Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy: Responding to the Challenge of Positivism and Historicism

Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy: Responding to the Challenge of Positivism and Historicism

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Leo Strauss is known primarily for reviving classical political philosophy through careful analyses of works by ancient thinkers. As with his published writings, Strauss’s seminars devoted to specific philosophers were notoriously dense, accessible only to graduate students and scholars with a good command of the subject. In 1965, however, Strauss offered an introductory course on political philosophy at the University of Chicago. Using a conversational style, he sought to make political philosophy, as well as his own ideas and methods, understandable to those with little background on the subject.
Leo Strauss on Political Philosophy brings together the lectures that comprise Strauss’s “Introduction to Political Philosophy.” Strauss begins by emphasizing the importance of political philosophy in determining the common good of society and critically examining the two most powerful contemporary challenges to the possibility of using political theory to learn about and develop the best political order: positivism and historicism. In seeking the common good, classical political philosophers like Plato and Aristotle did not distinguish between political philosophy and political science. Today, however, political philosophy must contend with the contemporary belief that it is impossible to know what the good society really is. Strauss emphasizes the need to study the history of political philosophy to see whether the changes in the understanding of nature and conceptions of justice that gradually led people to believe that it is not possible to determine what the best political society is are either necessary or valid. In doing so, he ranges across the entire history of political philosophy, providing a valuable, thematically coherent foundation, including explications of many canonical thinkers, such as Auguste Comte and Immanuel Kant, about whom Strauss did not write extensively in his published writings.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226566825
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 07/23/2018
Series: The Leo Strauss Transcript Series
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leo Strauss (1899–1973) was one of the preeminent political philosophers of the twentieth century. He is the author of many books, among them The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, Natural Right and History, and Spinoza’s Critique of Religion, all published by the University of Chicago Press. Catherine H. Zuckert is the Nancy R. Dreux Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the author or coauthor of many books, including, most recently, Machiavelli’s Politics.

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Comte as the Founder of Positivism

The Three Stages of the History of Mankind

LEO STRAUSS: [In progress] Political action is founded upon knowledge. Therefore, all political action points to knowledge of the politically good or bad. The complete political good, we call the good society. In every political action there is implied a reference to the good society. All politically acting men are concerned with that; whether they call it the good society or call it by another name is a secondary question. There are people who would deny that there is anything to be called the common good, which is another way of speaking of the good society, but these same people speak of the "open society," by which they mean the good society. President Johnson likes to speak of the Great Society, which is in its wording somewhat different from the good society. But I think President Johnson means by "the Great Society" the good society. Why he and other contemporaries prefer to speak of the Great Society rather than of the good society is an interesting question, but one which doesn't have to concern us here now.

Now if this is so, if all concern with political things, all political action, points towards the question of the good society, and the good society is the theme of political philosophy, one seemingly paradoxical consequence follows: that there is no fundamental distinction between political philosophy and political science. This was the older view, according to which the study of the more or less imperfect societies is part of the same study which is concerned above all with the good society. This can be compared with the relation between physiology and pathology: they are in a way separable, but obviously the study of the healthy body and its workings points to the possibility of diseases, and you cannot diagnose the diseases unless you know what a healthy body is. This is the way in which above all Plato in the Republic and Aristotle in the Politics deal with all kinds of political societies, perfect or imperfect.

The situation in which we find ourselves today is characterized by the fact that, in the first place, political philosophy is thought to be radically different from political science. In the mildest form, political science is a whole of which political philosophy is one of many parts. But it is clearer and more straightforward to say that political philosophy is no longer credible at all, and that it is partly the continuation of an ever-weakening tradition which explains the fact that political philosophy is still academically recognized. Political philosophy is no longer credible, and political science takes its place — to make this quite clear: a nonphilosophic political science. This is, if not the full reality today, at least the tendency.

Now while this is true and could easily be borne out by quotations, it is also true that political science is in need of what is called political theory, and in this respect I think there is unanimity. Theory, in contradistinction to philosophy, can be scientific. Think of the theory of numbers, theory of functions, theory of evolution, and so on. These are all scientific phenomena. Political theory, according to this view, is a branch of political science among others; only look at the announcements of this department to see that this is the prevailing view. All fields of political science are related to the others. For example, agricultural politics and foreign aid are in foreign relations. But political theory is more related to the other fields than any others among themselves. Political theory is the most general of the fields of political science.

What is political theory? You would help me if you would answer me that question, because I have some notion of what has been suggested in the course of the last thirty years as to what political theory is, but there is a great variety of opinions. Will the most articulate among you tell me? Well, since I seem to be unable to overcome this shyness so becoming young people, I will at least give a few of the views which I have found. [Laughter] You find the view, for example, that political theory, this universal discipline which has its finger in all pies, is needed for guiding research. It is a theory of theory-formulations, one could say. Political theory thus understood does not claim to meet the political issues, the so-called "isms." Therefore, there is another understanding of political theory according to which political theory is that pursuit which is primarily concerned with the "isms" — democracy, communism, fascism — dealing with the ideologies, the operative ideals, of course, primarily within the United States, with ideals operative within the United States. Political theory thus understood is not possible without history. For example, you cannot understand the American operative ideals without understanding what the United States Constitution was originally meant to be. You have to study the Federalist papers, and if you want to understand them properly, you have to go back to the authorities guiding the founding fathers, guiding especially Hamilton and Madison: Montesquieu, and so on and so on. You are led back eventually to classical antiquity.

Now a third meaning is indicated by the recollection of the fact that fifty years ago, I believe the general answer to what political theory is about would have been to say that it has to do with the state, the state understood as a sovereign state. The sovereign state, according to this doctrine, was distinguished from society. And a development took place there, around 1900, which led to what is called pluralism, according to which the state is only one of many associations, each having a function of its own but none of these associations can be said to be superior to any other. So the state in particular cannot be said to be superior to the churches, trade unions, etc. This pluralistic doctrine questioned the crucial importance of the state, and even if we take the state proper, it is easy to observe (especially in a democracy) that its action is determined by the interplay of interest groups or groups of other sorts. Furthermore, there are movements opposed to the state, denying the importance of the state: anarchism, and to some extent communism. And yet these movements, anarchism and communism, are without any question political movements. So it seems that "political" is a wider term than "state," and therefore it was suggested that the theme should rather be the political than the state. So in other words, the state has lost this evidence which it had for quite some time, surely throughout the nineteenth century. Now one can of course also say that political theory is sometimes meant to consist of overall reflections, comprehensive reflections, about policy in our age, reflections more elaborated than they can be elaborated in an inaugural address, but as they find their expression to some extent within an inaugural address.

These are the views of political theory which one would discover on the basis of present-day usage. Did I omit any meaning of political theory with which you are familiar? Please tell me.

Now political philosophy, as I said before, has become incredible, implausible. In order to understand what that means, we have to formulate the objections to political philosophy. The simple argument which I stated earlier, which leads from the fact that every political action is concerned with better or worse, this simple reflection has no longer the plausibility which it has had for centuries. Now what are these objections to the possibility of political philosophy? The most powerful one can be stated as follows. All genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, but philosophic knowledge is not scientific knowledge. Hence political philosophy is not genuine knowledge. I will elaborate this while I go. Let us first reflect upon the crucial part of this reasoning: all genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge. This view is called, and may be called, positivism, and we will first discuss that.

Now the founder of positivism, the originator of that term, is the French thinker of the early nineteenth century Auguste Comte. [LS writes on the blackboard.] And I will first present the Comtean position, which is by no means identical with the positivistic position as now prevailing, but we cannot understand the positivism of today without having first understood Comte. Now I will give you the titles of his chief works, translated into English: Course of Positive Philosophy, six volumes from 1830 to 1842, and System of Positive Politics, 1851 to 1854. Auguste Comte was originally connected with SaintSimon, one of these early socialists who were called by Marx and Engels the "utopian socialists," and there are quite a few things which Comte has in common with Saint-Simon. But Comte ceased to be a socialist very early. Nevertheless, the similarity of his problem with the problem as seen by Marx is very great, as you will gradually see. Now the basis of Comte's doctrine is the well-known success of modern science since the time of Galileo and its ever-spreading impact on modern society. In order to be enabled to form an independent judgment of what this success of modern science means, let us remember the most striking features of pre-Galilean science, traditional science, Aristotelian science. The simplest thing to do is to write here. [LS writes on the blackboard.] Now according to the Aristotelian scheme, philosophy or science — there is no distinction made — consists of two main parts. One is called theoretical and the other is called practical. Each consists of three parts: the theoretical consists of mathematics, physics (which is used here in a wide sense to include all natural science), and metaphysics. Practical philosophy or science consists of three parts: ethics, economics, and politics. ("Economics" means here the management of the household or the family, not what it has come to mean in modern times.) Now in Comte's scheme, the division of the sciences is as follows: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and social physics, or sociology. These terms, "sociology" and "social physics," have been coined by Comte. There is in addition a philosophy dealing with these various sciences, understanding the meaning of mathematics, biology, sociology, etc., and this overall reflection on science and the sciences is what Comte calls positive philosophy.

Now what are the decisive differences between the Comtean and the Aristotelian schemes? (The Comtean scheme is, by the way, the scheme now generally recognized, with minor additions: mathematics is a fundamental science, and so on, and social science is the last in the order of the sciences.) Now obviously in Comte's scheme there is no metaphysics. The second point, which was no longer a question for Comte at all, but which is in the light of history of immense importance, is this: that the natural sciences, or physics in the wide sense of the term, were originally not metaphysically neutral. I mean by that that up to Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century, a student of nature was either an Aristotelian, or a Platonist, or an Epicurean, or a Stoic. There was not physics, but Aristotelian, Platonic, Epicurean, Stoic physics. There were pursuits which were metaphysically neutral, where it did not make any difference whether you were a Platonist or an Epicurean: for example, shoemaking, to some extent also medicine, and also mathematics. But the epoch-making event was that the study of nature became as metaphysically neutral as shoemaking, medicine, and mathematics always more or less had been. The third point which I will mention right now is this: that what Aristotle called practical science is here replaced by a theoretical science, sociology. Sociology is as theoretical as mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Every science according to Comte has its practical applications, naturally — mathematics, physics, chemistry — and so has sociology. But the science in itself, the science of man and of human affairs, is as theoretical as the other sciences. Therefore, for Aristotle, ethics — or let me speak more specifically of politics — political science is fundamentally independent of the natural sciences. I mean that it uses the natural sciences in a subsidiary fashion goes without saying, but in itself it is independent of the natural sciences. But in the Comtean scheme, sociology, the study of human society, is as much dependent on biology as biology is dependent on chemistry, and chemistry is dependent on physics, and physics is dependent on mathematics. That is a crucial difference, and this is of course very important for the understanding of what social science means today. It is no longer understood that a social scientist has had a very thorough training in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, but on the highest level of social science in the modern sense, this dependence on the preceding sciences (preceding in the order of the sciences) still is of crucial importance. Comte implies that the fundamental science, the science on which all others depend, is mathematics. Mathematics is the model; hence science formulates laws, equations, preferably in mathematical form.

Now positive philosophy, the understanding of all intellectual activity which has reached the level of science, this one cannot do if one does not know its history. According to Comte, this is true of every conception: one cannot completely know a science without knowing its history, and this is impossible without studying, in a general way, the history of mankind. The broad result of Comte's study of the history of mankind is that it consists of three stages, of three successive philosophies, as he calls it, so much so that every science, say, mathematics or chemistry, goes through each of these three stages. The three stages are called by Comte the theological stage, the metaphysical stage, and the positive stage. "Positive" you can almost identify with "scientific," but I have to use his terminology. At all times, man needs a philosophy for observing facts as well as a social bond. We cannot observe facts without selecting facts, and we must therefore have principles guiding our selection. To that extent, a theory, a philosophy, precedes all observation. But we need also a philosophy, in the sense of Comte, as a social bond. Men cannot live together without an agreement regarding fundamentals, as others have put it. Now what are these three stages?

The first is the theological stage, in which man believes that he can answer the grandest questions and that he can exercise an unlimited control over the external world by substituting for the things wills which he can influence. There are three stages of that, according to Comte, which he called fetishism, polytheism, and monotheism. In this early stage, which lasted in a way up to the present day, man believes he knows the origin as well as the destiny of the universe. He claims to possess absolute knowledge, and he finds this absolute knowledge supplied by the assumption of supernatural, willing agents. Comte explains the primacy of the theological philosophy as follows: that man has a tendency to transport involuntarily the intimate sentiment of his own nature to the universal explanation of all phenomena whatsoever. The anthropocentric approach, in other words, is natural to man, and it finds its perfect expression in the theological stage.

The second stage is the metaphysical stage, in which the willing beings, persons, are replaced by abstract forces, as he calls them, by personified abstractions. The highest stage of this is that in which Nature with a capital N is understood as the universal source of all phenomena. Another formula which he uses is that in the metaphysical stage, entity is substituted for divinity. These two stages take as their principles our immediate sentiments of human phenomena, our immediate sentiments of man, and hence they seek to explain the universe and all particulars in terms of will. Those who have any knowledge of what is called metaphysics may not recognize metaphysics at all in Comte's description, but let me say only this. What he has in mind is a teleological analysis, say, in the form of Aristotle, that a being tends toward something. This of course is not a will in the beings, say, as in a worm or any other being which tends toward the peak of its growth, but the very speaking of tendency implies thinking in terms of willing. That he has in mind.

The positive stage is characterized by the fact that its starting point is obviously not will, but numbers. The fundamental science is mathematics, and therewith any attempt to explain phenomena in terms of will is excluded. In the positive stage, man abandons the question of the origin and destiny of everything. It abandons the claim, or the aim, of absolute knowledge: only relative knowledge is possible. What does that mean? In the positive stage, man no longer asks for the Why but is only concerned with the How: how things operate, not why they operate in this manner. For example, there is no longer any speculation on the origin of life or the origin of the species, according to Comte. In this particular point, Comte was obviously refuted by the later development of biology, to say nothing of Lamarck, who had already preceded him. But the fundamental thesis, that science is concerned with the How and not with the Why, has survived Comte up to the present day in many circles. Another example: Man is no longer concerned in the positive stage with whether inanimate and animate beings have or do not have the same or a different nature. This is according to Comte an insoluble question. In the positive stage, man studies the phenomena alone with a view to their laws, the invariable relations of succession and simultaneity. The type of this positive knowledge is this: given these and these conditions, this and this happens. This is not in Comte's view a statement about causes but about correlation: here are conditions, there are the things related, succeeding these conditions. Newton's laws of gravitation do not determine what attraction is in itself, what its cause is, but how attraction works. He says on one occasion that the question of the first causes of all motion, of all life, whatever it may be, or of the final causes, the last causes, is meaningless for us — a phrase which has recurred many times since.


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Table of Contents

Note on the Leo Strauss Transcript Project
Editor’s Introduction: Strauss’s Introduction to Political Philosophy
Editorial Headnote
Part One: The Obstacles to the Study of Political Philosophy Today

A.        PositivismChapter 1: Comte as the Founder of Positivism: The Three Stages of the History of Mankind
Chapter 2: Comte’s Positive Political Philosophy
Chapter 3: Positivism after Comte: Simmel
Chapter 4: Value-Free Social Science: Weber
Chapter 5: Strauss’s Responses to Contemporary Defenses of the Fact-Value Distinction

B.        HistoricismChapter 6: Historicism as the More Serious Challenge to Political Philosophy
Chapter 7: R. G. Collingwood as an Example

Part Two: Why Studying the History of Political Philosophy Is Necessary Today
Chapter 8: On the Difference between the Ancients and the Moderns

Part Three: The Origins of Political Philosophy
Chapter 9: Physis and Nomos


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