Are You Open to the Whole or Aren't You?

— Robert Light posts a long passage from Strauss in the comments to the below post on natural law. I believe Light takes Strauss to be saying something especially relevant, important, or true here. But I find the passage characteristic Strauss. There is very little argumentation. It is more a kind of poetico-philosophical rhapsodizing. Key claims are asserted and then left wholly undefended, as if elevated rhetoric and literary erudition can do real intellectual work. Here's a representative nugget:

Yet granted that there are no valid moral or political objections to classical political philosophy — is that political philosophy not bound up with an antiquated cosmology? Does not the very question of the nature of man point to the question of the nature of the whole, and therewith to one or the other specific cosmology? Whatever the significance of modern natural science may be, it cannot affect our understanding of what is human in man. To understand man in light of the whole means for modern natural science to understand man in light of the sub-human. But in that light man as man is wholly unintelligible. Classical political philosophy viewed man in a different light. It was originated by Socrates. And Socrates was so far from being committed to a specific cosmology that his knowledge was knowledge of ignorance. Knowledge of ignorance is not ignorance. It is knowledge of the elusive character of truth, of the whole. Socrates, then, viewed man in the light of the mysterious character of the whole. He held therefore that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation. We may also say he viewed man in the light of the unchangeable ideas, i.e., of the fundamental and permanent problems. For to articulate the situation of man means to articulate man's openness to the whole. This understanding of the situation of man which includes, then, the quest for cosmology rather than a solution to the cosmological problem was the foundation of classical political philosophy.

The most important claim, relevant to the debate about the relative merits of contemprary philosophical naturalism vs. scholastic “natural” law, is this:

Whatever the significance of modern natural science may be, it cannot affect our understanding of what is human in man. To understand man in light of the whole means for modern natural science to understand man in light of the sub-human. But in that light man as man is wholly unintelligible.

The first sentence is a BIG claim. And it is not defended. And it is false on its face. Modern science HAS affected our understanding of what is human in man. If Strauss means to say that it should not affect our understanding, then he should say so, and say why. But he doesn't. The latter two sentences are mystifying. The first is I guess true, if by sub-human he means non-human. (If he's invoking a “great chain of being” picture, then he's just wrong straight out of the gate.) Explanation and understanding proceeds by the elucidation of the mechanisms that underlie observation and experience. Man, as a part of nature, functions according to mechanisms that are, of course, not themselves human. They are cognitive, neural, hormonal, chemical, physical, etc. mechanisms.

Apparently this form of explanation does not capture “man as man.” But what is that? We can't argue against Strauss unless he tells us what he means, and he doesn't. Apparently he means something like “a conception of man revealed by a priori philosophical reflection according to which man is that which is 'open to the whole'”. And… well, aghh! How DO you argue against this? There seems to be an assumption that “the whole” is not simply the physical totality. He needs to say why not. I think “the whole” IS the physical totality. He can't argue against my claim simply by arguing that man's manifest image is not simply one according to which he is an embedded part of a complex physical system, because we naturalists can tell you why it makes sense in naturalistic terms that man's manifest image is unlikely to reflect man's true relationship to “the whole,” or even to himself. We can say something credible about the cognitive mechanisms that enable epistemic access to the physical totality, and why that access is very imperfect, and why those mechanisms can be systematically misleading (and why even very smart people can become irretreivably committed to mythological self-conceptions). It strikes me as intellectually impossible to NOT have a fundamentally changed conception of human nature–of what is human in man–after the neo-Darwinian synthesis and the cognitive revolution.

Strauss writes that Socrates “held. . . that we are more familiar with the situation of man as man than with the ultimate causes of that situation.” But how about this instead? We are in general more psychologically confident of our introspectively derived self-conception than with the theory of the ultimate causes of that confidence and that self-conception. But we are more epistemically confident in–have greater evidential warrant for–the scientific theory that explains our erroneous confidence in the manifest image.

I don't blame people who confuse their confidence in their self-conception with evidence for the truth of their self-conception. It's what we should generally expect. But if we are truly open to the whole–to understanding how humans are folded into nature–we can come to understand some of our tendencies to self-delusion. And to the extent that we can so understand, we can do something to overcome them. But those actively fighting rear-guard battles to insulate our delusive self-conceptions against genuine advances in knowledge of our relation to the whole are, wittingly or unwittingly, closed to the whole, friends of ignorance, and enemies of philosophy.