In Tim’s Vermeer, a 2013 documentary film about Tim Jenison, an inventor of digital software, Jenison cracks the technical code of Vermeer’s art. Inspired by the theories of David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco, he builds a replica of Vermeer’s Delft studio in Las Vegas and, with a camera lucida and a concave lens, produces an accurate copy of The Music Lesson (ca. 1662-65).
“My friend painted a Vermeer,” marvels Penn Jillette, the magician whose performing partner Teller directed the film. But Jenison has done no such thing: He has painted half of a Vermeer, the half that anyone can produce if given enough time, money, and equipment. His experiment confirms the intimacy of science and art and that the magical effects of art depend on technical sleights of hand. But it also confirms the insufficiency of its approach and the limits of a purely scientific account of human experience.
Vermeer’s The Music Lesson is numinously intimate, its small space shimmering with emotional significance and unheard melodies. Tim Jenison’s version is a high-tech update of paint-by-numbers, a lifeless knock-off. It is to Vermeer’s The Music Lesson what the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas is to the one in Paris. It tells us nothing about Vermeer’s motives, intent, or personality, other than that physics cannot explain them. Its technical success cannot account for the peculiar individuality that hovers in all great art, as in our experience of the world. This, the “horizon of meanings [that] transcend the domain of any natural science,” is the subject in The Soul of the World.
Roger Scruton is a prolific, paradoxical contrarian: a Burkean soaked in continental philosophy; an intellectual with an Orwellian contempt for cant; an advocate of existential freedoms and the established church. His subjects are as topical as their treatment is free of fashion and conformity. He is always readable, whether sketching the lineaments of a conservative environmentalism, defending fox-hunting as an American might the Second Amendment, or even advocating for the philosophy of Richard Wagner—for not since Romain Rolland has anyone taken Wagner as seriously as Wagner took himself.
Scruton’s immediate target here is the New Atheists, the current exemplars of what Nietzsche called the “English-mechanistic doltification of the world”: the reduction of life to quantifiable processes; the confusion of information with knowledge, and utility with value; the explanation of personality as the illusory byproduct of a “digitally organized nervous system”; the dismissal of religion as a malign evolutionary hangover.
Life, Nietzsche said, is the “great hunt.” It is immensely entertaining to see Scruton run the reductionists to ground, then eviscerate them with the appetite of a hungry beagle. The Soul of the World is worth reading for the blood sport alone; but Scruton is after bigger game. His ultimate objective is the philosopher’s trophy: meaning. And that, Scruton believes, lies in our experience of the sacred.
We are objects, he writes—biological entities in the “order of nature,” susceptible to the laws of science. No philosophy can deny this truth, but no true philosophy is completed by it. For we are also subjects in the “world of appearances.” We are self-conscious personalities, interpreters of language and symbol. The world might be a unity, but we exist in “cognitive dualism.” Our cognition of the order of nature has no bearing on our cognition of the world of appearances. If we equate one mode of cognition with the other, we foreshorten our perspectives and impoverish our understanding.
Meanwhile, as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein observes in Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014), philosophy exists because the confounding, enchanting world of appearances is still here. Scruton uses the phenomenologist’s argument, always congenial to a religious philosopher: If we experience it, it exists. Following Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, Scruton calls his world of appearances the Lebenswelt, the “world of life.” In this realm of “freedom, reason, and interpersonal being,” we discover our self-consciousness. Through the “expansion” of perception in love, sex, art, and (sooner or later) death, we seek out “transcendence.”