Hazy thoughts on The Soul of the World


Having finished Roger Scruton’s recent book, The Soul of the World:

– Scruton’s ultimate aim here turns out to be pretty similar to where Kant wound up at the end of his Critique of Pure Reason: that is, the sort of speculative theologizing of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas et al. is ultimately a red herring, but we can, in the realm of practical reasoning, have good cause for finding faith in God.

The major difference is that, while Kant was specifically critiquing traditional theology, Scruton is interested in defending that philosophical realm of practical reasoning against absorption into the hard sciences. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to this, but on the other, the Kantian understanding of faith and reason is, well, wrong.

– The first chunk of the book is dedicated to critiquing reductionist accounts of human behavior, with a particular focus given to religion.  To oversimplify things, even if we accept, say, a particular evolutionary psychology-type explanation of the origins of religious practices, this does not amount to a complete explanation of what those practices are about.

Scruton makes a helpful musical analogy here:

Consider the theme that opens Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (ex. 1) From the point of view of science this consists of a series of pitched sounds, one after the other, each identified by frequency. But we do not hear a sequence of pitched sounds. We hear a melody, which begins on the first note and moves upward from C go G, via E-flat, and then stepwise downward to the starting point. But somehow the movement hasn’t stopped, and Beethoven decides to nail it down with two emphatic dominant-tonic commas. Then comes an answering phrase, harmonized this time, ad leading up to A-flat construed as a dissonant minor ninth on G. We hear a sudden increase in tension, and a strong gravitational force pulling that A-flat downward on to G, although the melody doesn’t rest there, since it is looking for the answer to the two dominant-tonic commas that we heard earlier, and it finds this answer in another pair of such commas, though this time in the key of G.

You could go on describing these few bars for a whole book, and you won’t have exhausted all that they contain by way of musical significance. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that you cannot describe what is going on in this theme without speaking of movement in musical space, of gravitational forces, of answering phrases and symmetries, of tension and release, and so on. In describing the music, you are not describing sounds heard in a sequence; you are describing a kind of action in musical space….In describing pitched sounds as  music, we are situating them in another order of events than the order of nature.

Similarly the content of religion exists on a different order than the psychological/biological reality that makes it possible, and so it invites philosophical rather than scientific analysis.

– Scruton notes that said content is not just a set of propositions to be believed in; all religions also are a particular way of being. The Christian doesn’t just believe in Jesus, she prays to him, consecrates her life to him, etc.

While this is an important point which is often overlooked in discussions about religion, it is also where my differences with Scruton come to the front. For Scruton, the divide between metaphysical God-talk and existential God-talk is enough to suggest that faith doesn’t have much relation to the former; faith entails a certain openness to the divine and the numinous, to encounters with God, but, “does not, as a rule, bother with theology.”

What Scruton is describing strikes me less as faith and more as a particular aesthetic attitude, and I’d say it’s entirely possible for people to have this without having faith.

The thing is that even though faith is relational, it can’t be disentangled from theology. To use Aristotelian-Thomistic jargon, in order for your will to incline towards something, your intellect has to know about it first. In order to love someone you have to know about them. In order to want something, you have to know about it first.

To have faith in God implies that you know something about him, that you already have a habit of theology. It doesn’t have to be philosophically fancy to be there, but it does mean that the world of creeds and the world of prayer are part of the same phenomenon.

(maybe more thoughts on this later)


About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
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6 Responses to Hazy thoughts on The Soul of the World

  1. whitefrozen says:

    He definitely takes Kantian lines overall – his view of beauty is much the same, since he takes things like beauty and goodness to be firmly rooted in this-worldly practices of the pursuit of beauty, and in doing so we give meaning to the world and make the world a place in which we *belong*.

  2. jubilare says:

    I think it was C.S. Lewis who, as he often does, says something that resonates with me on this area. He was writing about devotional literature versus tough theology, and he made the argument that he often finds the latter more devotional than the former. So do I. I gain more spiritual traction from the tough digging. Maybe that is a function of my personality or my upbringing, or maybe it is because faith and theology are not interdependent things.

    • Josh W says:

      I’m the same way; it’s probably a bit of both supernature and nurture. I think our different temperaments help us reflect the complementary aspects of faith – some more intellectually, others more contemplatively, etc.

  3. jubilare says:

    *rolls eyes* “independent things.”

  4. Pingback: Top ten books of 2015 | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

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