Open main menu

Wikipedia β

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 discusses sexual desire and erotic love, and topics such as sexual morality and sexual perversion. Scruton argues that sexual desire is characterized by intentionality, and that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy. He criticizes Sigmund Freud, questioning the scientific status of his theories.

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
Subjects Philosophy of love
Philosophy of sex
Publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 438 (first edition)
428 (1994 Phoenix edition)
ISBN 978-0826480385

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 criticized for Scruton's treatment of topics such as homosexuality and sociobiology, as well as Freud's work, and his claim that sexual desire essentially aims at an individual person. Some critics described Sexual Desire as "silly".



Scruton discusses the views that philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Jean-Paul Sartre have held of sexual desire and erotic love. Influenced by Kant and Hegel,[1] he attempts to develop a conservative sexual ethic.[2] 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."[3] This process involves recognizing the other as an end in himself or herself.[4]

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".[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[2] Scruton argues that sex is morally permissible only if it involves love and intimacy.[8]

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Scruton argued that Freud's theories depend upon metaphor and as such are not genuinely scientific.

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,[9] 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."[10] Though unconvinced by the philosopher 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).[11]

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".[12]


Mainstream mediaEdit

Sexual Desire received a positive review from C. D. Keyes in Library Journal,[13] and was also praised by the Christian cleric Richard John Neuhaus in National Review and the critic Terry Teachout in Commentary magazine.[14][15] Sexual Desire received a mixed review from the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New York Review of Books,[16] and a negative review from the philosopher Richard Rorty in The New Republic.[17] The book was also reviewed by John Ryle in the London Review of Books,[18] and the philosopher Galen Strawson in The Times Literary Supplement.[19]

Keyes considered Sexual Desire "radical in its methods and conservative in many of its conclusions". He credited Scruton with "drawing from a wide range of historical and contemporary texts", but concluded that Scruton's book would be of interest mainly to scholars and specialists in the field of the philosophy of sex.[13]

Nussbaum described Sexual Desire as an "uneven, exasperating, yet never trivial" book, and argued that Scruton's work revealed his "distaste for the flesh", disgust for "the sexuality of animals", and lack of sense of fun. She was convinced by Scruton's case for the intentionality of sexual desire, according to which it is "directed at the other person as a “first-person perspective”" and "aims at a conversational relationship characterized by a mutual awareness of intentions", and credited Scruton with using it to make "effective criticisms of reductionist pseudosciences of sex that have severed desire from its personal and subjective aspects". However, she wrote that Scruton unconvincingly moved from arguing that sexual desire is intentional to the proposition that it "treats its object as irreducibly unique and particular, attending to and cherishing all of its perceptible properties" and that "desire’s aim is to establish union with that ineffable spirit, through contact with its embodied traces". She found Scruton's view that love is "love of the other person’s entire self" appealing but unconvincing. She found Scruton's discussions of bestiality and necrophilia disappointing, but his discussion of sadomasochism interesting. She was unconvinced by Scruton's condemnation of homosexuality and what she saw as his rejection of "female equality", arguing that, like his support for state religion and marriage, it did not "follow in any obvious way" from his philosophical reflections on sexual desire. She criticized Scruton for inconsistently trying to use sociobiology to criticize feminism, despite his own criticisms of it.[16]

In a letter responding to Nussbaum's review, Scruton accused her of misrepresenting his views about sexual desire, love, and feminism. In response, Nussbaum wrote that Sexual Desire suffered from "vagueness and haste about crucial distinctions, lack of clarity about argumentative structure, and the substitution of truculent rhetoric for careful inquiry". She also defended her interpretations and criticisms of Scruton's book, describing his philosophical arguments as interesting but his views as open to various objections.[20]

Rorty considered Sexual Desire less "interesting as it might have been" because of Scruton's refusal "to take the competition seriously", writing that "Freud is lined up alongside Kinsey and sociobiology in a chapter called 'The Science of Sex,' and then dismissed in 17 amazingly condescending pages." Rorty concluded that, "The later chapters of the book partly make up for the almost unreadable, and specifically philosophical, earlier chapters. But Scruton has written better books, and doubtless will again."[17]

Nussbaum, writing in The New Republic, credited Scruton with popularizing a view of sexual attraction according to which, "Really valuable sexual passion ... requires qualitative differences between the parties, because sexual love, when valuable, involves a kind of risky exploration of strange terrain, and we should think less well of those who stick to the familiar." She criticized Scruton for "capriciously and inconstantly" applying his thesis, writing that he applied it "to sexual orientation, but not to romances between adults and children, between Protestants and Catholics, between the virtuous and the immoral." Nussbaum wrote that it was unclear how his argument about similarity could be assessed.[21]

Scientific and academic journalsEdit

J. Martin Stafford criticized Sexual Desire in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, arguing that Scruton's proposal that moral education guides students toward a state in which sexuality is integrated within a life of personal affection and responsibility is inconsistent with his views on homosexuality.[22] According to Stafford, Scruton was invited by the Journal of Applied Philosophy to respond, but declined to do so.[23] Edward Johnson reviewed Sexual Desire in Philosophy of the Social Sciences.[24] Alan Singer discussed Sexual Desire in SubStance, crediting Scruton with succinctly discussing the problems involved in thinking about sexual activity and with showing that sexual desire involves complexity of thought.[25]

The philosopher Alan Soble, writing in the Journal of Sex Research, described Sexual Desire as "erudite and philosophically elegant", and noted that despite a "social climate already highly sensitive to issues surrounding sexual orientation", Scruton was "not afraid to doubt the normality, morality, and social effects of homosexuality." Soble noted that Scruton's contrast between sex and love was a "standard" part of traditionalism.[26]

Evaluations in booksEdit

The philosopher Michael Ruse, writing in Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (1988), argued that Scruton's critique of Freud is weak and unconvincing. Ruse considered Scruton's view that genuine science does not involve metaphor outdated, writing that philosophers and historians have shown that metaphor is common in science, in fields as diverse as physics and sociology. He also wrote that Scruton's criticism of sociobiology suggests that he falsely understands rationality as a "beyond-biology phenomenon".[27]

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 the 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."[28] Brown considered Scruton correct to identify Spinoza as his philosophical antagonist, citing his comment, "If we were to describe the world objectively, from no point of view within it, the 'self' and all its mysteries would vanish — as it vanishes from the impersonal metaphysics of Spinoza."[29]

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 suggested that by "privileging sexual difference" Scruton is engaging in "the modern intensification of sexuality which in other ways he might regard as contributing to a legitimation of the perversions he repudiates." He found Scruton's writing to be jargon-ridden, believing that its Hegelian framework 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.[30] The jurist Richard Posner argued that Scruton does not provide any adequate reason for viewing homosexuality as immoral.[31]

Dover wrote that he understands what Scruton meant by describing his Greek Homosexuality as "trivialising", but added, "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."[32] The philosopher Christopher Janaway, writing in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995), identified Sexual Desire as one of several works in which Scruton challenges the conventional boundaries of analytic philosophy.[33] Nussbaum wrote in 1997 that Scruton's work advances the understanding of 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."[34] Soble criticized Scruton's treatment of masturbation and found his judgment that all masturbation is "obscene" to be "silly".[35] 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.[36]

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).[37] Stafford suggested in 2005 that an essay that Scruton published subsequent to Sexual Desire, in which he argued that children should be encouraged to feel revulsion for homosexuality, was an attempt by Scruton to prevent his admission in Sexual Desire that homosexual desire is spontaneous and not necessarily perverted from being seen as supporting the positive treatment of homosexuality by moral educators.[23] Christopher Hamilton called Sexual Desire "the most interesting and insightful philosophical account of sexual desire" produced within analytic philosophy.[38] 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".[39]

Scruton observed, in a anthology about his philosophical work published in 2017, that his views on the philosophy of sex had become gradually clearer to him after the publication of Sexual Desire, and that he had moved "away from the abstract theory of intentionality towards more concrete representations of our interpersonal being."[40]



  1. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 1, 56–57.
  2. ^ a b Dollimore 1991, pp. 260–262.
  3. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 298–299.
  4. ^ Scruton 1994, p. 301.
  5. ^ Scruton 1994, p. 289.
  6. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 284–321.
  7. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 305–310, 410.
  8. ^ Belliotti 1997, p. 318.
  9. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 195–196.
  10. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 118, 205, 350, 362.
  11. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 184–186, 201–203, 403.
  12. ^ Scruton 1994, pp. 378, 396.
  13. ^ a b Keyes 1986, p. 70.
  14. ^ Neuhaus 1987, p. 45.
  15. ^ Teachout 1987, p. 76.
  16. ^ a b Nussbaum 1986, pp. 49–52.
  17. ^ a b Rorty 1986, pp. 34–37.
  18. ^ Ryle 1986, pp. 5–6.
  19. ^ Strawson 1986, pp. 207–208.
  20. ^ Scruton & Nussbaum 1987, p. 46.
  21. ^ Nussbaum 2009, pp. 43–45.
  22. ^ Stafford 1988, pp. 87–100.
  23. ^ a b Stafford 2005, p. 977.
  24. ^ Johnson 1990, p. 208.
  25. ^ Singer 2016, pp. 158–183.
  26. ^ Soble 2009, p. 117.
  27. ^ Ruse 1988, pp. 28, 140.
  28. ^ Halperin 1990, pp. 210–211.
  29. ^ Brown 1991, p. 123.
  30. ^ Dollimore 1991, pp. 261–262.
  31. ^ Posner 1992, pp. 228–229.
  32. ^ Dover 1995, p. 115.
  33. ^ Janaway 1995, p. 816.
  34. ^ Nussbaum 1997, p. 293.
  35. ^ Soble 1997, pp. 82–83.
  36. ^ Giles 2004, p. 73.
  37. ^ Scruton 2005, p. 55.
  38. ^ Hamilton 2008, p. 101.
  39. ^ Dooley 2009, p. 53.
  40. ^ Scruton 2017, pp. 257–258.


  • Johnson, Edward (1990). "Inscrutable Desires". Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 20 (2).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Keyes, C. D. (1986). "Sexual Desire (Book)". Library Journal. 111 (5).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Neuhaus, Richard John (1987). "The maneless lions". National Review. 39 (8).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Nussbaum, Martha (1986). "Sex in the head". The New York Review of Books. 33 (20). 
  • Rorty, Richard (1986). "Sex and the single thinker". The New Republic. 194 (22).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Ryle, John (1986). "Being on top". London Review of Books. 8 (3). 
  • Scruton, Roger; Nussbaum, Martha (1987). "'Sexual Desire': An Exchange". The New York Review of Books. 34 (8). 
  • Singer, Alan (2016). "Posing Sex: Prospects for a Perceptual Ethics". SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism. 45 (1).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Soble, Alan (2009). "A History of Erotic Philosophy". Journal of Sex Research. 46 (2/3).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Stafford, J. Martin (1988). "Love and Lust Revisited: Intentionality, Homosexuality, and Moral Education". Journal of Applied Philosophy. 5 (1).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Strawson, Galen (1986). "Ideal coitions". The Times Literary Supplement (4326).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
  • Teachout, Terry (1987). "Men and marriage (Book Review)". Commentary. 83 (April 1987).   – via EBSCO's Academic Search Complete (subscription required)
Online articles

External linksEdit