U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Will "Straussianism" Become Like "Deconstruction" in Popular Discourse?

 Begging for a Straussian Reading of Some Kind?

Yesterday, Tim Lacy called my attention to this piece by Matt Yglesias in which he analyzes a recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

“David Brooks’ column ‘The Thing Itself’ is just begging for a Straussian reading of some kind,” Yglesias begins.  Even as a student of popular anti-Straussianism, I was initially at something of a loss to see what Yglesias was talking about.

Brooks’s column is–or perhaps one should say in deference to Yglesias “appears to be”–a celebration of outgoing Port Authority head Chris Ward and his, at least according to Brooks, extremely practical approach to rebuilding at Ground Zero.  Brooks then uses Ward’s practicality-over-symbolism as a positive contrast to a variety of issues that Brooks argues have been dominated by “culture war” purism, e.g. the politics of gun ownership and Obama’s Green Tech initiative.*

But according to Yglesias, this isn’t really what the column is about.

Pointing out that the column’s title phrase (repeated in its body) is a translation of Kant’s Ding an sich, which is “unknowable and inexpressible,” Yglesias suggests that the column is thus really arguing something quite different:

The basic topic of the column is perfectly plausible here. A call for people to be more practical. But why link that idea specifically to Kant’s phrase, and then use it to call for us to do something that Kant says is impossible? I get a distinct air of Leo Strauss and the University of Chicago around this. Brooks is winking at those of us in the know to signal to us that there’s a deeper meaning afoot. The esoteric argument, I think, is that people necessarily engage with mass politics on a symbolic and expressive level rather than a practical way (voting isn’t very practical) so our endeavors are doomed to failure.

Why would an argument of the sort that Yglesias suggests Brooks is making have to be presented esoterically? How does it in any way contradict the explicit message of the piece?  Far from challenging the conventional wisdom of our day, the idea that mass politics is inherently irrational and militates against practical solutions is practically a dogma of our nation’s punditocracy.  And it certainly doesn’t contradict Brooks’s explicit praise for the practicality of an appointed official.

But there’s a more basic problem here.  David Brooks isn’t a Straussian.  Indeed, before I saw this piece, I would have told you that, in an era in which practically everyone on the right has gotten called a Straussian by somebody at one time or another, Brooks had the relatively rare distinction of never being so labelled. After all, Brooks seems more interested in the nonexistent salad bar at Applebee’s than in the “timeless questions” that Straussians concern themselves with.  Even when Brooks considered questions of human nature in his latest book, The Social Animal, he turned to (poorly understood and popularized) neuroscience, rather than to Socratic philosophy, to explain it.

But then I discovered that Yglesias, at least, has been calling Brooks a Straussian for years.  The 2005 Brooks column Yglesias focuses on in this earlier piece is even less “Straussian” than  the one about Chris Ward. Written on the eve of President George W. Bush’s first Supreme Court appointment, Brooks starts by calling on Dubya to look for a “philosophical powerhouse,” then suggests Michael McConnell, whom Brooks praises for having a less strict understanding of the separation of church and state.  Yglesias correctly points out that the column’s first argument–that Presidents should appoint smart people to the court–is not its most important, which is that the separation of church and state should be eased.  But burying the lede as Brooks does here is hardly an example of esotericism, let alone Straussianism.

As far as I can tell, the case that Brooks is a Straussian is based on guilt by extremely vague association. He is Jewish. He’s arguably a neoconservative.  He went to the University of Chicago.

However, Brooks majored in history. And, as readers of this blog are well aware, there’s nothing remotely Straussian about the History Department at Chicago…or for that matter about most departments at Chicago beyond Political Science and the Committee on Social Thought (even they include plenty of non-Straussians alongside their Straussians).

And what makes this column “Straussian”? It has a reference to a German philosophical concept that would likely go over the heads of many readers.  It disparages democratic politics. And it does so in a way that doesn’t emphasize that argument.

But, like the earlier Brooks column that Yglesias called Straussian, this column’s argument is not an instance of esotericism in the Straussian (or for that matter any other) sense. Brooks disparages politics entirely openly in the piece. Chris Ward, whom he praises, notably didn’t get his job via election; he was appointed, first by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to another post, and then by Governor David Paterson, to his current one.  Brooks does like to sugarcoat his often quite conservative arguments in moderate-sounding rhetoric. But, again, that’s not esotericism.

There are a number of pretty simple lessons here: Not all neoconservatives are Straussians.  Not all graduates of the University of Chicago are Straussians.  Not all elitists are Straussians. People besides Straussians sometimes make references to highfalutin’ German philosophical concepts.  People besides Straussians try to tailor their arguments for their audience…and there are many ways to do so that do not involve esotericism. And people besides Straussians sometimes harbor anti-democratic political views.

But I also wonder whether we are beginning to see the term “Straussian” take a rhetorical journey similar to that which “deconstruction” took in the last quarter of the twentieth century. “Deconstruction” began life as a technical term coined by Jacques Derrida to describe his method of reading a text. It then entered popular language as a pejorative to describe any abstruse form of textual analysis. And then the pejorative connotation began to fall away.  Today people often say “deconstruct” when they really mean nothing more than “analyze carefully.”

* This argument really is classic Brooks.  Immediately after making a pseudo-moderate, pox-on-both-houses argument about the essentially dead issue of gun control, Brooks hauls out a standard, right-wing Republican talkingpoint about a very live issue:  “President Obama’s Green Tech initiative has become a policy disaster — not only at Solyndra but at one program after another — because its champions ignored basic practical considerations. They were befogged by their own visions of purity and virtue.”

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Slightly off topic: people also seem to be using “Straussianism” entirely as a label for the doctrine of Taqiyya (veiled and evasive speech, duplicity,lying) that Strauss supposedly learned (as I remember) from al-Farabi.

    This seems odd because all realistic PolSci people accept it as given that the politics of consent and the politics of governance are two different things, and that of necessity, candidates will say things that they know aren’t true. They don’t need Strauss for that.

    What the Republicans got from Strauss (through Bill Kristol, I suspect) is, I think, the unitary presidency, the state of exception, and the rejection of constitutionalism (the idea that the executive is bound by law). These are Schmitt’s ideas, but in what I’ve read about the two I don’t remember any evidence that Strauss disagreed with his friend Schmitt on these points.

  2. @Tim: That seemed so obvious that it wasn’t even worth pointing out (or perhaps it’s an actual example of Straussian esotericism….I appeared to leave it out because it was so obvious, but in fact, I left it out because all of us Jews really are Straussians! 😉 )

    @John: I think you’re entirely correct about the way “Straussianism” is usually invoked, though few mention Taqiyya by name, preferring instead to talk about Plato’s “Noble Lie” (which is of course related). And, as you say, American politicians hardly needed Leo Strauss to teach them to obscure the truth from the American people. I’m not entirely convinced that Strauss (or Kristol / the Straussians) is the fons et origo of the idea of the “unitary executive.” You’re certainly correct that Strauss indicates some sympathy for (Schmittian) ideas of the exeption (see, for example, Natural Right and History, p. 160). But, in general, I think both the Straussians and their most implacable opponents are far too invested in the notion that Strauss and his teachings are utterly unique (at least in the modern world and/or the United States). My working hypothesis is that most of the ways in which Straussian ideas have mattered in practical politics involve situations in which Straussian thought reinforces ideas that are also found elsewhere on the American right. In fact, I think both the “Noble Lie” and the unitary executive may be instances of this.

  3. In the case of the unitary executive, I had the idea that someone had Bush ear, and Kristol was on his immediate staff. Just a hunch. Bush seemed surprised and delighted by the fact that, as “Decider”, he didn’t have to know what he was doing or justify himself to anyone.

    Cheney of course figured the unitary executive out all by himself.

  4. Do people really link Straussianism and the “noble lie” to “taqiyya”? If so, I don’t think they are really grasping what taqiyya is about. It’s virtually the polar opposite of the “noble lie.” Classically, taqiyya is a purely Shi’ite concept, evolved because Shi’ites were persecuted by majoritarian Sunnis. The doctrine gives them moral cover to pretend to be Sunni’s if necessary to guard life and limb. It’s not intended to manipulate the masses, for the simple reason that, if Shi’ites were in the position to manipulate the masses, they would be in power and would not need to engage in taqiyya. I don’t see how it has any applicability to governance or political thought at all, except to the extent that a Shi’ite might not wish to be open about his views on, e.g., the Sunni Caliphate, if doing so would inopportunely expose him as a Shi’ite.

  5. @Egypt Steve: Just to clarify my earlier comment on this issue, I can’t recall seeing the concept of “taqiyya” in popular discussions of Strauss. What does get discussed a lot is the noble lie, which plays very much the function in such discussions that John Emerson associates with “taqiyya” above.

  6. @Egypt Steve: The Straussian embrace of deception is almost always closer to taqiyya than it is to the Noble Lie. Philosophers are not accustomed to power; most of the time they’re just trying to stay alive. Ideally, yes, the thinking man would like to be the advisor to a prince, but he is rarely offered that opportunity: having the ear of a president for almost a decade was a bizarre historical anomaly. Generally the situation is much more depressing: philosophers are a tiny beleaguered minority, always in danger of persecution. So says Strauss.

    The problem with this thesis is that it’s refuted almost perfectly by the existence of America itself. Here you have a proudly anti-intellectual nation that simply refuses to persecute its thinkers. Strauss was never put on trial. Nobody has made an effort to extinguish the University of Chicago. Even the Committee on Social Thought has been spared a rigorous witch hunt — which is amazing, given that lots of people bought Allan Bloom’s esoteric bestseller, and have at least some idea of the subversive stuff brewed in those classrooms.

    Contra Strauss, the practice of philosophy in America remains embarrassingly hemlock-free.

  7. I was persuaded by Charles Larmore’s essay on Strauss (Larmore taught intro to philosophy at Columbia when I took it though the book was published about five years after I graduated) that Strauss’s hope was to finesse the very manifest difference in concrete ethical judgments among philosophers, over the past two thousand years, as well as their occasional statements apparently in defense of relativism or historicism, by denying that the overt meaning of their publications was a reliable guide to their real meaning (except for the elect). But this is not what modern “Straussians” seem to understand Strauss’s “teaching” to be. They are usually poli-sci types and have interpreted Straussianism as a political doctrine.

    I’ve also wondered how much Strauss’s understanding of esoteric teachings is related to traditional Jewish ideas of esotericism and so forth–of course, I only know about these from novels by Chaim Potok.

  8. I’m not all that sympathetic to the currently popular notion that Strauss was an apolitical theorist — that the political agenda attributed to his work is a projection on the part of his students. This seems to me a transparent attempt to render Strauss esoteric again, now that his hidden teaching is no longer so hidden.

  9. “Taqiyya” is my own interpretation. Strauss did get his justification for dissembling from al-Farabi who was Persian and died ca. 950-951. Per Wiki, Henry Corbin considered him to be a crypto-Shi-ite.

    The dissembling Strauss justifies and advocates is letting your friends and people who protect you and are helpful to you think that you agree with them, when you really don’t. E.G., living in the US and pretending to support democracy.

    He also advocated the noble lie, and the two ideas aren’t unrelated. Both trace back to the idea that only true philosophers know the truth, which most people are incapable of understanding, and the related idea that the ignorant have no rights over the wise.

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