Roger Scruton is not a man I have much respect for – I’ve always thought of him as a conservative, academic equivalent to Michael Moore (well, actually I held this view of Mr Scruton before Mr Moore was anything other than the director of a niche film about General Motors, but you know what I mean).
Like Mr Moore, Mr Scruton occasionally has interesting things to say. But also like Mr Moore, Mr Scruton’s disregard for facts is so dazzlingly cavalier that it’s hard to see how anyone can take him at all seriously.
I managed to avoid studying Marxism in any depth during my university philosophy course, which is a source of lasting joy (even if it does prevent me from joining the exciting discussions at Crooked Timber). As a result, I can honestly say that Mr Scruton’s essay “Photography and Representation” was the modern text I read over the whole three years that showed the least regard for fact or truth.
Mr Scruton effectively claims that the process of photography is equivalent to making a photocopy, with no room for artistic representation on the photographer’s part. In response to putative criticisms that this is absolute horse’s arse, Mr Scruton says that any photographic process which does involve artistic representation is a “painterly technique” and therefore doesn’t count.
This was brought to mind by an old article I happened to come across today, on a libel case between the Pet Shop Boys and Mr Scruton. Mr Scruton claimed that PSB didn’t write or perform their own songs; since they very much do, he had to give them a large suitcase full of money.
It’s pretty clear from the context of Mr Scruton’s quote (“Sometimes, as with the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys, serious doubts arise…”) that the libel came out of his limited regard for facts. He tried to think of bands that are mostly brands for studio-based musicians, successfully thought of the Spice Girls, and word-associated to the Pet Shop Boys to create a nice sentence.
All well and good, but (as Oliver Kamm is always happy to point out), fact-checking is a must if you aspire to be taken seriously in any discipline. Having coined the neat sentence about Girls and Boys, Mr Scruton should have taken five minutes to confirm that both groups met his decription – just as he should have asked a photographer how one takes photographs before writing an essay on the subject.
The fact that Mr Scruton has not (to the best of my knowledge) been tarred, feathered and run out of town is a stain on the reputation of philosophers everywhere.