“The Soul of the World” by Roger Scruton

Never write about politics or religion, they say. You’re bound to get into a heated argument and you won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. And whatever you say, you’ll alienate a good number of your readers. However, if you’re writing on cultural matters, you can’t really keep the subjects out. Religion especially. The entire culture of the western world – and of other worlds too, I think – rests on its religious heritage. And in any case, it’s a subject that interests me, and what’s the point of writing a blog if I am to steer clear of matters I find interesting? So, having recently read philosopher Roger Scruton’s book The Soul of the World, and generally blogging as I do about what I read, this seemed to me an ideal opportunity to alienate good numbers of my readers.

This post is not, however, intended as a review. For to review anything is to set oneself in judgement, and for someone like myself, not trained in philosophy, and who is, furthermore, not even well read in the subject, to pass judgement on the writing of an eminent philosopher, a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University no less, would be a trifle presumptuous. But since the book The Soul of the World is not aimed solely at the specialist reader, there seemed no reason why a mere layman such as myself should not at least set down, for what they’re worth, some of his more or less random thoughts and impressions. And if I should go badly wrong, I’m not so conceited that I cannot accept correction from those who know better.

The book was a present from my brother last Christmas, who told me (tongue very much in cheek, I hope) that he thought I’d find it interesting as I was into “mumbo-jumbo”. This was because, in some of our previous conversations, I had refused to accept the contention that there can be no more to us than the sum of our constituent physical parts; or that our consciousness is contingent upon our existence as physical entities; and so on. Not that these contentions were necessarily wrong; but, since they cannot conclusively be proved to be right either, I saw no reason to reject at least the possibility that they may be wrong. And, given my temperament, it’s a possibility that I very much wanted to hold on to, for it seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that our lives are much diminished if we lose sight of this possibility.

At this point, I realised that I ran into problems: I did not have the words to articulate what precisely I meant. I could, of course, use words such as “transcendence”, or “spirituality”, or whatever, but such words are not merely vaguely defined, they have been used so glibly and so often by various snake-oil salesmen that it’s difficult to attach to them any significant meaning. Poets, of course, can express these things better, so I quoted Wordsworth’s “sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused”; but this is the language of poetry, not of debate. The truth is I do not know how to debate these matters without sounding, after a while, like those various quacks and charlatans, and those professional purveyors of meaningless platitudes that are so regularly plastered across social media as if they were expressions of great wisdom.

We live, sadly, in times where the middle ground is not recognised as valid, or, at least, considered but as the consequence of a timid unwillingness to align oneself with one extreme pole or another. Expression even of doubts concerning the ability of science to answer, or potentially to answer, all questions we may have concerning ourselves and the universe we inhabit, marks one out as merely as a crank. But I most certainly do not wish to disparage science: I myself have a professional background in science (or mathematics, at least), and have no desire to join the ranks of creationists, proponents of intelligent design, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine campaigners, astrologers, homeopaths, crystal ball gazers, tea-leaf readers, and the like. (Oh dear – I have lost myself a great many readers with that, haven’t I? But since I have started, I guess I might as well continue.) Nonetheless, the questions I found myself asking seemed to me worth asking: can we really be so absolutely sure that we are nothing more than the sum of our constituent physical parts? Is our existence as conscious entities necessarily contingent upon our existence as physical entities? Of course, I do not know the answers to these questions. I do not even know if these questions are adequately formulated. But, given the kind of person I am, I cannot help asking them.

I cannot help asking also whether it is indeed the case, as Dawkins and his followers seem to insist, that the entire purpose of my living is none other than to propagate my genes; that, whatever I feel, no matter how precious or valuable – whether it be love for family or the warmth of friendship, or awed wonder at rivers and mountains and seas, or the ecstatic and elevated states of mind induced by the poetry of Shakespeare or by the string quartets of Beethoven – that these are all nothing but the consequences of complex electro-chemical reactions going on in my brain. I may ask why these things should set off these particular electro-chemical reactions in the first place, and my atheist friends tell me that these are but “adaptations”, by-products of the evolutionary process, and nothing more. That even my Wordsworthian sense sublime of soething far more deeply interfused is but a reaction to some stimulus determined by the evolutionary process that has made me what I am. Only this and nothing more.

Now, all this may be so, but my point is that, given my temperament, I’m not happy for it to be so. It may well be that I am a mere machine, responding merely to stimuli in a manner determined by the evolutionary process, but I am not happy to be a mere machine. “What’s wrong with being a machine?” I am asked. Are not machines as complex and as intricate as human beings wonderful things? Why attach to such wondrous machines the adjective “mere”? No doubt, no doubt, I reply, but how can I set aside what I can’t help feeling?

All this scientific determinism seems very plausible – and may even be true for all I know – but I can’t help reflecting that if it were that easy to understand the nature of reality, it’s hard to account for philosophers still arguing and tying themselves in knots over these very questions. At the very least, all this may be worth further consideration. And in any case, we tend, perhaps, to make more of our rational faculties than is warranted. I increasingly believe that our thoughts and actions have more irrationality about them than we perhaps care to admit – that not even the most rational of us could ever whole-heartedly embrace any idea or ideology that we are emotionally uncomfortable with; that our thoughts and values are determined to a great extent – to a far greater extent than we are perhaps prepared to admit – by our emotions, and that we use reason to do no more than to justify and perhaps to fine-tune these thoughts and values. But, as I have perhaps already meandered into areas I did not mean to when I set out writing this post, let us leave that particular chestnut for later. For the purposes of this particular post, I found it, and find it still, hard to accept that I am but a machine whose purpose is to propagate my genes; and that any sense sublime I may harbour of transcendence is but an illusion – some mere by-product of the evolutionary process. It is not, after all, to deny the importance of reason, or to refuse to acknowledge the immense danger of jettisoning rationality, to insist that our emotions have their claims also.

It is at this point that my attention was drawn to the book The Soul of the World by Roger Scruton. The blurb on the dust-jacket seemed to articulate clearly the various vaguely formed and even more vaguely articulated thoughts and ideas that had been whirling around my mind:

[Scruton] argues that our personal relationships, moral intuitions, and aesthetic judgements hint at a transcendent dimension that cannot be understood through the lens of science alone. To be fully alive – and to understand what we are – is to acknowledge the reality of sacred things. Rather than an argument for the existence of God, or a defence of the truth of religion, the book is an extended reflection on why a sense of the sacred is essential to human life – and what the final loss of the sacred would mean.

This is not really a book on philosophy: it is, rather, a statement of the author’s personal values and beliefs, stated both with elegance and with passion. It is, however, informed by philosophy, and it is not possible to discuss this book without addressing the philosophical ideas the author discusses. And, since I very much want to discuss this book, I must, I fear, put aside my diffidence on this matter: I’m sure I’ll go wrong in some things, but I’ll try my best not to; and, as I have already said, I am not averse to being corrected. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

Right from the start, Scruton rejects Cartesian dualism – this idea of “the ghost in the machine”, the incorporeal soul inhabiting the corporeal body, but not subject, as the body is, to the laws of nature. So in answer to my question “Is there no more to me than the sum of my constituent physical parts?” Scruton’s answer is a flat “no”: he holds to Spinoza’s idea of monism, claiming – although without going into it here in greater detail – that dualism raises more issues than it solves. But while he rejects ontological duality, he proposes instead a duality of a different order – a cognitive duality.

The exposition of this is complex, and I don’t know that I am capable of providing anything more here than a summary that must necessarily be crude. He speaks first of all of persons as subjects as well as objects:

A person is, for us, a someone and not just a something. Persons are able to reply to the question “why?” asked of their state, their beliefs, their intentions, their plans, and their desires. This means that, while we often endeavour to explain people in the way we explain other objects in our environment – in terms of cause and effect, laws of motion, and physical makeup – we also have another kind of access to their past and future conduct. In addition to explaining their behaviour, we seek to understand it; and the contrast between explaining and understanding is pertinent to our whole way of describing persons and their world.

Scruton moves on from this to introduce the theory of Verstehen, proposed by Wilhelm Dilthey, and he describes it thus:

According to Dilthey rational agents look on the world in two contrasting (though not necessarily conflicting) ways as something to be explained, predicted, and brought under universal laws; and an occasion for thought, action, and emotion. When looking on the world in the latter way, as an object of our attitudes, emotions, and choices, we understand it through the conceptions that we use of each other, when engaged in justifying and influencing our conduct. We look for reasons for actions, meanings, and appropriate occasions of feeling. We are not explaining the world in terms of physical causes, but interpreting it as an object of our personal responses. Our explanations seek the reason rather than the cause; and our descriptions are also invocations and modes of address.

Scruton concedes that Dilthey’s thesis is both “difficult to state and controversial”, but it is a central plank in his own argument. He now introduces a second German term, used by Husserl – Lebenswelt, the world of life, the world that is “open to action, and organized by the concepts that shape our needs”. This, Scruton says, is what Dilthey’s concept of Verstehen leads towards. He equates this with the concept of the “manifest image”, introduced by Wilfred Sellars in “a now-famous article of analytic philosophy” (well – “now-famous” to philosophers, no doubt …). This “manifest image” is the “image represented in our perceptions and in the reasons and motives that govern our response to it”. This is distinguished from the “scientific image”, which is “the account that emerges through the systematic attempt to explain what we observe”. The two are not commensurate:

Thus, colors and other secondary qualities, which belong to the way we perceive the world, do not feature as such in the theories of physics, which refer instead to the wavelengths of refracted light.

[Note: although Scruton is a British writer, the book is published by Princeton University Press, and uses American spellings throughout; I have retained these spellings in my quotations.]

Scruton uses for the rest of the book Husserl’s term Lebenswelt rather than Sellar’s “manifest image”, as Sellars’ distinction, according to Scruton, “does not get to the heart of our predicaments as subjects – that there is, underlying his account of the ‘manifest image’, an insufficient theory of the first-person case and its role in interpersonal dialogue”. Furthermore, he continues, he wishes “to emphasize that the distinction between the world of science and the world in which we live is as much a matter of practical reason as perception”.

I have, so far, used direct quotations from the book wherever I can: unused as I am to writing about these matters, I am afraid I will distort the author’s argument by paraphrasing. And, as this part of the book, laying out as it does the framework for the subsequent arguments, is particularly important, I did not wish to run the danger of misrepresenting it. All this is very new to me, and despite having read these passages over a few times, I am not sure I understand them fully. However, if I continue doing this for the rest of the book, I’ll end up with a post about as long as the book itself. So I will do my best to summarise as best I can what strikes me as being the central ideas and arguments , without too much recourse to direct quotation.

After laying out this initial framework, Scruton goes on to develop this idea of a “Cognitive Duality”, citing Spinoza’s view that “thought and extension were … two attributes of a single unified reality” – distinguishing between the facts describing the real world, and ideas concerning the real world. Kant’s approach too, is similar: we may consider something to be the outcome of immutable laws of biology, but also, at the same time, “from the point of view of practical reason”, a free agent.

Scruton provides many examples of this Cognitive Duality. A portrait may be described completely in scientific terms, by listing for each pixel the shade that is determined by a precise balancing of the primary colours. To reproduce the Mona Lisa, say, the computer will not require any information other than this. But this is not how we see the painting: the shades of the pixels do not enter into what we perceive, even though that’s all there is. Conversely, an account of what we perceive when we see the Mona Lisa is of no use to the computer in attempting to reproduce the picture. We here have two quite different modes of perception of the same thing, each complete in itself, but neither touching the other: partial information in one mode of perception cannot be completed by information from the other mode.

And similarly with music, a subject on which Scruton is particularly knowledgeable, and on which he writes with an evident passion. He describes the main theme of the first movement of Beethoven’s C minor piano concerto – a movement up from C to E flat to G, and a stepwise descent back to C again, followed by two emphatic two note phrases from G to C; then a pause; then an answering phrase, this time harmonised … and so on. This is how we hear it. But scientifically, what we are hearing is a sequence of frequencies, and nothing more. Where exactly is this movement occurring that we perceive so clearly? It cannot surely be a delusion, since we can all perceive this musical line, and we perceive it on repeated hearings. But where does it exist?

But could this be a delusion? Could it be the case that this Lebenswelt is merely a mode of perception that we cling to because it is useful to us, and that it has no correlate in the real world outside our minds? Scruton spends most of this book arguing against this contention. Twice he cites Leibniz’s concept of a “well-founded phenomenon” – i.e. “a way of seeing that is indispensable to us, and which we could not have conclusive evidence to reject”.

Scruton ranges across a wide gamut of topics, from architecture to inter-personal relations, from eroticism to our consciousness of our selves, and so on. Intriguingly, he interprets the myth of the Fall in terms of how we view and interact with each other. We do not normally regard our own selves as objects: we are aware of our own existence as thinking and perceiving subjects; and, when we interact with other humans, we grant them the same self-awareness that we claim for ourselves. The Fall, in Scruton’s version, is an allegory of our learning to see the other as objects. It does not necessarily follow that the two modes of perception followed each other in time, as the story of the Fall, set in time, may suggest; but the two co-exist.

In the discussion of inter-personal relationships, Scruton considers the contracts, the responsibilities and obligations, that bind us together. And, as part of this, he considers marriage: is marriage nothing but contractual obligations? Is love for our family, our children, no more than the fulfilment of contractual obligations, no matter how willingly undertaken? Here again, Scruton sees an instance of “Cognitive Duality”: yes, we have contracts that we are obliged to honour; but we also make vows, that present to us an entirely different mode of perceiving the nature of our relationships. Everywhere we look, we find this same Cognitive Duality – an explanation of what things are, and the meaning we attach to them. And this latter, Scruton insists, is not illusory.

This leaves room for – indeed, it perhaps necessitates – the concept of the “sacred”.  Here, I wish Scruton had essayed a comprehensive definition of the term. When he first uses that term, he cites Durkheim’s definition – the “sacred” is that which is “set aside and forbidden”; but that is not how he uses the term in the rest of the book. Neither does he use the term “sacred” exclusively as meaning “relating to the divine”: it is only in the last chapter of the book that he addresses the topic of God, whereas the word “sacred” is used throughout. Rather, he sees the “sacred”, it seems to me, as that the impairment or destruction of which strikes us as something that goes beyond mere impairment or destruction, just as our marriage vows go beyond our contractual obligations; he seems to see the sacred as that which, when damaged, is desecrated. Yet again, we return to the central concept of the book – Cognitive Dualism: the sacred is determined by the way we perceive it.

In the last chapter, Scruton addresses the subject of God. We are not at this stage in the world of philosophical argument: as atheists never tire of pointing out, the existence of divinity is not something that can be proved. Rather, Scruton declares the nature of his own faith, and argues that this faith is not something that conflicts with the philosophical framework he had presented up to this point. Indeed, it is entirely consonant with it.

This book is an account of personal values, a confession of personal faith, written with great passion and with great eloquence, and informed by a vast erudition. I personally found Scruton most companionable, and his arguments, insofar as I understood them (I do not claim to understand it all fully), fascinating.  But then again, given my own starting point, this is perhaps not too surprising.

I started off very much in sympathy with his outlook: I needed no convincing that if we lose the sense of the sacred, that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, we diminish the our very lives: I do believe that very strongly. And, while I have the greatest respect for science, and have no patience with the fashionable “mystics” whose vapid aphorisms litter social media, I am really rather fed up with what philosopher Mary Midgeley calls “nothing buttery” – this tiresome insistence that, as Scruton puts it, “emergent realities are ‘nothing but’ the things in which we perceive them”. Scruton expands on the position of “nothing buttery”:

The human person is “nothing but” the human animal; law is “nothing but” relations of social power; sexual love is “nothing but” the urge to procreation; altruism is “nothing but” the dominant genetic strategy described by Maynard Smith; the Mona Lisa is “nothing but” a spread of pigments on a canvas, the Ninth Symphony is “nothing but” a sequence of pitched sounds of varying timbre.

Of course, my impatience with this “nothing buttery” is a reflection of my personal temperament; but I think it may be argued that those who hold to “nothing buttery” do so similarly on account of their personal temperaments. Scruton’s idea of Cognitive Duality is one that I find very attractive, but, given my temperament, it is only to be expected that I should do so; those of differing temperaments will, I suspect, remain unconvinced.

It is only in the last chapter, where he speaks of God, that I couldn’t quite go along with Scruton, although, of course, I respect his religious beliefs. I, personally, remain agnostic: there comes a point beyond which I find myself unwilling to speculate. This earns me the disapproval of believers, for refusing to take further steps beyond that point, and also of atheists, who deny that there can be any point beyond which speculation could possibly be required. But my agnosticism is not, I think, a token of pusillanimity on my part: I acknowledge a great mystery, I acknowledge the validity of great questions, but I am content to leave the mystery unsolved, and the questions unanswered.

Let me finish on what is, perhaps, an incidental point in this book. In the chapter on music, Scruton refers to Schubert’s G Major String Quartet. I was delighted to find that Scruton values this work highly – for I do too. Here is Scruton writing with characteristic eloquence on how he views this piece:

… Schubert can show us stark terror in the G Major Quartet gradually interrogating itself, coming to acceptance, finding beauty and serenity in the very recognition that everything must end.

I can’t help seeing this piece differently. It does indeed start, as Scruton says, with an “intense stare into the void”, but in the subsequent descent into the void, heroic though it is, and in the life-and-death struggle to find something in that void that may possibly redeem it, I can find no “acceptance”, no “serenity”: the only passage in the entire work I recognise as “serene” is the central section of the third movement, and, even there, because we know that the movement is in ternary form, we know that the serenity will not last, and that the nightmare will return. Throughout this entire piece, I find unease, anxiety, even terror, and, while it is certainly resolved as a musical structure, this unease and the anxiety and the terror, for me, remain till the end. None of this is to deny that Scruton sees the piece precisely in the terms he describes; but what we perceive in the mode of cognition Scruton refers to as Lebenswelt varies, it seems to me, from person to person, and is as unpredictable as individual human temperament itself.

[10th August: slight edit to the above to clarify that the quote expanding on Mary Midgeley’s objection to “nothing buttery” is Roger Scruton’s, and is taken from his book.]

13 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for writing this. Scruton is a philosopher I follow from a huge distance, occasionally I remember he exists and I tell myself I need to read him, and then I forget about it for half a year again. Still I think I’d enjoy some of his books, or at least just his unusual mind – publically conservative philosophers are so rare amidst the jetsam of left-wing, liberal thinkers, there must be some value of novelty in that stance.

    The nod to Mary Midgley – my favourite living philosopher – was also appreciated; is the “nothing buttery” quote taken from Scruton’s book? Has he been reading her too? Or was it your personal addition?


    • Hello Miguel,
      As you say, Roger Scruton does indeed have an “unusual mind”, and for that reason alone, if nothing else, I enjoy reading him. I also like teh fact that he is prepared to take deeply unfashionable positions.

      The quote on Mary Midgeley is from Scruton’s book. I’ll edit my post to clarify that.

      regards, Himadri


  2. I also thank you for wrestling with these questions.Like you, I have been rebuked for finding such issues interesting because nothing can be proven except the material world and its processes. (Which, despite what they say, cannot be proven either since it may all be an illusion or a sham.) I come at this not through philosophy but through experience. The only world I know is the one I experience. My experience includes a sense of mystery, a sense that behind the answer to every question lies still another question. This used to frustrate me. My reactions were a problem to be solved. What little wisdom I have gained has taught me otherwise. To wonder is my nature and my privilege, as it is yours. Let’s enjoy.


    • Hello Nancy, I too have been rebuked for asking questions to which there is no answer: I have been told that the questions themselves are invalid. But often, formulating certain questions is in itself important: it is not to reject reason to insist that our emotions too are important, and that certain things that we feel deeply should be acknowledged, and even honoured. We do need to reclaim, I think, the various shades of grey between the definitive “I believe” and the equally definitive “I don’t”.

      All the best, Himadri


  3. Posted by alan on August 10, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    “if it were that easy to understand the nature of reality, it’s hard to account for philosophers still arguing and tying themselves in knots over these very questions.”
    I didn’t think that science was about understanding the nature of reality. I thought it was about describing those things about the world in that can in principle be understood and independently verified by other people. In other words science is about producing public knowledge about the world. This view (perhaps only in my mind) just avoids the subjective rather pronouncing upon its “mereness” or “just butteryness”. I don’t see that words like “mere” or “just but” have anything to do with science, they are subjective value judgements.
    As a conscious individual I have empathy for others that share the same problems of existence and suffering, but I don’t want to help them impose their totalitarian belief systems on to other people.


    • I didn’t think that science was about understanding the nature of reality. I thought it was about describing those things about the world in that can in principle be understood and independently verified by other people.

      Agreed, but many would say, I think, that the latter implies the former – i.e. that “describing those things about the world in that can in principle be understood and independently verified by other people” is indeed understanding the nature of reality, and that there is no other kind of understanding worth bothering with. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this.

      The problem with my saying this kind of thing is that I can easily appear to be anti-science, and I feel I have to keep repeating that I am not. Rejecting science and rationality is not only silly, it’s dangerous. To say “Aryan blood is superior to Jewish blood and I don’t care what the microscope tells me” is the kind of thing we’d get to if we were to reject science and reason, and no, I most certainly don’t want to get there.
      As for imposing totalitarian beliefs on others – I think you know where I stand on that!


  4. Posted by Janet Long on August 10, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    I can write some lines of code that will ask my computer to do some decision making for me. Even complicated routines are only impressive in their complexity when they are all naked like that. Lay a GUI over it and boom, impenetrable mystery.

    It isn’t enough, though, to shrug and say it’s all just code if you understand what’s under the GUI. The mystery is incredibly useful. It reduces the environment to something the senses can take in and process and allows you to ask questions about it without getting lost in the code.

    So if you think of a human being as an organic machine with the ability to perceive, respond, analyze, and store data, does that preclude the sublime? I don’t think so. The sublime is a defrag. It may be starlight or music or Moby Dick, but the sublime holds you in a suspended state while it tidies up your disordered soul and reminds you of your humanity, even if you don’t exactly know what that is.

    The soul doesn’t need to free float to be real any more than electricity needs to be a liquid to flow. The question is whether the data vanishes if the hard drive is destroyed. Well, no. The hard drive only recorded experience, which does not become unreal just because the one who experienced it isn’t around anymore. Tiny Tim lives in all of us, of course, and human existence is preserved in human memory. Much of your own data is stored in a human cloud.

    Sometimes the sublime happens when someone–Shubert, for example–stores some data in you–that is, the data is shared with you in some intimate way that orders your soul in a more profound way than, say, listening to a workmate complain about the air conditioning. But so how is your mind similarly blown by a waterfall or a big ol’ rock or a bobcat sitting very still and giving you a dirty look? Vestigial echoes of adaptations lost in some early lines of code? Why not? These things restore truth in us, reminding us of our size and place by stirring up feelings akin to fear.

    Fear, terror, anxiety, unease–these are all easily attributed to machine responses. It’s the longing that defies the scientific rigmarole and cries out to float free. The sublime produces a longing to exist beyond the machine, to reach the star, encompass the waterfall, inhabit the bobcat. It may be, on the physical level, merely a response to navigation signals, but the signals are real enough and the response, though it may seem to serve no purpose, gives meaning to being alive that has nothing to do with survival and procreation. It allows our heavy souls to float free.

    I think it is legitimate to consider “the rub”–that death may not be dreamless. If the mind is a hard drive and we are stardust, is it possible that there are sympathies, mirrors, forms of storage that are obscure to us but exist nevertheless? That we have an existence that is more than the sum of our own parts, but part and parcel of a larger existence? The universe itself is but a physical thing, which must be part of something else. We cannot say that if we don’t know a thing, it can’t exist. Scientists would get nowhere with a GUI like that. I think we have to assume there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of, but for whatever reason, it is in our code to try.


    • Janet, I’m not sure I am understanding how the sublime tidies up our disordered soul. My own experience is almost the opposite. The sublime often just is, and as a reminder of our humanity, I think it is very powerful. But the clean up function (an app?) just seems all too much like a rational act, not an experience that is mostly notable for the profundity of the feelings it elicits.


      • Posted by Janet Long on August 12, 2015 at 3:55 am

        When I encounter the sublime, I feel amazed–as in paralyzed with wonder. In that moment, the crap doesn’t matter. I believe it restores my perspective, and my soul, which may have been collecting barnacles, comes away cleaner. How’s that for mixing metaphors.

        Anyway, a rational act?–meh…Certainly not an intentional one. I think it almost has to be an involuntary response to something external. Unless, maybe, for artists who hit their groove–but even they often express that as snagging something out of the air that just came to them of itself. The song (or whatever) isn’t sublime so much as the experience of capturing it.

        I find the biological explanations incredibly interesting, but in the end the physical only serves to animate me. I may be carbon but I’m not a rock. That melancholy longing that is awakened by the sublime reaches for something immaterial–not the star, not the music, but whatever or whoever is looking back at us, reaching for us.

      • Hello Janet,
        I find it incredibly difficult to describe, or even come close to describing, what I experience when I am in the presence of beauty, or of the “sublime”; or what I feel about people I am close to; and so on. I have no idea how to describe the feelings aroused in me by the magnificence of the natural world: so I don’t even try – I let someone like Wordsworth do it for me, since he was so much better at it that I could ever hope to be! I do think there is a mystery at the heart of it all, and that it is important to retain this sense of mystery – that we diminish ourselves if we don’t. And this is why I find myself resistant to the ideas that Mary Midgeley refers to as “Nothing Buttery”, and never did understand the satisfaction many people seem to have in viewing humans purely as machines, and all human behaviour as programmed responses to external stimuli.

        In the second part of the epilogue to War and peace, Tolstoy insisted that this is really what humans are, and that, as a consequence, we only imagine we have freedom of will: in reality, we don’t. but this conclusion seems very much at odds with what the rest of the novel presents, and I wonder to what extent Tolstoy himself was convinced by his argument. To judge by Anna Karenina;, which he started writing only a few years later, I don’t think Tolstoy was convinced by this at all, and that his rationality and his sense that there was something much deeper than could not be penetrated by reason seem constantly at war with each other.

        I tried writing about this a few years ago, but it’s a theme I think I’ll need to revisit.

  5. Himadri,

    Excellent review. If you were off at all in anything you said, I didn’t notice it, but I’m not that familiar with Scruton. I really should read more of Scruton than the one or two essays that have come my way; his philosophy seems to be right up my alley.

    Indeed, I could not help but notice how much of what you have written here is consistent with my own philosophical beliefs. The middle ground is for me the place where we find the most interesting and intellectually challenging thought. Radical left or right seem to me to be dead ends, leaving no where to go, no possibility for more expansive thought. I am also increasingly frustrated not with science, but with scientists who have not taken the time to really understand the scientific process and so run about saying that evidence is essential to all knowledge, something that no one who properly understands the scientific process would ever say. (For example: in geometry a line has length but not thickness; we have no evidence for this, which is why we treat it as an axiom. However, knowing the axioms of geometry is clearly and indisputably a kind of knowledge.)

    Scientific materialism, frankly, scares me. It is not that I want something spiritual or mystic or esoteric or arcane. For me, it is enough to know that we humans are complex, forming fascinating cultures that are inevitably messy, even inconsistent, but still rich and vital and full of things that science cannot fully explain, but that hardly need a god or a supernatural provocateur to be understandable. Not ten years ago I had a boss who told me I was speaking nonsense because I made some comments on the culture of his organization. This man had a Ph.D. in Psychology! but he still felt that the language we use to explain the behavior of groups was nonsense. The social sciences are often as blind as the hard sciences, unable to see beyond their own disciplinary boundaries.

    Organon is a term I have begun intentionally misusing to describe the way we categorize our disciplinary schools of knowledge. Originally it referred to Aristotle’s six books on logic; in Greek it means organ or tool. My misuse is intentionally ironic, because our means of categorizing disciplines (Categories is one of the six books of logic) is today used as anything but a tool for thinking, it is not organic, and it does more to fragment and divide our thinking than to expand and enrich it. We seem to delight in ever more species of specialization. And philosophy, which should be playing the traffic cop, as it has in the past, has turned its back on the mess in favor of a philosophy of parlor games and logic puzzles. But the organon of our disciplines, the disciplinary structure as a tool for advancing knowledge is badly broken and sorely in need of attention.

    Scientific determinism has me as baffled as it does you. I noted a recent announcement about an experiment that seemed to have established that we have no free will. It drew the conclusion that our minds form a thought unconsciously microseconds before we become aware of the thought consciously. My own reaction, was: what does this have to do with free will? Since when does free will take place in microseconds. We are not talking about stimulus response. We are talking about free will. And free will takes place over time, not in microseconds. In free will, we reflect, discuss, test our thoughts, try new ideas, and, perhaps, we may find a route that carries us beyond the inertia of our original impulse no matter its source: biological, cultural, experiential, rote, habitual, etc. How can a biological activity that takes place in microseconds dominate a thought process that can take hours, days, even years?

    That we are made up of atoms, that our lives our formed out of genetic material, these are not sufficiently explanatory to enable us to reason the complex social and psychological manifestation that is free will. We cannot at this point provide adequate reasoning for how inorganic material became organic, yet we think that we can reason from the poorly understood quantum mechanics of atoms to a complex human behavior like free will. Do I expect science to give me a rationale for divinity when they are struggling with something more fundamental (and necessary) in free will?

    I have read Durkheim’s book on religion, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, in which he discusses the role of the sacred. He places the sacred prior to divinity in the formation of religion; most likely early religions were not in possession of any concept of the divine (which is a particularly sophisticated idea — and not likely to show up early). And it is difficult to really find something we can adequately call supernatural because, as Durkheim points out, it must be clear that the conception we want to call supernatural is above nature, or beyond nature; no such conception and we really have simply a misconception of nature. Modern scientists are particularly arrogant and ruthlessly middle brow on this issue wanting to blame earlier societies for not understanding what we only today understand by virtue of our new scientific skills.

    But the sacred is something a bit different. The sacred tends to be a locus for communal beliefs — and it was this specification of a shared feeling toward something beyond the self that really gives us the core of religion. Religion ultimately was the tool by which humans maintained the social structures they had inherited from their ape ancestors. It became necessary after the development of language (and I incline to the belief that it developed almost simultaneously with the development of language).

    Religion did several things for us —
    1) it helped in maintaining the subtle, even esoteric, categories that language necessitated, carrying them from one age to another in the form of rituals, chants, games, stories, jokes, and the general parade of everyday life;
    2) it allowed the individual mind, which originates in language, to continue to understand the necessity of the social, the communal, the work that is for us, not for I — if I want to say, no, this deer is mine — I killed it; religion says, no, it is ours — as was necessary for the survival of the whole;
    3) in the sacred, it helped to locate us within the topography of the land, among the growing categories of things we touched, felt, saw, smelt, and heard;
    4) it was our first human institution, and all other institutions have grown out of it (not excluding science), and it taught us how to shape institutions, how to maintain them, how to grow them, indeed, how to change them;
    5) it gave us heresy; we mistakenly think of heresy as outside of religion; it is not. Heresy grows out of religion; sometimes living in peace with the larger institutions (the shaman or witch doctor, I refer to as the heretic in residence, because they tended to be the one member of the tribe who could reinterpret the religion for the needs of the present);
    6) it taught us how to think, how to formulate solutions, how to solve problems, how to hold on to the tools, the problems solved, the solutions invented;
    7) it held the truth of our humanity in the growing realization of a shared sublime, a shared Lebenswelt.

    It has, too, its downside, of course, but the downside is that it is a human institution and could not but be what it is. When we war on religion we war on ourselves; how could it be anything but. Religion is not, as the fantasists want to believe, an alien product. No, it is us. When we war on religion and fail to understand it, fail to grant it that verstehen that Dilthey knew was so necessary to the social sciences, then we fail to understand ourselves; we throw away our humanity, carelessly, arrogantly, foolishly.


    • Hello Mark, there seem right now to be various intellectual trends that seem intent on reducing and diminishing, and they frighten me also. I don’t know if you have read this for instance: it denies teh richness not merely of literature, but the very experience of being human, and it’s just the sort of thing that frightens me.

      The “middle ground”, though desirable, is difficult, since it cannot be objectively defined: my idea of what constitutes the “middle ground” is someone else’s extremism, and vice versa. It’s not always equidistance, of course if A is arguing a point that seems to me far from the centre, and Y is arguing from a point that is even further from the centre, then the “middle ground” is surely not a point equidistant from both. But, this rather important quibble aside, I do agree with you: the idea that one must either be a scientific determinist or a religious fanatic really is quite odd, to put it mildly. There are an infinite shades of grey – far more than merely 50! – between the absolutes of “I Believe” and “I Don’t Believe”.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  6. Hello Janet and Mark,
    Do please excuse my delay in replying to you: youboty raise a great many interesting points, and neither of you comments can be replied to quickly. But I’ll certainly find time by the end of this week. I put this up mainly to let you know that I haven’t forgotten!
    All the best for now,


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