Sex in the Head

Roger Scruton
Roger Scruton; drawing by David Levine

Roger Scruton is a Wagnerian romantic and a Thatcherite conservative; a tentative, questioning philosopher who is enamored of dogmatic political conclusions; a subtle writer on cultural diversity who is also drawn to making sweeping biological claims about human nature. These are some of the contradictions that inhabit his uneven, exasperating, yet never trivial new book. Scruton’s career displays this complexity. A Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, he has written valuable books and articles on aesthetics, the imagination, the significance of culture. At the same time, he has written conservative journalism of a rather narrow and polemical type and served enthusiastically as an adviser to the Thatcher government.

This book suffers from this double commitment. As a philosopher, Scruton wants to help us reflect on a highly complex topic on which it is unlikely that any good work of philosophy would reach simple conclusions. Yet he also wants to advocate a simple practical program which is critical of feminism and homosexuality, supportive of state religion and the institution of marriage. The program does not follow in any obvious way from the reflections to which his philosophical investigation leads him.

Scruton’s central purpose is to attack the idea that sexual desire is simply an animal appetite, a blind physical urge that has no intimate connection with our thoughts and conceptions. He argues, instead, that desire is a part of our characteristically human “intentionality”—that is, it is connected with the way we take a perspective on the world and react to things as we interpret them. Desire does not simply push toward its object; it conceives of the object, and its own internal movements are highly sensitive to changes in conception and belief. Intrinsic to sexual desire is a conception of its object as another “first-person perspective,” a living, interpreting self. The aim of desire, like that of conversation, involves the mutual awareness of an intention to communicate with another self, and a mutual responsiveness to that mutual awareness.1

From this starting point, Scruton goes on to argue that sexual desire is directed at an object that it sees as irreplaceably individual; and that its aim is some sort of spiritual union with the other person, insofar as the other expresses or manifests him or herself2 through bodily signs. This being so, the true or natural aim of sexual desire is only fully satisfied in deep erotic love. And since love is closely linked to esteem, and cannot coexist with the belief that its object is profoundly unworthy, the aim of love is itself, in turn, satisfied only in a stable relationship that is based on moral approval, in which the partners come to share their central goals and aims. In a concluding political section, Scruton argues that this stable love can itself be best achieved and maintained within the institution of marriage; and that this institution can best be…

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