To try and give a definition of ‘philosophy’ is as pointless as explaining how to ride a bike without inviting the person to just sit in the saddle and start pedalling. Philosophy is, first and foremost, a discursive activity and the voluble, often verbose, Socrates is its perfect embodiment. Born at a time of political turmoil and great mathematical developments, philosophy whose natural curiosity touches on every possible subject, soon found itself torn between solving moral and political issues, on the one hand, and outlining the very foundations of analytical thinking, on the other. The history of philosophy reflects this relentless tug-of-war between moral thinkers prone to find in subjectivity the very source of philosophical truth and analytical theorists, dismissing the claims of biased subjectivity, in the name of objective, empirical values. Last November, the Times Literary Supplement invited two contemporary philosophers to express and defend their own views on the nature of philosophy. Roger Scruton, the eclectic moral and political theorist and Timothy Williamson, the Oxford Professor of Logic, took up the challenge and offered their personal conception of their subject while feeling free to comment on their colleague’s claims.
Scruton fires his first salvo with a strong defence of philosophy as ‘a handmaiden of the humanities’, altering Locke’s famous statement that ‘Philosophy is the handmaiden of the sciences.’ Aesthetics is, in his view, an essential tool to understand and appreciate central human experiences such as art and music but also religion and politics. It is only through the personalisation of our creative intuitions and receptive emotions that we can make sense and give meaning to our lives. For Scruton, a scientific account of the world denies the very existence of the subject, in the name of a pure subjectivity: ‘the subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another world but because it is not part of the empirical world.’ By putting self-consciousness at the very heart of our perception of the world, Scruton unwittingly pays homage to existentialist philosophers and their praise of subjectivity, from Kierkegaard to Camus. All that defines and celebrates the human world is beyond the scope of science. How to break down love or sadness into precise scientific data. Scruton also dismisses the claim that there is an ‘underlying reality’ on which we would hang on our thoughts and feelings in the way Hume talks about our mind’s natural capacity to ‘spread itself upon objects.’