Thursday, May 4, 2006

Reading Steven Smith (Don)

My former advisor at Yale, Steven B. Smith, is hoping to set the record straight on Leo Strauss. His newest book, _Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism_ (University of Chicago Press, 2006), is due to hit bookstores next month. I've not read it, of course; but Smith came to Harvard a couple of months back to give a talk at the Political Theory Colloquium here. He read (parts of) a chapter; it was very good. Smith is a fine writer, a sharp reader and critic, and a friend and mentor. Check out the book. It will surely debunk much that needs debunking about "Straussianism." Clifford Orwin of the University of Toronto has a largely praising review in _Commentary_, except for two digs: (i) the _real_ Strauss might not have been _so_ against the Iraq War; and (ii) Smith fans the flames of a politicized Strauss by writing an admittedly timely and political book on Strauss and his political perception. The "chapter" link above has, surprisingly, some very big lauds for Smith from Harry Frankfurt (_emeritus_ philosopher at Princeton)--surprising, since "analytic" philosophers usually have no patience for Strauss or Straussians. As eminent a figure as Frankfurt (of _On Bullshit_ fame) might pave the way for a re-appraisal of that impatience. (Another notable exception is John Finnis's treatment of Strauss's work on natural-law theory.)


Cheerful Hobbist said...

Thanks for the informative posting on Steven Smith, Don. I was there at Smith's talk last year too - and I wondered (as I do now): what is at stake conceptually (and not, say, for the correct intellectual historical reading) in the proper characterization of Strauss? I know a lot of you on this blog know much more about Strauss than Cheerful Hobbist does -- Cheerful Hobbist has not read much Strauss, just his interesting correspondence with A. Kojeve -- so I'm wondering what your thoughts are. Let me put it this way: I think that the pervasive misunderstanding of, say, Hobbes or Hegel or Marx poses problems for our conceptual grasp of politics now - whatever the other problems in our intellectual-historical appraisal of these figures and their time. Does the confusion about Strauss that Smith identifies pose a similar problem for us today? That is, in failing to understand Strauss properly - e.g. whether friend or critic of liberal democracy or in his approach to the ancients - what else do we lose (besides a correct reading of Strauss)? I ask this for the obvious reason that so many of us find it hard to navigate Strauss's (and the many so-called Straussians') works, that I wonder what's at stake for someone like Smith in writing this book (other than having been his student and being upset with inaccurate characterizations)?

Again, to illustrate, I think that Hobbes was (and is) pervasively misunderstood, both by the generations immediately after him and since. This has created a problem (in my view) for the proper understanding of democracy - so it's a serious problem that we're confused about him. Is the confusion about Strauss like that, or would you say it's mainly a matter of proper historical exegesis?

Don said...

Thanks, CH, for the very incisive comment (and questions). Let me start my response by pointing to the lines of thought you sketch.

I think that a refined understanding of Strauss might pose useful for the broader conceptual questions of political theory. If one can understand Strauss _better_ or more _sympathetically_, as many new works on Strauss seem to seek to do, then one will be in a better position to take seriously what Strauss says concerning liberal democracy, ancient thought vis-a-vis contemporary philosophy, and the theologico-political "problem." So what is at stake _might_ be something like what would be at stake in coming to more sensible terms with Hobbes.

I say "might," however, since I myself am non-committal when it comes to what contributions Strauss makes substantively, and not just historically, to these debates.

But it certainly is the case that the authors of the many recent studies, defenses, and exegetical works on Strauss take Strauss as an important thinker in his own right. Whether this is true, I cannot say. But I think that a plausible case can be made that Strauss's work proves a useful point of departure for some live questions, which questions Strauss is given much credit for first posing in American academic contexts.

So: my answer is that conceptual work is at stake, not just historical or hagiographical topics. But this answer will seem like a dodge--and it is one--since I haven't said much about what Strauss's contribution to live questions and possible answers actually comes to. But I would say that, formally, what's at stake with Strauss parallels what is at stake with any study of a historical figure or thinker.

Smith's writing his Strauss book now, and in just the way he did, might be motivated out of love or admiration for the man and the teacher; but of course that is an unsatisfactory answer insofar as it doesn't glimpse that Smith loves or admires Strauss by virtue of Strauss's contribution to some cluster of important questions for politics and philosophical activity. And so, for the critic of these enterprises, the question remains as to whether Strauss and his thought actually _matter_ to the important issues. But then that can't be answered until one entertains subtle and accurate renderings of just what Strauss's thought comes to.

And there's the rub. When it comes to historical work on some figure's thinking, it is hard to tell what is "primary" and what "secondary." The goal might be historical accuracy insofar as, were Smith to have written a barbarously inaccurate exegesis, no credit would go Strauss's way, because the way depicted was not Strauss's. But the goal might just as well be said to be "conceptual clarity" or "normative insight" insofar as the _point_ of defending Strauss's thought is to defend what are taken to be important thoughts _simpliciter_.

Let me end by posing a question; for my answer here is circumscribed by my own doubts about how conceptual work in political theorizing is to relate to the history of political thought.

Why study Hobbes (or Strauss) at all, if studying him doesn't have at stake some question central to conceptual or normative political theory? Isn't to study Hobbes (or Strauss) without such a use an exemplary case of antiquarianism?

I susect that, even if a historian sees himself as merely concerned with historical accuracy, the _point_ of his study must be applicable to some conceptual or normative question in order to avoid the charge of pursuing something like a very skilled version of counting blades of grass.

Cheerful Hobbist said...

This is a very interesting discussion - and pertains as well to Josh's more recent blog (which also stimulated my question as to the relevance of determining whether Strauss was either a 'friend' or 'enemy' of liberal democracy), so I'll put a note there directing him (and anyone else interested) down to this series of responses.

As to what you say about Strauss, why not lay out some conceptual themes that you think he touches upon, or some live questions he raises? Your post came across to me as vague - sort of like Smith's chapter, in my undereducated estimation - so it's still hard for me to grasp what's at stake. (Hence, my original response to your posting on Smith.)

But, as to the issue of why we should study history, I think you are absolutely right to wonder what other than (if anything) antiquarian interest should motivate it. Here are some rough (overlapping and surely non-exhaustive) reasons that come to mind (as someone who does study history of thought as my main way into political theory). The first is to clarify problems that have come down to us by examining their sources - for example, if we want to understand what 'rights' discourse means, it's helpful to examine the semantic changes that have occurred in the history of political thought, lest we talk at cross purposes using terms in distinct ways without realizing it (by borrowing indiscriminately across time periods). A second reason is that some of the great past political philosophers poised issues in a very pure form, which has later been nuanced, but which is good pedagogically to study at the start. I'm thinking here, e.g. of Hobbes and Rousseau on the concept of sovereignty, which I never understood (in all the modern explanations of it) until I read them. The final reason that I can think of is to be able to overcome the grip that past philosophers have on us. By understanding the history of their philosophy - that is, why they wrote what they did, for what purpose and in what tradition - we can begin to overcome philosophy (and hence clear a space for our own thinking, as Skinner says in a famous essay somewhere.) History is, in this sense, an antidote to philosophy - it is deflationary and pragmatic. (That's why I think of, say, Marx's historicism as so revolutionary and far-reaching in its potential as an approach to thought.)

Those are just three reasons for which I find it valuable. There are a variety of less important but still psychologically compelling reasons - e.g., with some grasp of the history of thought, you begin to see how everyone (contemporaries included) usually just circle around issues outlined earlier (and often better) by others - and that can help in situating their claims and not feeling intimidated or confused by them. There's also the sheer pleasure of reading history - social history, architectural or art history, and intellectual history.

None of this is very glamorous, I admit - it's at most critical and exegetical and doesn't turn to past thinkers for much in the way of prophecy. There is that in them, too, but only because we of the quantum effect - we become what we think we are (so declaring what we are is often a powerful political and intellectual move - just consider rational choice theory in this regard.)

So, back to Hobbes, to be concrete. I've found reading Hobbes valuable (in other than an antiquarian way) for making sense of rights discourse and sovereignty now, because I see the confusions that followed Hobbes's own thought, and I also appreciate his thinking, which is admirably clear, on these issues (my first and second reasons above). Even more specifically, I think that the notion of an undivided or unified sovereignty (which, following Rousseau's amendment, is seen as necessarily, rather than optionally, democratic) is extremely powerful, and a lens through which to consider a great deal (if not all!) political thought before and after. And it comes out most clearly in Hobbes.

What sort of seminal issues like that do you think make Strauss a figure worth studying (just as with any other historical thinker of figure, as you put it)?

In case you are being shy, I'll throw a few out there: the issue of esoteric writing, especially in the face of possible persecution; the alleged tension between democracy and philosophy; the nature of the political (e.g. friend/enemy distinction); the idea that natural right is a fiction, but a necessary one required to maintain social order; the problem of philosophical atheism coexisting with mass faith; and so on - any of these worth commenting upon?

Don said...

CH, thanks for pursuing this line, although I might not be able to give a satisfactory answer. But as to explanation: I misread your first comment, and so I neglected to spell out what was at stake in reading Strauss. Rather, I thought your question was: What is at stake in _any_ study of Strauss, where the options are merely (i) historical accuracy and (ii) philosophical opportunity? I meant to say that the answer must be (ii); and that, if the answer is (i), then such a motivation, divorced from (ii), is a very poor one. But of course I see that your _real_ question is about the content and shape of (ii), to which I will soon turn.

But not just yet--. I am no Strauss scholar or devotee, but what little acquaintance I have had with his work has been profitable, largely for some of the reasons you outlined. These can be described as pedagogical: Strauss writes with an uncompromising, and often obscure, tantalization; and as deflationary: his clarion call for a "philosophical history of philosophy," and not mere taxonomy, is meant to allow us to assess critically our intellectual patrimony. Now, I admit, whether Strauss does philosophic history successfully is an open question. But his overt intention, even if poorly executed, seems interestingly similar to that of Skinner. Another profitable feature of Strauss's work is something I might loosely call "narrative-building." Again, I don't want to defend the shape of Strauss's narrative on the traditions of political thought, but I just want to mention how what he often does is useful fodder for the budding political theorist. Interestingly, the reasons to study the history of political thought you mention are often, I think, reasons which Strauss himself either espouses or makes apparent in his own work.

I want to be clear from the start (even though this might already be mid-game): I don't think Strauss was a thinker of the first rank; nor do I think that his studies are the best first place to turn for commentaries on the pivotal thinkers in our field; nor do I think that many of the questions he sought to investigate are the most important for us now (e.g., his emphasis on moral relativism seems, to me, largely defunct). Rather, I want to make the case in defense of continuing to read and study Strauss in general.

Now, let me dodge your question in yet another way. I want here to make a distinction between (a) reading Strauss for philosophical opportunity and (b) reading Strauss for methodological opportunity.

It might be the case that Smith wrote his book on Strauss to serve Straussian methodological opportunities, which opportunities are threatened by inaccurate views of Strauss. Specifically: Strauss, as Smith mentions, was primarily a reader of philosophical and political texts; and his greatest contributions to political theorizing have come along the lines of his numerous readings. If it is commonly held that Straussian readings (of Plato, Heidegger, Locke, et al.) involve political advocacy of certain stripes (neo-conservative, paleo-liberal, warmongering, economically libertarian, and so on), and if it is held that such advocacy is unreasonable or specious, then Smith helps the cause of Straussian _reading_ by showing how Straussian thought need not endorse such unreasonable or specious causes.

To defend Strauss in this way differs from defending the content, as opposed to the method, of Strauss's thought out of what I have been calling "philosophical opportunity." So what is at stake in a defense of Strauss might be a defense of Strauss's method as a plausibly good way of approaching the history of political thought. To defer to Strauss's textualist approach is one way of answering your question. And to do so prescinds from looking to Strauss's views on democracy, religion, liberty, and even on Plato, Locke, and Heidegger. For Strauss can be shown to have been very wrong on any of these topics and figures, without doing damage to his method, _if_ his method can itself show how wrong Strauss was on Plato, Locke, and Heidegger.

(Take this analogy from the history of literary criticism. The New Critics were often seen as political reactionaries; and their method has come to be discredited for that perception. Specious claims about how the New Criticism fits with racism, nationalism, and imperialistic notions of tradition and culture abound just enough to make any defender of the New Criticism susceptible to the charge of troglodytism. But if the New Criticism can be detached from these other "commitments," then the New Criticism stands to be vindicated as a useful method of reading.)

I have in the works a web-log post about Strauss-style anachronistic or non-historical methods, so I will bracket any substantive defense of those methods for now. I just wanted to show a possible methodological move a Straussian exegete might take.

But of course this methodological defense is not what you're looking for. And I doubt I will be able to show you what you want; for Strauss was not a systematic thinker, and he held no explicit doctrines such that I can say, as far as I am competent to speak, "The truth of Strauss's claim _X_ makes _Y_ true of democracy." Needless to say, I have so little knowledge of Strauss or his work that I can't even begin to think about discerning a Straussian doctrine or system. For my part, an adequate reason to continue reading Strauss can be found in his pedagogical or methodological appeal.

I have to admit that I've left Straussian fields long ago; for a general historian of philosophy not in the Anglophone analytic tradition, my money is on Etienne Gilson or Eric Voegelin.

I will, however, take your suggestions (from the end of your recent-most reply) seriously. I can't say that these topics show how Strauss's thought _answers_ some important philosophical or political puzzles. But I think I can show how these much-rehearsed tags mirror important philosophical or political _questions_. To that extent, Strauss's thought can serve as useful points of departure.

(A) "The issue of esoteric writing": How are we to relate a philosopher's or political theorist's writings to the historical and political circumstances in which they wrote?

(B) "The alleged tension between democracy and philosophy": What conditions or restrictions are we to place upon democratic processes such that democratic outcomes are not merely majoritarian but also comprehensively legitimate?

(C) "The nature of the political": What justifies the nation-state or any nationalism at all?

(D) and (E): "The idea that natural right is a maintain social order"; "the problem of philosophical atheism coexisting with mass faith": Are techniques of deceptive or manipulative social management justified in virtue of conducing to otherwise good states of affairs?

The questions I've posed as translations of Straussian tags are just some possible ways, I think, of reinterpreting Strauss's concerns into concerns central to contemporary debates within normative or conceptual political theory. I just mean to show how studying Strauss can map onto important controversies. Now, whether Strauss deals with such concerns in clear, incisive, or intellectually rich way is an issue, I suspect, we will largely agree on.

I will end by putting a little pressure on a comment you made in your recent-most reply.

"By understanding the history of their philosophy--that is, why they wrote what they did, for what purpose and in what tradition--we can begin to overcome philosophy (and hence clear a space for our own thinking, as Skinner says in a famous essay somewhere.) History is, in this sense, an antidote to philosophy--it is deflationary and pragmatic."

How does knowing, say, _everything_ about Hobbes's motivations, historical setting, and self-conceived place in a tradition make a mark either for or against the actual propositions which his writings contain? (I agree that historical understanding will allow us to fix more finely what Hobbes might have meant by some proposition. But how does knowledge of Hobbes deflate any of his claims with respect to their truth?) Put another way: How does knowing, say, that Strauss wrote every one of his works with the explicit motive of fighting the Cold War on an intellectual front bear on how _we_ are to understand whether or not Strauss was right to declare that an authentic natural-law teaching would require something like an Aristotelian cosmology?

Josh Cherniss said...

Sorry to be coming so late to the feast -- particularly since there is now so much on the table, and I'm in danger of gorging myself -- and, in consequence, regurgitating a lot of under-digested material from the gourmet treats laid out by Don and Cheerful Hobbist. (Metaphor ends here). I'll try to say several things, as concisely as I can; and I'll try to go from the specific to the general. Some things, though, will be very general -- having to do with this question of 'why study the history of philosophy?' -- and I think I'd best put them into a separate post.
First, on Smith's book: one should bear in mind that it's composed of a number of different essays written over the course of more than a decade, and the motivation varies. The publication of these pieces as a book was prompted by the public hoopla over Strauss, Straussians and neo-cons, and some of the pieces, such as the one presented at the workshop, do deal with the attempt to rescue Strauss from the distorting (?) lenses of hostile media coverage. But many of the essays are motivated, I suspect, by a) pure historical/exegetical interest, and b) interest in exploring the themes discussed in, and questions raised by, Strauss's work.
A and B should not, I think, be too sharply separated. Many of the issues Smith deals with are, I think he would argue, both historically significant, and important to think about in contemporary politics -- the 'theological-political problem', and the conflict between 'Athens and Jerusalem' (which is to say, the question of what reason is and what authority it can claim) being two among these. For Smith, I suspect, discussing these issues in an illuminating way is inseparable from exploring their history. But that's a topic I'll return to in my own voice, as it were, and in a separate post.
I do also think that setting the record 'straight' on the politics of Straussianism (the scare-quotes here being a reflection of my doubts about Smith's argument that Strauss was a liberal) is significant, to the extent that Smith wants to insist that one can accept Strauss's account and critique of modernity, without abandoning liberal (and adopting crypto-fascist) politics. (This is of course similar to the point Don makes about Strauss's methodology; but I think that for Smith and other admirers of Strauss, it is not just the methodology, but also the particular claims about 'modernity' that Strauss makes.)
This brings me to one of the Strauss (as opposed to Smith)-related questions CH raises -- why read Strauss (today, or any day)?
My own view is that one should read a thinker -- any thinker -- because one finds that thinker interesting, and find that that thinker illuminates some aspect of thought and/or experience which one has perceived dimly, or differently, before (or didn't notice was there). People will be attracted in this way to different thinkers -- and sometimes won't be able to understand others's attraction to other thinkers; and this is good, since it makes for diversity and argument.
For my own part, I find that Strauss is one of a number of writers who does raise interesting methodological questions; but more than that, I find his particular readings of particular thinkers thought-provoking (some of these I find impossible to accept -- such as his account of Locke; I can't think of any that I accept whole-heartedly, but many at least force me to reconsider my views of the thinkers in question, and attend to details of their writings and possible interpretations of these writings which I'd otherwise have ignored). Aside from that, I do find Strauss's narrative of the history of political thought interesting. My current views on narratives of intellectual history is similar(ly pluralistic) to the views on studying particular thinkers mentioned above: I think one can construct a number of narratives of the history of, say, political thought -- say, in terms of the decline of natural right doctrines and of faith in reason more generally, or of ongoing conflict between moral scepticism and attempts to discover normative truths (or at least maintain some sort of accepted moral standards), or of the revival and waning and revival again of civic republican or 'neo-roman' ideas, or the conflict between the heritage of the Enlightenment and its critics, etc etc etc. On this view, Strauss is interesting in the same way as MacIntyre or Berlin or Skinner or, I can't think who else ... That is, he presents a particular narrative through which to connect and make sense of a number of different thinkers and ideas that have emerged over the centuries. These narratives cast new light on individual thinkers, and also on certain historical (both intellectual-historical and political-historical) phenomena -- or show these in a new (sometimes distorting) light. In doing so, they suggest ways in which we can make sense both of the history of political thought -- or the particular texts with which we're concerned -- and of our own ways of thinking and historical predicament, what these are like, and how these came to be as they are. Some of these pictures are almost certainly distorting or misleading; but I tend to think that exposure to and reflection on them is intrinsically interesting, and good food for thought.
I've strayed, I think, into the more general territory that I promised to explore elsewhere, so I'd better end and get to that (if I have anything left to say). Just a bit more on Strauss. I agree with Don's itemization of points raised by Strauss's work (and that of his disciples) which are, as it were, 'live' topics -- and well worth considering, in many cases, even if one's not a Straussian. On a personal level, reading Strauss drew my attention to the questions of the relationship between philosophy and politics, between philosophers and non-philosophers (or anti-philosophers), and between the widely accepted norms and beliefs of particular societies, and more radical and critical philosophies. He's certainly not the only thinker to deal with these problems, nor the one to do so best; but it was through reading him that I came to be interested in, or think more seriously about, many of them -- and I do think all of them interesting topics, worth thinking more about. So I do think that Strauss provides one valuable and valid path into and through regions of political theory that are worth exploring -- though I think that one's exploration of these will be rather more fruitful if one avoids becoming a Straussian.

Cheerful Hobbist said...

Gosh, these postings are getting very long, so I will respond to the more general question of the worth of history of political thought, especially the concerns that Don raises at the end of his response to my previous one. But I want to briefly note, first, that I find Don's distinction between the methodological opportunities and the philosophical ones for studying Strauss to be helpful and provocative and I can see a sympathetic reading of Smith in that light, largely bracketing the substantive claims or the overall narrative that S seeks to impart to the history of political philosophy. So, thanks - that is interesting, and I should probably read your weblog on anachronistic methods in the history of thought! (Where is it located?)

As for the question on Hobbes, at the very end, I've been reflecting on it for a day or two, and I meant to answer, but now I see that Josh has replied to your reply and posted a more general intro to that question at the top of the weblog, so I am torn - but will probably have to table that specific response to take on the more general questions now raised. This is what comes, I guess, of blogging behind the curve! More soon, then, up at the top of the blog, but I'll quickly respond to Josh's substantive points on Strauss next.

Cheerful Hobbist said...

Very brief comments on Josh's post - all very interesting thoughts and I can see the force of many of them.

I wonder about this last argument, that it is interesting to read Strauss, and productive too - but more so if one avoids becoming a Straussian. I wonder what is behind that impetus or that tendency in many folks (including around here) and whether it has an intellectual form or mostly a psychological or sociological one (e.g. something in the ideas that attracts, or certain language games that 'do' something for us that others don't or whether it's something more about character type, the often restless and bright young men attracted to the overall atmosphere of Strauss/Straussianism.)

But, that is perhaps a question better left to historical retrospective - sometimes one needs a generation (that is, the death of immediate disciples and followers) before we can assess the sociological status (if not philosophical) of a thinker who draws a crowd, so to speak.

Josh Cherniss said...

Just in brief echo of CH's last post: I do think my own interest in Strauss, and the Straussians, is largely sociological -- I may find the whole phenomenon of Strauss and co. more interesting from the perspective of sociology of knowledge, and the history of political thought (or, really, the history of the study of political thought ...), than political theory proper.