As well as being noted as a political theorist and commentator on political and cultural affairs both in Britain and the USA, Scruton has written widely on aesthetics and on matters of taste in architecture, music, and the other arts.
In his inaugural lecture as professor of aesthetics at the University of London, Scruton attempted to restore the subject of aesthetics to the place of philosophical eminence once accorded it by Kant and Schiller, and from which it has been deposed by generations of analytic philosophers. Scruton's view stems from a bifurcation between the world revealed by scientific inquiry and that in which we live our daily lives, the Lebenswelt of the phenomenologists. In the scientific paradigm, the human subject is, as far as possible, eliminated: Scruton agrees with many contemporary analytic philosophers and philosophers of science in seeing science as aiming at an impersonal and absolute view of the world as it is in itself, and not necessarily as it is revealed to us in everyday experience. But unlike, say, Quine, Scruton is concerned to stress what is absent from the scientific paradigm and its construal of objective knowledge.
What is absent is precisely that “intentional understanding” by which we describe, criticize, and justify the world as it appears. Intentional understanding fills the world with the meanings implicit in our aims, actions, and emotions. The concepts and explanations generated in this understanding have evolved in answer to the needs of generations, and cannot be replaced by the deeper-level scientific accounts of the world, which, in their abstraction from appearance, can lead to an estrangement of the human subject from the world of appearance in which, perforce, he lives his life. As we will see, in his later aesthetic writings, Scruton has been concerned to discover in the aesthetic a remedy for the resulting desacralization and dehumanization.
In his books Art and Imagination, The Aesthetics of Architecture, and The Aesthetics of Music Scruton has developed an analysis of aesthetic judgment, grounding that judgment in the imaginative experience of the perceiver. In an analogy he uses more than once, he contrasts the pigments and blobs of paint a painting such as the Mona Lisa consists in as a physical object, no doubt analyzable ultimately in terms of physics, with how we actually see it as a painting and what the painting means. Similarly, a work of music consists of separate and discrete sounds, ultimately wave patterns in the atmosphere, to be sure, but that is not how we hear it. We hear it in an “acousmatic realm” where the sounds have an inner logic of perceived or imagined feeling and movement, a movement in which the music, without being a self, nevertheless has many of the attributes of a living spirit, endowed with gesture, rational agency, and freedom of consciousness. Precisely because music is nonrepresentational, this human charge is stronger than in the other arts. In listening to a piece of music, we enter its spirit and that of the community of other listeners, actual and potential, all of whom will be attentive to how the music engages them.
In stressing the ways in which works of art have to be experienced in order to communicate, Scruton wishes to distance himself from accounts of works of art which locate their significance in some message hidden beneath or outside the surface of their appearance, or which postulate the need for some quasilinguistic decoding of the aesthetic. Aesthetic experience is, for Scruton, on the level of our shared everyday recognition of the fitting, the beautiful, the funny, the tragic, the bizarre, and so on. In works of art we have some kind of disinterested manifestation of the sensibility of the everyday; they and the criticism of works of art can be seen as the refinement of our understanding of the everyday. Aesthetic experience, indeed, is for Scruton as for Kant that which reveals the sense of the world for us as human beings, that sense of which science cannot speak and from which scientific accounts, while in their own terms presenting a complete account of what is, deliberately prescind. Some readers of Scruton may find at this point a trace of the very scientism from which he would rescue us. For at times he speaks of the aesthetic realm as if it were in some sense metaphorical, constructed by the imagination (visual, musical, or whatever), a realm of “as if,” supervening on the physical. But why “as if”? Why metaphorical, unless we accord onto-logical priority to the perspective of science? Is the Mona Lisa's smile not as real as the underlying paint, the tragedy of Brahms's Fourth Symphony as real as the sound waves of which it is constituted?
In The Aesthetics of Architecture, Scruton is concerned to demonstrate by means of examples what the sense of particular given buildings is to the perceiver; how, by means of detail (or lack of it), a given building may come to appear serene or balanced or lively or theatrical or pompous, and so on. In his writings on music (and on popular culture), following in the honorable tradition of Plato and Nietzsche, he is anxious to show why some music (nearly all pop music) is banal and worse, and other music (much classical music) often by contrast deep and profoundly moving; he does so by pointing in detail to elements of the works he is describing which would be apparent to any attentive listener (which, in Leavis-like spirit, roots criticism in an implied community in which these judgments will be forged and tested). On one level, then, aesthetics is the systematic study of our experience of works of art, discussing them and judging them among a community of perceivers, which is itself developed in having those experiences and testing those judgments. In turning its attention to specific works and scenes in this way, it might be said to reveal the sense of the world, and for the reasons adduced first by Plato doing it well will be a work of the utmost importance both to individual sensibility and to public culture.
But in his subsequent writings, Scruton makes grander claims for aesthetics, linking it to religion and the decline of religion. Placing himself in the tradition of Kant, Arnold, Ruskin, and Wagner, Scruton wants aesthetics to reveal the sense of the world in the way natural theology tried to do and failed. It is through aesthetic contemplation that we feel the purposiveness and intelligibility, and even the personality, of everything that surrounds us; in it we get those imitations of the transcendental, of the world as somehow grounded, and of human life as sacred, which people once found in religion. It is precisely because they cannot accommodate this sense that Scruton rejects both the imperialistic claims of science to explain everything and the tenets of moral systems such as utilitarianism, which would treat human beings in accordance with some norm of scientific detachment and objectivity, analyzing their actions in abstraction from the contexts and contents which make them meaningful for their agents.
It is in a study of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that Scruton has done most to develop his account of the religious dimension of art, and indeed to develop Wagner's famous claim that it is given to art to salvage the kernel of religion by revealing the deep truth concealed in the symbols of religion. The assumption of both Wagner and Scruton appears to be that as beliefs, the symbols are not true, not on their literal surface. What is true in religion, and what we are also given in Tristan and many great works of art, including in Wagner's case his other late operas, is a ritual in which redemption is enacted before us, and in which we participate. These works of art, in being experienced, give the lie to the modern temptation to see ourselves as animals, products of the natural order merely. They clear a way for us to regain the psychic space necessary to reinforce our sense of ourselves as sacred, free, individual, and responsible to an order other than the Darwinian. In experiencing them, like Parsifal, we redeem and are redeemed.
In the case of Tristan the redemption occurs because the lovers value their love to the point of renouncing all else for it, thus showing the nobility, worthwhileness, and transformative power of carnal love. In the experience of the opera we learn in a unique and practical way the inadequacy of treating sex as a purely animal function, as an entertainment in the service of the causality of our genes. For Wagner and for Scruton, in contrast to the orthodox Christian, it is not that the ritual symbolizes the doctrine but that the doctrine is an allegory of the ritual. Redemption occurs in the sacrifice itself, not (as in Christian orthodoxy) after or as a result of the sacrifice. Wagner (and some other artists) resacralize the key elements of our lives in a world desecrated by the effects of science and the loss of religion, by recovering a sacred order and meaning within.
While many readers would accept Scruton's analysis of aesthetic experience at what might be called the lower level, the quasi-religious role he claims for aesthetics and for works of art is likely to cause problems. For one thing, it is not clear how works of art can restore meaning of a sacred sort to the world in the absence of any religion or natural theology to frame them. Just what are the intimations of the transcendental intimating if, as Scruton says, the idea of God is something we can grasp only negatively? (The fact that similar problems are wrestled with in the poetry of Rilke is, though, testament to Scruton's depth, and to his distinctiveness in the world of analytic philosophy.) Moreover, the relationship between the world of science and the Lebenswelt of freedom, responsibility, and beauty is more difficult to understand than Scruton's simple Kantianism suggests. Nonetheless, many will admire his successive attempts to link the analysis of aesthetic experience and judgment with the experiences that perceivers of works of art actually have, and to place aesthetics firmly within the Lebenswelt. They will also admire his attempt to bring thinkers such as Arnold, Ruskin, Wagner, and Leavis within the scope of contemporary philosophy – which normally neglects such figures, and even the problems they wrestled with; philosophy's neglect notwithstanding, the problems that they and Scruton address are and remain central to the future of our culture.
See also twentieth-century anglo-american aesthetics; imagination; religion and art; science and art; wagner.
- 1974. Art and Imagination. London: Methuen.
- 1979. The Aesthetics of Architecture. London: Methuen.
- 1984. The Aesthetic Understanding. London: Methuen.
- 1990. The Philosopher on Dover Beach. Manchester: Carcanet.
- 1997. The Aesthetics of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 2004. Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's “Tristan and Isolde”Oxford: Oxford University Press.