Sexual Desire (book)  

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"Consider the woman who plays with her clitoris during the act of coition. Such a person affronts her lover with the obscene display of her body, and, in perceiving her thus, the lover perceives his own irrelevance. She becomes disgusting to him, and his desire may be extinguished. The woman’s desire is satisfied at the expense of her lover’s, and no real union can be achieved between them."--Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (also published as Sexual Desire: A Moral Philosophy of the Erotic) is a 1986 book about the philosophy of sex by Roger Scruton, in which Scruton argues that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy. Sexual Desire has received praise from reviewers, and has been seen as one of the most important works in the philosophy of sex, but has also been an object of criticism for Scruton's treatment of homosexuality and other issues.


Scruton, influenced by the work of philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, attempts to develop a conservative sexual ethic. Citing The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), he summarizes Hegel as arguing that, "The final end of every rational being is the building of the self—of a recognisable personal entity, which flourishes according to its own autonomous nature, in a world which it partly creates." This process involves recognizing the other as an end in himself or herself.

Discussing sexual perversion, Scruton argues that its "major structural feature" is the "complete or partial failure to recognise, in and through desire, the personal existence of the other", which in turn is "an affront, both to him and oneself." Scruton calls perversion, "narcissistic, often solipsistic". In his chapter on perversion, Scruton considers masturbation, bestiality, necrophilia, pedophilia, sado-masochism, homosexuality, incest, and fetishism. Scruton argues that there are two forms of masturbation, and only one is perverted. Though aware of arguments that homosexuality should not be considered a perversion, Scruton writes that homosexuality is "significantly different from heterosexuality, in a way that explains, even if it does not justify, the traditional judgement of homosexuality as a perversion." Heterosexuality involves dealing with the different and complementary nature of the opposite sex, whereas homosexuality does not: "Desire directed towards the other gender elicits not its simulacrum but its complement." Scruton writes that, "In the heterosexual act, it might be said, I move out from my body towards the other, whose flesh is unknown to me; while in the homosexual act I remain locked within my body narcissistically contemplating in the other an excitement that is the mirror of my own." Scruton dismisses classical scholar Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978) as "trivialising" and faults Michael Levin's arguments for the abnormality of homosexuality, calling them absurd. In Scruton's view, normal sexuality involves not only giving recognition to the other's person in and through desire for him or her, but also according them accountability and care in the process. Scruton argues that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy.

Scruton criticizes philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who he believes created an impersonal metaphysics in which "the 'self' and all its mysteries" vanish, Sigmund Freud and later psychoanalysts such as Melanie Klein and Wilhelm Reich, as well as authors such as Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown and Michel Foucault. Scruton writes that in The History of Sexuality (1976), Foucault mistakenly assumes that there could be societies in which a "problematisation" of the sexual did not occur. Scruton argues against Foucault that, "No history of thought could show the 'problematisation' of sexual experience to be peculiar to certain specific social formations: it is characteristic of personal experience generally, and therefore of every genuine social order." Though unconvinced by Karl Popper's criticism of Freud, Scruton faults Freud for developing theories that depend upon metaphor and as such are not genuinely scientific. Scruton finds Freud's theory of the libido incoherent and believes it rests on unacceptable use of metaphor. Scruton is critical of sociobiological explanations of human behaviour. Scruton writes that Franz Brentano reintroduced the concept of intentionality into the philosophy of mind, but remarks that the intentionality passage of Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint is both obscure and hesitant. Scruton believes that the obscurity of the passage is "compounded by Brentano's description of intentionality as the mark which distinguishes mental phenomena from physical phenomena, the latter being described, not as objective features of the natural world, but as appearances." According to Scruton, while in later editions of Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint Brentano described intentionality as a property of mental activity, and characterized it as a kind of "mental reference", Brentano never makes clear precisely what kind of property he believes it to be anywhere in his writings. Scruton calls the chapter on "The Body in its Sexual Being" in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception (1945) "surprisingly unhelpful".

Scholarly reception

John Ryle wrote in a review of Sexual Desire in the London Review of Books that Scruton "is bent on recapturing eros in the name of the old morality and restoring him to his proper place in the ethical zoo." Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, writing in The New York Review of Books, found that Sexual Desire suffered from faults such as "vagueness and haste about crucial distinctions, lack of clarity about argumentative structure, and the substitution of truculent rhetoric for careful inquiry", and also accused Scruton of misunderstanding Kant's moral philosophy. Philosopher Michael Ruse argues in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988) that Scruton's criticism of Freud is weak and unconvincing. Ruse writes that Scruton's view that genuine science does not involve metaphor is "incredibly anachronistic" and that "metaphor runs rampant through science, from physics to sociology." Ruse believes Scruton's criticism of sociobiology shows that he falsely views rationality as an "ethereal, beyond-biology phenomenon".

Classicist David M. Halperin writes in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990) that Scruton's textual practice of retaining the masculine pronoun for both the subject and object of desire is the best illustration of philosopher and psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray's concept of hom(m)osexualité, observing "Here we see the paradoxical implications of what Scruton calls 'traditional practice' plainly exposed: by regularly treating the ungendered subject as male and thus excluding women, it creates a unitary, universalizing discourse whose uniquely masculine terms, for all their ostensible involvement in heterosexist paradigms, produce an unintended homoerotic effect — precisely the conjunction that Irigaray's coinage is designed to represent." Norman O. Brown writes that Scruton correctly identifies Spinoza as his philosophical antagonist.

Sociologist Jonathan Dollimore writes that Scruton sees homosexuality as a perversion. He sees Scruton's philosophy of sex as open to many possible objections. He finds Scruton's writing to be jargon-ridden, believing that its Hegelian language and talk of otherness bestows "a spurious profundity on a normative sexual politics which is at heart timid, conservative, and deeply ignorant." Dollimore also argues that, notwithstanding Scruton's attack on psychoanalysis, his defense of sexual difference is to some degree indebted to psychoanalytic theory, writing that, "Although Scruton's frame of reference is thoroughly philosophical, and despite the fact that he roundly attacks the psychoanalytic perspective on sexuality...his own defence of sexual difference owes more to that perspective than he admits." Jurist Richard Posner argues that Scruton does not provide any adequate reason for viewing homosexuality as immoral. Dover writes that he understands what Scruton meant by describing his Greek Homosexuality as "trivialising", but adds that, "I am not abashed, because despite profound agreement with part of his analysis of sexual emotion, I attach importance to some phenomena which he ignores." Philosopher Christopher Janaway writes that Sexual Desire is one of several works in which Scruton challenges the conventional boundaries of analytic philosophy.

Nussbaum wrote in 1997 that Scruton's work helps one understand sexual objectification and provides "the most interesting philosophical attempt as yet to work through the moral issues involved in our treatment of persons as sex partners." Philosopher Alan Soble criticized Scruton's treatment of masturbation and found some of his judgments (for example, that all masturbation is "obscene") to be "silly". Philosopher James Giles argues that Scruton is mistaken to think that sexual desire essentially aims at an individual person, since it can be desire simply for sexual activity. According to Scruton, philosopher A. J. Ayer dismissed Sexual Desire as "silly". Scruton considers Ayer's comment part of a pattern of negative responses to his work, and replies that he considers Sexual Desire cogent and an answer to Foucault's "mendacious" The History of Sexuality (1976). Christopher Hamilton calls Sexual Desire "certainly by a long way the most interesting and insightful philosophical account of sexual desire" produced within analytic philosophy. Philosopher Mark Dooley describes Sexual Desire as "magisterial" and writes that Scruton's objective is to show that sexual desire trades in "the currency of the sacred".

See also

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