My last post expressed some confusion over the Straussian identification of philosophy and reason with the practice of Socratic rationalism. On one interpretation of Strauss, the philosophical life, so conceived, is the best human life. The argument for the bestness of the Socratic life is elusive, to say that least. As I mentioned last time, Socratic reason is relatively weak and the grounds of its authority as a source of true belief are rather numinous. I suggested that the Athens vs. Jerusalem aspect of the theologico-political problem is not a problem with a more robust conception of reason and philosophy. In this post, I’m interested in why Strauss and his followers eschew a stronger form of reason, and I try to think it through. This is not scholarship. It’s an imaginative, psychologizing reconstruction of a certain syndrome of belief. Though I’m very interested in the scholarship of this stuff, my immediate purpose is to build a fictional character with a Straussian cast of mind. That said, the constraints of scholarly method can be an impediment to real understanding, and well-informed speculation can be more illuminating.
A Problem of Semi-Mystical Rationality
Strauss, like Heidegger, thinks the ancient Greeks knew something we have forgotten. Heidegger seems to think to think the forgetting begins with the abandonment of pre-Socratic metaphysics. Strauss seems to think the forgetting begins with Plato. The biggest oddity in Strauss’s many commentaries on Plato is his neglect of the theory of the forms. One gets a strong sense that Strauss thinks Plato projects the theory of the forms back onto Socrates, osbscuring the genuine Socratic conception of the nature of reason, and thereby the activity of philosophy. At the same time, Strauss seems to assume that the real Socrates is there in the dialogue, if you can abstract from the Platonic overlay. What Plato gives us that Socrates doesn’t is a theory of knowledge based in the apprehension of universals. Platonic rationalism is itself slightly mystical, because what are the forms exactly? Where are they? How do we grasp them? With souls that are, like the forms, incorporeal and eternal? Aristotle naturalizes the forms and the soul, if not all the way, and gives us immanent universals and souls as the functional principle of animals. We recognize pure Platonic reason. It is math. And we recognize Aristotelean pure reason. It’s syllogistic logic operating on premises established by apodictic induction or refined common sense. Philosophy 101.
The problem with Philosophy 101 is that it tends to unwittingly treat this trajectory in conceptions of reason as a sort of progress. Suppose however that real philosophic reason is the messier reason of the sort we get in Aristotle’s N. Ethics. We can’t always start from self-evident premises. In ethics and politics, we have to start from opinion, from the things people say, spot the internal inconsistencies, identify the unstated assumptions, and edge toward something more certain than mere opinion by a process of reflective equilibration. (Straussians obviously wouldn’t put it that way, but it’s the right way to interpret Aristotle.) This is pretty much what Socrates does. But this sort of philosophical method looks a lot different if you jettison both Platonic and Aristotelian universals as unduly speculative and metaphysical. (Can these theories really survive Socratic scrutiny?)
Strauss often mentions Socrates’ insight that knowledge of the “the whole” requires “noetic heterogeneity.” The world isn’t all air, or all fire, or all love and strife, or whatnot, but instead encompasses many fundamentally different kinds of things. To know something of the whole is therefore to know something of the nature of its various kinds. Theories of universals are theories that account for the fundamental ontological heterogenity of nature as well as the unified whatness of beings of the same natural kind. Crucially, universals are stable semantic anchors. With the right sort of complementary theory of mind, you can build theories of reference, truth, truth-preserving inference, causal regularity/law, induction, and so forth, on top of them. Which is to say, universals provide the metaphysical ground for a conception of reason as an authoritative means of arriving at truths about the world.
But what if you give that all up? Suppose you’re a mid-century German prone to standard mid-century German narratives about the history of philosophy. So you think Platonic rationalism leads to Aristotelian rationalism leads to Scholastic rationalism. And the Schoolmen lead, on the one hand, to Cartesian rationalism, which leads to the skepticism it fails to save us from, and, on the other hand, we get English empiricism and its fairly straightforward devolution into skepticism. Oh no! Skepticism everywhere! (You will have paid no attention to “common sense” non-Hume Scots who have diagnosed the common ground of empiricist and rationalist skepticisms. They are glib, and probably cheap.) So here comes Kant to save us from skepticism by putting the structure of the world inside the mind, so that it’s no problem for the mind to get to it. But then what accounts for the transcendantal stability of this structure? Huh? Nothing. Oh no! Which leads to Hegel historicizing the structure of mind, which is sort of worse than skepticism, and then we get disaster after disaster. Hegel and then Marx and … tyranny. Hegel and then Nietszche and … tyranny. Hegel and then Husserl, who really pays attention, but just can’t decide if he’s inside his head or outside his head. And then, in your lifetime, Heiddegger’s all, “Guys Nietzsche’s right and we have royally fucked this up! The terms of the game are rigged for failure. No more inside the head or out! No more subjective and objective. Back to the presocratics and poetry and BEING. Oh, and let’s all be Nazis.” And then Sartre’s all, “You just decide how to live, which might mean joining the Resistance, but also might not. It’s all cool. Just try keep it authentic, man. Freedom, dig? So, obvs, support the Soviets.” Meanwhile, the logic-chopping nouveau empiricists in Cambridge and Vienna aren’t really doing so great saving us from skepticism by rebuilding the world out of sense data and logically perfect languages. Moreover, they have nothing of use to say about all this tyranny, about all the incinerating of trainloads of people and all the revolutionary mass-starvation of the people for the people, except maybe for moving to America and noting that people use moral words to express their feelings.
Suppose all that. You might be tempted to think Heidegger was right and that there was some kind of giant mistake at the outset of the tradition. You will not sense the disreputable Hegelianism of a grand this-leads-inexorably-to-that reading of the history of ideas because you are a German philosopher trained by German philosophers. This means you will be tempted, just as Heidegger was, to go back to the beginning and attempt to rebuild. But you will implicitly assume a version of the historicism that you explicitly reject. So you will worry that you can’t simply deploy your highly-trained philosophical prowess to diagnose the problem, find a fix, and move forward. Your second-nature Hegelianism leads you to worry that your own operative conception of reason and philosophy has been corrupted by the very mistake you seek to diagnose. If you put your historicized philosophical reason to work uncritically, you risk not only missing but recapitulating the old errors. What to do!? What to do!?
Well, (1) Don’t try to philosophize your way out of it. (2) Form a hypothesis about the origin of the BIG MISTAKE. So then you’ve got to (3) Go back to the beginning. But you’ve also got to keep (1) in mind. You can’t simply pick apart old texts like the dumb Anglophone philosophers do, ridiculously assuming your inherited method of philosophizing is more authoritative or sound than the author’s. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Instead you’ve just got to try to (4) Understand the text as it was meant to be understood. It’s hard, but you can do it! Then you (5) Look out for PROFOUND INSIGHTS that appear to have been later dropped or forgotten. Heidegger is right. The forgetting of a PROFOUND INSIGHT is a good candidate for the BIG MISTAKE. But how to spot PROFOUND INSIGHTS having done one’s best to divest oneself of potentially tainted philosophical and methodological baggage?! Hmmm. Big problem. If you get it wrong, you might end up alonside Heidegger rooting on the Holocaust. Must be careful. Go back to (4). How do you do that? You keep yourself open. You make yourself receptive. You are not a radical skeptic or you wouldn’t think to try. You are simply wary of smuggling in the corrupt presuppositions of your genocidically tyrranical age. Very wary. You need to minimize your presuppositions. So, (6) Leave behind everything other than that which is strictly required to really understand a philophical text. One thing to keep in mind, which may help with the problem of presuppositionlessly intuiting which lost insights are PROFOUND, is the possibility to there may be something substantive and important implicit in philosophical method or form. So, (7) Pay close attention to these changes in form.
Let’s get to work! Well, the Presocratics are just too mystifying, and Heidegger’s got you scared. So on we go to the first post-pre-Socratic, Socrates. What do we really know about this fellow, anyway? It’s all hearsay, mostly Plato. Plato we know has his own funny neo-Pythagorean agenda, and all his business about the forms and the apprehension thereof is arguably the first domino in the standard this-leads-to-that cascade responsible for the present horror of mechanized genocidal tyranny and the looming nuclear annihilation of mankind. Okay, so what is Plato doing? Pay attention. Stay receptive. So much poetry bashing, for one thing. Doesn’t he protest rather too much about the superiority of philosophy? I mean, all he writes are queer plays, mostly starring Socrates.
Interesting to think about what it is to philosophize at this juncture? Two options. (a) To do what Socrates does. (b) To do what Plato does, which is to dramatize what Socrates does. These are not the same thing. But neither of them is (c) what Aristotle does, which is write didactic, closely-reasoned lectures and treatises. But that’s our prevailing model of philosophical reason. Maybe the BIG MISTAKE is philosophizing like Aristotle. Just an idea. Who taught Aristotle? Plato. Why does Plato philosophize as he does? Probably something he learned from Socrates? Why doesn’t Aristotle philosophize like Plato? Either he didn’t learn what Plato learned from Socrates or something he learned from Plato led him to disregard it. Seems like it might be important then to understand the teaching of Socrates that Aristotle either never learned or dismissed.
Here’s your mindspace, then. You don’t have ANY idea of what it is to reason philosophically, but you desperately want to know. You assume Aristotle has it wrong. Only Plato and Socrates can tell you. It’s just an assumption, but you’re taking it very seriously. Be wary of Plato, though. He’s responsible in one way or another for Aristotle going wrong. So you look askance at Platonic doctrine, but pay CLOSE attention to Plato’s method.
Why does Plato write dialogues? They are imitations of Socratic practice. He is sticking close to Socratic practice, so he must think it is important. Socratic practice is to go out among the people, among the aristocracy, at least, and reason with them, debunking their ideas though a distinctive method of rational cross-examination. Why does Plato write down dialogues rather than have them? Well, conversations are ephemeral. What Socrates taught deserves to be preserved. But if the teachings could be preserved by writing treatises, he would have written treatises. Doesn’t this by itself tell us something profound about philosophical reason? The method of the dialogues suggests that the teaching cannot be abstracted from the embodied human context of the conversation. Because mimesis requires abstraction, something might be lost in the dramatization. But something might be gained as well. No doubt Socrates’real conversations were often partial, and really took place over several meetings and long stretches of time. And no doubt much was lost in asides and irrelevances and interruptions. Plato’s literary art, in addition to preserving Socrates’ teachings, probably made them more intelligble by leaving out the inessential and perfecting and heightening the representation of those aspects of the dialectical situation that are essential to the overall meaning of the dialogue. Plato thinks that knowing is having the right relationship to a Platonic form. Who knows if Socrates did. But even Plato’s method seems to say that coming into that relationship isn’t a matter of reading theory out of a textbook. Philosophical reason puts us at the doorway of the forms through a fairly consuming form of intimate conversation, or at least through the imaginative reconstruction of such conversations.
So what is philosophical reason for Socrates? Inherently relational, inherently moral, inherently political. It exposes ignorance, opening the way for knowledge, but it does not claim to deliver new truths to fill the nooks it has emptied of false idols. Reason is a methodical form of applied logic, but it’s useless unless it’s motivated by the right sort of desire and will-to-virtue on all sides of the conversation. Philosophical reasoning is a sort of seduction! It’s rooted in eros. Philosophical eros is both a sort of immoderation and a sort of madness not too far from the divinatory madness of poets. The ongoing practice of Socratic reason, for Socrates, has an oracular impetus and stays on the rails through occasional semi-divine interventions of his daimon. Philosophy is not poetry, but it doesn’t work without it. Socrates tells stories and myths. Plato tells stories of Socrates. Philosophy is not revelation, but the stroke of rational insight, the capacity to see through a dense web of argumentation straight to the logical error, is revelatory. What you have, once all this debunking and myth-telling, all this erotic push and pull, has put you at the doorstep of truth, and you reach out, because you ache to know, and you open the door … what you have is a revelation.
This is Socratic rationalism. This is philosophy. If it’s not the big thing we forgot, then it’s a big thing. If you can convince yourself that the model of philosophical reason from Aristotle onward somehow leads to huge problems, and that this forgotten alternative is adequate to prevent those problems from arising, well, “big if true,” as they say on Twitter. And if this is the sort of reason at the heart of the authentically philosophical life, can philosophy rule out the possibility that revealed scripture tells the truth about how to live? Maybe! It’s actually impossible to say in the abstract without going through the whole embodied, erotic Socratic hurly burly. Strauss’s abstract arguments to this effect, offered in the standard Aristotelian mode, cannot possibly be dispostive if you buy in whole hog to Socratic rationalism. If you buy into Socratic rationalism, an abstract philosophical argument is just one of many available moves in the intimate game of reasoning erotically toward truth.
But you can vaguely imagine the whole Socratic hurly burly, without actually going through it. It does seem plausible that Socratic reason won’t be able to prove much for sure, much less its superiority to revelation or poetry, which it turns out to resemble more than one might expect. Socrates in the end is a lousy lover, all foreplay and no finish. He gets you hot to trot for truth but can’t deliver. He takes you to the threshold, and eagerly you open the door. You are bathed in a glorious warm light of insight. But what is this light the light of? If you read past Plato’s agenda, there’s no specifically Socratic account of what makes the resulting insight true. So how is the light of philosophical insight different from the light of poetic epiphany or religious inspiration? There are possible answers, but none really satisfy.
Plato couldn’t stand the Socratic blue balls. So Plato does not leave a guy hanging. He is a finisher. You want truth? Here’s truth. You open the door and that which makes beauties beautiful or the pious pious or circles circular – the ontic basis of predication, truth, and knowledge – activates the slumbering native knowledge built into your eternal soul, and then you know. Unnnf!
But no. This is a BIG MISTAKE. There is no such secure satisfaction of the erotic longing to know. At least, we can’t know for sure that there is. Not according to Strauss’s Socrates. There is something suspiciously metaphysical about universals. Maybe there are such things, but who knows? So we are left with the fact of “noetic heterogeneity” without any reliable method of coming to know the essences of kinds. If we had a true account of noetic heterogeneity in terms of universals, then a practice of reason, a philosophical life, grounded on knowable essences would be authoritative. Philosophy so construed would stand a good chance of ruling out the authority of revelation. But we don’t know for sure that there is such an authoritative reason, so we’re stuck with the undefeated possibility that revelation reveals the truth about how to live.