37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2010
Roger Scruton is one of Britain's leading philosophers, though now based at an American university. He combines, unusually, great erudition with the ability to write in a way that is not merely comprehensible but actually enjoyable. He has been called a "popularist" but I think that is wrong: he is popular because he writes well and thinks of the reader. Aesthetics is a particular concern of Scruton's and this book is up to his own high standards. He deals with, and dismisses, the simple argument that there is no such thing as beauty and that all things are relative, which is the same as saying that nothing is beautiful. If you saw Scruton's television programmes about beauty then you will enjoy this book, though it is not based on the series. The book is pocket-sized but has some 14 illustrations, themselves worth the price of the book. Scruton writes about beauty in the visual arts, painting and sculpture, but also in architecture, film, music and nature as well as what he calls "the aesthetics of everyday life." This is a book on philosophy for those who do not normally read books about philosophy. At a time when so much is nihilistic, here is a book that affirms the beautiful and the sublime. I especially recommend it as a present for young people just going up to university. It is a book to read, re-read, to keep and treasure.
Broad and complex subjects may be approached in many ways. The subject of Roger Scruton's "very short introduction", "Beauty" (2009), for example, might have been written as an overview, presenting various possible definitions of "beauty" followed by a discussion and assessment of alternative ways of undersanding beauty that have been offered over the years. This approach is not Scruton's. He deliberately avoids trying to define the nature of beauty and he steers clear of summarizing competing interpretations. Instead, Scruton offers his own philosophical understanding of beauty. His discussion is informed, provocative, and it takes account of the thinking of others. Still, it is much less an overview than the presentation of a position. As such, it is challenging and valuable. Scruton is a British philosopher and conservative political commentator who has published extensively on a wide range of subjects. He has, for example, written the volumes on Kant and Spinoza for the "Very Short Introductions" series, which includes this book on beauty, for Oxford University Press.
Scruton states the direction of his approach to beauty at the outset. He rejects a "skeptical" approach to beauty which denies the possibility of a shared conception beyond the preferences of individuals:
"In this book I suggest that such sceptical thoughts about beauty are unjustified. Beauty, I argue, is a real and universal value, one anchored in our rational nature, and the sense of beauty has an indispensable part to play in shaping the human world. My approach to the topic is not historical, neither am I concerned to give a psychological, still less an evolutionary explanation of the sense of beauty. My approach is philosophical, and the principal sources for my argument are the works of philosophers. The point of this book is the argument it develops, which is designed to introduce a philosophical question and to encourage you, the reader, to answer it."
Scruton writes that the understanding of beauty requires human rationality and is part of a fully-developed concept of reason. He maintains that beauty is properly shared and common rather than wholly individual. Individuals may not agree fully on, for example, the beauty of an individual painting or work of music, but the conditions for beauty can be assessed. Beauty shows what Scruton paradoxically describes as "disinterested interest". For Scruton, beauty is not found only in the great music of Beethoven's late string quartets, for example, but rather is also a part of every day human experience, in the proper "fit" and setting of a door, the setting of a table, and the wearing of appropriate clothing. Beauty is a way of passing beyond the immediacy of desire to what is ideal, good, and sacred in human life. Scruton writes:
"Our favourite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of the human condition and, by presenting completed instances of human actions and passions, freed from the contingencies of everyday life, to show the worthwhileness of being human."
Much of the book focuses on sexuality and eroticism and their relationship to beauty. Scruton considers briefly and rejects exclusively psychological approaches to beauty. He spends a great deal of space discussion Plato's conception of beauty and of eros, which he ultimately rejects. Scruton works to distinguish erotic, self-interested beauty from what he describes as disinterested contemplation. In the realm of sexuality, this distinction requires the rejection of pornography, for example, which objectifies human beings into mere bodies and separates bodies from persons.
Scruton develops his conception of beauty as "disinterested interest" and proceeds to describe four kinds of beauty summarized (p. 124) as: "human beauty as an object of desire; natural beauty,as an object of contemplation; everyday beauty as an object of practical reason; and artistic beauty as a form of meaning and an object of taste." He then returns to an attack on "art as eros" followed by a critique of postmodernism and relativism with their various rejections of beauty as a goal for art and the embracing, in many popular instances of kitsch as an equivalvent for art. Scruton offers the following summary of his understanding of beauty and its purpose.
"everything I have said about the nature of beauty implies that it is rationally founded. It challenges us to find meaning in its object, to make critical comparisons, and to examine our lives and emotions in light of what we find. Art, nature and the human form invite us to place this experience at the centre of our lives. If we do so, then it offers a place of refreshment of which we can never tire.... For a free being, there is right feeling, right experience and right enjoyment just as much as right action. The judgement of beauty orders the emotions and desires of those who make it. It may express their pleasure and their taste; but it is pleasure in what they value and taste for their true ideals."
Scruton writes gracefully, tightly, and well. Sections and paragraphs of this little book almost stand alone as essays. Much of the book has an aphoristic, quotable character. The philosophers most influential to Scruton's approach, even when he disagrees with them, are Kant and Plato. The book is full of discussion and comparison of paintings, works of literature, and pieces of music. Among other things, Scruton is a great admirer of Schubert's song-cycle, "Die Winterreise" about rejected love, and he discusses it beautifully.
There is much to be learned from this book even if the reader disagrees. In a review in "The Observer" (quoted in part on the book jacket), Sebastian Smee praised Scruton's thought while expressing skepticism about Scruton's focus on reason, disinterestedness, and, particularly, attitude towards eros. Smee quotes John Updike saying "for most men a naked woman is the most beautiful thing they will ever see" as a suggestion for an alternative position. Scruton's book will engage the reader and encourage thought on the nature of beauty, whether or not the reader fully agrees with Scruton. In this way, the book is valuable in itself and more than fulfills the goal of a "very short introduction" to a topic.
9 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 10 July 2011
Roger Scruton, the radically independent thinking English philosopher, has written a masterpiece. While he does take pains to explain in detail concepts which any MFA SHOULD already understand, and he writes with unforgivable clarity, rather than the traditional Thesaurus_Rex art-prose style. Wait did I say that he was a radical? Yes I believe I did, he's a radical alright. It is radical at the end of this post modern/contemporary era to even consider aesthetic beauty to be of value in the arts, much less of preeminent value. The conventional post-modern aesthetic is to ignore or minimize the importance of aesthetic beauty in favor of shock, novelty, sensational, political interests, pornography or sarcasm and insults flung at the usual cliche' targets; The Catholic Church, Christians, the middle class, the United States (except the current president who is sacrosanct), The British gov't or any other Western power. Now along comes this white, middle class Brit. and what he is really saying is that none of that matters, all of those millions spent on Post-Neo-Post DADA/Pop have been wasted on Disco Fever. Those white suits, scarves and high heeled boots are headed for the dumpster pal. What matters in the end, what is primary in the Fine Arts is Aesthetic Beauty.
I mean who in the heck does this guy Roger Scruton think that he is? Does he think that he is smarter than the collective dictatorial power of the reigning western art worlds inbred, Hapsburg style clique's hegemony? Does he, like the weird collection of halfbreed artists those Stuckist Punks (also originating in Britain), think that the clear expression of an individual artists vision of aesthetic beauty is of primary import??? What baloney, right?
Uhhh, well... no maybe it's not baloney hmmm. Oh, and guess what folks... he is ever so quietly, softly, gently even... absolutely correct! The power and wealth of many a Contemporary Art collector and Contemporary Art gallery owner will inevitably erode as aesthetic beauty once again takes it's rightful place as the fulcrum for the weighing of long term artistic merit.
Heck I'm only halfway through the thing and I am confident in it's historic import.
PS this was written during a Boogie Fever hangover, besides I just love run on sentences.