Book review: On Human Nature by Roger Scruton

by Alison McCulloch / 10 May, 2017

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.

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