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.”
The Lebenswelt accommodates not just the concerns of culture but also those of civilization: the legal, ethical, and religious codes that restrain and channel our expansion, the stuff that Norbert Elias called “political, economic, and social facts.” These days, the Western Lebenswelt is not a happy one, and Scruton blames our shortened perspectives. From the existential horizon of the Lebenswelt, the terrifying implications of religion crowd in: orders, duties, vows, and sacrifices. We prefer to shelter in the impoverished but cozy domain of technological society—to water down vows into contracts, piety into justice, and duties into transferable debts.
No durable society, Scruton warns, has lasted on such flimsy foundations. Nor can a fair society stand on ugliness and exploitation. Scruton sees abominable aesthetics as a kind of moral abdication: Brutal architecture and callous urban planning are studied demolitions of our social potential, licenses for revolt against civilization in the name of nature. Scruton sees a similar license in unbridled libertarianism: The market and the state can turn subjects into objects; so, too, can the triumphalism of evolutionary biology and the crass self-absorption of the Internet. In the sanctimony of environmentalism, Scruton detects kindred concerns, a “religious core” of distress at the “desecration” of the Lebenswelt.
Reflecting Scruton’s considered idiosyncrasy, The Soul of the World is a highly personal vision of a reconstructed Lebenswelt. In a series of cogent, fascinating chapters, he explains why we should set our sights on the beautiful horizon. He guides the reader to the edges of the Lebenswelt, from the brain to individual encounters and social ethics, then to art and aesthetics. To look into the eyes of the beloved is to “look the other person in the I” and to find one’s own “I” in that encounter. To enact a religious ritual, or to forge a link in the Burkean chain of generations, is to take part in a personal and social expansion of meaning. In entering the real but virtual world of music, or in reading the orders of classical architecture as they emerge from the order of nature, we find not just aesthetic gratification, but a convergence of the true with the beautiful that might nudge us towards the good.
Along the way, Scruton clarifies Kant’s clotted phrasing and explains the “expansion” of Beethoven’s perfect phrases. He chastises Hegel for identifying the Absolute with Christianity, and Sartre for identifying it with nothing at all. His grasp is so strong, his amplitude so broad, that it matters little that Martin Buber—whose I-Thou theology resembles Scruton’s I-You interpersonality—remains a silent partner, like Scruton’s God.
At the edge of the Lebenswelt, there lies the “horizon of meaning,” the border of infinitude and nothingness where (Scruton believes) matter returns to its origins and self-consciousness dissolves into the divine. Mindful of the order of nature, Scruton approaches the misty frontier cautiously.
The personality cannot survive the death of the body; the afterlife is “an absurdity”; there are no pagan gods, no nymphs or satyrs, only the philosophical confrontation with mortality. Monotheism handles this better than polytheism, Scruton believes, and Christianity best of all. The God that remains is “the all-knowing subject who welcomes us as we pass into that other domain, beyond the veil of nature.”
In the meantime, Scruton advises those of us on this side of the veil to look for meaning and intimations of transcendence. As a face reveals interpersonality, so the surfaces of appearance tell of the depths. The Lebenswelt makes the difference between sound and music, between daubs of pigmented chemicals and a painting. By Scruton’s lights, Tim Jenison has not wasted a penny or a moment: He should keep going, until his “intentional” brush expresses the subjective enchantment and joy that call him to the borders of his lens, his camera lucida, and his canvas.
Dominic Green is the author of The Double Life of Doctor Lopez and Three Empires on the Nile.