Thought that counts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

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.

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