Modern Philosophy

A review of Modern Philosophy (Penguin 1994) by Roger Scruton.

This book is, as subtitled, “an introduction and survey,” but there is also an underlying thesis in Scruton’s arrangement of subjects. By “modern philosophy” he means not merely recent developments in philosophy, but an emphasis on philosophers since Descartes who are “modernists” – committed to the modern age, believing that “traditions must be overthrown or redefined in order to do justice to the new forms of experience.” New forms of experience include those made possible by the rise of natural science in the modern era.

Modernists necessarily conclude that there is no “trans-historical” truth; that is, that what is regarded as “truth” is derived only from the power structure, the interests, which inform it. Thus, “truth” has no independent authority, but is contextual to time and culture. Clearly, this view excludes eternality of truth – nothing is true at all times and all places. There is no foundational principle for something being regarded as “true.”

Indeed the very word – truth – is unmoored from its usual meaning. Or, perhaps more accurately, the word “truth” is used to sow confusion beause we use it to mean two different things. One—let’s call it capital-T Truth—is the baseline orientation for all our mental efforts, unchanging across all philosophical meanderings. The other “truth” is just a construct for whatever is the present discussion, a variable, like using “x” in basic algebra.

This difference in meaning for the word “truth” leads to a self-refuting paradox. No, not “paradox.” Fatal inconsistency. A philosopher who says there are no truths, or that all truths are merely relative, or that truth is a changeable state rendering capital-T Truth illusory, is essentially saying you should not believe him. So don’t, as Scruton advises.

Scruton re-affirms the argument of this book near the end, for example in his penultimate chapter titled “The Devil,” where he gives reign to his view that we indulge in a sort of negation that involves “ the repudiation with which we rid ourselves of that which irks us.” He’s pulling the threads together, here, no longer giving us a survey nor an introduction, but explaining the gap between our better angels and our worst instincts.

Our sense of estrangment in the world correlates to a kind of repudiation. As we grow to adulthood, we experience an increasing awareness of our estrangement from our family, until we come to a point of repudiation of them. This often takes the form of teenage rebellion, in which the adolescent is tortured by that sense of alienation and feels he must finish the job, so to speak, sundering the ties that formerly bound him in bonds of love but also restraint.

We naturally hope the rift is not permanent. “Rejection may lead to reconciliation, as the son learns to sympathise with the father, and to see the old law as a necessary precursor to his own affirmation.” But the break might also lead to a lifelong posture of negation, “a refusal to accept any external authority and a rejection of every value, every custom, every norm which impedes the ‘liberation’ of the self.”

As with individual adolescent angst, so with the movement within society toward the false sense of liberation:

This arrest of the soul in the posture of negation is worthy of study, since it is at the root of much that passes for philosophy in a modern university: from Marxism to deconstruction, the modernist philosopher has occupied himself with proof that there is no authority, no source of law, no value and no meaning in the culture and institutions that we have inherited, and that the sole purpose of thought is to clear the way for “liberation.”

This thesis is valuable, and to my mind proven, but there’s more to the book than this. It clocks in at a pithy 495 pages excluding a 100-page “study guide” which adds depth beyond mere footnotes. Don’t be put off, this isn’t strictly for philosopher egg-heads, it’s an accessible work. Aside from illuminating the distortions of modern philosophy, the subjects covered will take you deeper on a wide array of subjects of philosophy, especially if you’ve started out with some of the basics already in hand.

Please go out and read this book. Carry it around with you. Take it in a few pages at a time. The world will make a whole lot more sense, I promise.

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