A Review of Scruton’s The Soul of the World

In The Soul of the World, Roger Scruton argues for a type of cognitive dualism that accounts for both the natural world—that is, the objective world of the neuroscientist and Darwinian evolutionist—and the Lebenswelt, 3150scrutonbook_00000002390the life-world that “emerges” from the natural world that is yet irreducible to it. Scruton is clearly influenced by the big names of continental philosophy: Kant, Husserl, Sartre and others, and he often cites Searle for his speech-act theory. What Scruton provides, with rare clarity for an author influenced by such difficult thinkers, is a fascinating description and defense of our attachment to the sacred.

The book is primarily a defense of lived experience in phenomenological tradition. The author contributes to this tradition by arguing that our live experience in the Lebenswelt (a term borrowed from Husserl) is an “overreaching intentionality,” that is, a response to a “subjectivity that lies beyond the world of objects” (175). In a world of objects, somehow the subjective emerges. When we glance at another’s face, we see more than flesh; we see one’s subjectivity. “The face,” he writes, “although it appears in the world of objects, belongs essentially to the subject” (96). This encounter with the other is the “I-you” relationship that cannot be explained or reduced to neuroscience. When we encounter the face of another we see past it, at its “horizon,” to encounter the other’s subjectivity, and this demands that we give more than explanations for our actions (through the examination of causal connections in brain states or “adaptability” in Darwinian evolution), but also reasons and understanding. This is part of the cognitive dualism: explanation on the one hand, understanding and reasons on the other. When we dwell only on explanation, the person vanishes as with our responsibility toward the person. When the person vanishes our action is governed by nothing but the presence of an object.

For Scruton, this encounter with the other not only occurs with the face of another, but with the world as well. He describes this best with a fascinating phenomenology of music. Music has a “movement” that emerges from the experience of sounds, but when analyzed as sounds one cannot find movement. This property of music as experienced is irreducible to the sounds, yet we hear it. No matter how much we analyze sound waves or even our experience with each sound or tone in a musical movement, we cannot explain why or what it is that we hear. We simply hear the music move. As with the face, in hearing this movement we are experiencing our capacity for “overreaching intentionality.” This experience with the world is like encountering a subject that isn’t there: “Music addresses us as others address us….it address us from beyond the borders of the natural world” (175).

In a few places Scruton addresses political theory taking a stance against reductionistic social science and Rawlsian and contractual theory. On his account, these all involve “clearing away from the Lebenswelt all the threads of pious observance that cannot be replaced by free choice and self-made obligations….[forming a world] in which we humans are not truly at home” (94-95). Instead of trying to reduce the life-world to explanation (which, again, he thinks is impossible), it should be embraced as fundamental to human and social happiness: “Through the transcendent bonds of piety we enter the realm of the sacred things, of obligations that cannot be accounted for in terms of any deal that we made, and which speak of an eternal and otherworldly order” (176). Scruton is known for his indebtedness to the thought of Edmund Burke, and it shows here. Grounding our attachment to people, places, and things is one way of justifying Burke’s theory of the “little platoons” of human relations. According to Scruton, our encounter with the other by means of the face and the Other in the world provides the basis for intersubjectivity in the form of shared meaning and solidarity in an age of alienation.

Scruton addresses other topics including Hegel’s political theory, religion, creation myths, the existence of God, and architecture. Much of the content is a summary of his previous works in aesthetics. Overall, the book is less than persuasive not due to any fault in the arguments (though I question a few), but because the scope of the book is so wide that it inspires the reader to read on rather than settle. Scruton beautifully touches the surface of so many issues that while a reader might not be fully convinced of all his points, he demonstrates the potential for a coherent and comprehensive worldview with an exciting and legitimate life-world.

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