Pretty much the most interesting blog on the Internet.— Prof. Steven Landsburg

Once you get past the title, and the subtitle, and the equations, and the foreign quotes, and the computer code, and the various hapax legomena, a solid 50% English content!—The Proprietor

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Political Correctness and Hyper-Straussianism

Leo Strauss

There is a Straussian school of textual interpretation named after its founder, Leo Strauss, and which forms part of a larger framework of Straussianism.

At the core of Straussian interpretation is the insight, often forgotten by modern readers, that past thinkers, like Socrates, often lived under conditions which would have rendered some conclusions dangerous to state. The ruler or the religious establishment may take offense to some conclusions and punish the thinker should he openly state them, as indeed was the cause of Socrates' death.

The modern reader, however, lives in an environment where consequences for politically incorrect conclusions tend to be less severe, generally extending only public censure or loss of position, rather than death. Moreover, what is politically incorrect varies widely from time to time and place to place. Failing to appreciate the consequences which follow from this will often lead the modern reader to gravely misunderstand the author's true beliefs and intentions.

How do thinkers deal with the problem of discovering a politically incorrect truth? Some may choose silence or may confide only into trusted friends. In that case, the thinkers' conclusion will not reach their posterity (i.e., us). Others may choose pseudonymity. Yet others, will blankly lie and repeat the politically correct platitudes. Some may speak the truth and suffer the consequences, as Socrates eventually did. Finally, some may resort to the Straussian method of esoteric writing.

Esoteric writing permits several interpretations. One interpretation, the exoteric interpretation, accepts the plain meaning of the stated words. Another, the esoteric interpretation, relies on inference from the stated words and may directly contradict the exoteric interpretation. The purpose of esoteric writing is to conceal the politically incorrect conclusion from the stupid policeman and censor who accept the politically correct exoteric reading as the only one, while still clearly communicating this conclusion esoterically to the clever fellow thinker.

Stated this way it is clear that Straussian interpretation is both interesting and useful to the modern reader. In some cases, it seems the Straussian interpretation is the best reading of a text.

For example, consider a long and complex argument rendered by the author. As the argument progresses, the intelligent reader follows along and can anticipate the conclusion to which the argument points. But then, rather than stating the conclusion, the author just stops and continues on another different subject. Or, even more startlingly, the author states a conclusion which is the direct negation of the conclusion the intelligent reader expects, rendering the argument nonsensical.Such an occurrence bear a more than passing resemblance to a type of literature recently discussed here.

If one knew that the anticipated conclusion was a dangerous one to state at the author's time and place, then the esoteric reading may be the best. The author is neither a fool nor a knave. He means the intelligent reader to make the anticipated conclusion. However, to protect his safety, the author omits or negates this conclusion to fool less intelligent, but more dangerous, contemporaries.Should there be any censors or policemen among the readers, the author wishes to strongly reassure them that absolutely no statement in this blog should be read in a Straussian manner. In particular, this footnote should not be so read.

So far so good. There is a large literature—of which this author has barely scratched the surface—fruitfully applying this insight to the interpretation of many classic texts. But recently one has across examples of what might called Hyperstraussianism—the insistence that such a Straussian reading is not just a possibility well worth considering in some cases, but that practically every word by a dead, great thinker must be interpreted in this way and that any other reading is hopelessly naive.

Practitioners of Hyperstraussianism adopt the premise that Socrates (or whoever their subject may be) is infallible and all-knowing.One imagines that such practitioners also embrace the simple syllogism that 1. Socrates never errs. 2. All men are fallible. Therefore, 3. Socrates was not a man. Heavens protect us should this dangerous syllogism ever fall into the hands of a Women's Studies professor. So if there is any subject on which the Hyperstraussian has formed any (quite-possibly, correct) conclusion, but finds that Socrates was either silent on it or directly stated the opposite, the Hyperstraussian considers this not counter-evidence, but proof that Socrates in fact expressly agreed with him and legibly wrote the Hyperstraussian's argument between the lines.

Such ghost-writing for the long-dead is unwarranted.