I was surprised by Roger Scruton’s article in the Guardian today. Like a lot of philosophy it was a difficult read; it was not really geared for the intelligent general reader, and I am speaking as someone with an undergraduate degree in Philosophy.
Scruton’s main thesis in this article is that ‘real’ culture is being eroded by a culture of intellectual fakes. I think there is a degree of sophistry about his article because Scruton does not evidence his thesis with concrete examples of what he is saying, but rather appeals to his reader to share his generalised sense that this is true.
In fact, in the whole article, Scruton only gives on example of how high culture has been eroded by fakery, and this it kitsch. A lot of people believed kitsch art was a threat to culture and a sort of false consciousness that distracted people from their own species alienation. Scruton does mention that he believes Althusser and Lacan are fakes, but a couple of paragraphs earlier he described Rorty as a genuine scholar and intelligent writer who believed we are entitled to dismiss the opponent of our academic belief because truth is negotiable. Then could not Althuser and Lacan apply Rorty to Scruton in order to defend themselves from the accusation of being fakes, according to the logic of Scruton’s own article?
It is obvious that Scruton is mainly talking about people as fakes in this article, and he gives no examples of any theorists or critics who he believes are fakes that are debasing high culture, that hold water according to the internal logic of the article. As such his article relies in the whole on the evidence of kitsch as an example of fakery, and as such the intellectual presentation of his argument mixes apples and oranges. This article is not so much the presentation of an intellectual argument as fallacious appeal to a sense of tradition amongst readers he might perceive as sharing his values, with a view to defending their culture against some alien phenomenon or other.
He repeats several times his belief that high culture has been ‘eroded’ or ‘corrupted’ by fakery, but crucially he does not define what a ‘fake’ in his theory is. How can we tell if an academic, theorist of philosopher is a fake, other than by asking Scruton? If they have had papers published and so have contributed to the body of literature for their field, does that not mean they are the real thing?
And what does Scruton have to say about his own false positives, people who he would only too enthusiastically include in his retinue of high culture practitioners, but who have never had anything published and so have never contributed to culture in any real or concrete sense? Surely culture can only be objectively defined as the work of published arts professionals? Or does Scruton oppose any objective definition of culture, preferring instead a subjective definition that he defines in tandem with people who share his values? If that is true, how isn’t Scruton just as guilty as anyone else of an academic Newspeak whereby his argument refers to itself alone as a defence against critical assault?
I said earlier that Scruton does not give any specific examples of people who are fakes, despite the whole article being an attack on the psychology and mindset of fakery. Perhaps we are supposed to read between the lines and work out who the fakes he is talking about are.
He does state that ‘the fake intellectual invites you to conspire in his own self-deception.’ It does strike me that the burden on proof is in this article is on the reader to prove that Scruton is wrong and there are no fakes – rather than documenting and evidencing his thesis, he simply states it and then if we challenge it the assumption is we must belong to the culture of fakery he is so vociferously attacking. I do have a problem with Scruton’s reasoning in this article. There is a sense that he is creating a false dilemma, similar to Tony Blair’s ‘Forces of Conservatism,’ that might not be considered valid in many other arenas. There is a sense that spite is being presented as evidence in this article (‘He is the teacher of genius, you the brilliant pupil…’).
Scruton believes that fakes earn their academic careers by ‘combining [ideas] in the impenetrable syntax that hoodwinks the person who composes it as much as the person who reads it’. He believes fakes are deceiving themselves as much as anyone else. I think Scruton is labouring under some real and serious misconception about the nature of work, academic achievement and language. People are allowed to recombine old ideas or take other people idea’s one logical step further in order to produce original research – this is perfectly acceptable so long as all referenced works are properly cited and the work presented is sterilised of any potential plagiarism. In fact in a very real sense I believe the only intellectual fakery which matters is plagiarism. Scruton might see original pieces of work as describe them as fakes because they are written by people who do not share his value system, but I believe that so long as such works are plagiarism free and the original work of the author they are valid and should be welcomed into whatever intellectual arena they were presented to.
It could be that if Scruton ever sees this critique of his article he might not deign to respond. Perhaps the only reason he wrote his essay was because he wanted to address some subtext or other, and as such he might not be interested in defending his article against critiques of what it is ostensibly saying. I would be interested in seeing what third parties think of my response to Scruton’s article. If they believe I have effected a competent dismantling of Scruton’s thesis then perhaps they at least won’t call me an intellectual fake myself.