Strauss, scientism and history
An exploration into the gaps of my education
In a past life, I studied history at university. I went to a not-that-great university with a not-that-great History program. I considered myself to be a reasonably well-read undergrad, but there is a severe lack of pressure on undergrads to do this though. You can get by and get your degree without engaging much more than with the course materials. I’d be interested in seeing a comparison of required readings in university courses today compared to fifty years ago. Classes are measured by universities by how well students enjoyed them (student evaluations), and my guess is that this selects for less and less rigourous courses.
This is in contrast to the path too becoming a real academic: in the humanities this requires extensive reading of the field. I was warned that part of preparation for your dissertation defense, for the masters and PhD programs, is reading and being able to understand the required list of reading, somewhere in the hundreds of monographs and journal articles. This all makes sense: becoming an academic means that you’re expected to be pushing the boundaries of the field. If you aren’t already at the frontier, how can you be pushing it further out?
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Undergrads don’t have the same expectations. They aren’t really expected to learn the field all that well or to produce anything original. Professors are happy if you cobble together a few secondary sources and produce an argument, even if its been refuted elsewhere1. Even better is if you understand the broad strokes of the field better than the lay person. For example, if you understand that the American Civil War was about slavery, its a win:
With that context in mind, I have been trying to better acquaint myself with what I’ve missed, since I took the non-grad school path. I don’t know how I’ve come this far, especially after studying history, and have never encountered Strauss before. I read Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing in the last few weeks. The “art of writing” is that thinkers hide meanings in their texts to avoid persecution for heterodox ideas. So, to truly understand something you need to read between the lines. One of the example Strauss gives is of Abu Nasr Al-Farabi putting his own words in Plato’s mouth in some of his commentaries. He would state the orthodox line of thought, then explain “Plato’s” theories. By stating “Plato’s” heterodox position, Al-Farabi was able to write his own beliefs with just enough plausible deniability.
You don’t need to look to the past for examples of this though. Straussian double meanings are actually pretty common now. That’s what dog whistling is, isn’t it? We intuitively know (or should know!) that we can’t trust anything a politician says, but often they’re speaking in code. One exoteric meaning is for the general public and one esoteric meaning is for their followers.
Strauss’ critique of historians is that they are concerned with exactness. Based on literal, exact meanings of a text, what can the historian prove about the past, or about what a particular thinker meant? Esoteric meanings are by definition hidden, and therefore can’t be proven, so they are discarded either on purpose or by accident.
This is essentially the same argument Hayek makes about economics:
We know: of course, with regard to the market and similar social structures, a great many facts which we cannot measure and on which indeed we have only some very imprecise and general information. And because the effects of these facts in any particular instance cannot be confirmed by quantitative evidence, they are simply disregarded by those sworn to admit only what they regard as scientific evidence: they thereupon happily proceed on the fiction that the factors which they can measure are the only ones that are relevant.
The correlation between aggregate demand and total employment, for instance, may only be approximate, but as it is the only one on which we have quantitative data, it is accepted as the only causal connection that counts. On this standard there may thus well exist better “scientific” evidence for a false theory, which will be accepted because it is more “scientific”, than for a valid explanation, which is rejected because there is no sufficient quantitative evidence for it. - Source 2
The implications of this are huge. Even if Strauss is wrong about particular writers, how can we ever think about history without thinking about the esoteric? The historian might look at Al-Farabi and say that he’s bad at understanding Plato, or he was working off bad translations, etc. History is full of open secrets though, which cannot be proven based on texts. If we only concern ourselves with what we can prove, there is a lot that is lost. For example, if you were to read official accounts from the Royal Navy, you would probably never get the impression that women served on many ships:
Other women, disguised as men, are also known to have entered the Royal Navy, and to have served for some considerable time without detection. Much has been written about them, and while some of these stories are likely to be folk myths, there are a number of attested cases in which the women involved became minor celebrities. - Source
Even that quote is missing the mark though, with the “without detection”. Were the women really not that detected, or did the officers look the other way? We can never know, but we can get closer to the truth.
More troubling for me though is the dark matter of historical writings: We’ve already identified two levels of meaning, the explicit and the hidden. What about the areas of thought left unexplored, left unsaid? Could there be areas that philosophers refused to even explore? Does this mean that persecution has been a drag on civilization, on growth? We stand on the shoulders of giants, but it’s more like we’re standing on their hunched over backs, since they were limited in what they were willing to say out loud and put down on paper. Each generation is able to access the Overton window that the previous generation was willing to leave to them, not the frontier that they actually reached.
Another level of this is that scientists and philosophers moderate what they write based on not wanting to look stupid, even if some of the crazy ideas end up being right. I wonder why it seems that every modern field of research is based on something that someone in the 18th century was working on. I picked up a book on complexity economics recently, and the basis of thought is Adam Smith. Surely others have thought about this since Smith? I think this is a combination of that 18th century thinkers had less formalized “fields” to be working in, and thus had wider range to be radical without standing out. I’m working on a longer piece about this though as well.
As a final aside, this is relevant today with cancel culture and wokeness. I have not formalized a clear picture on the implications of this. This article from a few days about the American Historian Association and some twitter controversy seems pretty relevant.
This is actually a good thing though. I think a limit on creativity in general is the learned individual’s expectations. Success often comes from people who don’t know any better about not exploring something. Letting undergraduates muddle their way through the forest instead of well-trodden paths is a good thing. I have a feeling though that this is unintentional. This will be expanded at some point into an article.
Hayek is another writer I put in the same boat as Strauss. How could I have gone through dozens of university classes without ever encountering Hayek?