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Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton, moderated by Hannah Kaye, at an Intelligence Squared debate in 2012 (©Intelligence Squared/Tim Bowditch)

It’s odd to realise that our two most powerful and prolific rivals in Kulturkritik were fellow-students of Jesus together, and seem now to be, in a philosophical way, cousins in Christ. Sir Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton knew each other at Jesus College, Cambridge, have pursued parallel intellectual careers, and have adopted the engaging roles of lion and unicorn fighting for the Kulturkritiker’s crown. Neither has won it outright, partly because they have both been politically controversial, but readers could always enjoy and learn much from a unique double act, especially after Eagleton had begun to emerge from heavy Marxist ideology, reject mere materialism, and come out to skirmish with Scruton more on his own rather well-clipped turf, rather than launching all his salvoes from the muddied Marxist trenches. 

The German term is right because the tradition in which they have both worked originates in the Aufklarung, and means thinkers and theorists rather than critic-essayists. Their work is as much a question of serious aesthetics as of politics, but if one doubts the intimate connection between these, a journey through Scrugletopia, now mapped out in about a hundred books, should clarify matters. Scruton built deep foundations as a philosopher of aesthetics, so let’s start there.

He reissued his second book, The Aesthetics of Architecture, in 2013. This, “the most important contribution to its subject since Ruskin” according to David Watkin, starts with the “first philosopher to suggest that the sense of beauty is a distinct . . . employment of the mind comparable to moral and scientific understanding” (Kant); but Scruton went further, to “demonstrate that the division between practical reason and aesthetic understanding is in fact untenable, and that until the relation between the two is re-established they must both remain impoverished”. He rejects merely utilitarian, empiricist or individualistic concepts, deriving a fuller concept of self-realisation from Hegel, which is achievable only within a web of social relations: this concept remains vital to him.

His illuminating arguments help readers to rationalise views held reasonably but not philosophically. He believes that “ugliness kills, and we should plan to avoid it”; that “aesthetic values are all-important: they are advocates of our long-term interests in the court of our present desires”; and, crucially, that there is “some core of aesthetic constants to which human nature is attuned”, and that “aesthetic judgement is closely related to moral judgement” — that no matter how hard it might be to gain agreement on how it is so, there are objective standards (Many agree, but neither he nor anyone else, to my limited knowledge, has been able to argue a definitive case, let alone prove it).

Such themes predominate: in The Aesthetics of Music (1997), one of the most ambitious studies of its type, he says, “We encounter works of art as perfected icons of our felt potential, and appropriate them in order to bring form, lucidity and self-knowledge to our inner life.” His approach is rationally subjective at times, almost in the manner of Montaigne, for he argues that we can find true freedom in music — the “transcendental unity” of our selves — a characteristic phrase; and that we enter thereby a “dance of sympathy” with others. Like Plato, he sees music as a maker and yardstick of a culture’s moral character. Later on, he convincingly attacks atonality (“the mere existence of a serial order . . . does nothing to prove that it is a musical order, or that it is the order that we hear, when we hear the music”). Here, and in Understanding Music (2009), he achieves elements of the impossible task of explaining how great music creates its mysterious meanings.

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David Gerhard
July 8th, 2017
5:07 PM
Just to be clear, by the comment ‘above’, I meant the one by Winston Salem (who seems to be named after a city in North Carolina), which I now see is below. And I agree with Martin Adamson – Foucault was a real revolutionary, and said, for example, that ‘when the proletariat triumphs, it will exert a power which is violent, dictatorial and even bloody over the class it has supplanted. I don’t know what objection one can make against this’. Somewhat scary.

David Gerhard
July 7th, 2017
9:07 AM
For a much fairer, more temperate and appreciative comment than the sour one above, see this link to a post by New Criterion critic Andrew Shea:

Martin Adamson
July 4th, 2017
9:07 AM
Certainly as far as Foucault is concerned, once I found out that his preferred model of justice was the September Massacres, I rather lost interest. Hard to believe that it is worth spending much time engaging with someone whose ideal is that criminals should be punished by being chopped into pieces by an angry mob, and then having their body parts paraded through the streets of Paris stuck on a pike.

Winston Salem
July 1st, 2017
12:07 PM
"He saves us, if we need saving, from wading through Althusser, Habermas and Foucault." Well, you kept up a facade of intellectual engagement for as long as possible, but then it slipped. Let's leave aside the complicated question of Althusser for the moment, and ask: are you really so self-satisfied and blinkered as to believe that Habermas's immense synthesis of streams of ideas, and his reconstruction of social liberalism has nothing to teach you? That Foucault's inquiries into the transformation of social modes - sexuality, law, selfhood - are of no interest in comprehending the contemporary world? Pathetic and wearying, and one clue as to why the Right are so rudderless at the moment - their intellectual bases have become so narrow and self-flattering that the whole thing is toppling over.

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