Interview: Steven Smith, Part I

Interview: Steven Smith, Part I

Ryan Frant

Strauss, Skepticism, and Patriotism

Professor Steven Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University. His scholarship has focused on the work of, among others, Leo Strauss, Baruch Spinoza, and Isaiah Berlin. His most recent book is Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press, 2021).

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. The second of our interviews with Professor Smith, focusing on his book Reclaiming Patriotism can be found here.

Ryan Frant: Many people are unaware of Leo Strauss, and among those who know him, he is widely misunderstood. Your work offers an interesting reading of Strauss that frames him as a skeptic in line with intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin. Could you explain this interpretation of Strauss?

Steven Smith: Sure, although that’s jumping in at the deep end a bit. But let me be brief. Strauss is usually understood as a defender of some kind of moral absolutism. In his famous book Natural Right and History, he was an opponent of what he called historicism, or what we would call moral relativism today.[1] He was generally regarded as saying that both politics and morality need some foundation in natural law to ground our ethical and political beliefs.

For various reasons I saw that as a very simplistic reading of Strauss. As frequently as Strauss speaks of looking for some kind of foundationalism, he just as frequently emphasizes the limitations of human knowledge. Because of this epistemic defect, the greatest problems will remain unsolvable, and in a particularly vivid expression of that—although admittedly it is only said once in his collected writing—he says that political philosophy must remain skeptical, or as he uses the term, zetetic. What does he mean by that? He goes on to say that in political philosophy there are permanent problems that philosophers examine over the centuries, but there are no settled answers to these problems. And he says to the degree that someone believes that they have settled these questions, they cease to be a philosopher any longer. They become ideologists. On the basis of that statement and others like it in Strauss’s work, I came to believe that Strauss is far more of a skeptical thinker than he is often presented as being.

Ryan Frant: You touched on an important distinction throughout Strauss’s work between natural right and history, but of course the book also deals with the issue of positivism.[2] Indeed, Strauss is highly critical of the German positivist movement. Could you explain what exactly Strauss has a problem with in terms of the quantification of social science that we’ve seen in the 20th century?

Steven Smith: Absolutely. The core of Strauss’s critique of positivism is not so much the quantification of social or political science—although that would be an offshoot of it—but the philosophic core of positivism that was the fact-value distinction. That distinction has a long history in political theory: Hume gives a variation of it, but in terms of social science, the most famous and powerful advocate of the fact-value distinction was Max Weber, the great German sociologist of the early 20th century. He was a dominant figure, not only of Strauss’s youth, but of the world of American social science when Strauss entered the University of Chicago in the 1950’s. That meant that social science could study facts, causal relations, and values insofar as values are simply part of any political reality; but the social scientist him- or herself had to remain neutral.

There was a cloak of neutrality that had to be framed around social science. In other words, social scientists, unlike Plato’s or Hegel’s idea about the just and the good, could not use that language because it stood outside the realm of facts and values. For Strauss, the idea of value neutrality had two very strong and dangerous consequences. The first, he thought, was that—and you have to remember Strauss was himself a refugee from Nazi Germany—it disarmed us from addressing the dangers of totalitarian governments. If the social scientist cannot say that one system is better than another except as an expression of some kind of subjective value, you have seriously disarmed liberalism or democracy in its struggle with illiberal and nondemocratic systems.

That’s a strong and important reason, but Strauss had a second and in many ways far more controversial critique of positivism. He believed that by remaining neutral to values, the positivist was committed therefore to the recognition that all values were equal. The idea that you cannot say whether one value is better than another opened the door to a kind of nihilism. The core of Strauss’s critique of positivism and social science turned on the problems of the fact-value distinction and how it can be dangerous to the defense of liberal and democratic governance.

Ryan Frant: In the same vein, Strauss criticized the tendency of political theory in the 20th century to depoliticize the problems of political philosophy. This tendency was represented, for instance, by the early work of John Rawls.[3] Do you think this is a fair criticism of normative theory in the 20th century?

Steven Smith: That’s a great question. Let me put it this way. There were two tendencies in modern political philosophy—and they may well very be related in some way—that Strauss opposed. The first was what we have been talking about, namely this positivist tendency to separate facts and values, which leads to the quantification of political science. According to this theory, all we can know is what we can quantify and put in terms of statistical data analysis. That is one tendency that Strauss criticizes.

However, there is a flipside to that which Strauss was equally opposed to related to how Rawls conducted political philosophy. Although Rawls came after Strauss, Rawls represents a tendency that Strauss was equally uncomfortable with, and that is the tendency towards political moralism. The source of this tendency goes back to Immanuel Kant, who wrote in the appendix to Perpetual Peace, that politics must bend its knee to morality.[4] Rawls took this view to argue that we should first construct an ideal theory of justice—or in the case of someone like Ronald Dworkin, it would be the ideal theory of rights—and then we should deduce what kinds of political arrangements best support these theories.[5]

This is a kind of top-down moralism which Strauss equally opposed. Strauss believed that, and here I am very much in agreement with him, in a kind of Aristotelian view of politics; he regarded politics as a kind of autonomous sphere with its own internal criteria of rationality, of ethics. This view of politics is different from both the kind of positivist view that values are subjective and the Kantian legislative approach where morality will simply determine for us what kinds of political arrangements are acceptable.

He wanted to look at politics in terms of regimes and regime-types, a familiar term he took from Aristotle and ancient political philosophy. His approach was both different from that of modern social science as well as from the revival of political philosophy beginning with Rawls, which sees political philosophy just as some branch of applied ethics. Strauss rejected both of those alternatives, and to some degree tried to create an alternative kind of political science.

Ryan Frant: So far we have talked about how Strauss thought about political society, but I would like to ask you a couple of questions about the philosopher’s role within political society because Strauss has some interesting arguments about that.

Steven Smith: Absolutely.

Ryan Frant: Is it possible for the philosopher to be a public intellectual? In other words, is Strauss’s theory of the incommensurability of the city and the philosopher outdated?

Steven Smith: Great topic. Here’s a moment I think where Strauss speaks in different ways, and it depends on the occasion and who he is speaking to. There is a debate with his French contemporary Alexandre Kojève where Strauss makes a very strong case for the absolute independence of the philosopher from political life.[6] He would reject the idea that the philosopher should become some kind of public intellectual—that is a kind of corruption of philosophy. Philosophy and society have different vocabularies, and they should remain separate—both for the good of philosophy as well as the good of society.

But of course we know that independence cannot be completely maintained. The most vivid example of that, and Strauss knew very well, was the seventh book of the Republic, where the philosopher goes into the cave. So by definition philosophy and the city have some kind of connection. Philosophy cannot simply be independent of the city. But Strauss, unlike most of his contemporaries, was skeptical about this connection. Traditionally, there is a belief from the modern enlightenment that politics needs to be reformed by philosophy, that it could bring progressive reforms, that it could end superstition, or that it could banish cruelty. Strauss was more skeptical about the relation between philosophy and politics, and he saw in Socrates to a considerable extent that philosophy could erode the basic beliefs of its citizens or its beliefs in the constitution that holds society together. Philosophy as a fundamentally skeptical activity therefore had a corrupting influence on society.

The question, then, for Strauss was always how to manage this tension between philosophy and the city. One could say that the philosopher will just tend his garden—that is approximately what the Epicureans argued—but that never exactly works. Philosophy is connected to the city and concerned with politics in the city, so how do you negotiate between the demands of the philosopher and the city in a way that is both good for philosophy and the city.

That remains a very fruitful tension in Strauss’s thought. He never gave a single answer on how to fix it, partly because the answer depends on historical and political circumstances. That is, the relationship between philosophy and the city will be very different in a liberal world like ours where there is considerable freedom of speech compared to an authoritarian world where free speech is banished compared to a religious society where there are formal or informal restrictions on how far free inquiry can extend—it will differ from time to time and place to place. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all model, Strauss was interested in how this relation between the philosopher and the city is understood and how it was explored by the great thinkers in the various times they inhabited.

Ryan Frant: Certainly, one reason I find this topic interesting is because even though Strauss is contrasted with certain pragmatist thinkers like John Dewey, both the pragmatists and Strauss resist grand metaphysical narratives and emphasize skepticism as a key philosophical value. Yet as you know, that skepticism motivated someone like John Dewey to support the idea of the public philosopher, while Strauss drew the opposite conclusion.

Steven Smith: In many ways Strauss’s view of the philosopher has been baffling to me.

Ryan Frant: In what way?

Steven Smith: The philosopher in the way that Strauss often uses that term is unusual. Maybe this was a German thing—although I do not like to historicize it in that way—but why emphasize this idea of the philosopher. It has a kind of talismanic significance to it. We don’t speak of the historian, the novelist, but when you think of people who philosophize, I don’t have any problems calling them philosophers, but Strauss always used that term in a very noble meaning,

Ryan Frant: So let me pull in a different idea. Maybe Strauss is not just referring to the noun the philosopher. Maybe he is invoking the broader concept of the way of life that comes with being a philosopher. If he is using the philosopher in that sense, that would make sense with other themes Strauss discusses, such as reason vs. revelation, that challenge that way of life.

Steven Smith: That’s certainly true, and I’m glad you mentioned that point because it’s a very important one for Strauss. The idea of philosophy was not for him simply an academic discipline. But it was a way of life in the original sense of that term. Perhaps philosophy is not just coming up with a body of propositions, but rather is a kind of spiritual exercise. For Strauss the model of this sentiment was always Socrates—the gadfly, the conversationalist, the inquirer. That goes back again to the skeptical or zetetic character of philosophy as a way of life. I think Strauss was less interested in systems than he was in people posing questions. He really did not like philosophy as a systematic enterprise. He insisted when reading Plato that we need to read each dialogue autonomously because every dialogue is directed to certain people. Therefore, philosophy has a particular audience, and the idea that there is a unified Platonic philosophy as a whole is something he pushed back on.

Philosophy is something very personal, and there remained in Strauss—and I think this might have something to do with kind of the existentialism of the era in which he grew up—a commitment that philosophy has a highly personal dimension to it.

Ryan Frant: To bring in a related idea, many of the writers that influenced Strauss—Spinoza, Maimonides—wrote about the conflict between reason and revelation, also called theological-political problem. Is it a problem that philosophy and the way of life that comes with it cannot perfectly counter this claim to revelation?

Steven Smith: Excellent question, and a very difficult one to answer because Strauss did say from time to time that the theological-political problem was the central theme of his work from the beginning. Sometimes he puts this problem in terms of Jerusalem and Athens—the city of revelation and the city of reason. These represent the two great alternatives facing human beings. Strauss was a dualistic thinker; he liked to think in terms of oppositions—ancients and moderns, reason and revelation, esoteric and exoteric. There's always a dualist thinking to him, and as someone whose first book was on Spinoza—a great book, a pioneering book—Strauss used Spinoza to help him review this question [7].

Spinoza was maybe the greatest rationalist in the history of philosophy, he thought that nothing existed or could exist outside the scope of human reason. It is an extraordinary picture of the human mind, that we are capable with human reason unaided by anything else to achieve a total understanding of nature. No more mysteries. There still may be, but they will be resolved over time. There was a faith in reason to solve every problem. Strauss quotes a famous 18th century mathematician who said something to the extent that if there is a problem, we will solve it.

And Strauss came to the view of what philosophers call the principle of sufficient reason—that reason is sufficient to solve all problems. But he also came to see that the principle of sufficient reason stood on a kind of faith—a faith in reason. It was actually not his own original insight; it was actually posed by 18th century German philosopher Jacobi, who was the subject of Strauss’s dissertation. [8] Jacobi thought that reason cannot justify itself; it ultimately rests on something reason cannot explain. Although Jacobi was not specifically a theological thinker, Jacobi’s thoughts led Strauss to the view that reason could not completely refute the biblical claim to revelation. And if anything stands outside the power of reason, it’s the idea of revelation.

Strauss became attuned through his investigation of Spinoza to the limits of reason. That’s why this debate—and he saw it as a perennial debate between Jerusalem and Athens—was the permanent theme of Western philosophy. That is why Strauss felt the need to give this problem the centrality it once had in philosophy but was in danger of being lost.

Ryan Frant: Your upcoming book deals with the theme of patriotism, and in many ways, I see your book as a Straussian book because the debate in that book mirrors the natural right versus history debate. Bearing that in mind, in what way should we be patriotic about our country?

Steven Smith: I’m glad you caught that. Probably most readers won’t, but since you put it that way, one of things I wanted to do in setting up the issue that way is to say that the American experience has always been some of both. It is based both upon this Puritan vision of a city on a hill—an exceptional nation—but there has been a strong progressive tendency in American thought and politics to see our beginnings as in need of reform and improvement.

I think American patriotism is unique in its need to hold both of those strands together. There is a kind of Straussian move prominent in many Straussians to think that what I call progressivism—which they usually associate philosophically with John Dewey and politically with Woodrow Wilson—is some kind of deformation of America. And I want to argue that this is not the case. It is not that we need to regain some special privileged moment of beginnings when things were pristine and perfect; rather, America has always been a tension between these diverse strands of our thought and experience.

So I am glad you pointed that out. This isn’t something that comes out of my book, but Strauss did not call his book natural right or history, he called his book natural right and history. We need to hold both strands of that experience together. One of the problems of not doing that is that what we find people saying—and this is increasingly the case—“oh progressives, they’re the other people, they’re the ones who are corrupting America,” or we want to say “oh originalists, they're the ones who are holding us back.” American patriotism is not a matter of identifying enemies. It is trying to take what is best in our experience and show how that can be worthy of our loyalty.

Ryan Frant: Just to clarify, your view would be something along the lines of American exceptionalism but watered down to be self-aware of our place in history.

Steven Smith: I would not call it watered down, but I would say that one of the things that characterizes American exceptionalism is that America is…I’ll call it exceptional…the only country where who we are, what we are, and what we stand for remains a continual topic. To be an American is to be constantly engaged with the question about what it is to be an American. And it seems to me, maybe to go back to our earlier discussion, it is the openness—you could even call it skepticism—to the question of who we are and what we are that is an important element of American exceptionalism and American patriotism.

Ryan Frant: Now you know why I started with that skepticism question. [Laughs.]

This is Athwart’s first of two interviews with Professor Smith. The second will explore in greater detail the themes and arguments of his recent book and will appear later this month.

  1. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, Chapter 2. ↩︎

  2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, Chapter 1. ↩︎

  3. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice and “Justice as Fairness.” ↩︎

  4. Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf: “Thus true politics can never take a step without rendering homage to morality. Though politics by itself is a difficult art, its union with morality is no art at all, for this union cuts the knot which politics could not untie when they were in conflict. The rights of men must be held sacred, however much sacrifice it may cost the ruling power. One cannot compromise here and seek the middle course of a pragmatic conditional law between the morally right and the expedient. All politics must bend its knee before the right. But by this it can hope slowly to reach the stage where it will shine with an immortal glory.” ↩︎

  5. See Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously. ↩︎

  6. Leo Strauss, On Tyranny (including the Strauss Kojève correspondence). ↩︎

  7. Leo Strauss, Die Religionskritik Spinozas als Grundlage seiner Bibelwissenschaft: Untersuchungen zu Spinozas Theologisch-politischen Traktat [Spinoza’s Critique of Religion]. ↩︎

Ryan Frant is a student at Brown University.