Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

You may already be a Straussian!

While I continue hammering any of a half-dozen longer posts into publishable shape, may I meanwhile distract anyone who is still following along with an odd little artifact I discovered in a post about two years old on Eric Schliesser's blog Digressions and Impressions.

Schleisser is citing another post by Jacob Levy, which is asking an interesting question concerning a rough-and-ready distinction between what Levy calls political philosophers and political theorists. At one point, Levy clarifies:
Not all theorists (or all philosophers!) have the same canon, of course. Students of Leo Strauss put an emphasis onto Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien to the rest of the discipline; I'm unaware of any significant Straussian treatment of Constant. (NB: Those influenced by Strauss are somewhat anomalous in other ways. They place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves. They are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) and at least sometimes serious critics of social science. Yet almost without fail they are located in political science rather than philosophy departments, and few do work that contemporary philosophers identify as philosophy.) But the general trend is that theorists cast a wider net in the history of ideas, ....A theory graduate seminar is much more likely to race through a major work or two, several minor works or letters, and some secondary literature, trying to get a sense of the theorist's major claims, what they were arrayed against, and why they were thought to matter politically. (Again, Straussians are an exception here.)
Schleisser notes that Levy has here given a curious little off-the-cuff sketch of criteria for Straussianism, and he usefully digests it down to a list of eight (really seven) characteristics:
1. Straussians place an emphasis on Francis Bacon and Maimonides that is pretty alien to the rest of political theory.
2. Straussians place great weight on a practice they identify as "philosophy," but mostly they study others who have engaged in that practice rather than engaging in it themselves.
3. Straussians are strongly pro-philosophy (as they understand it) .
4. Straussians are serious critics of social science.
5. Yet almost without exception Straussians are located in political science rather than philosophy departments.
6. Despite 3, contemporary philosophers do not identify Strausians as philosophy.
7. Straussians tend to reach whole books with attention to close readings and eye for details.
8. Straussians ignore Benjamin Constant.
Note that being "pro-philosophy" in this context gets a very particular nuance from Levy's distinction between "theory" and "philosophy." Philosophers, he says, ask "what's the argument?" while theorists ask "What's the point?" Or again:
One political consequence of all this: philosophers are much more willing to be radical in some important ways. Theorists are much more likely to insist on remaining tethered to some core intuition or some (relatively unexamined) political or moral virtue. ....

To be more precise: philosophers (at least since Rawls introduced reflective equilibrium) typically own up to relying on one or more intuitions. But they aim to have those intuitions be parsimonious, a la axioms in mathematics, physics, and (ostensibly) economics. The aim is to be able to go a long way starting from fairly little. Theorists remain more closely tethered to intuitions for longer.
Straussians -- whom Levy categorizes as "theorists" -- would then seem to be anomalous: they are philosophically-leaning theorists.

(Then comes Schleisser's item 6 -- the one which is not really an identity criterion; philosophers (in Levy's taxonomy), on the other hand, do not return the favor to Straussians.)

There are all sorts of interesting and odd things to note about this, but I'll limit myself to two observations, one semi-frivolous and one possibly not. First, of course one could quibble with the list -- above all, one could object that what Strauss himself contends seems to escape notice.

One very plausible prima facie account of Strauss would surely see a crucial, if not primary, teaching, in his reading modern philosophy as being comprised of various stages of reaction to and rejection of classical philosophy. This account of Strauss' sets up his counter-interpretation, to wit that classical philosophers' insight surpasses the moderns' because they (the ancients) never need to transition between practice and theory. Why not? Because classical philosophy remains rooted in the language of the agora; it does not route things via the theoretical detour, but maintains a directness -- one might even say, "ordinary language" -- necessary for serious engagement with politics.

In other words, the distinction between theorist and philosopher which Levy is remarking is itself a feature of modern philosophy.

Now it is interesting that the widening chasm between theory and practice really begins to yawn as the Enlightenment project -- to make truth in principle generally available, and so abolish the distinction between ruler and people -- really becomes institutionalized. It is as if the gap had to be reproduced elsewhere. The question then arises: Does this point to a problem with (1) the enlightenment project, or with (2) institutionalization -- insofar as these are separable?

There is another omission, so obvious as to be almost invisible. It is (arguably) implied in Schleisser's item 7, but this item leaves out the E-word: esotericism. That is: why do Straussians pay all this attention to the tell-tale nuance? Because they maintain that (classical) philosophers wrote this way; and that, therefore, it is the right way to read.

In this respect, the modern philosophers' question of "what is the argument?" looks as if it pays a kind of lip-service to careful reading but simply does not go far enough.

Well, then, now for the frivolous question: how do I score?
1. Well, I've paid attention to Maimonides and to Bacon, sure; more to the former. But I'd hardly dare say I've studied either of them. So, Yes and No: .5

2. Hmmm. Well, I don't claim to be one of what Strauss called The Great Thinkers. But I also flatly deny either that "mere scholarship" does not open up upon philosophy itself. Moreover, while I would insist upon a strong historical sense, I have an allergic reaction to the notion that in order to love wisdom, one must first run a gauntlet of footnotes. Yes, we are doing (not merely "reading") philosophy here. So, No. 0

3. In case it's not obvious, I am in favor of philosophy. Go Philosophy! Yes. 1

4. I'm agnostic about social science but I'm anti-scientism, so I suppose I am three-quarters "Yes, I'm a Straussian" here. To spare us too many decimal places, let's just go with Yes: 1.

5. I am in neither a political science nor a philosophy department, so... N/A

6. As already noted, whether (modern) philosophers regard Straussians as philosophers is irrelevant, but I'm pretty sure that unless someone is a PhD snob, I can at least pass the Turing Test as a philosopher.

7. Honestly, I am about 50/50 on this one. I believe one should read whole books, but I am dilettantish and tend to err towards breadth and sometimes to sacrifice depth. Also, I have no German, Greek, or anything besides English for any purposes besides haltingly ordering off a menu with a very patient server, so I can hardly do justice to original texts. So, anyway, let's say .5

8. As to Benjamin Constant, I do pay attention to him, though I can hardly claim to have given him a painstaking "Straussian" reading such as might satisfy Levy or Schleisser. Also, I must admit that what initially made me interested was the account of his affair with Madame de Stael, in Dan Hofstadter's book The Love Affair as a Work of Art. (This is a truly gorgeously-written book which I rarely get the opportunity to recommend, so ... well, I really, really recommend it. It's lovely, smart, and human: i.e., the beautiful, the true, and the good.)
Full score: 3 out of 7. Wow, I'd have thunk I was a Straussian for sure. But then again, my reasons for this have much much more to do with the E-word.