Recovery of the “Natural World”

Strauss’s study with Husserl, whom he came to consider the one genuine living philosopher whom he had encountered,[1] in the midst of the crisis of science or philosophy that had overtaken Europe since the time of Hegel, led him to join Husserl’s search for an understanding of the natural world out of which emerged the scientific world, and so eventually to a full return to the ancients—one unsuccessfully attempted by both Husserl and Heidegger. In his courses at the New School in the 1940s, Strauss had already composed an argument about this problem that would find its way into Natural Right and History.

The fundamental weakness of these [neo-Kantian and positivist] forms of epistemology was clearly stated by Husserl: since the natural understanding is the basis of the scientific understanding, one cannot analyze science, and the world of science, before one has analyzed the natural understanding, the natural world view, and the natural world. The natural world, the world in which we live and act, is not yet the object, or the product, of a theoretical attitude; it is a world, not of objects at which we detachedly look, but of things or affairs which we handle. It is a pre-theoretical and hence a pre-scientific world.[2]

Husserl had thus led Strauss to see the problem with the modern attempt to incorporate moral-political action and its objects into a theoretical system. But there was (and is) a difficulty in attempting to get at that Husserlian “natural world,” a difficulty that both Husserl and Heidegger had overlooked. Strauss therefore offers this correction of the phenomenological starting point:

[T]he natural world, if it is identified with the world in which we live [today], is a mere construct. The world in which we live is already the product of science, or at any rate is radically determined by the existence of science. To say nothing of technology, the world in which we live is free from ghosts, witches, demons, etc., and, but for the existence of science, it would abound with beings of that kind.[3]

The “natural world” of phenomenology is a world that is already the product of the diffusion of science. In contrast to it, Strauss discovered in the writings of Farabi and Maimonides, and through them in the Platonic dialogues, a presentation of the “natural world” (in the Husserlian sense, that is, the prescientific world) as the world of nomos, especially of divine law, and the world of theory, science, or philosophy as therefore an extreme possibility of human existence, one not likely to be found in most places and radically at odds with the way of life of most human beings.

That is, Strauss had found a solution to the difficulty of the existence of a scientifically altered world in the writings of classical philosophers:

To get hold of the natural world, as a world that is radically pre-philosophic or pre-scientific, one has to go back behind the first emergence of science or philosophy. It is not necessary for this purpose to engage in endless and hypothetical ethnological or anthropological studies. The information supplied by classical philosophy about its origins suffices, especially if it is supplemented by consideration of the basic premises of the Bible, for reconstructing the essential elements of the natural world.[4]

The Husserlian “natural world,” as Strauss eventually went on in chapter three of Natural Right and History to argue, is disclosed by the discovery of phusis. The Husserlian attempt to understand the prescientific world could be found in the writings of classical philosophers because, unlike the modern world, the world in which ancient philosophers lived and wrote was not a world that was transformed, nor that those philosophers were attempting to transform, into one in which the scientific spirit infused life or determined human thinking. As Strauss put it in another lecture, “[A]ccording to Aristotle, the scientific spirit is not absolutely later than the prescientific spirit: in one respect, they are contemporary: only a small minority of men can ever become men of science; the majority of men think, at all times, pre-scientifically.”[5]

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that Strauss thought the evidence for the natural, prescientific “world” was available in the works of the ancients accidentally. To the contrary: it was essential to Socratic political philosophy that the philosopher engage dialectically with nonphilosophers, since the grounding of science or philosophy was the very guiding intention of Socratic political philosophy, of the Socratic turn to speeches/dialectic. “One may say that the Platonic dialogues serve no more obvious purpose than precisely this one: to answer the question, Why philosophy? or, Why science? by justifying philosophy or science before the tribunal of the city, the political community . . . [or] before the tribunal of the law.”[6] And this meant that the dialogues in which one sees the grounding activity of philosophy—of its necessary engagement with those devoted not to theory or science but to law and what law stood for—would necessarily preserve the prephilosophic, prescientific understanding, “consciousness,” “world,” as indeed we see it preserved in the Socratic dialogues of Plato and Xenophon. Finally, as Strauss indicates in the fourth chapter of Natural Right and History, the original Socratic turn that resulted in this grounding effort was undertaken because of a recognized difficulty besetting philosophy, a difficulty with understanding the ultimate causes of things. That is, the reason that the question of the true beginning point of inquiry, or a settling of the elementary or fundamental question, is so important in the Platonic dialogues was that Socrates had come to doubt seriously that full knowledge of the principles of things, of what is first in itself, is possible.

  • [1] “[A]ll present-day philosophy, that is not in one way or another historical,is barren or superficial. If a proof were needed, it would be supplied by themost important, nay, the only important philosophic event of our century,the emergence of phenomenology. Husserl eventually rejected in solemn andexplicit terms what he called the accepted distinction between philosophic andhistorical investigations.” “History of Philosophy: Its Nature and Its Function.Lecture to be delivered on November 12, 1947, General Seminar [at the NewSchool for Social Research],” thirteen sheets, written on both sides with a pen(Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, appearing on the page that is the secondversion of the beginning, verso, Patard 273-307, at 278). See also Strauss’sreference to Husserl as a philosopher in “Existentialism” [1956], 304-305.
  • [2] “History of Philosophy: Its Nature and Its Function. Lecture to be delivered onNovember 12, 1947—General Seminar,” thirteen sheets, written on both sideswith a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, 6 recto, Patard 273-307, at288). Compare NRH 79.
  • [3] “History of Philosophy: Its Nature and Its Function. Lecture to be deliveredon November 12, 1947—General Seminar,” thirteen sheets, written on bothsides with a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, 6 recto-6 verso, Patard273-307, at 288). Compare NRH 79.
  • [4] “History of Philosophy: Its Nature and Its Function. Lecture to be delivered onNovember 12, 1947—General Seminar,” thirteen sheets, written on both sideswith a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, 6 verso, Patard 273-307, at288). Compare NRH 79-80.
  • [5] “Research in the History of Ideas,” summer course 1942, twenty-three numberedpages, written with a pen (Leo Strauss Papers, Box 6, Folder 14, p. 10, Patard233-271, at 244).
  • [6] Leo Strauss, “How to Begin to Study Medieval Philosophy,” in The Rebirth ofClassical Political Rationalism: An Introduction to the Thought of Leo Strauss, ed.Thomas L. Pangle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 216-217.
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