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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Leo Strauss Tapes

I've blogged here before about my book project on Leo Strauss's ideas on war, peace, and law.  One of the steps forward in this project came when the literary executor of Strauss provided me with a transcript of Strauss's course on Hugo Grotius's Rights of War and Peace.   Strauss's lectures confirmed my view, based especially on a reading of his Thucydides essay, that he took international law very seriously.  

Now many of Strauss's courses and seminars are being made available on the website of the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago.   A common misunderstanding of Strauss, based upon an inadequate reading of his idea of esoteric/exoteric teaching is that Strauss reserved the blunt expression of the inner meaning of his thought for oral instruction of disciples (often suspected to be a militantly anti-liberal ubermensch type philosophy).   In my first published work on Strauss, "Between the Lines," which appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric over a decade ago, I sought to correct this misunderstanding through an interpretation of Strauss's introductory essay in Persecution and the Art of Writing, arguing that for Strauss writings are more authoritative articulations of philosophical truth than oral teachings.

Well, now it is possible to listen to a wide variety of Strauss's classes, and while I've only started to mine the tapes, those seeking to present Strauss as teacher of would-be tyrants (or at least Wolfowitzs) will have a lot to answer for. 

Strauss's manner of teaching is modest, straightforward, preoccupied by trying to understand for himself, and communicate his understanding to the students.  He is frequently tentative, often corrects himself, and allows himself to be corrected and improved by comments of the students.  He is probing and provocative in his confrontations with the texts he analyses but he is never preachy or polemical.  To borrow from Marx's famous line, one comes away from listening to these classes with the clear impression that Strauss was teaching students to interpret the world, not to change it (except perhaps only very indirectly, through thinking and arguing about the basic problems of the human condition). 

This isn't surprising to me, however, given Strauss's own written account of his ideal of  pedagogy:  "Always assume there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart....[D]o not have too high an opinion of your importance, and have the highest opinion of your duty, your responsibility."  These are words that I've tried to have in my head every time I've entered the class room for the last 20 years.   

The tapes can be found here. I know that there are some conspiracy theorists who will not be satisfied-maybe Strauss was prepping the neocons in midnight seances with the tape recorder shut off, or in office hours?  Also, those who hope that listening to these classes is a shortcut to grappling with the immense complexity of Strauss's written engagements with thinkers such as Machiavelli and Maimonides will probably be disappointed.   But there is much here of genuine philosophical value.  And all but the most close-minded will come away with a clearer portrait of the kind of teacher and human being that Strauss was. 

Finally, the Strauss Center is running a conference on April 22 and 23 to celebrate this project, focusing on Strauss as a teacher.  The link, with registration information is here.








Posted by Rob Howse on February 25, 2011 at 01:09 PM in Culture, International Law | Permalink


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Rob, it's good of you to invest your time and capital into this interesting and perhaps important project. Perhaps you could offer more thoughts or a response to the overtly hostile treatment of Strauss within the legal academy and even more so within the realm of philosophy departments?
a small sampling of the hostility:

Posted by: Anon | Feb 25, 2011 1:59:37 PM

My colleagues at NYU have been quite supportive of my work on Strauss, whose writing I teach every year in my seminar here. Even those who tend to view Strauss as an anti-liberal have responded to my project with genuine curiosity and respect. So the hostility is not universal. My "response" to it is my writing on Strauss, which I've been publishing in a number of places. But the ultimate goal of my project is not apologetics or talking apart the critics (that is ably done by Peter Minowitz in his recent book Straussophobia). Rather it is to show how an engagement with Strauss's thought-properly understood-can illuminate fundamental legal and political questions of war and peace, providing a perspective from which one can see at least somewhat beyond the rather polarized debate in the American legal academy about international law.

And as for Brian Leiter, we've had email exchanges and I think we will just have to agree to disagree, at least about Strauss!

Posted by: Rob Howse | Feb 25, 2011 2:35:37 PM

For those who don't want to paste in the links, it's worth noting that Leiter's opposition to Strauss isn't, as such, that Strauss is "anti-liberal", but rather that he thinks Strauss systematically gets important historical figures wrong. The view, while perhaps not universal, is quite common among philosophers working on pretty much all of the historical figures that Strauss discusses.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 25, 2011 10:12:04 PM

I did not say or imply in my post that the only ground of hostility to Strauss was based on seeing him as anti-liberal, or that this was the basis of Brian Leiter's hostility in particular. I don't want to put words in Leiter's mouth-he can blog for himself!-but I do think that the kind of hostility to which you refer, which is based upon Strauss's approach to the history of ideas, has considerably diminished as continental philosophy has been mainstreamed into more and more philosophy departments in the US. It certainly isn't very present in Europe and Israel among philosophers and historians of ideas. Of course, that isn't to say that they are apt to agree with Strauss's specific readings, say of Maimonides or Spinoza, but there is considerable respect for and interest in his approach. Habermas and some of his students have positive things to say about Strauss, even if they have critical things to say as well. (Habermas recently taught a seminar on political theology at a university in New York State where he positively contrasted Strauss with Schmitt). I have email correspondence with young people doing philosophy and intellectual history-doctoral students, junior professors, etc.- in many countries who have an interest in and openness to Strauss and who are definitely in the contemporary mainstream of their disciplines. Especially in Germany my critique of Heinrich Meier's "Schmitteanization" of Strauss has become well-known and led some younger people (so I am told) to look at Strauss differently.

Posted by: Rob Howse | Feb 26, 2011 2:17:08 PM

Rob and I do have a strong disagreement about the merits of Strauss's scholarship, that is true. As Matt notes, the nearly universal view among philosophers (including, I want to emphasize, among the leading scholars of Continental philosophy) is that Strauss is a bad reader of philosophical texts--partly because he doesn't know much philosophy, partly because he can't engage at a dialectically high level with the authors, and partly, I suspect, because he has certain ideological objectives that inform his (mis)readings. Still, Strauss is a paragon of intellectual virtue and depth by comparison to most Straussians, but he clearly encouraged the cult-like aspect of his infuence, and especially the insider/outsider status that all cults use to insulate their tenets from criticism and rational scrutiny. The good news, in my view, is that there are almost no Straussians left at the University of Chicago--the cult has migrated to political science departments elsewhere.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 26, 2011 4:53:50 PM

I would add that Brian and I also have a difference of view as to who is a "leading continental philosopher." Thus, as I understand you, Brian, because of your view of Heidegger (a view that I share in part) you do not regard students of Heidegger, even those who broke with him on key issues, as "leading continental philosophers." Thus, as I recall from our email correspondence you would not regard the late Hans-Georg Gadamer as having been a "leading continental philosopher." Gadamer of course had the highest regard for Strauss, and there disagreement over how to read and understand Plato is a very revealing debate which would not have happened between Gadamer and someone who, as you put it, did not know much philosophy. And then there is the case of Habermas's evident respect for Strauss (which is totally consistent with deep disagreement). Certainly among French scholars of medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy, to take one sub-group, Strauss's approach is regarded as one of the main alternative ways of understanding Maimonides and Farabi. In any case, my plea that Strauss's thought be taken seriously is not based on how many continental or other "philosophers" think he is competent but on my reading of Strauss's work, which stands or falls by its merits or lack thereof. I just think we ought to fill the readers in on the nature of our differences.

Posted by: Rob Howse | Feb 26, 2011 5:13:09 PM

I was referring to scholars of Continental philosophy, not "Continental philosophers," of whom Heidegger and Gadamer are certainly both prominent examples. It is no surprise, of course, that Gadamer (who is a massively overrated figure, as well as a Nazi fellow traveller [though he did a better job of concealing it than Heidegger!], but those are different issues) is sympathetic to Strauss, since Heidegger and Strauss both emerge from the same intellectual culture in Germany in the first quarter of the 20th-century, and share many hermeneutic principles. (Heidegger is, unsurprisingly, a notoriously bad reader of philosophical texts, Nietzsche most notoriously.) I can not comment on what French scholars of medieval Jewish philosophy think about Strauss, since I am wholly unfamiliar with that scholarly community.

As to Habermas, I'm not familiar with the text to which you allude. Habermas has poor judgment on many philosophical matters, and so this may be a case in point.

Posted by: Brian | Feb 26, 2011 8:39:08 PM

One of the things that might distinguish contemporary or even 20th century continental philosophy is that continental philosophers are also generally scholars of continental philosophy. In any case, one would think that it would be at least as much if not more so the continental philosophers as opposed to the mere scholars of continental philosophy who could judge of Strauss's competence as a philosopher. Actually, Strauss is one of the few thinkers who has reflected systematically on the difference between the scholar and the philosopher (along with Nietzsche) as well experimenting with the possibility that in some cases the two might be combined in a single human being (see Strauss's remarks about Lessing).

As for Habermas, here is a link to an interview where he praises Strauss's "excellent heremeneutical re-actualization of classical natural law." http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/habermas210310.html\

But I know I can never win an argument with Brian. For any continental who does respect Strauss will turn out to be overrated, have Nazi sympathies, be damned by coming out of the same intellectual culture as Strauss, or having poor judgment in philosophical matters--if only for thinking something positive about Strauss (res ipsa loquitur, right?

Still I want to correct one thing. There is a decisive difference between the hermeneutics of Heidegger and those of Strauss-decisive in that it provides the path for Strauss's overcoming of Heidegger's nihilistic account of the trajectory of the "West" and philosophy. The difference allows for a RADICALLY different understanding of Plato and Aristotle. And it originates from something that Strauss and Heidegger most decidedly do NOT share: Judaism. For the route to this radically different Plato and Aristotle is first through Maimonides who then leads to Farabi's Plato. Take a look at the piece I mentioned in Philosophy and Rhetoric.

Posted by: Rob Howse | Feb 26, 2011 9:38:47 PM

Rob, we were doing pretty well up until that last silly comment! You can't win the argument by appeals to dubious authority, that's certainly right. Habermas's opinion of Strauss is of no interest to anyone, except people who worship Habermas. It is obviously pertinent that Heidegger and Gadamer share many (if certainly not all) hermeneutic principles with Strauss to understand why Gadamer might, indeed, be sympathetic to Strauss. The real dispute here concerns the scholarly merits, or demerits, of particular Straussian readings, and this is not the forum for settling that. I have bothered to intervene only because I was invoked (as Matt alerted me) and because it would be unfortunate if other legal scholars were left with the impression that philosophers on either side of the Atlantic take Strauss particularly seriously--a data point that will be of interest to some, and not to others, which is fine too.

Posted by: Brian | Mar 1, 2011 9:40:40 AM

In fact, totally the opposite of appealing to authority to establish the merits of Strauss's thought (if you read my work on Strauss, you will see I never invoke others' views on him as authority either for his merits or his weaknesses), I was merely responding to what I regard as simply inaccurate-the impression that continental philosophers or scholars of philosophy do not take Strauss seriously. The reason that I can't win the argument on this second and different question is that who is a continental philosopher or scholar of a continental philosophy is a moving target, as it were. A good starting point for investigating the reception of Strauss in Europe-by philosophers and others-is an essay that Mark Lilla published in the New York Review of Books a while ago, "Leo Strauss: the European." Here is the link: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2004/oct/21/leo-strauss-the-european/. I recently gave a paper on Strauss to the law and philosophy group at Tilburg in Holland, where David Jannsens teaches both disciplines: Jannsens has written a good book about the early Strauss. I'm translating another book on Strauss by a European philosopher, Corine Pelluchon (Poitiers), which emphasizes Strauss's relation to German-Jewish philosophy from Mendelssohn through Cohen and Rosenzweig. I could go on and on (French medievalists like Remi Brague, etc. and then there is Eastern Europe-I attended a conference in Krakow on Strauss a year or so ago where a range of very interesting thinkers from that region gave papers) but as you say this "data point" is likely to be only of interest to "some" on this blog.

Perhaps we should find some other forum to debate the scholarly merits of Strauss? I am certainly ready for that!

Posted by: Rob Howse | Mar 1, 2011 12:15:09 PM

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