Roger Scruton on scientism, communism, and freedom

hi everybody I'm Adam Kuiper editor of the New Atlantis and I'm in our offices here in Washington DC with Roger Scruton a contributing editor to the New Atlantis and a fellow at the ethics and Public Policy Center Roger is the author of many books some four dozen and we're going to talk today about his latest which is a novel those of you who are familiar with Rogers political and political writing or his writing and philosophy and religion art and aesthetics might be surprised to hear about the subject of his new novel a time at a place he knows intimately well the new book is called notes from underground we'll turn to this in just a moment but before we do Roger I want to ask you about an article that you wrote that we published not long ago in the New Atlantis on another subject it's called scientism in the arts and the humanities now people know what science is could you explain the term scientism yes science actually is harder to explain the scientism but I assume that we have the idea of scientific method as a method whereby we advance towards the explanation of things through collecting data and experiment through trial and error through forming hypotheses and so on and I think we're all familiar with this method in one form or another although it's very difficult to put in words exactly what it can it can just consist in but scientism in my understanding is the pretense of scientific method when addressing questions which are not themselves scientific they're not questions about the nature of physical reality or how you explain the phenomena that the or the data that you collect now there are plenty of such questions as we know I mean the question what should I do in a dilemma is quite obviously not a scientific question I don't solve it by consulting any theory I asked myself what would be the right thing to do and I perhaps enter into dialogue with others who give me advice so there that's a very simple example of a non moral question on scientific question because it's moral but there are a lot of other questions which we don't immediately think to be scientific but we hope that maybe there'll be a science that will answer them for us for instance that the question of you know what what is the meaning of Michelangelo's David an incredible lump of stone in which so much strength seems to be concentrated in one little part of it and that incredible concentration in the face so we all know this is a very meaningful thing but we haven't got any clear method for understanding exactly how we find that meaning so people come along with with pseudo scientific theories you know like structuralism awesome they say that you know the meaning of it is embedded in its structure and here are the principles you know which looked like some form of computer code whereby we extract from the appearance of the pet of the sculpture its meaning for us and I think in the arts are a lot of such attempts to impose scientific categories on questions that are not themselves scientific there's there's surely some space for the empirical to inform our understanding of questions that are ethical or of our understanding of the arts and the humanities but how do we know where we ought to limit the use of empirical orafice aware of scientific approaches to these kinds of questions what is what's a where should we draw lines well obviously in the humanities and as the name suggests we need information about what human beings are that's part of our data and what their choices and their preferences are but we also need to know how to argue about those choices and preferences how to discover the human significance of things that's where the temptation exists to as it were reach out for some ready-made science which will tell us without doing the exploration that we need to do of our own states of mind you know what is it that I feel towards this how would I put that into words how would I justify it to you and how would I respond to your counter account of it so I welcome viewers to read this article scientism in the arts and humanities which concludes with among other things a lovely takedown of Nemeth theory which you really kind of take to task for it's it'd be an example of the kind of scientism and overreach of the scientific method I want to turn now to the book it's it's called notes from underground and I just want to start with the title obviously Dostoyevsky wrote a book with that exact name which plays a part in this story yeah so why that name well the hero of this book with you can call him a hero is a young Czech boy growing up in the Bleak period that preceded the fall of communism in the 1980s he's been deprived of any educational resources because his father of his father's dissident profile and he's looking for a way to educate himself and has come across this book by Dostoyevsky the title itself already appeals to him because he feels that you know being cut off from the world of normal and natural people and he has had to find the meaning of things in some kind of catacomb beneath the city and he's he thinks of himself as locked in that catacomb he finds it in the Prague subway and fantasizes all his relations with other people in that subway so gradually the underground idea takes possession of him and when he meets somebody who who seems to be reaching down to him from above from the from the world of light and lifting him out of his darkness he immediately gives himself completely to her could you say a little bit more about this this love story which you depict on one hand it's very very tenderly described but it's also there's something very evanescent about it yes well I was interested when writing this book because it describes a situation which I knew quite well although I couldn't live in that country then right but I could visit it and I had friends there and I learnt the language enough to communicate with them and read their letters and so on so I had a very strong sense of of what people were longing for you know the the some kind of truthfulness and reality in their relations with each other even though they knew they couldn't wholly trust each other at every point that the secret police would either have an advantage if you confess to them or were had their eyes on someone else who do it for you so that everybody was in a state of of longing towards each other longing for that pure and truthful connection combined with an intransigent suspicion of the other there was no way in which you could ever get that so there was a very point in situation that was why I chose these two young people who were drawn to each other both longing for that truth but both of course deeply embedded in a situation which prevented them from obtaining it yeah and you you depicted the relationship it's to the reader it it almost seems like it's always just a little bit out of touch and kind of always just it's always a little bit away from you it kind of pushes away I can and again so you've mentioned as you were answering the last question that you you know this time and this place well that this is a place that you're visited which I think maybe a lot of our viewers aren't familiar with the the fact that you were really involved in the dissident movement and were presumably watched by the secret police yourself what was the nature of your involvement well I and a few friends set up the set of an underground University in Czechoslovakia as it then was this was 80 in the night early 1980s and we care it carried on through the 80s not expecting what happened suddenly in 1989 nobody expected it actually but simply to offer to young people like the hero of my book the education which of which they have been deprived and which had been forbidden to them actually and also to sustain those people who were trying to write proper literature paint proper proper paintings composed proper music and so on against the official blanket of of nonsense and so you know I was involved in that and took it very seriously it was part of my life and and through that I got a very powerful sense of what the underground seminars and the underground networks actually meant to young people have been deprived of everything and so that so I felt that I really wanted to convey this to people now with this is the 25th anniversary now if the fall of the Berlin Wall people are forgetting it in fact many of the young most active people around us today never knew it because they were born after that you know let's face it in in the Western world people become their most energetic and their most ambitious their most determined to be something age 25 unfortunately there's four years confiscated from them by stupid universities so they're a bit later than people were then but still there they are at 25 and that these people don't know quite what they have what that what things might have been for them and how they've escaped from a situation in which there wasn't you know a resolute desire in the Soviet authorities to impose that on all of us I want to come back to that in a moment but first let me turn for a second to the Czech Republic today 25 years later it must be a very different place than the Czechoslovakia that you described yes how would you say the Czech Republic is different today I have just the the air you breathe the places you walk what's what is what is it what is the feeling of that kind of freedom what is it like this is part of the theme of the book because it's it's the narrator is that hero that to that boy from the 1980s who's narrating it from a in retrospect from a position in modern America long after the liberation of his country and seeing something that he had lost you know he's get they've gained freedom and and peaceful relations with the wider world the ability to travel and all that he has settled in Washington among people who are dedicated to the to the kind of cheerful immediate reforms of relationship that Americans engage in but where that thing that he knew which was a kind of poignant need for loyalty and commitment and for truth in an inner world where truth was hard to obtain and dearly paid for that he it has has been lost so he's looking back with at mace a bit you know it's the osteology thing but it's a bit deeper than that in my view he's looking back to a spiritual condition in which real connection with the other was wanted and withheld but nevertheless glimpsed and he feels he's met entered an unreal world to some extent that is true when I go back to to Prague now it compared with the reality that I knew then it is sort of unreal it has that as many people think of modern America that that easygoing nature which makes it look as though nothing was actually seriously intended it's a strange paradox of freedom absolutely and I think you know the kind of freedom that we enjoy in America it's a wonderful thing a wonderful gift but it comes with a cost you know and the cost is the old way of life in which people needed each other and needed each other seriously in order to manage from day to day so then let's end maybe with this question if I don't want to reduce the the novel which is actually very rich with a great detail that illustrates every part of of the kinds of lives that you're talking about I don't want to reduce it to something simply didactic but if if you were looking for a kind of way of thinking about life mmm that a 25 year old reader might might get out of this book in a way of thinking differently about the way he or she is living life today what would you how would you try to describe the lesson there about how to how to live you know freely but also there's a kind of truthful earnest passion well gosh I wish I could answer that I mean it's not the job of a novelist to give answers but just to present the question and I would say however if I were to attempt to say anything about this that that what in that situation young people turned to which was a sense of of transcendental significance and things that the earth half of the world having a significance that we human beings don't just create from moment to moment that sense is something that's is actually as necessary to young people now as it was then and it's easily obscured by the the flood of of luxuries and merchandize and the easygoing transitions from relationship to relationship and so on which we're all familiar with and you know that the human soul actually is not nourished on on transitions it's not nourished on on permanent possessions Roger Scruton thank you so much the book is notes from underground and may it sell many copies and bring great success thank you so much thank you

20 thoughts on “Roger Scruton on scientism, communism, and freedom

  • Guy thinks we can't be fooled that he does this to his hair on purpose for that 'I'm a genius who can't do simple things like brush my mop' look. That is bent. And lame.

  • People need Jesus Christ, God in flesh, the objective Truth, without whom one cannot make sense of reality nor make it to heaven. Philosophers and writers do not give answers, you are right, they ask questions. For answers, you need the Holy KJB.

  • Col. Lawrence Wilkinson was a military adviser to Colin Powell. Here he explains the war racket and how the elite are making a ton of money out of war. Risking Total Annihilation for the Sake of Profit – with Wilkerson and Jay (3/3)

  • Does Roger Sruton know that the many in the Conservative Party end the City of London are crooks and cheats. The Spider's Web: Britain's Second Empire (Documentary)

  • 4:00 mins – very revealing. 'We need to know what human beings are…' etc. So, a science of the humanities is fallacious, and the sciences that explain human biology isn't 'humanist' enough, so we should look for an aesthetic of 'taste' based on human choices, and the culture of learned debate that feeds into blah blah.
    The arts are just another human practice, of no more value (though with different values) than sport, or recreational gardening.

  • He’s a Absolutely true in what he says, science try’s to tell us art is beautiful because it’s symmetry, or asymmetry etc…it’s always reduced to some sort of physics, when in reality that in and of itself is an interpretation that’s predicated on scientism and it’s world frame.

  • How "free" is the freedom we have in America when, after the Assange and Snowden revelations we know there are more "eyes" recording our every move than Stalin ever dreamed possible? And I ask this as one very sympathetic to Sir Roger and not at all a person on The Left.

  • “The human soul is not nourished on transitions. It’s nourished on permanent possessions.” Rodger Scruton, thank you very much.

  • Thank you for sharing. So in the end his point in writing this novel seems to be saying that we humans need to nurture the spirit in order to get meaning and some kind of certainty. The values that help to achieve this are: loyalty, comminmetn and truth. In other words : less experiences and more meaningful.

  • The esteemed philosopher, a champion of liberty and culture for decades, does unfortunately give the visual impression of having just been dragged through a hedge backwards.

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