LETTER FROM ENGLAND
Don’t tell me that intellectual standards are declining in England. Where in the U.S. could you find a major newspaper that would devote both a lead editorial and a substantial article to the publication of a new philosophy textbook? But this is precisely what happens in England. The Times has just done this with Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy. An Introduction and Survey, published in March by Sinclair-Stevenson in London. And, just a few days later, The Times followed up with an in-depth interview with the author.
How can this be accounted for? Is Scruton also a rock star or a “gay”? Au contraire. Educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, he has taught for 20 years at Birbeck College of the University of London. He is editor of the Salisbury Review and a forthright spokesman for political conservatism, known for his learned polemic, The Meaning of Conservatism. On sex, he has declared, in his book-length treatise, Sexual Desire: “Homosexual love is metaphysically impossible.” Is his new book therefore disguised politics? Not at all. As The Times editorial put it: “Those expecting a proselytising right-wing version of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy will be disappointed.” Modern Philosophy is precisely what its subtitle declares: “an introduction and survey,” designed to provide the general reader with the opportunity to understand and interact with the great ideas and issues that have characterized the Western philosophical tradition, especially the 20th-century Anglo-American analytical school.
The university lectures which formed the basis of the volume are organized thematically: Scruton deals with some 31 topics, including Truth, Appearance and Reality, Space and Time, Being, Paradox, Meaning, the Self, Cause, Freedom, God, the Devil, the Soul, and Morality. The value of such a book should be obvious: Providing the general public with the means to consider fundamental ideas seriously in the age of the sound bite is an accomplishment in itself. But let us examine Scruton’s treatment of some theologically related themes to see if his conservatism has made him sensitive to problems touching what C.S. Lewis termed “the case for Christianity.”
The nature of truth. Scruton has little patience with relativism. Nevertheless, he gives short shrift to verification, repeating the old saw, “How, after all, would you verify the [verification] principle?” The answer, of course, is that verification, like the inferential processes of deduction, induction, and abduction/retroduction required to carry it out, are necessitarian: Without it, no meaningful investigation of the world is possible at all, and the academic enterprise (including philosophy) comes to a grinding halt. To answer Pilate’s query, “What is truth?” one must be able to distinguish meaningful assertions concerning reality from technical nonsense, and nowhere is this more important than in the religious realm, where unverifiable truth-claims abound (especially in California).
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