On How to Teach Old Books, Burnyeat vs Strauss, Part II
As I noted yesterday, in his famous polemical 1986 NRYB essay, Burnyeat treats Leo Strauss as a charismatic (he uses "inspiring") teacher, who founded a school. He quotes Coser to emphasize the point that Strauss "alone among eminent refugee intellectuals succeeded in attracting a brilliant galaxy of disciples who created an academic cult around his teaching." But Burnyeat notes that inspiration is not sufficient to explain the nature of the school and he implies that there is something about the manner of teaching texts that can help explain not just the devotion of Strauss' students to their teacher, but also to the influence these have on their students (and indirectly on policy).
This is worth reflecting on because even within analytic philosophy we are not immune to the charms (and vices) of school formation (I could list half a dozen in the Harvard, Pitt, Chicago triangle). Here, I focus on the teaching of (historically and culturally distant) texts. So I am leaving aside the teaching of methods and arguments, although in practice all these can blend into each other.
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Burnyeat structures his critique of Strauss' teaching by way of a sharp contrast, which I treat as kind of ideal types in what follows. I have taken courses with Burnyeat (who was a spectacularly exciting seminar leader) and some of Strauss' inspiring students, and their ways of proceeding is, in practice, not so different as the ideal types suggest.
First, let's look at how Burnyeat describes the method of teaching he favors (we will call it 'analytic pedagogy'). He writes:
When other teachers invite their students to explore the origins of modern thought, they encourage criticism as the road to active understanding. Understanding grows through a dialectical interaction between the students and the author they are studying.
Anyone that comes to analytic (history of) philosophy from other (more philological or historicizing) approaches will recognize what Burnyeat is gesturing at. There is a refreshing -- a term I often hear in this context -- lack of distance between student and text, and the students are encouraged not to treat the assigned material as eternal truths or authoritative, but as material to cut their teeth on in analytic pedagogy. Of course, Burnyeat himself is committed to the pedagogical thesis that we learn by way of criticizing what we're reading and discussing in class. And once this is properly structured -- notice the interaction between students and author is implied to go both ways, and so is dialectical -- this is supposed to produce understanding, although it is not entirely clear what the understanding is understanding of (the ancient texts, of the origin of modern thought, of the distance between us and the old texts?).
One way to think about analytic pedagogy is that philosophy students will seek out the arguments they can recognize in the text, and, if necessary, reconstruct them by looking for premises in the text. Often there are suppressed premises that will make an argument valid and these can be found elsewhere in a text. One can then explore to what degree the argument is sound and this may lead to lovely exploration for the reasons behind the premises and to what degree these stand up to scrutiny in light of an author's other comments. Even when Burnyeat's approach encourages what we might sometimes call an uncharitable attitude of 'fault-finding in a text,' with a skilled instructor and inquisitive students initial (and anachronistic) criticism need not be the end of the matter.
Before I move on it is worth noting that Burnyeat frames his way of presenting his favored approach in terms of exploring 'the origins of modern thought.' At first sight, this is a peculiar move by Burnyeat, especially in the context of his polemic with Strauss. Let me make two observations, first, I find it peculiar he claims it because there is no reason to believe that the understanding that is yielded by the method Burnyeat defends should or would lead to better genetic understanding of modern thought. I am not claiming this method would hinder one from doing so (although I suspect it), but the dialectic Burnyeat describes doesn't get you there through engagement with texts unless the instructor has deliberately shaped the syllabus to do so (often by inscribing the syllabus in a narrative of progress or unfolding). Oddly enough, what may feel as independent criticism by the student is really, then, a carefully orchestrated (and predictable) march through history. This can still be riveting to the novice, but otherwise best not repeated.
Second, in the context with the polemic with Strauss, Burnyeat's phrasing is rather revealing (and so structures this post). Because Burnyeat explicitly presupposes that it is understanding modern thought that is the telos of pedagogy. Given the details of his criticism of Strauss, one cannot help but suspect that this enterprise becomes a kibd of vindicatory understanding of modern thought. To be sure, even there the means toward understanding will be critical, but it will be pursued with (what one might call for present purposes) shared 'modern' premises. This very much suggests that in the dialectical pedagogical process Burnyeat defends 'we' who are beneficiaries of progress are in a superior position to the authors studied in a number of (moral and technological) ways.
To be sure, there are ways of construing Burnyeat's phrase 'origins of modern thought' more innocently and without some of the baggage I am attributing to him. Feel free to do so, if you think that's right. But do remember that we're supposed to be dealing with an important contrast (and as, you shall see, is made explicit by Burnyeat). And, in fact, Burnyeat explicitly presents his own "task here" (not to be the polemical vanguard of analytic philosophy, but rather) "to tell readers who are interested in the past, but who do not wish simply to retreat from the present." (emphasis added) So, Burnyeat explicitly sees himself as, in some sense, providing an apologetics for a certain kind of modernity.
Strauss' proposed teaching method (hereafter 'Straussian pedagogy') is said to be constituted by a kind of immersion such that the student ends up (empathetically and intellectually) identifying with the author. I quote Burnyeat's summary:
Strauss asks—or commands—his students to start by accepting that any inclination they may have to disagree with Hobbes (Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides), any opinion contrary to his, is mistaken. They must suspend their own judgment, suspend even “modern thought as such,” until they understand their author “as he understood himself.”
Self-understanding is notoriously difficult and we're especially likely to fail to be aware of our own blind spots, so this will be a fraught enterprise. Before I get to Burnyeat's criticism of this way of doing things it's worth noting that the evidence Burnyeat cites on Strauss' teaching (from one of Strauss' students), doesn't merely require such sympathetic identification with an author, but also the embrace of the idea that what they say is "simply true." (emphasis in Burnyeat's text.) That is, the texts studied are treated as if they are a kind of revelation and in which no textual detail is unworthy of attention. Lurking here, thus, is a form of (or a variant on) the joint study Chavrusa (literally, fellowship) one may find in a Yeshiva. (Strauss was, I believe, never enrolled in a Yeshiva, but he may have encountered the practice when he boarded with a cantor in Marburg.)
Learning to suspend judgment is an important skill, one that guards against some non-trivial epistemic vices, especially common among philo-bros (fill in your favorite example). It is a bit of shame that Burnyeat did not pause to let him and his readers reflect on the significance of this. So, Burnyeat is correct to claim that for Straussian pedagogy, "it would be presumptuous for students to criticize “a wise man” on the basis of their own watered-down twentieth-century thoughts. Let them first acquire the wise man’s own understanding of his wisdom." And all I am pointing out in response is that even if one admires analytic pedagogy, it has down-side risks that the Straussian pedagogy internalizes.
For, there is also no doubt that bracketing -- I use this phenomenological term in part because of Strauss's debts to that tradition --- the superiority of one's own intellectual culture will allow not just a more sympathetic engagement with the text (this is explicitly noted by Burnyeat), but also puts the student in the position to let the text criticize some of the student's (often tacit) commitments (say, about how certain social arrangements naturally are) immanently. (And while this may not be expected at first, it seems more plausible once one has gotten in the habit of treating multiple authors in this way.) This is quite salutary practical wisdom to acquire for educated elite (recall yesterday's post), or to put it more democratically, the public-spirited citizen.
At this point, I should note an important potential confusion in or caused by Burnyeat's argument. He correctly notes that understanding an "author “as he understood himself” is fundamental to Straussian interpretation" and "that it is directed against his chief bugbear, “historicism,” or the belief that old books should be understood according to their historical context." Burnyeat kind of implies that Strauss, thereby, proposes a-historical interpretation of old books, for he quotes Strauss as recommending "listening to the conversation between the great philosophers." This would, by implication, involve Straussian pedagogy in a kind of conceptual confusion because if one wishes to understand an author as she understood herself one needs to have a sense of how she understands or wishes to shape her context (and what that context might be.) In fact, if one goes to the primary text (of several) that Burnyeat cites (On Tyranny, p. 24) Strauss does not advocate an a-historical stance, rather he opposes historicism to what he calls "true historical understanding."*
It should be readily clear why Strauss rejects obtaining an understanding of old books from, as it were, the outside in that is, by appeal, to historical context. For, this is a mechanism to impose conformity on a text by way of assumptions about how a particular age must have or only could have thought. This is especially so because the historicist tends to assume that the past involves cultural unities (as a kind of organic whole.) In addition, the historicist student assumes she has a privileged methodological, asymmetric position relative to the past texts often constituted not just by this historical sense, but also by the progress achieved since.
For, even without being exposed to Dilthey (et al), students often come with some such sense of superiority toward the texts and they are often really surprised to find really smart people in the distant past. One need not be a Straussian or a conservative to appreciate this. In the Dawn of Everything, Graeber& Wengrow attack some such historicism because they, too, want to undercut a kind of self-satisfied eurocentrism and get their readers to appreciate the intelligence of those culturally and historically distant agents they discuss. To be sure, I doubt analytic pedagogy is itself intrinsically wedded to historicism. But by privileging criticism is may fall into similar traps.
Okay, be that as it may, Burnyeat quotes Dannhouser (one of Strauss' students) as claiming that Strauss' pedagogy also involved the maxim that "one ought not even to begin to criticize an author before one had done all one could do to understand him correctly." So, this suggests that the Straussian student does get to criticism but only at a much later stage. So on Straussian pedagogy, sympathetic identification with an author is then necessary, but not sufficient to complete ones understanding.
Interestingly enough, Burnyeat denies that one ever gets to the critical stage in Straussian pedagogy, because "It is all too clear" that completion of the first stage is an "illusory goal" given the constraints of university education ("the end of the term.") Again, it is worth noting that Burnyeat is so eager to criticize that does not pause to reflect on the possible benefits of practice in such incomplete identification--that learning to see the world from a diverging perspective is hard and requires effort and skill, may well be thought a useful democratic insight in a complex, multi-cultural society if not for the gentleman, then, for the citizen! (One can recognize this without embracing a natural aristocracy as the proper end of education.)
As an important aside. I met Burnyeat through Ian Mueller, who was much more of an eclectic than either Burnyeat or Strauss (and also much more willing than Burnyeat to let ancient commentators and differing scholarly traditions teach him something about Plato), actually taught (despite clear focus on discerning and rationally reconstructing arguments) in the manner I have called 'Straussian pedagogy.’ For the students that stayed, the effect was always a skeptical Aporia, but also a real appreciation of the difficulties of any interpretation. (For the details, see Stephen Menn's In Memoriam.)
Even so, Burnyeat worries that in virtue of the never-ending process of sympathetic identification with an author one's critical faculties are atrophied and that one ends up surrendering to the text or the teacher (and, if the latter, so a school is formed). As Burnyeat puts it surrendering the "critical intellect is the price of initiation into the world of Leo Strauss’s ideas." Let's stipulate that Burnyeat gets something right that the Straussian pedagogy risks under-developing certain critical skills.
To put some clothes on this claim: in Strauss' writings one repeatedly is directed to the idea that (to paraphrase one formulation) to philosophy means to ascend from public dogma or opinion to knowledge. But one is rarely shown what such knowledge is or the practice that might constitute it. As Burnyeat puts it, correctly, there is much talk in Straussian writings about the nature of “the philosopher” but no sign of any knowledge, from the inside, of what it is to be actively involved in philosophy. In fact, one would never guess from Strauss' writings that he was a student of Cassirer, Husserl, Heidegger who would have been in a position to advance any of their (ahh) programs. To put this as a serious joke: Strauss voluntarily abandoned his place on the philosophical research frontier, and his school never returned to it (except, perhaps, in the study of certain figures).
Burnyeat also observes this, "Certainly, neither Strauss nor Straussians engage in the active discussion of central questions of philosophy which is characteristic of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and modern philosophy departments. They confine themselves to the exposition of texts, mainly texts of political philosophy—not, for example, Aristotle’s Physics or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason." In so far as they even care about old texts (and most do only in a very mitigated sense), nearly all my friends in analytic philosophy will agree vigorously with Burnyeat here.
But, of course, part of the issue here -- and I am baffled Burnyeat of all people misses this -- is what counts as "central question" or what is first philosophy. If one thinks that 'how should one live?' is central, then political philosophy becomes (at least closely related to) first philosophy and encompasses the rest. While, by contrast, structuring one's education around the so-called 'core' [Logic, Language, Epistemology, and Metaphysics], and to model ethics/meta-ethics on the principles popular in the core, becomes then criminally irresponsible if not to oneself then to society. The recurring inability to even think that responsible speech might be worth thinking about is, thus, symptomatic of the effect of analytic pedagogy.
Finally, is peculiar that Burnyeat thinks that Straussian pedagogy leads, as described, to "initiation into the world of Strauss'" ideas. In fact, in nearly all the courses I attended taught by Straussians, Strauss was never mentioned, and that even was a kind of running gag about such courses. So, except for the Straussians (now quite aged) who studied with Strauss himself, his ideas could only be accessed through his texts. Unsurprisingly, Straussians themselves don't agree on his views and their own project (with East coast, West coast, Claremont approaches, etc.). At best what the class-room teaching does is whet an appetite to read his texts in the manner that he may wished to be understood. But the more likely impact of the Straussian pedagogy is to whet an appetite for more close reading of texts.
I don't mean to suggest that Burnyeat lacks an argument for his initiation claim. But it's important to see that the argument for this does not reside in the details of what I have been calling 'Strausian pedagogy.' Rather it resides in the purported power of a kind of indirect implication. For to get at Straussian content (of Strauss' own views or the views he attributes to the texts he discusses), "much labor is required to disentangle its several elements from his denunciations of modernity and the exegesis of dozens of texts." That is the Straussian hermeneutic (as distinct from Straussian pedagogy) reads texts as incredibly complex puzzles that can only be solved by a kind of capacious reading and multi-dimensional puzzle-solving. This requires certain dispositions most of us (even in the old-text studies niche of the universe) lack. And so the initiation through the hermeneutics selects on a certain set of dispositions and practices.
But we're left with a kind of weird puzzle here: if (and it is a big if) Burnyeat get Strauss' initiation practice right, and so has properly understood Strauss' teachings, how come it fails to work its magic on Burnyeat, who is singularly unpersuaded? (Persuade and its cognates are the key word in Burnyeat's essay.) This suggests that at best Burnyeat has uncovered a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition. One might think that Strauss mistakenly assumed a unity of the virtues thesis -- and given how often we are told about the need to return to the Ancients -- this assumption may seem plausible. But since Strauss is much exercised by the conditions under which philosophical teaching fails (Strauss likes to point at "rash Alcibiades"), and certainly is personally familiar with Heidegger as an exemplary case of a conspicuous lack of such unity, this assumption does not pass the smell test. At this point one may be tempted to claim that only exposure to Straussian pedagogy and exposure to Straussian hermeneutics is jointly sufficient to breed Straussians. But this can't be right because, as intended, and in fact, this is not so. (Even Burnyeat notes this because it's only a "few" who fall for it.) I leave it here, but will suggest -- I don't know where this inspiration comes from! -- that the nature of the "power of persuasion" in the Republic is a key to make progress on this very question.
*This is p. 25 in The University of Chicago (2009) edition
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