Short History of Modern Philosophy (Scruton)

Scruton, Roger.  A Short History of Modern Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2002.

This was a joy to read.  Scruton communicates depth with a certain type of elegance rarely matched in academic writers.  Bertrand Russell is probably the closest equivalent.

There are several angles from which we can view Scruton’s work.  An exhaustive review of each figure and movement would be beyond the scope of this review.  Several key themes emerge in Scruton’s narrative.  Substance never disappears as a concept, pace modern nominalists.  On the other hand, it cannot stand simply in its Aristotelian form.  Developments in mathematics, logic, and language require a sharper focus on substance.

First, some comments on Aristotle’s logic. Every proposition contains both subject and predicate, which corresponds to substance and attribute (Scruton 16). Since a substance can have, or perhaps lose, different attributes, a substance is something that survives change.  One problem raised is whether substances can cease to exist and what is meant by the term “exist.”

Distinction between stuff and things.  Stuff can be measured.  Things can be counted.  This made the idea of substance rather fuzzy.

The Port Royal Logic

 The Jansenist critics of Descartes anticipated several key breakthroughs in logical analysis. They noted the distinction between the intension and extension of a term.  The former denotes what a thing is.  The latter applies to the set of things: man vs. the class of men.


Gottfried Leibniz emerges as a true champion in this narrative. Spinoza had previously said there was only one substance and an infinity of modes.  Leibniz, by contrast, saw reality as reducible to individuals known as “monads,” which Scruton highlights as (68):

1 Monads are not extended in space. 

2 Monads are distinguished from one another by their properties (their ‘predicates’). 

3 No monad can come into being or pass away in the natural course of things; a monad is created or annihilated only by a ‘miracle’. 

4 The predicates of a monad are ‘perceptions’—i.e. mental states—and the objects of these mental states are ideas. Inanimate entities are in fact the appearances of animated things: aggregates of monads, each endowed with perceptions.

 5 Not all perceptions are conscious. The conscious perceptions, or apperceptions, are characteristic of rational souls, but not of lesser beings. And even rational souls have perceptions of which they are not conscious. 

6 ‘Monads have no windows’—that is, nothing is passed to them from outside; each of their states is generated from their own inner nature.

To be sure, not every organic thing is an individual monad. Most aren’t. Humans, for example, would be aggregates of monads.


Scruton’s analysis of Hegel’s logic put the brakes on any Hegelian speculations I might have had.   The main difficulty with Hegel, apart from his impenetrable prose, is that his use of terms doesn’t mirror the way the world normally uses such terms.  In normal usage, logic is a tool.  For Hegel it is almost an active, living entity.

Scruton summarizes the problem in reading Hegel in one elegant, witty passage:

“It is not to be expected that such a logic can readily be made intelligible, or that a philosophy which is able cold-bloodedly to announce (for example) that ‘Limit is the mediation through which Something and Other is and also is not’ should be altogether different from arrant nonsense” (175).

Scruton interrupts his survey after Nietzsche to make a few comments on political philosophy.

For John Locke, when I mix my labor with an object, I make it my own. It becomes my property (206).   Locke’s arguments on natural rights are interesting and quite important.  Contract theory, however, is built on a much shakier foundation.  Scruton identifies several problems. 1) On what grounds do we infer the existence of such a contract?  It is almost always an implied contract, if it exists at all.  Claims of “tacit consent” are vacuous, as Hume noted.  It’s not clear how anyone born in such a society gave “tacit consent.”

Marx takes Hegel’s concept of alienation and comes up with “false consciousness.”  Scruton notes that Marx didn’t use alienation all that much later on in life.  What is “alienation?” As Scruton observes, 

“Under capitalism it is not only objects, but also men, who are bought and sold. And in this buying and selling, under the regime of which one party has nothing to dispose of but his labour power, we reach the ultimate point in the treatment of men as means. Men have become objects for each other, and whatever remnants of their human (social) life remain will be dissipated” (225).

Although such a view is not entirely coherent (and Marx would trade it in for “false-consciousness” later on), it did have imaginative power.  A false consciousness, on the other hand, is a universal error one makes in examining the social world. This unhappy consciousness emerges from Marx’s analysis of “base” and “superstructure.”

Following this chapter Scruton examines utilitarianism and British idealism.  More pertinent for this review will be Scruton’s analysis of Gottlob Frege’s logical revolution.  


What did Frege do?  He overthrew Aristotelian logic.  He began by examining J. S. Mill’s claim that arithmetic was abstracted from experience, as in 2+3 = 5. Numbers are empirical aggregates from experience.  Frege responded that Mill could give no account of the number zero.  Moreover, while I cannot with my senses apprehend a 1,000 sided figure, I am easily prepared to acknowledge such a figure exists.  And in the final coup de grace on Mill, Frege notes that induction assumes probability, but probability presupposes arithmetical laws (250).

Frege then asks, “What is a number?” They can’t be a property, since if I say “Socrates is one,” I do not attribute the property of one-ness to Socrates. Nor are they abstractions. If numbers are objects, then we need to be able to locate them, and that entails a host of philosophical headaches. 

A more immediate problem, and one for which Frege is ultimately famous, concerns existential quantification.  If I say “Unicorns are horned animals,” am I saying that unicorns exist?  Frege made it clear that identity and prediction are different.

I don’t feel smart enough to explain what Frege meant by sense and reference, so we will go on to Heidegger, particularly, Scruton’s wonderful rhetorical comments on Heidegger.  

“It is impossible to summarise Heidegger’s work, which no one has claimed to understand completely. In the next chapter I shall give reasons for thinking that it may be unintelligible” (268).

“the reader has the impression that never before have so many words been invented and tormented in the attempt to express the inexpressible” (268).

“All these are more or less pompous ways of distinguishing things from persons” (269).

“Heidegger notices and applauds the result, but does not, as he perhaps should, feel threatened by it” (269).

“One thing is clear, which is that Heidegger’s conclusions, where intelligible, are clearly intended as universal truths, not merely about the human condition, but about the world as such” (272).

“Heidegger does not give any arguments for the truth of what he says. Most of Being and Time consists of compounded assertions, with hardly a ‘thus’, ‘therefore’, ‘possibly’, or ‘it might follow that’, to indicate the relations which are supposed to hold between them” (272).

This book was a sheer pleasure to read and absorb.  It is easily my favorite text and first recommendation on the history of modern philosophy.


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