Reason and Revelation

"Reason and Revelation," Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Talk given on April 27, 1948, at Hartford Theological Seminary.


Today, we do not have a direct access to what philosophy originally meant. Our concept of philosophy is derived from modern philosophy, i.e. a derivative form of philosophy. Modern philosophy did not start from a reactivation of the original motivation of philosophy, but it took over the idea of philosophy as an inheritance. What is being done by a better type of historians of philosophy to-day, is nothing other than the attempt to make good for a sin of omission perpetrated by the founders of modern philosophy. These historians try to transform a mere inheritance into a living force. Hitherto, this historical work has had little effect on the general notion of philosophy which is still derived from modern philosophy. Accordingly, it is frequently assumed, e.g., that philosophy is essentially a system; it is forgotten that if this were so, philosophy as love of wisdom, I or quest for wisdom, or quest  for the truth, were superfluous. Philosophy was originally not systematic in any sense. The idea of system presupposes, as Hegel has seen, that the philosophizing individual finds “the abstract form,” i.e. a context of concepts, “ready made.” But philosophy in its original form consists in ascending to the abstract form, or to conceptual clarity, or in acquiring concepts. Or, to turn to a more simple example, according to the view of philosophy which to-day is generally accepted, a distinction has to be made between philosophy and science. This distinction, wholly unknown to philosophy until the later part of the 18th century, amounts, for all practical purposes, to the admission of an unscientific philosophy and of an unphilosophic science. Of these two pursuits, science enjoys naturally the highest prestige. For who can have anything but contempt for an unscientific philosophy, a thing as unworthy of esteem as justice not backed by the will to fight for justice. This unphilosophic science does no longer aim at what philosophy originally aimed, viz. at the final account of the whole. Science conceives of itself as progressive, i.e. as being the outcome of a progress of human thought beyond all earlier human thought and as being capable of still further progress in the future. There is an appalling disproportion between the exactness of science and the self-consciousness of science as essentially progressive as long as science is not accompanied by the effort, at least aspiring to exactness, to prove the fact of progress, to understand the conditions of progress and thus to guarantee the possibility of still further progress in the future. 1.e.: modern science is necessarily accompanied by the history of science or the history of human thought. That history now takes actually, if silently, the place formerly occupied by philosophy. If the history of human thought is studied in the spirit of science, one arrives at the conclusion that all human thought is historically conditioned or historically determined, or that the attempt to liberate one’s mind from all prejudices or from all historical determination is fantastic. Once this has become a settled conviction constantly reinforced by an ever increasing number of new observations, a final account of the whole – an account which as such would be beyond historical determination – appears to be impossible for reasons which can be made clear to every child. Thereafter, and we are living in this Thereafter, there exists no longer a direct access to philosophy in its original meaning as quest for the true and final account of the whole. Once this state has been reached, the original meaning of philosophy, the very idea of philosophy, is accessible only through recollection of what philosophy meant in the past, i.e. through history of philosophy.

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