” as necessarily including the duty of others to recognize my right to life, and therefore honoring it, with their own actions. Failure to recognize this right, and the responsibility that I have to the other means the eventual collapse of all rights-based philosophies and societies. This is because the underlying anthropology that rights come attached with is that humans are social animals and not a-social animals. The whole language and idealism of rights is contradictory from the point of view of liberalism which posits I am my own in the world without duties and obligations, or even the need to recognize, others. But if humans are social animals, with subject consciousness, and, if natural rights are inscribed to human rationality (as the ancients from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Christianity thought), then the only way that natural rights maintains itself is through the recognition, and acceptance, of duties and obligations to others (because we are social animals). Our obligations to others are also self-fulfilling since others have obligations to us. Thus, the individual is made richer in a community with mutually recognizing and reciprocal relationships and duties to each other.
Furthermore, Scruton argues that this deontological natural rights philosophy and way of living is meaningful and fulfilling. Which is precisely what Scruton’s Lebenswelt is about consummating. It is in the world of the Lebenswelt that humans find a home in this world and this life. The bonds formed with others, with our communities, and traditions, the attachment we foster with land, family, and friends, and the subsequent fulfillment we gain in completing our duties and exercising our rights, is what makes life viable, meaningful, and worthwhile. In drawing from Burke, Scruton’s Lebenswelt truly is a lifeworld that unites the dead, the living, and the still to be born (past, present, and future) together. Scruton calls this the world of the beautiful settlement—a certain beauty, orderliness, and symmetry that results in neighbors loving and getting alone with each other; the creation of unique cultures over time and space, and advancements made in oral storytelling, architecture, and city-planning. As Scruton reminds us, etymologically the word neighbor means “one who builds neighbor.” Neighbors, like ourselves, are out to carve out their own beautiful settlement, which unites with ours, and grows organically over time, creating a growing culture, way of life, and particular attachment and fidelity to place and time.
The crisis of the Lebenswelt is one of consumerism, materialism, and nihilism. As he writes, “The culture of consumption sweeps across them like a tornado, scattering in its wake the doll-like images of advertising models, which wash up across the buildings and hide their face from view, as in the billboard- and digital-image-covered buildings of today’s Bucharest, a city once described as the ‘Paris of the East.’” The mechanicalization, consumerization, and atomization of society, and of human experience, is ultimately—for Scruton—the result of embracing the world of nothing buttery which results in a deep loss for human beings metaphysically, ontologically, and ethically.
The Lebenswelt is not a Cartesian world of interiority. It is the very present, and real, and concrete, world of human relations and experiences that occur in the physical plane of life. Rather than a world of interiority, the Lebenswelt that Scruton is describing, and defending, is the world of interpersonal relationality and experience (this carries with it several metaphysical and anthropological presumptions: namely that humans are social and relational animals, humans find meaning in experience and relationships, and that these relations and experiences point to something greater than the self). In this way Scruton is also following St. Augustine’s anti-Manicheanism; a sort of cultural Christian phenomenology free of Christianity’s theological dogmas. This life, in the body, and in the natural world, and with other people, is quite beautiful and wondrous—but only if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. And insofar that cognitive science and evolutionary psychology do not see or hear this world, any attempt to construct a system, society, or philosophy of knowledge (wissenschaft) of monistic materialist metaphysics—the “nothing but”—will, in due time, exhaust itself into some form of nihilism: permissive (anything goes), militant (anti-sacred), or hollow (fatalistic).
Roger Scruton’s Lebenswelt is not otherworldly. And neither was the Lebenswelt described from the German idealists and phenomenologists whom are Scruton’s spiritual fathers. The Lebenswelt exists in this world. It is the world of organic relationships, the web of the whole, where humans encounter other humans, form relationships with each other, establish the roots for bond and duties to one another which allow for a functioning society to come into being, and, of course, encounter the beauty and majesty of the world and the works of human hands: art, architecture, literature, and music. This world lifts us up beyond ourselves, directing us to something more than ourselves. The “world to come” is not a destination to arrive at after death, but the ongoing organic growth of the Lebenswelt—a new world of experience and relationships. But all of this is at stake of being lost, and with it the richness of the human experience.
The Soul of the World
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014; 216pp.
This was originally published on Hesiod’s Corner, June 13, 2018.