Leo Strauss

One Kenneht McIntyre, writing for The American Conservative, summarizes a critical book on Leo Strauss, a political philosopher noted for his defense of natural law against historicism, and for his controversial methods of interpreting past philosophers’ writings. 


McIntyre accuses Straussians of identifying America with Lockean ideology, and of being apologists for America, or this ideal of America.  He criticizes Strauss’s approach to interpretation:

First, Strauss asserts that understanding the work of a philosopher involves the reproduction of the author’s intention. Unfortunately, and as Gottfried argues, Strauss never explains what he means by “intention,” nor does he explain how one might reproduce an author’s intention. The second doctrine, however, renders the first irrelevant. Strauss argues that authentic philosophers hide their teaching from the casual reader and only initiates into the true philosophic art can decode the esoteric meaning of such texts. For Strauss and the Straussians, this is not an historical claim but a theoretical one, and it yields an interpretative strategy both naïve and paranoid.

There’s some pretty dubious seeming stuff in Straussian interpretation.  On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that philosophers sometimes write insincerely.


Hume, for instance, wrote a dialogue on religion between three characters.  In this dialogue, Philo cleverly presents himself as the ally of common sense and faith of Demea as against the theology of Clementhes, going on about the need to humble the arrogance of human reason, the presumption of thinking we can comprehend God.  He goes on to basically make meaningless the idea that God exists- something mysterious got the universe started, but we know nothing about it and cannot attribute to it human characteristics. 

At the end of his dialogue, Hume (who makes himself a fourth man listening in) declares, “upon a serious review of the whole, I cannot but think, that Philo’s principles are more probable than Demea’s; but that those of Cleanthes approach still nearer to the truth.”  Yet he gave the strongest arguments to Philo, and he had Philo approach the whole argument in a rather Straussian manner.

For another example, Des Cartes made a weak argument for God’s existence that was probably a parody of Anselm’s argument.  He was in the process of seeing what all he could prove by pure deduction; God would have been conspicuous by his absence.  It’s possible Des Cartes just made a bad argument, but it’s also possible that he knew what he was doing.

Similarly, Locke rejected innate ideas in his epistemology but relied on them in his morality.  Some people think Locke just wasn’t a very good philosopher.  My understanding is Strauss thinks some of his “mistakes” were intentional- that he actually goes just as deep as his critics, as Allan Bloom argues.  This doesn’t make Strauss and Bloom apologists for Locke, only that they take him seriously in a way that others do not. 

Once modern philosophy became dominant, it no longer had to justify itself, and people forgot its deeper foundations.  This means that critics are often attacking a shallow version of modern philosophy, but it also means supporters are complacent, not themselves having to overcome entrenched pre-modern thought.


McIntyre in the above-cited passage criticizes Strauss for basing his interpretive strategy on “theoretical” rather than historical grounds, and later declares “it is inaccurate to call Strauss or his epigones bad historians because they are not historians at all.”  Yet it isn’t clear to me why history is so all-important as a guide to interpretation, when there is enough in the text itself to justify an interpretation.  Hume’s Cleanthes himself took a bit of a Straussian reading of Philo: “in Cleanthes’s features, I could distinguish an air of finesse; as if he perceived some raillery or artificial malice in the reasonings of Philo.”  Demea finds out the truth too late: “Hold! hold! cried Demea: whither does your imagination hurry you? I joined in alliance with you, in order to prove the incomprehensible nature of the Divine Being, and refute the principles of Cleanthes, who would measure every thing by human rule and standard. But I now find you running into all the topics of the greatest libertines and infidels, and betraying that holy cause which you seemingly espoused. Are you secretly, then, a more dangerous enemy than Cleanthes himself?”


MacIntyre again: “Instead, the lesson that Strauss took from the fall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler and National Socialism was that liberalism was not capable of withstanding the onslaught of historicism, positivism, and moral relativism without solid quasi-religious and quasi-mythical foundations—and that he would be the one to provide those.  Gottfried is certainly correct in arguing that for Strauss and his acolytes it is always September 1938 and we are always in Munich.”

My understanding is that Strauss was alarmed by the embrace of NAZIism by Heidegger, the greatest philosopher of his time, and traced this embrace to Heidegger’s relativistic philosophy.  Strauss seemed to believe that Enlightenment liberalism contained the philosophical seeds of its own destruction through “the onslaught of historicism, positivism and moral relativism”- something a true Locke apologist would not think. 

To say that, politically, circumstances happen to differ from 1938, that liberalism shows a historic ability to withstand positivism and historicism, is one thing, but does currently dominant philosophy provide grounding for liberalism?  How is it more dogmatic to ask this question than to not ask it?  For MacIntyre, grounding freedom in philosophy rather than history, in eternal human realities rather than particular circumstances, is necessarily “quasi-religious and quasi-mythical.”  It isn’t clear to me that this is what Strauss was doing; he wanted room to ask questions about man’s place in eternity, but didn’t necessarily come to many definitive conclusions.  And history itself is notoriously often mythologized.

It is one thing to be a historian tracing the development of our institutions to various historical causes, quite another to make history itself the basis for morality.  Speaking of which.…


 MacIntyre writes,

Strauss was also influenced by the intellectual battles being waged in Germany at the turn of the century. The Methodenstreit that was taking place amongst economists was also occurring amongst historians and philosophers, and it resulted in a series of conceptual dichotomies that would appear throughout Strauss’s later writings. His trio of bêtes noires (positivism, relativism, and historicism) was at the heart of the conflicts about methodology in Germany, and the outcome of these debates set the terms of critique for Strauss’s youth and beyond.

The Methodenstreit is of course the famous battle pitting methodological individualism and deductive approach of the Austrian economists against the German Historical school’s reliance on history and rejection of universal principles of economics.  The Austrians said we should reason from first principles about human action, the Germans favored empirical studies of whole economies. 

The Austrians basically crushed the Germans, as far as the economic mainstream is concerned, but they only reign supreme within the realm of economics as far as I know.  Economics studies incentives and probably just lends itself to methodological individualism, yet those interested in different questions will take up psychology or sociology, ignoring economists and being ignored by them in turn.

The Austrians also take methodological individualism further than the mainstream is willing to go.  According to Wikipedia .

“Austrians reject empirical statistical methods, natural experiments, and constructed experiments as tools applicable to economics, arguing that while it is appropriate in the natural sciences where factors can be isolated in laboratory conditions, the actions of humans are too complex for such a treatment because humans are not passive and non-adaptive subjects.  Austrian economist Jeffrey Herbener has argued that ‘there are no statistical characteristics to human behavior.  It is purposeful rather than random, and changeable rather than constant.’”

Methodology here becomes inseparable from moral thought.  A methodological individualist sees the human being as the irreducible unit of action.  He therefore has little concern about how his cells, organs and impulses act on that human, whom he assumes has a coherent will, or about how society operates on the individual, since he does not believe society acts or makes decisions.*

Economics, particularly Austrian economics, presents its subjectivism as a way to be value-free and scientific, but they also seem to see individuals’ preferences as a source of value, or as being worthy of respect in their own right.  Economists like utility, but reject interpersonal utility comparisons- utility is enough of a subjective experience that we cannot say who would benefit more from something, only where the thing ranks in among an individual’s preferences as revealed by action.  The optimal state for many economists is what they call “Pareto optimality,” in which nobody can be made better off without another person being made worse off.  This is very much an individualistic criterion; nobody is sacrificed to another person, or to the good of “society.”  

This, I think, is why Bloom basically argued that economics is what happens when you base a human science on the premises of Locke and Smith- universal human nature involving desire for material gain and moral sentiments, with the individual as the morally significant unit.  Anthropology and sociology lean toward Rousseau and historicism, psychology toward his existentialist streak. 

MacIntyre himself appears to want to respect our traditions and institutions while denying the importance of the expressed philosophy behind them, in a Burkean fashion.  Woodrow Wilson’s progressivism took a similar approach.  While MacIntyre greatly exaggerates Strauss’s own concern for U.S. domestic politics, Straussians have done worthwhile work diagnosing and criticizing Wilson’s Burkeanism. 

MacIntyre’s preoccupation with the paleoconservative-neoconservative battles over minor government positions, control of conservative institutions, America’s imperial role, and neoconservatives’ “suck[ing] all the air out of [the American conservative movement] and insur[ing] that there is no one to the right of them,” peppers the essay, but the Burkian/Straussian debate is much more interesting.


* There are exceptions to economists’ ignoring other disciplines, of course.  Through behavioral economics, economics is attempting to conquer psychology or vice versa, and Gary Becker won an economics Nobel for his attempts to conquer sociology.


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