Leo Strauss and the Pursuit of Knowledge: A Reply to Paul DeHart


Leo Strauss’s statements on philosophy do not deny that knowledge is possible. Rather, they emphasize that philosophy—while motivated by awareness of one’s own ignorance—is a way of life teleologically ordered toward knowledge.

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In a recent essay, Paul DeHart criticizes Leo Strauss’s conception of philosophy and the relationship between reason and revelation, by criticizing him on epistemological grounds. While Strauss never wrote a treatise on epistemology, DeHart nimbly reads between the lines to conclude that Strauss presents a false dichotomy between faith and philosophy, based on a “self-referentially incoherent” conception of philosophy.

Since the basis of Strauss’s project was the recovery of the conception of philosophy that DeHart concludes is incoherent, DeHart’s critique threatens the whole legacy of Leo Strauss. It therefore deserves a careful examination to see if the critique succeeds. In my view, DeHart has mischaracterized Strauss’s account of philosophy and fails to account for the benefits provided by Strauss’s account of the tension between reason and revelation.

Political Philosophy and DeHart

In his essay “What is Political Philosophy?” Strauss defines philosophy as “the quest for universal knowledge, for knowledge of the whole,” or “the attempt to replace opinions about the whole by knowledge of the whole.” However, one of Strauss’s elaborations prompts DeHart’s criticism. Drawing from a phrase associated with Socrates, Strauss says philosophy is: “essentially not possession of the truth, but the quest for the truth. The distinctive trait of the philosopher is that ‘he knows that he knows nothing.’” Citing this phrase, DeHart, mounts his challenge to Strauss:

the claim that one knows that he knows nothing is utterly unintelligible. It is in fact impossible for anyone to know that he knows nothing. If the philosopher knows that he knows nothing, then he knows it. In which case, he knows something… the Straussian account of philosophy is self-referentially incoherent.

Of course if one formulates “I know that I know nothing” as a syllogism, one comes across with a contradiction; Strauss himself treated this briefly in his “Restatement on Xenophon’s Hiero.” DeHart grants it might be a “metaphor,” but he still thinks the “metaphor” that Strauss affirms denies that any knowledge claim is possible. While Strauss’s philosophy pursues the fundamental questions of philosophy and their possible answers without settling on a single answer, DeHart concludes that Strauss’s philosopher knows “some fundamental things” to identify what the right questions are, despite Strauss’s supposed denial of knowledge.

On the basis of these tensions, DeHart charges Strauss with holding a modernist epistemology like John Locke’s, wherein “something can be said to be known only if it is self-evident, necessary, incorrigible, or derived necessarily from that which is.”

DeHart’s claim about Strauss would be correct if Strauss ever stated that knowledge is only possible on these modernist terms, or that knowledge is impossible. But Strauss does neither.

On Classical Political Philosophy

Rather than deny that knowledge is possible, Strauss’s statements on the activity of philosophy emphasize that philosophy is a way of life teleologically ordered toward knowledge. Examine the full phrase that prompted DeHart’s criticism:

The distinctive trait of the philosopher is that “he knows that he knows nothing,” and that his insight into our ignorance concerning the most important things induces him to strive with all his power for knowledge.

Strauss’s point is that knowledge of one’s ignorance is not a permanent state. Instead, this awareness prompts one to seek knowledge. This is why Strauss describes philosophy as a “zetetic” activity, from the Greek verb zetein, “to seek.” As DeHart observes, Strauss’s seeking is clearly focused on giving a proper articulation of the questions or problems of philosophy rather than their answers, but Strauss does not say that emphasis on the questions makes no understanding of natural reality possible. Instead, he writes: “the clear grasp of a fundamental question requires an understanding of the nature of the subject matter with which the question is concerned.” This is clear in his account of the Socratic turn in The City and Man. Strauss’s Socrates rejects the Pre-Socratics for their misunderstanding of nature in reductionist-materialist terms, and points toward a different understanding of nature based on the human capacity to identify and evaluate the good.

If Strauss sounds skeptical about the practical possibility of ever gaining knowledge of reality, it is because the context for these remarks is when gaining knowledge of the whole of reality or nature is at stake. Knowledge of the whole of nature is in principle possible, but not because it is “self-evident” or “necessary,” as would be the case if Strauss subscribes to a modernist epistemology. Indeed, those are the very criteria Strauss rejects. Although he admires some “modernist” thinkers like Spinoza (as DeHart notes in his more lengthy chapter on Strauss), he never claims to admire them for their epistemology. To the contrary: Strauss thinks it is a mistake attributable to Descartes to think of the whole as a “mere object of man’s knowledge,” as if it could be known self-evidently or necessarily in the manner of mathematical truths (see “On Natural Law” in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy). Instead, Strauss places the whole at a distance from the human mind, as something about which knowledge is gained only through incrementally gaining knowledge of the parts.

Thus when Strauss considers philosophy’s most ambitious goals that concern the whole of nature—“God, the world, and man”—he affirms it is important for philosophy not to surrender to a kind of Kantian skepticism and deny that knowledge of the whole is possible. But Strauss does become more tentative, preferring to emphasize the weakness of the human intellect to build up an account of the whole. Contrary to DeHart’s concern that Strauss speaks against the classical tradition, from Plato to Aquinas, Strauss’s simultaneous insistence on the importance of philosophy pursuing its highest goals in spite of the weakness of the human intellect finds support in Aquinas: “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” (ST I. Q.1 A.5, Reply to objection I)

Strauss does not deny that philosophy involves knowledge of some propositions; unlike Descartes and Locke, he took knowledge of the external world for granted. He taught propositions that he thought were true, and rejected others as false. But philosophy could not be reduced to assenting to and dissenting from propositions. In writing “philosophy is essentially not the possession of truth,” Strauss emphasizes that the activity primarily involves self-awareness of one’s ignorance and a subsequent effort at remedying ignorance. Thus the activity most characteristic of philosophy is the activity of pursuing the truth. So Strauss writes in “Progress or Return” that philosophy is “meant—and that is the decisive point—not as a series of propositions, a teaching, or even a system, but as a way of life.”

Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections

For Strauss, philosophy pursues knowledge of the whole independently, without any other assistance or direction. By contrast, religious revelation provides knowledge authoritatively revealed by divine revelation. As Strauss presents it in Natural Right and History, the “fundamental question” is whether knowledge is gained through unassisted human reason, or human beings are dependent on divine revelation for gaining knowledge. Neither claim can refute the other. Hence Strauss proposes two ways of life in tension with one another.

Yet sometimes it seems that Strauss denied that revelation was a source of knowledge. As DeHart observes, in “Notes on Philosophy and Revelation,” Strauss makes the strong claim “that faith has no basis whatever in human knowledge of actual things.” In DeHart’s interpretation, “Strauss’s claim that revelation and philosophy cannot refute each other depends upon a conception of faith as the rejection of reason and knowledge.” Thus DeHart believes that Strauss argues for an “a priori reason for discounting claims of revelation as potential items of knowledge.” By contrast, DeHart argues that philosophy should be “teleologically ordered” toward revelation, maintaining openness toward it because it is true.

But this is precisely Strauss’s understanding. Because philosophy is open to the truth, whatever it might be, it must in principle be open to the truth of revelation. So it cannot refute revelation without begging the question against it. But neither can unassisted human reason demonstrate that revelation is true, because revelation is in principle not accessible to human reason. Hence Strauss holds that neither philosophy nor revelation can demonstrate its superiority over the other.

Where does this leave revelation? This is the motivating core of DeHart’s critique, since he worries that Straussian philosophy marginalizes revelation. He is undoubtedly troubled by Strauss’s notion that reason cannot be used to prove religious propositions, since that implies religious belief is a kind of crude fideism, rejecting reason and knowledge. But as we have seen, the issue between faith and philosophy is not that faith rejects knowledge, but rather that faith has a different, non-human source for its knowledge.

In upholding the difference in their sources of knowledge, Strauss asks both theologians and philosophers to recognize the limits of their activities. Strauss’s criticisms of philosophic Christians address conclusions purportedly made on the basis of unassisted human reason, but in fact relying on faith-based propositions. Yet Strauss also exposed modern philosophy, including science, for making conclusions that purportedly refuted revelation, when by its nature it could do no such thing. This calls to task supposedly neutral teachings in political philosophy for going too far in presupposing answers to questions only known by revelation. For example, Hobbes’s universal pre-eminence of the fear of death implies the denial of the resurrection of the dead. Far from marginalizing revelation, Strauss provides it with the means to challenge assumptions that the modern tradition of political philosophy takes for granted or even considers banal. Thus on many themes the activities of reason and revelation intersect and challenge one another, provoking a tension that Strauss insists is the source of the “vitality of the Western civilization.”

Perspectives on the Good Society

Against the challenges posed by positivism and historicism to the good society and the understanding of the whole of reality, Strauss renews philosophy as a way of life directed toward understanding the whole of reality. His remarks on the tension between reason and revelation are an attempt to renew an understanding of the tension, which then permits debate between possible answers. Taking up that debate, Straussians remain a remarkably diversified group. They include irreverent Straussians like Heinrich Meier, who holds that Strauss judges revelation to be refutable, and pious Straussians like the late Fr. Ernest Fortin, who thought that Strauss provides the resources to grasp how Christianity thinks of itself vis-à-vis paganism.

For those informed by Christian revelation, Strauss does a great service. He reminds them of the difference between the natural and the supernatural orders. As Fr. Fortin has argued, it should not trouble a believer to learn that unassisted natural human reason cannot access the supernatural order. If it could, that would disprove the supernatural character of revelation. The core propositions of Christian belief—faith in the Triune God, the Incarnation, the Resurrection—have, as Strauss says, “no basis in human knowledge of actual things,” insofar as unassisted human reason cannot demonstrate that any of these claims are true. In Christian theology, what unassisted human reason tries to show is that the philosophic arguments arrayed against these propositions are not compelling. This is what Aquinas means when he says in his Commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate that reason must deflect the arguments that a specious kind of reason poses against the possibility of faith. Revelation lived in this sense takes a controversial stance—one from which Tertullian and Karl Barth fled—that unassisted human reason draws conclusions that do not conflict with any of the conclusions of revelation. Revelation has nothing to fear from philosophic investigation of its roots. When Christians say that faith is reasonable, this is what they mean.

The consequence of failing to observe the service Strauss performs is noted by Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2005 lecture “What in Fact is Theology?”—an argument for upholding the difference between a theologian who accepts the full deposit of the Christian faith and one who does not. The latter may explore a wide variety of questions. But he cannot be called a Christian theologian because he does not accept the authority of Christian revelation. When theology severs its relationship to a teaching office or authority in the name of freedom, it can take up “arbitrary whims of interpretation.” If a Christian academy fails to distinguish between unassisted human reason and human reason assisted by the deposit of the faith, it ultimately loses the capacity to distinguish between paganism and Christianity.

Strauss also performs a service to philosophers. Knowledge of one’s ignorance does not serve as the basis of a syllogism on epistemology but as the basis of an activity, a way of life, that impels one on to a quest for greater knowledge that remains an unfinished quest as one discovers more about reality and about the limitations of the human intellect. Far from being antagonistic to revelation, this way of life is not far from that encouraged by Alasdair MacIntyre or by self-affirmed “old school humanists” like Robert George and Cornel West. It remains vitally important for seeking out answers to the question of the good society in seriousness yet humility. One need not look very far to find contemporary versions of Strauss’s foes, positivism and historicism, that heap contempt upon this way of life, and, by shouting down those who raise the question of the good society, abandon the pursuit of the question of the good society. Strauss provides a way for both theologians and philosophers to discuss this question while maintaining fidelity to their distinctive sources of knowledge. Only when their sources are made clear is it possible to evaluate which source offers a better answer, and how these sources should inform our lives.

Nathan Pinkoski is 2017-2018 James Madison Program Thomas W. Smith Postdoctoral Research Associate at Princeton University. He serves as the assistant director for the Centre for Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics (CASEP), and an editor for Politics and Poetics.

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