A philosophical casserole

In a typically sarcastic comment to my earlier post about John Howard and Straussian neoconservatism, my partner jen sardonically questioned why I hadn’t included a reference to Derrida in a post that fearlessly embraced rambling irrelevance in just about every other way.

Well, I’ve got news for her. I can’t quite stretch to Strauss and Derrida in the same post, but I can do almost as well. I was reading an article recently by Peter Levine that asserted Leo Strauss was a closet Nietzschean\Heideggerian. I was even going to write a post about it at the time but got bored before I could put fingers to keyboard. But jen’s comment provides a perfect opportunity to recycle the relevant passage with a minimum of effort or thought:

Strauss, a lifelong admirer of Heidegger, agrees with him that Nietzsche may have faltered in the end and produced merely a new, dogmatic version of metaphysics with his doctrine of the Will to Power. (This seems untrue to me, since the Will to Power was merely Nietzsche’s exoteric doctrine.) But Strauss describes Heidegger’s “existentialism” as an “attempt to free Nietzsche’s alleged overcoming of relativism from the consequences of [Nietzsche’s] relapse into metaphysics or of his recourse to nature.” Thus, according to Strauss, Heideggerian philosophy is simply a more consistent version of Nietzscheanism. Heidegger was a nihilist: in other words, he was a relativist with “angst. ” Strauss summarizes Heidegger’s position as a Nietzschean discovery of nihilism, reached through a recognition of relativism, and arriving at last at the following point:

The fundamental phenomenon, the only phenomenon that is not hypothetical, is the abyss of freedom: the fact that man is compelled to choose groundlessly; the fundamental experience, i.e., an experience more fundamental than every science, is the experience of the objective groundlessness of all principles of thought and action, the experience of othingness.

Thus even historical scholarship rests, ultimately, on a groundless choice to pursue a certain kind of arbitrary procedure. “Rationalism itself rests on nonrational, unevident assumptions; in spite of its seemingly overwhelming power, rationalism is hollow.”‘” Strauss’ article ends almost as soon as he has invoked Heidegger’s name, and before he has given any exposition of Heidegger’s positive doctrines. “I can allude here only to one point,” he writes, “to Heidegger’s teaching regarding historical truth.” About even this
he says practically nothing, except that, for Heidegger, “true understanding of a thinker is understanding him creatively, i.e., understanding him differently from the way he understood himself.” This is the key to Strauss’ own philosophy, which consists almost entirely of creative (mis)readings of thinkers from the past. Thus Strauss owes much to Heidegger, whose ideas are “of the greatest importance to man as man.’ Heidegger, he claims, “surpasses in speculative intelligence all his contemporaries and is at the same time intellectually the counterpart to what Hitler was politically [i.e., a nihilist]”” Strauss is a nihilist too, esoterically; his only insight is a knowledge of the Nietzschean\Heideggerian abyss. But he wants to turn back from this spectre of groundlessness, ubermenschlich, to produce a comforting illusion for the herd. Yet in order that this myth should not to be a mere Romantic fabrication, it must at the same time reveal the secret of nihilism to those clever enough to follow Strauss’ hints. Strauss’ vehicle for preaching this double-edged message is the deliberate misinterpretation of past philosophers, whom (just like Heidegger) he “understands creatively.”

In fact, while we’re playing a game of chucking lots of modern philosophers into the same cooking pot, it occurs to me (and I’m sure it’s not an original insight, but I haven’t read widely enough to know who has suggested it previously) that Strauss was also in effect a closet Sartrean existentialist, but his commitment/leap of faith into the abyss was towards the authoritarian right rather than the left.

And rolling along with that spirit of philosophical free association, I also found this article which accessibly compares Heidegger and Sartre:

The Marxism of Sartre and the Naziism of Heidegger are sufficient to prove that Existentialism, which already denies any reality to moral principles, can randomly be associated with any sort of politics. Oddly, what it seems less conspicuously to be associated with is liberal and free market politics, which were despised, not just by Sartre and Heidegger, but by most other Existentialist figures and their spiritual descendants. One might think that this is because intellectuals find private life and hard work boring; but then, after the “Myth of Sisyphus,” one might think that any mundane task could be valorized into the most important thing ever. The truth seems to be that Existentialists never really believed that life was as meaningless as the task of Sisyphus. They actually demanded a real world of meaning vast beyond the confines of ordinary life. Thus, Marxism probably appealed to Sartre because of its pretence that it was scientific and about facts, and, as it happens, Heidegger did not really have the classical Existentialist belief in the meaninglessness of the world. The “uncoverings” of Being made for real value, however “terrible,” which means that Adolf Hitler gave real meaning to the world.

It also launches itself with a typically po mo reference to an extract from Woody Allen’s movie Play It Again, Sam, which is utterly irrelevant to this post, but centrally important to the phenomenology of Mark Bahnisch’s current quest for true lurv on the Internet:

WOODY ALLEN: That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?
GIRL IN MUSEUM: Yes it is.

WOODY ALLEN: What does it say to you?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: It restates the negativeness of the universe, the hideous lonely emptiness of existence, nothingness, the predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity, like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void, with nothing but waste, horror, and degradation, forming a useless bleak straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

WOODY ALLEN: What are you doing Saturday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: Committing suicide.

WOODY ALLEN: What about Friday night?

GIRL IN MUSEUM: [leaves silently]

That’s why luvmuffin is the wise philosopher’s counter-intuitive choice. Women who combine ditzy sensuality with a cutting, fearless intellect aren’t thick on the ground. In fact jen is the only one I’ve ever found. But I suppose it can’t hurt to be an optimist.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

The thing with Strauss is that he himself argued that philosophers had to dissimulate because their true “teachings” (his word) would upset the polis, so it’s more than possible to read him in all sorts of ways. Hence he argued that most texts contained multiple meanings, one of which was the exoteric one which would often be only transparent to the initiated (into Straussianism). Not quite the same thing – but there’s a space for your Derrida reference, Ken.

There is no doubt that he’s one of the Right postmodernists (or premodernists) and is certainly influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger.

But the game that is played where people make inferences about politics on the basis of some philosopher’s having read Heidegger is pointless – for anyone working in continental philosophy, Heidegger is an inescapable reference point. There’s a massive debate as to whether Heidegger’s philosophy implies his politics – I’d argue not, but there are good arguments on both sides. But Strauss’ extremely reactionary politics stand on their own two feet.

Let’s not forget also that Strauss was a Jew who had to flee Germany.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I suspect that Mark wrote his comment before reading the additions I just made to the post.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

“The Marxism of Sartre and the Naziism of Heidegger are sufficient to prove that Existentialism, which already denies any reality to moral principles, can randomly be associated with any sort of politics.”

It’s hard to see why these two things are seemingly equated. Heidegger emphatically denied that Sartre had read him correctly and distanced himself from Sartrean thought in his “Letter on Humanism”.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Apologies, Ken, yes I’m just catching up with you.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Mark

But that may just be the exoteric interpretation.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Indeed, Ken.

When I was at Uni, I was taught a class in philosophy of economics by a Straussian. Having received only a conceded pass for an essay on Lockean property right because I didn’t cite Strauss at all, I managed to pass the subject by writing exam essays that said repeatedly – “as the Great strauss so truly and brilliantly wrote” etc. The exoteric interpretation here was quite near the surface.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

But Miranda Devine never writes about lefty students being marked down by right wing politically correct lecturers in Economics departments :(

Rafe
2022 years ago

If it is correct that Struss represents a re-run of Plato’s ideas on maintaining the collective security of the State and the unchallenged control of the ruling class, then Popper’s critique of Plato in vol 1 of The Open Society and its Enemies should become essential reading. What a shame that Chris Sheil has The Poverty of Historicism on his bookshelf but not The Open Society and its Enemies. But cheer up, a seminar on vol 1 of OSE is running on Catallaxy, until some suicide bomber finds out where I live and puts an end to it.
No modern philosophical casserole is complete without Popper, the leading modern philosopher of science, and I need to find out why Derrida never seemed to engage with the philosophy of science (which would have meant engaging with Popper). Too hard? Too easy? Not relevant to the world that Derrida lived in?

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

If you want a French author interested in the philosophy of science, Rafe, try Bruno Latour:

http://www.ensmp.fr/~latour/

Rafe
2022 years ago

Thanks Mark, I made a close study of his anthropology of science, a path followed by Charlesworth and three coworkers who studied the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne. Interesting to a point but not a contribution to the philosophy of science and not helpful to working scientists. The Double Helix is better in some ways but needs a commentary to indicate how it illuminates and indeed exemplifies the Popperian approach.
For my review of Charlesworth et al.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/revlifesci.html
For a review of an excellent collection of interviews with major scientists.
http://www.the-rathouse.com/revwolpert.html

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Well, yes, Rafe, perhaps it’s more a sociology of science. A lot of work was done in philosophy in France in the first half of the twentieth century on epistemology and science (eg Calguinem) but I suspect that’s also not what you refer to as “philosophy of science” strictly speaking.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Bachelard did some good work, then went off on a tangent. Koyre is good on the metaphysics of modern science and he became a sponsor of one of your men by a strange accident. And before them was Duhem of the Duhem-Quine problem, which was the topic of my MSci thesis.