Modernity, Historical Philosophy, and Historicism

After a long intellectual struggle, assisted by medieval and then ancient political philosophy, Strauss came to argue that, far from offering an aspect of reality hidden from previous thought or experience, as its proponents claimed, historicism proved upon inspection to be merely a failed “corrective” of modern philosophy. But to what, then, was it an attempted corrective? Why did modernity need a corrective?

Modern philosophy, as Strauss understood it, had at its theoretical core an attempt to solve the challenge posed to science by the possibility of a Deus deceptor, a god who made the world appear to be governed by certain necessities but who did so only to deceive us. This modern attempt, which starts with the Cartesian-Hobbesian retreat into consciousness, includes the remaking, by technological science, of the world of sense perception in accordance with the laws that we prescribe to nature. As Strauss saw it, philosophy makes this retreat to an “artificial island,”[1] and becomes politically active, both in order to overcome the threat posed to it posed by the Biblical God, and to offer human beings the providential care erroneously hoped for from that God. It seeks “progressive” change, enlightenment, of all human consciousness, by means of political and technological movement toward a fully transformed, secular society that can satisfy human needs, so that, in Strauss’s phrase, with the given world replaced by the world created by modern philosophy and science, orthodox faith, “more than refuted . . . was outlived,” held to be the product of a primitive, backward consciousness.[2]

This Enlightenment project came under attack by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the movements he spawned, especially in Germany: Romanticism, with its efforts to recover the lost past derided by progressive modernity, and the “Historical School” of jurisprudence that came into being out of Romanticism. But what, then, is the problem that was, according to Strauss, the basis of Rousseau’s devastating critique of his predecessors? The moderns had sought to ground the rational life by means of a transformation of society toward a wholly secular, rational one. Rousseau recovered the Socratic recognition that the requirements of society are at odds with the debunking of the sacred, especially the debunking of sacred origins; he saw a religious account of human life and of the whole in which it was lived as required for the transformation of natural, selfish man into a citizen, or for the subordination of the individual will to the general will. Forgetting or ignoring Rousseau’s other arguments—concern- ing the solitary walker and the primacy of the theoretical life of the free individual—Rousseau’s romantic and politically minded followers took up instead his communitarianism, his doctrine of the general will, and his claims concerning the “primacy of conscience or of sentiment and tradition.” Their political/moral concerns drove their selection of Rousseau’s teaching, and drove them away from modern rationalism.[3]

Hegel attempted to save a now threatened rationalism from this romantic reaction, incorporating the particulars of human history and various traditions, which had been highlighted by the Romantics, into the story of the progressive acquisition of human rational self-consciousness. In Hegel’s work are found the four assumptions that Strauss identified as transforming philosophy into the history of philosophy. The first is that (A) “the substance, or the principle of being, or the root of all truth and meaning, is the human mind as the mind of mankind.” This is already suggested in Kant’s “system of categories,” but Hegel makes substance—which was for Kant the unknowable noumenal realm—the mind itself, the subject, man. Moreover, for Hegel, (B) “what the human mind is, can become known only from what it does or produces,” and (C) “the doings or productions of a human mind form an orderly or intelligible sequence whose stages coincide with the periods of general history.” While history had already gained in importance for progressive, transformative modern philosophy as demonstrative of modern progress over a benighted past consciousness, it became crucial for Hegel, as the account of the cumulative unfolding of human consciousness. Finally, (D) “the stages of the productive activity of the human mind find their clearest expression in the philosophic efforts belonging to these stages,” so that the stages come to seem best represented not in the art or politics of each age, but in its philosophic thought.[4] With these four assumptions, Hegel originated the view that philosophy is identical with the history of philosophy, and that the historical process having been completed, philosophy is at an end. The object of philosophical inquiry in his thought has become the human mind, combined with an account of its history—of the scientific, rationally directed mind emergent from a dark, backward past through the exteriorization of its ideas. Modern philosophy as progressive philosophy came in this way to have in Hegel’s completion of it an historical component that classical and medieval philosophy never did. It became completed human practice, meaningful action.[5] This means that for Strauss Hegel, while an historical philosopher, is not an historicist. Hegel saw his own historical philosophy as relative to his time, but he saw that time as absolute time, his philosophy as the final philosophy. He avoided in this way the self-contradiction of claiming that all thought was strictly relative to its time but that this thought transcended time; his was the completion of all previous philosophy, what previous philosophy, in its time- bound attempts, had been moving toward.

Yet if true, this also meant that anyone coming after Hegel who desired a meaningful, moral life, a life “which has a significant and undetermined future” (NRH 320, emphasis added), had to reject what was now called “theory” or philosophy in the name of “life.” For the abiding moral considerations and devotions that had given birth to Romanticism and to the Historical School were not by any means satisfied with Hegel’s claim that significant or morally meaningful human life had been exhausted in past deeds, in the historical secularization of the Christian notion of the dignity of each individual. In addition, the radical Hegelians came to reject philosophy. That is, while they accepted that philosophy as it had been practiced (that is, as “interpretation” of the world) was indeed completed, as Hegel argued, they called for a whole new way of being. As Marx famously put it, “philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Thus was born, on one hand, Marxism and, on the other, “existentialist” philosophy (NRH 320-321), the latter being at the heart of what Strauss means by saying that “Historicism came into being owing to the disintegration of Hegel’s philosophy.”[6]

The reaction against Hegel thus had two results. First, it strengthened the existing Historical School, especially of jurisprudence, and so the historical consciousness that had grown out of Romanticism (and against which Hegel had made the case for a final, universal, rational consciousness). The nineteenth-century figures of importance in this result whom Strauss intends (but rarely names) when he speaks of the Historical School are the historian Leopold von Ranke and the jurists Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Otto von Gierke, and (in England) Henry Sumner Maine.[7] This Historical School of jurisprudence stood in opposition to appeals to modern rationalist natural law doctrine (Vernunftsrecht) that were being made all over modern, enlightened Europe. The Historical School understood law not (as the largely English Enlightenment had) as an attempt to prescribe by statute the rights that man has by nature, nor (as did Hegel) an expression of fully rational self-consciousness, nor (as historicists later did) as the product of an unsupported “decision,” but as the expression of a Volksgeist, the product of a growth out of the particular needs and convictions of a specific people into an organic whole worthy of obedience or reverence. It sought to wipe out revolutionary appeals to modern natural rights and natural law while presenting existing law as worthy of the highest reverence. Strauss saw a deep kinship between this German Historical School and the writings of Edmund Burke, whose use of the term

“prescriptive”—that is, written long before, time out of mind—for desirable laws was the equivalent of the subsequent German term “Historical.”[8]

Second, the Historical School failed in its effort to establish principles of moral action that could claim to be both transcendent and particular. It was open to the charge that its proponents sanctioned laws that could not reasonably claim to be the results of a people’s genuine needs and insights, since those laws could instead appear to be merely the result of conventions or beliefs. The Historical School thus gave way to historicism proper, according to which our consciousness is not only shaped but inescapably determined by our historical situation, our moral direction explicitly the result not of needs but of “decision.” Historicism would indeed limit each and every human to his time, depriving any truth claim of its validity for more than its time. Yet historicism, precisely by quietly or surreptitiously claiming that this insight into our historicity is the permanently decisive insight, is inconsistent just where Hegel was consistent; it both wishes and does not wish to say that there is an absolute moment (NRH 28-29). As Strauss points out, according to historicists themselves the insight into the historical contingency of all Being is the decisive insight, since they grant that loss of this insight will bring with it a new dark age.[9] Thus what had emerged owing to a sense of loss or moral shortcomings of modern thought and of the need to recover what had been lost, turned, without a questioning of its own unique development, especially of its reaction to specifically modern rationalism, into an anti-theoretical, antiphilosophic movement. “The revolts against Hegelianism on the part of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in so far as they now exercise a strong influence on public opinion, thus appear as attempts to recover the possibility of practice, i.e., of human life which has a significant and undetermined future. But these attempts increased the confusion, since they destroyed, as far as in them lay, the very possibility of theory” (NRH 320-321).

In sum, the early moderns attempted to eliminate the great obstacle posed to philosophizing by the Biblical God with a new kind of natural science, a constructivist science, one that would transform human consciousness, through a humanly providential transformation of the world. That attempt held human fear of a nature that was indifferent to human suffering to be conquerable by dint of awareness of scientific progress in the conquest of that nature. The Historical School failed, since as a makeshift political-jurisprudential-theological effort to correct this attempt, to provide a morally satisfying human life by grounding moral meaning in a “sacred” process of a nation’s history. Hegel’s attempt to rescue the modern rationalist project from the dissatisfaction manifest in Romanticism and the Historical School failed, since its central claim—that all significant or meaningful human activity was at an end—was unacceptable to all parties. Briefly strengthened by the reaction against Hegel, the Historical School, too, proved to be a failure, yet the alleged historical dimension of human life trumpeted by the Historical School was not abandoned, and was now considered a “discovery.” Heidegger’s “radical historicism” seeks to provide the philosophic, ontological ground of this historical consciousness, to demonstrate that the experience of historical contingency is a genuine experience corresponding to the manner in which Being discloses itself.

Strauss’s studies of classical political philosophy led him to doubt this experience. They led him to see the reaction that set in against modern rationalism—above all and finally, against Hegel and the rationalism that he stood for—in the name of morally significant or meaningful “life,” as something the ancients would have fully expected, even if the particular forms of that reaction were not inevitable. His studies of the ancients permitted a questioning of modern rationalism and the historicism to which it had given rise.

The reason for the turn to the ancients that provided Strauss the footing for this radical questioning of modern political philosophy, and of historicism, might best be grasped by observing an agreement and a disagreement between Strauss and Hegel. The agreement is visible in Strauss’s quoting of the following passage from The Phenomenology:

The manner of study in ancient times is distinct from that of modern times, in that the former consisted in a veritable training and perfecting of the natural consciousness. Trying its powers at each part of its life severally [an jedem Teile seines Daseins sich besonders versuchend], and philosophizing about everything it came across, the natural consciousness transformed itself into a universality of abstract understanding which was active in every matter and in every respect.

In modern times, however, the individual finds the abstract form ready made.[10]

Strauss agrees with Hegel that, unlike ancient ideas, which were derived directly from impressions, modern ideas had their origin in the transformation of ideas, and so required intellectual history for their clarification. Hegel’s was a sensible approach, one might say, to modern thought. But as Strauss goes on to indicate, he, unlike Hegel, actually finds the “natural consciousness” superior to the modern abstract consciousness. For in the latter, “the problem of the foundations is hidden by progress,”[11] and so, following Edmund Husserl, Strauss began an attempt to recover the “natural consciousness.”[12] He even suggests in this same place the need for a deconstruction of the tradition, a la Heidegger, to get at that natural consciousness.


Hegel underestimated the importance of that consciousness, and underestimated the enormous effort required to attain a state of what Strauss elsewhere calls “natural ignorance.”[13]

Strauss had uncovered what was a crucial distinction for all classical philosophy: that between the natural and the conventional. Hegel had replaced this distinction by (and thus imposed on the ancients) the distinction between the subjective mind (and its reflective reasoning) and the objective mind that expressed itself in living institutions. Where ancient philosophers had spoken of the conventional over and against the natural, Hegel presented the conventional instead as the work of the objective mind or Reason. This is how Hegel came to see Plato and Aristotle, in his famous formulation, as standing vis-a-vis the sophists as he himself stood vis-avis eighteenth-century rationalism. Plato and Aristotle, he thought, attempted to understand the actual life or the living order of the Greek city as the embodiment of Reason. Strauss found this view of Plato and Aristotle to be utterly untenable. “For Plato and Aristotle,” he argued, “the best political order is possibly, and even normally, different from, and transcendent to, any actual order,” and (like the Kantian philosophy that Hegel saw himself opposing) such as “to prescribe to the city how it ought to be.”[14] This is what Strauss means when he blames Hegel for his failure to pay sufficient attention to “the philosophic concept of the city as exhibited by classical political philosophy.”[15]

The disagreement about the ancients had another aspect as well. The “natural” consciousness that one finds in Plato and Aristotle is to Hegel, however sophisticated for its time, still radically undeveloped and therefore one-sided. Hegel takes the Christian doctrine of the incarnation to signify the unity of eternity and time, or the absolute time. Through that doctrine the Christian consciousness, the “unhappy consciousness,” came to be one torn between this world and the next. Yet that consciousness represents for Hegel an important advance: it includes consciousness of the infinite value of the individual. The full secularization of that Christian notion is precisely what makes Hegel’s age the absolute age. Classical consciousness was according to Hegel missing this crucial complement, and hence was radically deficient. Prior to Strauss no thinker since Hegel, including Nietzsche and Heidegger, had called this aspect of Hegelianism—the transformation and “progress” of human consciousness through the Christian teaching—into question.[16] And no thinker had therefore been able genuinely to take seriously, as possibly altogether true, the classical philosophers’ teaching about human beings.[17]

To understand modern philosophy and science, Strauss argued, one has to understand them on their own terms, and not as mere steps to modern philosophy and science, the classical philosophy or science that they were modifying and opposing, and in what the modification consisted. For while modern philosophy or science counted on a progressively built edifice, Strauss was interested in the buried foundations of that edifice, and what he called “the problem of the foundations” hidden by progress. It was for this reason


that, following Husserl, he sought to recover the prescientific understanding of which philosophy, as the attempt to understand the whole, could claim to be the natural perfection. For he had found in Platonic philosophizing, as political philosophizing, classical philosophy’s reflection on that prescientific understanding and its legitimation, in two senses: concerning whether philosophy is possible, and concerning whether it is good or right.

  • [1] See Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of ChicagoPress, 1965), 172-174, hereafter cited as NRH.
  • [2] Leo Strauss, Philosophy and Law, trans. Fred Baumann (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1987), 13.
  • [3] Leo Strauss, “On the Intention of Rousseau,” Social Research 14 (no. 4, December 1947): 482.
  • [4] Leo Strauss, “History of Philosophy: Its Nature and Its Function. Lecture to bedelivered on November 12, 1947—General Seminar,” thirteen sheets, writtenon both sides with a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, quotations fromthe page that is the first version of the beginning of the lecture, verso, Patard273-307, at 275).
  • [5] “There came into being a new type of theory, of metaphysics, having as its highest theme human action and its product rather than the whole, which is in noway the object of human action. Within the whole and the metaphysic that isoriented upon it, human action occupies a high but subordinated place. Whenmetaphysics came, as it now did, to regard human action and its product as theend toward which all other beings or processes are directed, metaphysics becamephilosophy of history. Philosophy of history was primarily theory, i.e., contemplation, of human practice and therewith necessarily of completed human practice; it presupposed that significant human action, History, was completed. Bybecoming the highest theme of philosophy, practice ceased to be practice proper,i.e., concern with agenda” (NRH 320).
  • [6] “Research in the History of Ideas,” Summer Course 1942, twenty-three numbered pages, written with a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, p. 15,Patard 233-271, at 250).
  • [7] On von Ranke, see “Historicism. Lecture to be delivered in the fall of 1941in the General Seminar [of The New School for Social Research],” typescript(no Box or Folder number supplied, Patard 206-231, at 213). On Savigny andMaine, see Strauss’s letter to Lowith, 18 August 1946, and “Natural Right. Lecture to be delivered on January 9, 1946 in the General Seminar and in February1946 in Annapolis,” typed manuscript, twenty pages, with footnotes written inthe margin in pencil (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 15, p. 5, Patard 385420, at 388-390). On Gierke, see the letter to Klein, 8 January 1935, and the“Natural Right” lecture, pp. 6 and 15, Patard 389 and 396.
  • [8] For a discussion of the Historical School and its preparation by Burke’s doctrineof “prescription,” see Strauss’s autumn 1963 University of Chicago course onVico, pp. 10-12 of the original typed transcript. See also the section on Burkethat forms the second part of chapter 6 of NRH (294-323).
  • [9] According to its proponents, “historical consciousness will go away if humanity unlearns what it has learned arduously enough over the past centuries; therenunciation of historical consciousness is identical with the relapse into astage of lesser reflection. . . . Historical consciousness is—one cannot emphasize this strongly enough—according to its own view a stage of higher awareness: we know more than the earlier generations; we know more deeply, moreprofoundly, than the earlier ones that everything human is historically conditioned.” Leo Strauss, “The Intellectual Situation of the Present” [1932], trans.Anna Schmidt and Martin D. Yaffe, in Reorientation, Appendix C, 245-246.
  • [10] Hegel, Phanomenologie des Geistes, Vorrede, ed. Georg Lasson (Leipzig: Durr,1907), 23. First translated and quoted by Strauss in “History of Philosophy: ItsNature and Its Function. Lecture to be delivered on November 12, 1947—General Seminar [at The New School for Social Research],” thirteen sheets, writtenon both sides with a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, p. 4 recto, Patard273-307, at 283). Subsequently quoted by Strauss in “Political Philosophy andHistory,” in What Is Political Philosophy ? (New York: Free Press, 1959), 75.
  • [11] Strauss, “Political Philosophy and History,” 76.
  • [12] The pointer to Husserl in this passage of “Political Philosophy and History”comes via the reference to Klein’s work (75n4).
  • [13] See Strauss’s review ofJulius Ebbinghaus’ booklet Uber die Fortschritte der Meta-physik (GS 2: 438-439).
  • [14] “Natural Right. Lecture to be delivered on January 9, 1946 in the GeneralSeminar and in February 1946 in Annapolis,” typed manuscript, twenty pages,with footnotes written in the margin in pencil (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6,Folder 15, p. 5, Patard 385-420, at 408).
  • [15] Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), 240-241.
  • [16] For Nietzsche’s account of Christianity’s contribution to a progress of humanconsciousness, see especially Genealogy of Morals, Part I: prior to the triumph ofthe Christian self-torture of the conscience, of the Slave’s will to power turnedagainst itself, humans lacked “depth” and even a “soul”; there was only the selfaffirmation of the blonde beast. In short, Nietzsche is as much an admirer ofwhat he considers the subterranean Christian will to power as he is a horrifiedwitness of its potential result in the Last Man.
  • [17] For Strauss’s disagreement with Gerhard Kruger on this score, see Thomas L.Pangle, “The Light Shed on the Crucial Development of Strauss’s Thought byhis Correspondence with Gerhard Kruger,” Reorientation, 57-68, especially65-68. For his disagreement with Karl Lowith on this score, see Timothy W.Burns, “Strauss on the Religious and Intellectual Situation of the Present,”Reorientation, 87-89.
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