Friday, January 4, 2013

What is Philosophy? Roger Scruton's "A short history of modern philosophy. From Descartes to Wittgenstein"

My long term goal is to make Indian philosophy part of philosophy tout-court. For this goal to be achieved, however, one needs at least two basic attitudes to come true:

  1. 1. an interest in what one does not know. If you think that what you already know is enough, you will not start reading about Indian philosophy. But then, I wonder, are you really a philosopher? Or not, rather, a dogmatic custodian of your relics?
  2. 2. a historical interest. If you think that the only philosophical points worth investigating are the fashionable ones, you will probably not be interested in classical Indian philosophy (and you will, hence, probably neglect also contemporary Indian philosophy). But then, again, are you really a philosopher? Or not rather a fashion-victim?
Thus, when I read introductory books on philosophical topics I check for these two requisites.
Roger Scruton is a well-known author and a very celebrated one (5 stars on Amazon, better than David Hume, who has only 4!). Unfortunately, he lacks both requisites.

Scruton's style is nice and his book can be read as if it were a novel and I guess that this is the reason of his success. However, I need to warn readers about his choices, which are biased against whatever he does not like, which he does not even try to understand.

1) As for India properly said, Scruton reconstruct the history of philosophy only through what he knows. In the case of Schopenhauer, for instance, the influence of the Upaniṣads, though explicit, is just not mentioned. Scruton seems to think that whatever he does not know, is not worth knowing. A book like that can be enjoyed and be profitable, but it is NOT a "history", since it gives not enough historical elements.

2) His choices in the TOC: the book has 5 parts, one dedicated to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz; one dedicated to Empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Hume); one dedicated to "Kant and idealism" (Kant, Hegel and a small chapter on Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche); one dedicated to Political philosophy (Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, Utilitarianism); one dedicated to "Recent philosophy" (Frege, "Phenomenology and existentialism", Wittgenstein"). Heidegger is not worth a mention in the TOC, nor is Husserl (not to speak about Gadamer, Ricoeur [not even mentioned], Bergson [not even mentioned], Russell and so on). Frege gained, by contrast, a whole chapter… Bah!

3) The author clearly does not stand Heidegger ("Looked at critically, Heidegger's ideas seem like spectral visions in the realm of thought; vast, intangible shadows cast by language […] This sort of philosophy shows, in Wittgenstein's words, 'the bewitchment of the intelligence by means of language'", p. 261). Nor can he tolerate anything which he does not understand. And his opinion on what he does not understand is quite clear: If he does not understand it, it is in itself not understandable ("In the next chapter I shall give reasons for thinking that it [Heidegger's work] may be unintelligible", p. 256). And its author is guilty of it. For instance, his claim that "Heidegger does not give any argument for the truth of what he says" and that his is not philosophy, but a "private spiritual journey" (p. 260) disregards the connection of Husserl and Heidegger and the rigour Heidegger inherited from his teacher.

4) The same applies to Scruton on Sartre ("This [Heidegger's] lack of argument persists in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre", p. 261), Merleau-Ponty ("The result [of Merleau-Ponty's work] has been a mass of phenomenological lore. I call it lore […] because of the impossibility of ascertaining its intellectual status", p. 266) and many other philosophers.

5) Consider the following statement, which is the closing one of the whole book: "Much has changed in philosophy since Wittgenstein produced his arguments. One thing is certain, however. The assumption that there is first-person certainty, which provides a starting-point for philosophical enquiry, this assumption which led to the rationalism of Descartes and to the empiricism of Hume, to so much of modern epistemology and so much of modern metaphysics, has been finally removed from the centre of philosophy. The ambition of Kant and Hegel, to achieve a philosophy which removes the ‘self’ from the beginning of knowledge so as to return it in an enriched and completed form at the end, has perhaps now been fulfilled" (p. 279). Thus, Wittgenstein solved the problems created by Descartes and Hume, the same problems which Kant and Hegel had failed to solve… Bah!

SUMMING UP: An experienced reader will immediately notice that the author has peculiar tastes. This is fine, but unexperienced readers must be warned about them, in order to be aware that this book is NOT "A short history of Modern Philosophy", but rather "A short summary of those authors of Modern Philosophy whom Scruton liked and understood, with a few degorative pages on the others".

Have you read this book? Do you have any other suggestion concerning scholars of philosophy who have authored (introductory) books and are more open towards (Indian) philosophy?


Unknown said...

"A short summary of those authors of Modern Philosophy whom Scruton liked and understood, with a few degorative pages on the others" - extremely well-said.

Jayarava said...

Thanks. I laughed out loud at each "Bah!" (and I'm still smiling).

Your critique would probably apply very widely - selective in irrational ways, confused, and afraid of the unknown. And unwilling to acknowledge any of it.

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