Sunday, October 31, 2004

A defense of Strauss’s method by a conservative writer:

I blogged a little while ago about Daniel Flynn’s new book, Intellectual Morons, that seeks to tear down the sacred cow sophists of PC-Academia (most are radical leftist thinkers, or thinkers who have influence today’s “tenured radicals,” to use Roger Kimball’s term). And I noted how Flynn lumps in Leo Strauss with the gang of "morons" -- Chomsky, Kinsey, Focault, Ehrlich, et al. Predictably, conservative thinkers who admire Strauss but share Flynn’s disdain for the others might have something to say about this.

And that is exactly what is interesting about Paul Cella’s review of the book for the American Spectator. Cella provides an eloquent defense of Strauss’s method and argues that conservatives ought not to waive away Strauss’s method so quickly:

MOST CONTROVERSIAL, PERHAPS, is Flynn's chapter on Leo Strauss. Alas, his treatment is generally superficial. It is very difficult to see how Strauss, whatever his peculiarity (occasionally bordering on outright weirdness), can be justly set beside eugenicists and Communists, reprobates and liars. Flynn lands a solid blow, I think, when he suggests that Straussian esotericism can quickly degenerate into a kind of right-wing deconstructionism; but his critique fails because he fails to really confront Straussian scholarship in its substance.

For example, Flynn scoffs at Strauss's argument that the force of John Locke's teaching was in fact a subtle and powerful attack on the doctrine of Natural Law -- that Locke was with Hobbes and Rousseau and the modern "contractarians," and against the Christian philosophers descending from Hooker and the Schoolmen. But Strauss was not alone in this judgment. Even as independent a thinker as Willmoore Kendall had argued thusly, and indeed, argued it in plainer language. Nor does the mere fact that Jefferson leaned heavily on Locke to compose the most famous passage of the Declaration of Independence mean that the Founding Fathers were indeed Lockeans, as Flynn implies. Kendall rejected this opinion as well -- even to the point of repudiating his own doctoral thesis on Locke. The question of Locke's posture vis-à-vis the Western tradition of political philosophy, and the question of the Founders posture vis-à-vis Locke -- these remain open questions; and, as Flynn has not set himself to heavy lifting of political philosophy, he sheds no light on them (or on any like them).

For Flynn, it is Strauss's method that is most dubious. "As with a lot of what Strauss says, the thing that jumps out at the reader is not necessarily his conclusion, but how he got from point A to point B." Flynn does not much care for Strauss's ideas about "secret writing," and he provides some vivid examples of the strange lengths to which Strauss and his students have pursued these ideas. But Flynn does not account for why these ideas have gained such purchase among scholars. To use the example of Locke again, it is a fact that we did not possess a satisfactory text of his Two Treatises of Government until the mid-twentieth century. It is also a fact that for hundreds of years the Second Treatise was thought to have been composed after the first, when, as we now know, the reverse is probably true. The "philosopher as detective" method of reading (in the Straussian formulation), though fraught with peril, is not without merit, for the profound reason that one of the largest problems in philosophy is discerning what a given philosopher actually meant to say. To admit this is not to descend into postmodern incoherence, of the kind Flynn ably describes in various chapters, but merely to confess the severe limitations of the human intellectual condition.

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