Roger Scruton – On Human Nature (2017)

From a book review of Roger Scruton’s latest:

Not so, the philosopher Roger Scruton says. In his finely written, compactly argued book ON HUMAN NATURE (Princeton University, $22.95), he sets out to defend human uniqueness — without denying that “human beings are animals, governed by the laws of biology.” His contention is that human beings are animals but also “persons,” by which he means “free, self-conscious, rational agents, obedient to reason and bound by the moral law.” Personhood, in this view, is not some extra thing to be placed supernaturally atop our organism selves. But neither is it something reducible to our biology. Rather, Scruton argues, our animal nature and our personhood are two distinct, contrasting aspects of us. One or the other comes into focus depending on what sort of questions we ask about ourselves. Science has much to say about one aspect, but not about the other.

Scruton offers an analogy. Consider a painting — let’s say, the Mona Lisa. It is a physical object composed entirely of physical things: lines and fields of paint applied to a canvas. If you look at the painting, you see those physical things. But you also see something else: an image of a woman with an enigmatic expression on her face. This image is not an extra thing added to the lines and fields of paint. At the same time, it is something “over and above” the paint: a likeness of Lisa Gherardini. While not every arrangement of paint gives rise to such images, those of a certain complexity do. Scruton is not suggesting that in those cases, some numinous entity — the image — is created; he is suggesting that a different way of seeing the lines and fields is available to us, a way of seeing that exposes us to a world beyond the one expressible by any purely physical description of paint.

Similarly, Scruton contends, personhood is an “emergent” property of a biological organism. The critical shift occurs when the organism is complex enough to become self-conscious, when it is capable of conceiving itself as an “I,” and of grasping that other like-minded organisms also conceive of themselves this way. This is the human equivalent of the moment when the image of Lisa Gherardini arises from Leonardo’s paint: A new way of understanding ourselves and others like us comes into view. We become “persons,” whose actions make sense in terms of things like reasons and obligations and free choice — a different order of explanation than biologists have recourse to when talking about instinctive animal behavior. Science can offer powerful accounts of the relations between organisms — between an “it” and an “it” — but it cannot capture the understanding of us as we understand each other: as between a “you” and an “I.” For Scruton, this marks a radical separation of us from the rest of the natural world.

This entry was posted in Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.