Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Leo Strauss and Philosophy.

Please remember that hackers may alter these texts, but I will keep making corrections. Torture is a wonderful inducement to philosophical reflection.

Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy? (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1959), pp. 221-233 ("On a Forgotten Kind of Writing").
Leo Strauss, Platonic Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), pp. 229-232.

Leo Strauss is a kind of guru of American neo-Conservatism. I doubt that many of the luminaries of the Republican intelligentsia have actually read Strauss, who is in some ways a good liberal. For example, he fears totalitarianism and is concerned to protect civil liberties, especially freedom of expression.

Strauss is a challenging philosopher, with a unique and (I think) deeply mistaken view of philosophy as well as a quirky method in politics. There are better thinkers to read on the Right-wing view of things, especially at a philosophical level, for instance Hadley Arkes and Roger Scruton. I shall criticize Strauss in this brief comment -- brief because I do not have much time today, since I am going to a WNBA basketball "event" with my daughter. ("Go Liberty!")

I wish to focus on only one essay by Strauss: "On a Forgotten Kind of Writing." Those interested in substantial criticisms of Strauss, should read Martha Nussbaum's essay-review of his work, which first appeared, as I recall, in The New York Review of Books. Strauss was a German Jewish escapee of the Nazi horror. "Strauss" is a common and distinguished name among Jewish scholars fleeing National Socialism in the thirties, one which is close to my heart. Professor Strauss taught for many years at the University of Chicago and was the primary intellectual source for the Reagan-era revolution in American political thinking.

Philosophy or science, the highest activity of man, is the attempt to replace opinion about "all things" by knowledge of "all things"; but opinion is the element of society; philosophy or science is therefore the attempt to dissolve the element in which society breathes, and thus it endangers society. Hence philosophy or science must remain the preserve of a small minority, and philosophers and scientists must respect the opinions on which society rests.

There are key terms to understand in this essay which will resurface in most of the writings of Professor Strauss: "philosophy or science," "opinion versus knowledge," "opinion is the element of society," philosophy is for a "small minority," while (for the many) there is "respect for the opinions on which society rests."

Professor Strauss argues that philosophy is dangerous to society (we may agree that it "can be dangerous") because philosophers (Strauss always uses the masculine pronoun in his writings to my knowledge) are in search of "knowledge," he says, whereas most persons -- including decision-makers -- are content with mere "opinion." They should be, he suggests, since "knowledge is not for them." In other words, knowledge or philosophy is not for most of us.

I disagree. I am also sure that there are societies which should be "endangered." The U.S. is not one of them, because there are mechanism for peaceful revolution within the legal institutions of society. Philosophy can be useful in identifying those areas where changes are needed.

The distinction between knowledge and opinion is derived from Plato's dialogues and is a hallowed one in philosophy. After centuries of effort, I think Professor Strauss might agree today (if he were still here) that what we can confidently describe as "knowledge" -- as distinguished from "opinion" -- is not all that clear. This distinction is -- as we say in the not-so-windy city -- "a little shaky."

In the aftermath of the Kantian revolution, an excessive reliance on ancient thinkers such as Averroes -- or even Renaissance philosophers, like Machiavelli, also a Strauss favorite -- may not be wise. I wonder whether Professor Strauss fully absorbed the key Kantian insight concerning the mind's contribution to what it calls knowledge. This insight does not deprive us of concepts of "objectivity" or "truth." It merely requires greater humility and care, together with limitations of scope, in their use.

There certainly is knowledge, while opinion is something different from knowledge. Is this conceptual distinction or division of knowledge from opinion itself only an opinion? Or is it a matter of knowledge? And if the distinction is knowledge, then why do so many "reasonable philosophers" not accept it? Is the concept of a "reasonable philosopher" a performative self-contradiction?

An argument can be made that between the two extremes of knowledge and opinion, there are better or worse "interpretations" together with more or less plausible beliefs, which far from undermining concepts of objectivity and truth, depend upon such epistemological and metaphysical concepts. My grandmother said: "Half a loaf is better than none" -- at least, with half a loaf you're still eating something. A plausible belief is not certain truth, but it is better than total ignorance. (See my essay on Hilary Putnam's work.)

Karl-Otto Apel notes that "philosophy's non-circumventable (and thus far transcendental) presupposition is that argumentation includes universal validity claims." To engage in philosophical argument is, ab initio, to accept some important epistemological and metaphysical commitments, like the hope for knowledge while aiming at truth. I threw in some Latin for lawyers out there. Mazeltov.

More troublesome problems emerge when we examine this idea that philosophy is for the few or a minority. Strauss did not mean, I hope, that only rich, white young men -- like those who attended the University of Chicago in the fifties -- may study philosophy. It sure sounds that way sometimes. Rather, those whose intellects and vocations "call them" to seek truth or knowledge as distinct from opinion -- separating them from the hoi polloi -- ought to study philosophy. I am probably one of the hoi polloi, the rabble, for Professor Strauss.

This idea of a separation between "the masses or society" (most of us) and the "philosophically worthy" (Professor Strauss and his elite young male students) is what philosophers describe as "subject to challenge" or what my friend who owns the local Deli calls "bullshit."

This is to leave society to the will of opinion-makers and to its own devices in intellectual crises. The ranks of the philosophers are exclusive, true, and yet they are open to the "able." After all, Strauss says, the masses -- like the crowds left behind in Professor Strauss's native land -- are easily swayed by rhetoric, unlike philosophers. You mean, like Heidegger who was very "unswayed" by Hitler? It seems to me that there were plenty of philosophers "swayed" by Hitler. "No one can be as stupid," Talleyrand writes, "as an intellectual."

I am sure that philosophy is for everyone. I doubt that society is exclusively the realm of "opinion." It is often true that politics and law is more about power than truth. Yet power may have "something" to do with our epistemological and metaphysical notions of truth, as argued by Nietzsche and Foucault (remember that "something" is not everything). "Half a loaf is better than none," especially if there is some salami and mayonaise around.

Cooperation between these forms of human inquiry and universal access to both (philosophy and politics), may turn out to be in everyone's interest. You study politics and law; I'll study philosophy; we'll meet in the cafeteria later and compare notes. Philosophers who become too dangerous -- in most societies -- may have to drink some hemlock (or get tenure!), since either possibility goes with the territory if you become a "lover of wisdom" in the agora.

If I know that the principles of liberal democracy are not intrinsically superior to the principles of communism or fascism, I am incapable of whole-hearted commitment to liberal democracy.

Wrong. I am committed to the principles of liberal democracy because I believe and feel them to be preferable to the alternatives (although certainly not perfect), yielding a higher quality of material life for citizens. I also know them to be morally superior to all other options. Feeling and rationality are equally important in this "knowing," as in loving others. Regardless of which system is more "successful" (in what sense?) or wealthier (in what sense?) at any historical moment, I have no choice but to do the right thing, whatever the life-cost to me, by remaining loyal to democratic institutions against ALL enemies of freedom. I am "for" Popper's Open Society, not its Leftist or Rightist enemies.

I like some aspects of Strauss's antihistoricism, however, since I am against simplistic relativism and all forms of nihilism. I also admire his defense of universal values.

Strauss has little appreciation for tragic choices. He has even less appreciation for the importance of hope in people's lives. Strauss's antihistoricism leads him to forget that, at the "end of history" (is that in New Jersey?), there is truth. Just ask Hegel. Maybe Fukuyama can shed some light on this matter.

Democratic forms of liberalism, whether socialist or laissez faire, are simply morally better "for" people than any form of totalitarianism. We can help ALL people, philosophically, so that they will understand why democracy is good. Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler's evil, even when Hitler looked unbeatable and with a tragic awareness that such opposition could well cost him his life. It did cost him his life. Bonhoeffer's faith provided reasons for this choice, so did his impressive talent for philosophical argument. There are some stubborn writers who will persist in their scribbling, even when their work is destroyed or obstacles and frustrations are directed at their communicative efforts, over a period of years. (I am dealing with obstructions in putting my book out there today.)

A talent for philosophy exists to some degree and may even be developed in everyone, that is, if the necessary education is made available to all in public schools. Now that is a good idea. Public education in philosophy for everyone. I am "for" that.

Strauss does not have to worry that, without protection from the nonphilosophical masses, another dictator may be waiting in the wings. Philosophical awareness will always make such a would-be dictator highly unattractive to voters. Lack of philosophical education is more scary to me.

Strauss's "esotericism" doctrine is unpersuasive. This is his notorious claim that philosophers wrote in a sort of code meant to be read only by other philosophers or intellectuals, not by ordinary readers, who would misunderstand anyway. I am sure that persons who write anything wish to communicate with readers. Writers hope to influence people's opinions and thinking, especially writers of philosophy books. Influence is only possible if one is understood. Ideally, by as many readers as possible. Think of the harm to someone suppressed, silenced, censored, marginalized in a society that thinks it is free.

Philosophers have always made or make their arguments -- with a few notable exceptions, on some very delicate issues (like religion in the pre-modern era) -- pretty explicitly in their texts. We must read philosophers' books carefully, certainly, but not in a way that contradicts their explicit meaning, making them inaccessible to most people. Philosophy is everyone's concern and right, it must not be turned into nuclear physics. (See "Why philosophy is for everybody.")

Not everybody will be Diana Taurasi or Lisa Lesley, but all of us can play basketball. Some of us will even be pretty good at the game. We can all engage in that form of "play" called "philosophy." Some of us will play in the big leagues, most of us won't. We can all learn from and appreciate the "game/activity" of philosophy, while developing our mental fitness. In the game of philosophy, Professor Strauss is a good player, but he can't dunk (like Lisa, or Angela Davis?) and he can't hit the three-point shot (like "D," or Martha Nussbaum?). I do not want to be on his team, though I am happy to play against him.

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