Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts

Previously, I wrote about Strauss’s method of “reading between the lines.” After searching around for a link to a page that would explain this idea, I found that there were very few places on the internet where it is actually explained. To rectify this problem, I’d highly recommend reading Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. It is a magnificent book.

But if you don’t have time to read it, I’d like to provide a quick précis of the idea. Essentially, Strauss explains that, oftentimes in history, writers are under certain constraints while writing. This may take a cultural form, as in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, written under the constraints of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, or a legal form, as Spinoza felt in his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology Theologico-Politcal Treatise (apparently under threat of persecution by the Church). Whatever constraints an author may be under, they often are led to “hide” their “true” teaching behind layers of contradiction, ambiguity, obfuscation, or misleading emphasis. Thus, it is up to the reader in a sense to familiarize herself with this tendency and dive into a study of the historical, personal, linguistic, formal and cultural details related to a work.

Strauss breaks out two levels of a book that can be analyzed, the exoteric and the esoteric. This leads us to Strauss’s hermeneutic approach to literature, and what were, for me, the reason for reading the book in the first place. Tools like these are extremely important for any student of the humanities, particularly for the student of politics.

The exoteric is the level of the obvious, the level that at which most of us engage when we watch the average action/adventure/comedy film, read the news or an entertaining listicle on the internet. It’s for those moments when all we want is a good, entertaining story or “just the facts.” As Strauss points out, it’s also the level that Spinoza and many other Enlightenment thinkers wanted to popularize in order for the masses to advance into the daylight of widely-known scientific knowledge. Strauss calls this intelligible as opposed to hieroglyphic writing. Spinoza seems to want to make all writing intelligible so that everyone who cares to read any book can immediately (i.e., without mediation) understand it. According to Strauss, Spinoza wanted to end the practice of hieroglyphic writing to effect this change, even to the point of rejecting the entire tradition of political philosophy in the Tractatus Politicus.

However, when it comes to reading old books, including the work of Spinoza himself, this is only half the picture. Strauss spends a substantial portion of Persecution showing how Spinoza uses hieroglyphic techniques to mask what he really wants to say. And, in fact, Strauss argues that the real aim of the Theologico-Political Treatise was to articulate the relation between reason and revelation while providing practical suggestions for how the two should inform the political (p. 200).

Thus we are left wondering, is intelligible writing really even possible? Thinkers like Derrida and Gadamer hold that we are always involved in language in such a way that access to a sense of what the author meant or how he engaged with his social, intellectual and political milieu is not even possible. Strauss, on the other hand, holds that access of this kind is possible and that it in fact opens up a whole new level of understanding (esoteric) for the reader willing to do this type of intellectual heavy lifting.

This opens up the paradox for the writer trying to do this type of analysis who comes across writers like Spinoza who assert the possibility of intelligible, exoteric writing. In Strauss’s words,

“Historical understanding, the revitalization of earlier ways of thinking was originally meant as a corrective for the specific shortcomings of the modern mind. This impulse was however vitiated from the outset by the belief which accompanied it, that modern thought… was superior to the thought of the past. Thus, what was primarily intended as a corrective for the modern mind, was easily perverted into a confirmation of the dogma of the superiority of modern thought to all earlier thought. Historical understanding lost its liberating force by becoming historicism… (p. 158)

There was a meeting between Gadamer and Derrida on this point. I need to read it to get a better sense for how these thinkers understand this problem.

From Parmenides to Philebus: It’s a Process

Plato’s Parmenides is widely considered the most enigmatic of the Platonic dialogues, and rightly so. I think that one would do well to approach this dialogue by “reading between the lines” in the Straussian sense. In the dialogue, we encounter a young Socrates engaging with Zeno, at the time already in middle age, and Parmenides, a well-established master of the philosophical art. This seems to suggest, by form alone, that Socrates was not yet mature enough to take on the magisterial Parmenides.

I’d like to focus on the second part, in which Parmenides uses an idiosyncratic method to determine the nature of the One (alternatively, the Idea of Unity). This method consists in considering the consequences if the one is asserted to possess various accidents (being, not-being, motion, non-motion, becoming, perishing…).

While many scholars disagree whether the argument here is ultimately coherent, there is no doubt that it is difficult to follow and yields no obvious conclusions. If we again apply Strauss’s method as suggested, it seems that this dialogue is meant to demonstrate the difficulties in positing Platonic forms. One gets the sense that the reader is meant to thoughtfully consider all the associated problems with the forms and, in the process become better at defending them. It is, like so many of the dialogues, aporetic.

Luckily for us, Parmenides was not Plato’s only statement on the subject. We must consider the dialectic method laid out by Socrates in The Republic (34b3–c5) and, more importantly in Philebus. Consider Socrates’ words at 15c:

We say that one and many are identified by reason, and always, both now and in the past, circulate everywhere in every thought that is uttered. This is no new thing and will never cease; it is, in my opinion, a quality within us which will never die or grow old, and which belongs to reason itself as such. 

Later on, Socrates describes the process of differentiation that must take place in order for us to get a sense of the universal:

…we must always assume that there is in every case one idea of everything and must look for it—for we shall find that it is there—and if we get a grasp of this, we must look next for two, if there be two, and if not, for three or some other number; and again we must treat each of those units in the same way, until we can see not only that the original unit is one and many and infinite, but just how many it is. And we must not apply the idea of infinite to plurality until we have a view of its whole number [16e] between infinity and one; then, and not before, we may let each unit of everything pass on unhindered into infinity.”

Gadamer provides some insight into this process in his masterful The Idea of the Good in Platonic – Aristotelian Philosophy. It involves “…the division of a one into a determinate manifold that is itself eidetic-ideal.” (p. 119) Think here of listening to a symphony play a chord and then breaking out all the different notes played by all the different instruments. Further,

“… the art of differentiating only reaches its goal when one finds no more specifiable units- tones, phonemes, [etc.]… Differentiation takes place here within the noetic one, and it is the principle of number that the Philebus introduces in this context as the truly illuminating Promethean fire. Here, the Pythagorean heritage, the identification of being with number is explicated on the new level of noetic being” (p. 120, emphasis added).

This “noetic being,” a new concept of the forms which in other dialogues is asserted to subsist independently of individual objects, is one mode of being as pointed out in the last post. Here, Plato is in agreement with Aristotle. We must also note, that contrary to what we found in Parmenides, the manifold is not infinite in this case.

But most importantly, the key insight has been revealed: the dialectic of differentiation/synthesis is “… a world of signs and indices that directs us to the ideal.” (p. 120) Here Gadamer touches on the dialectically structured meaning, greater than the concrete whole, which one must seek in order to make sense of the problem of universals. Here we have a much better picture of how one engages in this dialectic than that given in The Republic. There is a growth into these kinds of truths that ought to take place. To be sure, dialectic is not constitutive of these truths, rather, it is our mode of access to them.

This growth is an ongoing process, in which the universal is at once unified in the logos of sound dialectical thought and manifold in the decisions we make in the moment of choice.

…the ideal of a life harmonized rightly, is – precisely as a result of dialogue – a logos, which directs us to an ergon (deed), to choosing what is right in the moment of choice. (p. 121)

It’s a process.

“Is there anything apart from the concrete whole?”

In the preliminaries of any wrestling match, there is a lot of “dancing around” the ring, when each participant noncommittally pokes around trying to get a feel for his opponent. I felt like this in trying to come up with a focused starting point for this blog, as you can see in the About page. The present circumstances require me to continue formulating questions, a process which could take quite a while. But progress often comes in knowing which questions to ask.

In Chapter 4 of Book III of the Metaphysics, Aristotle asks the question which should dog us today like it did the philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Is there anything apart from the concrete whole?” Obviously, for Aristotle, the answer is yes – in this context, he’s arguing in favor of the idea of universals which allow us to form knowledge of the quiddity (“whatness”) of a thing that we are perceiving.

Yet it is a long road from the “this” to the “what.” That is to say, the process that occurs between our sense perception of an object and our identification of it in the intellect is a difficult one to nail down. Exploration of this subject will form one of the areas of inquiry for this blog. What are these universals?

Aristotle goes on to argue in Book VII of the same work that these universals are not substances which subsist of themselves as Plato thought (although, as Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, Plato in the Philebus seems to stray from this doctrine). As St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his commentary on the Metaphysics, “[It is not]… necessary that a thing should have the same mode of being in reality that it has when understood by the intellect of a knower.” This is key: these “universals” may have an altogether different mode of being. What, then, is the nature of this mode of being?

These questions can become that much more important when we start to ask the vaunted Socratic questions: What is justice? What is virtue? What is the Good? It is hard to argue that these “transcendentals” don’t exist, because these types of universals, that is, ones that are abstracted up to these more abstract manifestations, move us. They can become in some sense our reason for doing things. Even unto death, as has been amply demonstrated in myriad historical situations.

I seriously doubt this guy was thinking about relative cultural values at this particular moment in his life.

Are these universals nothing more than cultural beliefs as philosophers like Heidegger and seemingly every modern sociologist seem to think? Or do they point to eternal truths that we are meant to discover as human beings? If eternal truths do exist apart from the concrete whole, it will be of paramount importance to delineate which types are of the eternal variety.