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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 30 August 2013

"The uses of pessimism" by Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and a proponent of conservatism. Perhaps he is principally revered for his aesthetics: I can't comment on this. The present book is essentially philosophical and summarises some of the reasons why he so dislikes the opponents of conservatism.

This is the only Scruton book I have read so I can't generalise my comments but from my limited evidence it seems to me that this work is essentially reactive. He describes and attacks what he hates. He hates utopians and revolutionaries. Thus he attacks the French Revolutionaries and Mao.. In so doing it appears that he is guilty of the fallacy of the straw man. By attacking the worst excesses of his opponents, such as Hitler, terrorists and post-modern gobbledygookers, he seeks to undermine the moderates. But he doesn't seem to defend his own proposals.

However, my main concern with this book is that Scruton never provides any evidence for his assertions. He justifies nothing. For example, he supports 'free exchange' (free enterprise?) and the 'invisible hand' (Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market, one presumes) but he never defines these terms, he never provides any evidence as to why they are good (except that they are somehow opposed to what is bad and that they are 'traditional') and he certainly never explores the limitations of his ideas. He seems blind to the fact that the invisible hand of the markets does not always work perfectly, that theft and predation are a type of free enterprise; he seems blind to the fact that if 'America' does not enjoy global support there may be some reason other than the stupidity and wickedness of his opponents.

I came to Scruton from reading Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature and Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow. Both hammer home every point with evidence: Pinker usually uses 'real' statistical data and Kahneman usually employs evidence from psychological experiments. But Scruton's arguments against transhumanism, for example,  come from Huxley's Brave New World, Shelley's Frankenstein, and Capek's The Makropulos Case. These are all works of fiction. They may be dystopian visions but they are not hard evidence. Again, he suggests that we only need originality "when circumstances change" (p 21) but he gives no evidence for this assertion. I look at the evolving world and see that nature continually creates novelty even when circumstances stay the same. Evolution may be massively wasteful but at least it seems to work. I worry about a world where we can stagnate and yet believe we can turn on originality as needed. Please, Mr Scruton, give me some evidence for your point of view.

A lot of his arguments rest on rhetoric using boo-words to damn. He criticises "the worst kind of optimism" (p37); presumably the worst kind is necessarily bad just as the best kind of optimism is good. He criticises "unscrupulous optimists" (p38) (does he applaud scrupulous ones?) because they create "folly and wickedness" (p37) and fall into fallacies which leave them "forever in darkness". He certainly knows how to lay extreme language on thick. At the same time, apparently without the slightest concept that there might be a speck of wood in his own eye let alone a beam, he tells us that these unscrupulous optimists damn their critics as "not just mistaken ... but evil." (p38) Scruton, heal thyself!

On page 49 he contends, without any supporting evidence whatsoever, that "it is only in a society governed by the 'invisible hand' that true equality can be achieved: not an equality of property, influence or power, but an equality of recognition." Where is the evidence for the 'only'? Where is the evidence that 'equality of recognition' is the 'true equality'?

On page 50 he contends that we acquire freedom through "obedience" but he doesn't explain why or how and he doesn't explore whether it is possible to acquire freedom through any alternative method.

Again and again he builds a tower of conclusions, each one based on his own arguments and beliefs unsupported by external evidence. The result is a philosophical house of cards.

I was terribly disappointed by this book. Something is seriously wrong if this is the best philosophical justification that conservatism can muster. This book is little more than a list of unsupported assertions. The arguments lack evidence and lack depth. This book reads like the rant of a bar-room bigot seeking to convince by shouting reason down.

Embarrassingly weak. August 2013; 232 pages

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