Roger Scruton vs. the New Left

  • 2016-04-12
  • The American Conservative

Every philosopher must practice the arts of critique and construction: dismantling the arguments one disagrees with and building one’s own intellectual edifices. Few thinkers are equally good at both of these practices, which call for quite different skills, though no great thinker can do one only. As in so many other philosophical conversations, in this one we can trace ancestry back to the same original pair: Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, is the champion of all dismantlers; Aristotle the king of the architects.

Continental philosophy over the past half-century and more has specialized in the arts of disassembly—in what Martin Heidegger called Destruktion, Jacques Derridadeconstruction. It has not always been easy to tell what such thinkers would put in the place of the edifices they dismantled; at times some of them have simply disavowed the need to do so. (After delivering a paper at a conference early in his career, Derrida was once asked where he was going with his arguments, to which he replied that he was trying to put himself in a position where he no longer knew where he was going.)

By contrast, the English philosopher Roger Scruton has devoted much of his career to the articulation of a complex and highly positive account of conservatism: of what resources the conservative disposition brings to the challenge of sustaining the social order—through politics, yes, but especially through the mediating social forces of religion, community, and the arts. But in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, he largely sets aside constructive philosophical work in order to dismantle the dismantlers. This he does with rhetorical vigor and flair, and though he often paints with the broadest of brushes and does not always make the distinctions perfect fairness would call for, his critique is a powerful one indeed.