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It's Science...and Morality

By: Keith Whitaker
May 29, 2018

eo Strauss is best known as a thinker on politics, not science. His writings dwell on Xenophon, Plato, and Machiavelli, for example, not on Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, or Francis Bacon. Nor did Strauss choose to write about the “scientific” parts of classical philosophy, such as Plato’s Timaeus or Aristotle’s Parts of Animals. In the introduction to Natural Right and History, Strauss limits himself to considering his subject within the context of social science—even though in the prior paragraph he admits that, if one wants to recover an understanding of natural right, one must first solve the problem posed by non-teleological modern science.

This passage underscores the difficulty that Svetozar Minkov takes on in Leo Strauss on Science. Despite that difficulty, Minkov makes a cogent case for Strauss’s “persistent concern with the philosophical preconditions of science.” Minkov makes this case by drawing extensively on Strauss’s lectures, correspondence, and personal notes, in addition to his published writings. He does so in eight chapters in which he carefully sketches out Strauss’s ascent, made through conversation with other thinkers’ works—from the question of what is virtue to the question of what each of the beings “is.”

In Chapter One, for example, Minkov shows how Strauss’s dialogue with Carl Schmitt uncovers that Schmitt’s own deepest attachment is not to “the political,” but to seriousness about “what’s right”: “It is the moral issue, the issue of what is right, not ‘the political,’ that is truly inescapable.” This discovery casts in relief that problem that historicism—the scientific claim that there are no enduring standards of right—poses to Schmitt or anyone moved by such an attachment. Or, in Chapter Two, Minkov carefully reads Strauss’s careful reading of Plato’s Laws, Book Three, to show that there the Athenian stranger brings out the harsh foundations of political life, and so tempers many of the hopes held by serious citizens or statesmen. This political conclusion is also important for science or philosophy: “The freedom to think survives despite or because of all the natural and political imperfections it alone can uncover. This sub-Socratic dialogue lays the foundation for Socratic science.” Or, in Chapter Three, Minkov uses Strauss’s dialogue with Kurt Riezler to contrast Riezler’s starting point from abstractions (“Man” and “World”) with Strauss’s insistence on starting from the concrete perspective of the citizen: a perspective that ascends to considering and questioning divine law.

These brief remarks hardly do justice to these dense chapters or the remaining five. Again, Minkov draws extensively upon unpublished material, which may surprise students trained by Strauss’s insistence on attending to the surface of a thinker’s writing. Also, his choice to knit together several previously published pieces makes a difficult topic even harder to follow. At the same time, the volume and variety of material that Minkov adduces makes the case that this topic was a central concern in Strauss’s thinking.

It also poses a question: does Strauss’s work amount only to “laying a foundation” for science—protecting but never getting to the real thing, the “inner sanctum”? In other words, is political philosophy an introduction to philosophy or science—clearing away delusions and false beliefs—that never culminates in actual knowing?

By pointing to this question Minkov’s book provides context for a number of other recent works by thinkers influenced by Strauss, for example, Dustin Sebell’s The Socratic Turn: Knowledge of Good and Evil in an Age of Science (2016), Christopher Bruell’s Aristotle as Teacher: His Introduction to a Philosophic Science (2014), and David Bolotin’s An Approach to Aristotle’s Physics (1997). These books include careful analysis of what might otherwise be called “ancient science.” But in the light of the concerns Minkov’s book raises, one can appreciate all the more that their inquiry is in no way antiquarian or even historical, but rather of the deepest importance to the attempt, at any time, to clarify our beliefs about and understanding of “the beings.” These works take up the task that Strauss points to in Natural Right and History’s introduction.

So, then, does Minkov’s book reveal that Strauss’s famous return to the question of natural right—the question of “What is justice?”—is mere exoteric writing meant to attract the best students to the more serious question of science? Not at all. Minkov helpfully stresses that subordinating the question of justice to the question of science cannot serve the effort to understand truly Strauss’s thought. The question of justice—the question of how to live a good life, in the fullest sense of “good”—must stand first for any serious person, including and especially for those who feel a “subjective certainty” that pursuing wisdom is the best way to live.

This conclusion finds support in Strauss’s relentless attention to politics. That is the surface of his work, the “problem” of which, he implies, is somehow also “the heart of things.” So, how does attention to “human things” somehow provide a “clue to all things, to the whole of nature”? Does political conflict, for example, somehow translate into a “scientific” teaching, such as about “noetic heterogeneity,” that is, the division of what’s intelligible into fundamentally different “classes,” and hence the unavailability of a “single total experience of being,” as Minkov puts it?

If one were to proceed this way (an approach that is not Strauss’s or Minkov’s), one would render politics instrumental, a means to “scientific” insight. But treating politics as instrumental to science means disregarding the claim that every political community, including our own, makes to be most authoritative, i.e., not an instrument. Such a disregard would be fundamentally “unscientific,” not to mention imprudent.

In the face of such difficulties, it makes sense to follow Strauss’s return to the surface. The matrix of politics lies in human beings’ specific difference—speech. Because man is the speaking animal, he is the political animal. Enlighteners—pre-Socratic and post-Socratic—say that politics (including, especially, religion) is artificial, unnatural. But then nature is reduced to the apolitical, unspeaking, the subhuman or even non-human. So, we humans can know nature only by negation—but what is knowledge of a negative? Put otherwise, we are cut off from knowing anything but ourselves or what we make. Perhaps that is a price many are willing to pay: after all, we can thereby make the world or, rather, our “environment” much more comfortable. But we cannot know it. So, what is the alternative? That politics is by nature. If politics or the human things or some part of the human things is by nature, then how do we know this part? Perhaps through speaking about speech, a turn to the speeches. Yet speech, as marvelous as it is, seems manifestly incapable of providing a complete account of the whole of things.

These remarks aim not to settle the matter but rather to affirm Strauss’s and Minkov’s insight that our judgment of politics determines, altogether, what we mean by “science.” The inquiry into the preconditions of science, and not only the preconditions, must be and remain somehow political.