Book review: On Human Nature by Roger Scruton

by Alison McCulloch / 10 May, 2017

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

Roger Scruton. Photo/Alamy

Artful arguments about our specialness evaporate on first bite.

We humans have always been fascinated by how special we are. Look at us! Self-consciousness! Language! Art! Morality! And trying to get to the bottom of all that specialness has been a fixation of philosophers ever since there were any, as Roger Scruton makes clear in his clever yet unconvincing contribution to the genre, On Human Nature.

Scruton’s self-imposed task is to show that, in the face of Charles Darwin and his successors, we’re more than the sum of our biological parts. He’s at pains to say that he doesn’t deny we are animals, governed by the laws of biology – what he wants to explore is everything about us those laws leave unexplained.

There’s nothing too controversial in this set-up. Plenty of the so-called “reductionists” whom Scruton is taking aim at – evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett among them – would agree there are some very interesting, very big gaps in what we know about why we’re so special. It’s how Scruton wants to fill those gaps that’s the problem.

Being a philosopher, he’s also part sophist, and offers some artful arguments that seem solid at first, but evaporate when you bite into them. Like the mysterious difference between “human animal” and “person”, which he likens to the difference between blobs of paint on a canvas and the Mona Lisa: they’re made of the same stuff, but aren’t the same things. Pretty analogy, but it doesn’t get you very far.

At the heart of Scruton’s account of our unique “personhood” are interpersonal relations, here focused on the “I-You” encounter: “It is only because we enter into free relations with others that we can know ourselves in the first person.”

Scruton is well known, notorious even, for a political conservatism that stretches back to the Thatcher era, and his 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left (it wasn’t complimentary). And he’s still at it, smuggling a fair bit of conservative genetic material into this book, too, none of which follows convincingly from “I-You”.

Yes, we’re special. So special. (By now, you should have Chrissie Hynde singing Brass in Pocket inside your head.) But philosophers writing in the Anthropocene about our specialness need to move on from Self-consciousness! Language! Art! Morality! and consider their intuitions in light of Climate Catastrophe! Genocide! Nuclear War! Yes, we’re special. So special.

ON HUMAN NATURE, by Roger Scruton (Princeton, $54)

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Get the Listener delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

@nzlistener @nzlistenermag @nzlistener

Latest

The psychics of Sensing Murder are stuck in the realm of the hopelessly vague
95181 2018-08-20 11:39:38Z Television

The psychics of Sensing Murder are stuck in the re…

by Diana Wichtel

You've got to give it to Sensing Murder, never has a show spun out so little content into hours of complete crap.

Read more
Updated cafe-bar Imperial Lane is a refreshing new hangout spot in the CBD
95178 2018-08-20 11:36:54Z Auckland Eats

Updated cafe-bar Imperial Lane is a refreshing new…

by Alex Blackwood

The owner of The Jefferson has taken over cafe-bar Imperial Lane and refreshed it with a new look and a new menu.

Read more
Green leadership stands firm on Waka Jumping Bill at AGM
95160 2018-08-20 06:49:43Z Politics

Green leadership stands firm on Waka Jumping Bill …

by Gia Garrick

The Green Party leadership have dug in their heels and won't be reversing any of the decisions they have made in government.

Read more
Former Coro Street writer delivers again with Love, Lies and Records
95137 2018-08-20 00:00:00Z Television

Former Coro Street writer delivers again with Love…

by Catherine Woulfe

In Kay Mellor’s new drama, sweetness and light meet bitterness and pedantry.

Read more
A novel attempting a contemporary Lolita is bold but unconvincing
95031 2018-08-20 00:00:00Z Books

A novel attempting a contemporary Lolita is bold b…

by Anna Rogers

A 27-year-old man is obsessed with a nine-year-old girl … it's Lolita, of course, but Sofka Zinovieff's main character is no Humbert Humbert.

Read more
The woman who was her own twin: Exploring the most bizarre quirks of heredity
95139 2018-08-20 00:00:00Z Books

The woman who was her own twin: Exploring the most…

by Jenny Nicholls

A new book explores some of the most bizarre quirks of heredity.

Read more
Was former EPA chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth muzzled?
95121 2018-08-19 00:00:00Z Profiles

Was former EPA chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth …

by Peter Griffin

After months of controversy, Jacqueline Rowarth’s tenure at the Environmental Protection Authority came to a sudden end.

Read more
Why TV journalist Ian Sinclair is stepping back from his media career
94926 2018-08-19 00:00:00Z Music

Why TV journalist Ian Sinclair is stepping back fr…

by Ian Sinclair

TVNZ journo Ian Sinclair is going from the screen to the stage.

Read more