Thought that counts
Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton are not natural bedfellows. As a conservative philosopher in the Burkean mould, Scruton tends to regard the past as a country from which we have strayed too far, while the Marxist Eagleton looks forward to a world that has broken free from oppression and exploitation.
But while certain fundamental differences emerge in their latest books, there is also a remarkable element of overlap. Applying themselves to the question “What kind of thing is humankind?” Scruton and Eagleton reject the dualism that makes a sharp distinction between body and soul, and between human beings and other animals, and reject as well the crude reductionism that sees humans as fleshand-blood machines no different in kind from other species.
Eagleton’s short and entertaining Materialism blows the dust off philosophical materialism, a field that “stretches all the way from the mind-body problem to the question of whether the state exists primarily to defend private property”.
Comprising studies of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, it takes issue with the present postmodern orthodoxy that “sees nothing but reflections of human culture wherever it looks” and that constructs the human subject as an autonomous, disembodied being that seems to float free of its material surroundings and genetic inheritance.
For Eagleton this emphasis on “cultural constructedness” represents a crisis of leftwing thought and one of his aims in writing this book is to educate a new generation of radicals out of its habits of mind. For him, as for Marx, human beings exist in a complex and changing relationship with nature.
Eagleton’s is not a reductive materialism. If he is wary of the idealist humanism that sees human beings as in some sense apart from nature, he is equally wary of the “mechanical” materialism that sees them as (complex) machines. “Matter may be alive,” he writes, “but it is not alive in the sense that human beings are. It cannot despair, embezzle, murder or get married.” Yes, people are “chunks of matter” but chunks of a highly specific kind, and it involves no demotion of human beings to regard them as materially bounded.
On the contrary, the view that material nature is prior to culture (though mediated through it) carries with it an important ethical dimension. As Eagleton puts it: In the face of a hubristic humanism, [materialism] insists on our solidarity with the commonplace stuff of the world, thus cultivating the virtue of humility. Dismayed by the fantasy that human beings are wholly self-determining, it recalls us to our dependence on our surroundings and on each other.
Such self-determination as we are able to achieve exists within the context of this deeper dependency.
For Eagleton, who dubs his brand of materialism “somatic”, the key sign of our “agencycum-dependency” is the body, which he takes to cover our not just our intestines and dodgy backs but cognition and selfhood.
Here he is channelling Marx directly, treating our corporeal constitution and our practical interactions with nature — our labour — as an epistemological category, a way of understanding the world.
Labour invests nature with human meaning, and it is one of the aims of socialism, as understood by Marx and his admirers, to restore to the suffering human subject freedom over his sensory powers: a freedom that capitalism denies to him through its division of the world into abstract commodities and demand that we work to live and keep the boss in Audis and deck shoes.
Rather in the way that poetry “seeks to restore to language something of the sensuous fullness that abstraction and utility have stripped from it”, socialism seeks to restore to humans the joys of the body’s “plundered powers”.
Eagleton is a wonderful writer, and if his cruising levity can sometimes wear a little thin, this is a tiny price to pay for a performance of such panache and brio.
Indeed, his levity is fundamental to his way of doing philosophy. When Eagleton writes that materialism “can mean a denial of God, a belief that the Great Wall of China and Clint Eastwood’s ankles are secretly interrelated, or an insistence that the Golden Gate Bridge continues to exist when nobody is looking at it”, he is not being facetious; he is attempting to pop philosophy’s bubble, to bring it down to earth.
It is his way of staying true to Marx’s dictum that the aim of philosophy should be to change the world, not simply to understand it. (And anyway, dialectical materialism does indeed assume the secret interrelation of the Great Wall of China and Eastwood’s ankles.)
Scruton is not as funny as Eagleton, but On Human Nature is a fine performance nonetheless.
Its principal target is not cultural studies but the human subject as imagined by scientists of the “new atheist” variety — thinkers whose habit is to read biology and evolution back into human phenomena that do not require such explanation.
Confusing the insight that human beings are animals with the belief that they are like other animals, these thinkers will tend to look at, say, the human trait of altruism and assume that, because human beings are animals evolved across hundreds of thousands of years, altruism must have an evolutionary explanation.
In this way human culture is constructed as a mere reflection or extrusion of nature, and mutual judgment, morality and so on denuded of their specialness, which is to say their peculiarity to us.
To be clear, Scruton in no way dissents from the view that human beings are animals. But, like Eagleton, he sees them as animals of a particular kind with particular strengths. One of these strengths is rationality which, like our sex drive, is an adaptive trait.
But to assume that because rationality is adaptive everything to which rationality gives rise must be adaptive too is a non sequitur. As Scruton puts it: “It is a trivial truth that dysfunctional attributes disappear; it is a substantial theoretical claim that functional attributes exist because of their function.”
This is all clearly set out, but Scruton’s conservatism does lead him into some tight corners. This is especially the case in his comments on religion, which he defends from the animadversions of the new atheists with the claim that religious people understand “truths” about human beings that are unavailable to the atheist — that they are free, selfconscious, responsible animals — and that the criticism of religion is therefore misplaced. Indeed, that it’s a sort of category mistake that confuses a metaphorical view of the world with a claim about how it really is.
But this is disingenuous. For whatever the new atheists’ view of the human animal — and it may indeed be limited — their criticism of religion is motivated by the enormous claims it makes for itself and the damage it inflicts as a consequence.
To put it in terms that Eagleton may favour — and Eagleton, too, has been critical of the new atheists — most religion is just bad ideology. My sense is that Scruton wants to sanitise this fact so as to land a punch on the “Brights”.
Well, the radical and the conservative have to part company somewhere, I guess. Nor should we seek to elide or minimise the ideological differences between the two. But as mainstream liberalism comes under pressure from parties of the left and right, it is interesting to note the areas of overlap between these representatives of two very different political traditions, and to reflect on the false antitheses that characterise so much of the debate about our species. is a writer and critic.