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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 the philosopher Roger Scruton, in which the author 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,[1][2] but has also been criticized for Scruton's treatment of homosexuality and other issues.

Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation
Sexual Desire (first edition).jpg
Cover of the first edition, showing Pierre-Auguste Renoir's La Danse à Bougival
Author Roger Scruton
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Love, human sexuality
Publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 428 (1994 Phoenix edition)
ISBN 978-0826480385



Scruton, influenced by the work of the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,[3] attempts to develop a conservative sexual ethic.[4] 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."[5] This process involves recognizing the other as an end in himself or herself.[6]

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".[7] 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.[8] Scruton argues that homosexuality is significantly different from heterosexuality, and that this helps to explain the traditional judgment that homosexuality is 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 the classical scholar Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1978) as "trivialising" and faults Michael Levin's arguments for the abnormality of homosexuality, calling them absurd.[9] 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.[4] Scruton argues that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy.[10]

Scruton criticizes the 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,[11] 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."[12] 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, as put forward, for example by E. O. Wilson in On Human Nature (1978).[13]

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".[14]


Mainstream mediaEdit

Sexual Desire was reviewed by C. D. Keyes in Library Journal,[15] John Ryle in the London Review of Books,[16] the philosopher Galen Strawson in The Times Literary Supplement,[17] and the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New York Review of Books.[18] Keyes reviewed the work positively, crediting Scruton with "drawing from a wide range of historical and contemporary texts", but wrote that the book would be of interest mainly to scholars and specialists in the field of the philosophy of sex.[15] John Ryle wrote 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."[16] Nussbaum argued 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 that Scruton misunderstood Kant's moral philosophy.[18] Sexual Desire also received praise from the Christian cleric Richard John Neuhaus in National Review and the critic Terry Teachout in Commentary magazine.[19][20]

Evaluations in booksEdit

The philosopher Michael Ruse, writing in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988), argued that Scruton's criticism of Freud is weak and unconvincing. He described Scruton's view that genuine science does not involve metaphor as "incredibly anachronistic", commenting that "metaphor runs rampant through science, from physics to sociology", and that Scruton's criticism of sociobiology shows that he falsely views rationality as an "ethereal, beyond-biology phenomenon".[21]

The classicist David M. Halperin, writing in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality (1990), argued 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."[22] Norman O. Brown concluded that Scruton correctly identifies Spinoza as his philosophical antagonist.[23]

The sociologist Jonathan Dollimore wrote that Scruton sees homosexuality as a perversion and that Scruton's philosophy of sex is open to many possible objections. He found 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 argued that, notwithstanding Scruton's attack on psychoanalysis, his defense of sexual difference is to some degree indebted to psychoanalytic theory.[24] The jurist Richard Posner argued that Scruton does not provide any adequate reason for viewing homosexuality as immoral.[25]

Dover wrote 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."[26] Philosopher Christopher Janaway wrote that Sexual Desire is one of several works in which Scruton challenges the conventional boundaries of analytic philosophy.[27] 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."[1] The 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".[28] The philosopher James Giles argued that Scruton is mistaken to think that sexual desire essentially aims at an individual person, since it can be desire simply for sexual activity.[29]

According to Scruton, the philosopher A. J. Ayer dismissed Sexual Desire as "silly". Describing Ayer's comment as part of a pattern of negative responses to his work, Scruton replied that he considers Sexual Desire cogent and an answer to Foucault's "mendacious" The History of Sexuality (1976).[30] Christopher Hamilton called Sexual Desire "the most interesting and insightful philosophical account of sexual desire" produced within analytic philosophy.[2] The philosopher Mark Dooley called Sexual Desire "magisterial", writing that Scruton's objective is to show that sexual desire trades in "the currency of the sacred".[31]



  1. ^ a b Nussbaum 1997. p. 293.
  2. ^ a b Hamilton 2008. p. 101.
  3. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 56-7.
  4. ^ a b Dollimore 1991. pp. 260-262.
  5. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 298-9.
  6. ^ Scruton 1994. p. 301.
  7. ^ Scruton 1994. p. 289.
  8. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 284-321.
  9. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 305-310, 410.
  10. ^ Belliotti 1997. p. 318.
  11. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 195-6.
  12. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 118, 205, 350, 362.
  13. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 185-6, 201-3, 184-5, 403.
  14. ^ Scruton 1994. pp. 378, 396.
  15. ^ a b Keyes 1986. p. 70.
  16. ^ a b Ryle 2015.
  17. ^ Strawson 1986. pp. 207-208.
  18. ^ a b Nussbaum 2015.
  19. ^ Neuhaus 1987. p. 45.
  20. ^ Teachout 1987. p. 76.
  21. ^ Ruse 1988. pp. 28, 140.
  22. ^ Halperin 1990. pp. 210-1.
  23. ^ Brown 1991. p. 123.
  24. ^ Dollimore 1991. pp. 261-2.
  25. ^ Posner 1992. pp. 228-9.
  26. ^ Dover 1995. p. 115.
  27. ^ Janaway 1995. p. 816.
  28. ^ Soble 1997. pp. 82-3.
  29. ^ Giles 2004. p. 73.
  30. ^ Scruton 2005. p. 55.
  31. ^ Dooley 2009. p. 53.


  • Belliotti, Raymond A. (1997). Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-18785-5. 
  • Brown, Norman O. (1991). Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07298-7. 
  • Dollimore, Jonathan (1991). Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-811269-6. 
  • Dooley, Mark (2009). Roger Scruton: The Philosopher on Dover Beach. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-1847060136. 
  • Dover, Kenneth (1995). Marginal Comment: A Memoir. London: Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-2630-2. 
  • Giles, James (2004). The Nature of Sexual Desire. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-95995-3. 
  • Halperin, David M. (1990). One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90097-2. 
  • Hamilton, Christopher (2008). Soble, Alan; Power, Nicholas P., eds. The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings, Fifth Edition. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0742547981. 
  • Janaway, Christopher (1995). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866132-0. 
  • Nussbaum, Martha (1997). Soble, Alan, ed. The Philosophy of Sex, Contemporary Readings, Third Edition. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-8476-8481-4. 
  • Posner, Richard (1992). Sex and Reason. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-80279-9. 
  • Ruse, Michael (1988). Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-15275-X. 
  • Scruton, Roger (2005). Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. New York: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-8033-0. 
  • Scruton, Roger (1994). Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. London: Phoenix. ISBN 1-85799-100-1. 
  • Soble, Alan (1997). Soble, Alan, ed. The Philosophy of Sex, Contemporary Readings, Third Edition. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0-8476-8481-4. 
  • Keyes, C. D. (1986). "Sexual Desire (Book)". Library Journal. 111 (5). 
  • Neuhaus, Richard John (1987). "The maneless lions". National Review. 39 (8). 
  • Strawson, Galen (1986). "Ideal coitions". The Times Literary Supplement (4326). 
  • Teachout, Terry (1987). "Men and marriage (Book Review)". Commentary. 83 (April 1987). 
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