“We human beings are animals, governed by the laws of biology.” So begins Roger Scruton’s new book, based on his Test Memorial Lectures at Princeton. This opening sentence could as well have begun a book on human nature by a materialist philosopher or scientist, say Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins, who—like Scruton—would go on to cite results of comparative anatomy, evolutionary biology, ethology, and recent neuroscience to show the similarities and continuities between humans and other animals. But where thinkers such as Dennett and Dawkins end with a view of a human being as simply another animal, even if in some ways the most advanced, Scruton maintains that animality is but one aspect of our human nature. Unlike other animals (so far as we know), we are unique in possessing a mental life that empirical science cannot adequately understand. Moreover, according to Scruton, this mental life is not that of an isolated Cartesian thinker in need of elusive arguments to prove that there is an external world and other minds. Our mental life is by its nature directed outward to a human world that we share with other human beings and that we must understand via concepts such as subjectivity, truth, moral values, persons, and beauty that are not open to scientific explanation.
Scruton begins with two common human behaviors: laughing with one another about our faults and blaming one another for our misdeeds. He acknowledges that evolutionary psychologists might offer plausible explanations of these behaviors. “By laughing together at our faults, they might say, we might come to accept them and this makes cooperation with our imperfect neighbors easier,” and such cooperation gives a laughing community a competitive advantage for surviving over one that does not laugh. But, Scruton urges, this explanation assumes the concept of cooperation, which is part of the human world but not of the scientific world of genetics. Similarly, Nietzsche’s proto-scientific explanation of blame, in On the Genealogy of Morality, sees blame as arising from guilt—the sense of sin that the weak feel when their powerful masters punish them. But, Scruton asks, how can a normative concept such as guilt be part of a merely descriptive scientific account? Such an account, he says, could only explain blame as arising from fear as a purely physiological response, which would miss the force of blame as a moral concept.
To make sense of such distinctive concepts, we must, Scruton says, think of ourselves not only as human beings (a biological category) but also as persons (a philosophical category). Scruton does not separate, in the manner of traditional dualism, the person from the body. Rather, he suggests that “we understand the person as an emergent entity rooted in the human being but belonging to another order of explanation than that explored by biology.” Here the term “emergent” is crucial. It is meant to provide a middle way between materialism, which sees a person as simply a body, and dualism, which sees a person as an immaterial thing (like Plato’s soul) quite distinct from—even if closely connected to—a material body. The problem, of course, is to make sense of a “middle way” between there being one thing and there being two things.
To show that introducing emergence is not just a verbal sleight-of-hand, Scruton presents an analogy with the art of painting. “When painters apply paint to canvas they create physical objects by purely physical means.... When we look at the surface of the painting, we see...areas and lines of paint and also the surface that contains them. But that is not all we see. We also see—for example—a face that looks out at us with smiling eyes.” The face, Scruton notes, “is really there,” although “there is a sense in which the face is not an additional property of the canvas, over and above the lines and blobs.” This is what he means by saying the face “emerges” from the paint on the canvas. Similarly, a person emerges from a physical body: it is not a separate thing from the body but, at the same time, it is not reducible to the matter that is the body.
Just what is this person that emerges from a body—in other words, what is this “embodied person”? For Scruton it is, first of all, not only an object in the material world (because of its body) but also a subject. To be a subject is first of all to be aware, and awareness is always directed toward something (the object of my awareness). When, for example, my thirst leads me to look into the refrigerator, I see a pitcher of lemonade, believe that it will quench my thirst, and desire to drink it. Here seeing, believing, and desiring are conscious states; and the lemonade, the quenching of my thirst, and the drinking are their respective objects. Philosophers use the term “intentional” to mean “directed toward something,” and they call organisms that are aware of their world “intentional systems.” (Note that, contrary to ordinary usage, this technical sense of “intentional” need not involve acting deliberately.)
Scruton allows that at least some animals are intentional systems in the sense of having experiences, beliefs, and desires; and he agrees that biology may entirely account for such systems. But he thinks that human beings are examples of a higher sort of intentional system. All of us not only have experiences, beliefs, and desires (intentional states) but also are aware of our own intentional states and attribute such states and an awareness of them to other humans. As a result, we inhabit not only the material world but also an interpersonal world in which we are “accountable for what we think and do” and must “try to relate to one another as responsible subjects.” This is a world that is not accessible to the descriptions and explanations of empirical science, which can only account for the objective aspect of human reality and not the personal, subjective aspect.
Another way to make the point: science can provide only a third-person account of human existence, not a first-person or a second-person account. Scruton supports this claim through “the argument from language.” This argument starts from the fact that “first-person declarations exhibit a special kind of privilege.” If, for example, I honestly assert that I am in pain, then I cannot be wrong about being in pain. This contrasts with the situation in science, where any assertion by an individual can be refuted by public evidence available in principle to any inquirer. No amount of public, scientific evidence could ever refute your honest claim that you are in pain. If it could, people could rightly say that it merely feels like you’re in pain. But if you feel like you’re in pain, you are in pain. This is so because it’s part of the linguistic meaning of the world “I.” As Scruton puts it, someone who thought she could be wrong about being in pain would show that “she had not grasped the grammar of the first-person case.”
Further, since this grammar is established by the usage of a linguistic community, the infallibility of certain first-person claims implies the existence (present or past) of other language-users, whom I would have to address as “you.” So the argument from language establishes the reality of a community of subjects, beyond the third-person objects accessible to science. (Scruton offers a similar argument, in a continental rather than an analytic mode, based on Hegel’s account of mutual recognition.)