Aesthetics as an independent academic discipline may have faded with the 19th century, but in Roger Scruton’s vigorous, decidedly unfashionable little book, Beauty, it’s as timeless as ever. An investigation into the nature of the ineffable — how, and what, shapes our experience of beauty — his treatise is more an inquiry than an answer. Scruton is, by training and by temperament, a philosopher, and he approaches his analysis with a logician’s steady reason. Beginning with a series of platitudes — “Beauty pleases us,” “Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it,” and so forth — and continuing through its pages, he tries to distill what exactly is meant by this vexing term. Beauty is, for Scruton, a rational but almost spiritual process of encounter between beholder and beheld — be it a landscape, a painting, a simply arranged table. “When looking on the world disinterestedly,” he writes, “I don’t just open myself to its presented aspect; I bring myself into relation with it, experiment with concepts, categories and ideas that are shaped by my self-conscious nature.” But it’s easier to say what Scruton thinks beauty isn’t. He’s at his most passionate (and least cogent) when on the attack, lashing out at contemporary art and postmodern desecration. Scruton can come across as curmudgeonly and prudish (a British academic could not sound more uncomfortable talking about “the ‘convict’ style of black American ‘gangstas’ “), and, despite all his logical contortions, a bit imprecise. But then, it’s only because he has picked, pointedly, the one subject that defies rational explanation.