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Velkley, Richard. Heidegger, Strauss and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting.

VELKLEY, Richard. Heidegger, Strauss and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting. University of Chicago Press, 2011. Cloth, $45.00--Among the many recent works on the thought of Leo Strauss, this study stands out for its two central claims. First, "political philosophy," as conceived by Strauss, is animated ultimately by theoretical concerns with "the whole." The human, political things make up only a part of the whole, though indeed the most important part, since the human being is defined by its "openness" to the whole. Second, Velkley makes the case that in the development of this conception of philosophy, Strauss owes much to the lifelong engagement with the thought of Martin Heidegger that is documented in recently published correspondence and lectures.

The point of departure for Velkley's interpretation of philosophy is "Strauss's account of Socrates' turn to the study of the human things as the core of philosophy or the 'first philosophy' whereby 'the political things, or the human things, are the key to understanding all things.'" The ordinary meaning of political philosophy, according to which it aims at knowledge of the best regime for the sake of the grounding and guidance of practice, comes to be seen as the foreground presentation of an activity that is essentially transpolitical. According to Velkley's account, the political realm remains in the focus of philosophic interest because one gains access to the whole only through the prephilosophic opinions about what is just, noble and good, or more precisely, through the "fundamental problems" that are manifest in such opinions--especially the problematic tension between philosophic inquiry and prephilosophic life in an order governed by authoritative law and custom. Velkley emphasizes, in particular, that this tension is best understood in light of the conflict between eros and law as it is available on the "surface" of political life and depicted for us by the poets (see Chapter 9). To human eros, for Velkley, there belongs an implicit or natural "openness" to the whole. What Velkley describes as "philosophic eros" seems to differ from the nonphilosophic insofar as in the former this openness becomes the primary concern. At this point, however, one is reminded that, in elaborating upon what it might mean that the human things are the "clue" to the "whole of nature," Strauss concludes that this may be because "the false estimate of human things is a fundamental and primary error." Is eros--which would seem to be a powerful source of interest in "human things"--free from implication in this error? If not, can it be relied upon as a source or guide in philosophic inquiry? How does Vetkley's account of the philosopher's interest in political things comport with other possible interpretations found in Strauss's work? For instance, Strauss sometimes suggests that the examination of the political realm is necessary because it is the locus of the attachments, longings, and opinions that preclude clarity about what the philosopher ultimately seeks and why he seeks it. Accordingly, Strauss maintains that the "primary" meaning of political philosophy is "the political introduction to philosophy--the attempt to lead the qualified citizens, or rather their qualified sons, from the political life to the philosophic life." We thus arrive at the question: is philosophy "political" because the "ultimate theoretical concerns" with the whole are pursued through comprehension of the fundamental problems as they are visible on the surface of political life (as Velkley maintains), or, is philosophy concerned with moral and political matters as a necessary preparation for the theoretical life? In any case, one can say with certainty that with such an unusually clear statement of the first alternative, Velkley's book will help readers to think about the issue on which Strauss's more theoretically inclined followers appear to diverge.

Velkley's book is unique for its thorough consideration of the positive significance of Heidegger for Strauss's understanding of philosophy, that is, Strauss's "affinities and debts" with respect to Heidegger. Readers who are familiar only with Strauss's critical remarks on Heidegger's work may be surprised at the breadth and depth of Strauss's interest in Heidegger's thought that comes through in the recently published correspondence and lectures (see Chapter 2). At the same time, as Velkley shows, even the deepest affinities that Velkley brings to light are accompanied by serious disagreement on Strauss's part. The shared concerns that Velkley discusses include: a preoccupation with how the philosophic tradition, as a tradition, obscures, as it also conveys, the questions and problems at its origin; the sense that modernity has culminated in a crisis that requires a radical rethinking of modern principles and some form of return to the Greek or classical beginnings; a renewed attention to poetry (especially comic poetry, for Strauss) and its relation to philosophic thinking; and, not least, a new philosophic consideration of the claims of divine revelation or, for Heidegger, the presence or absence of gods. Such affinities may all have their root in what is most fundamental, which Velkley lays out in the following terms. "For both thinkers the central theme of philosophy is Being or the whole, which is manifest and intelligible only as a question or problem for a being that is part of the whole. Such a being is the human, as the part of the whole that is also open to the whole."

It is this attention to what he presents as Strauss's ultimate philosophic concerns that makes Velkley's account of Strauss's critique of Heidegger more comprehensive, insightful, and compelling than previous treatments of the theme in the scholarship. Velkley's subtle and penetrating consideration of Strauss's confrontation with the late Heidegger (of Holzwege) in Natural Right and History is especially worth mentioning here (see Chapter 7). Throughout the book, Velkley goes beyond a mere presentation of Strauss's view--he builds upon it by considering Heidegger's thought as the culmination of the modern project. At the risk of over-simplifying, one could say that Velkley's critique boils down to the claim that Heidegger fails to understand the permanent, necessary tension between philosophy and political life. As a consequence, Velkley argues, the conception of "thinking" that Heidegger promotes is fused with moral, political, and ultimately religious "longings" to "make man wholly at home in the city." Heidegger's thinking thus "loses sight of the suprapolitical." In line with this interpretation, in the two short chapters devoted primarily to Heidegger's thought (Chapters 4 and 5), Velkley tries to show that Heidegger's own thinking about political things, not least his conception of a Volk, relies on Kant and German Idealism--that is, the tradition of German philosophy that claims "the largest responsibility for human welfare" by attempting to "restore the nobility and metaphysical depth that were sacrificed on the altar of rational progress." Velkley acknowledges that this assimilation of Heidegger's thought to the modern projects of German Idealism "to make man at home in the world" does not agree with Heidegger's self-understanding. The more demanding reader may thus find it difficult to discover or recognize the sources and grounds of the characterizations and criticisms presented in this book within Heidegger's own texts. Velkley rightly concedes that Heidegger in many ways finds thinking to be in tension with the conditions of any genuine, rooted, historical community. However, is it so evident, as Velkley suggests, that Heidegger ultimately conceives the forms of this tension to be historical and transitory, and that his thinking is thus moved by the hope or longing for their resolution?

In any case, Velkley's extraordinary book shows how fruitful it can be to read the works of Strauss and Heidegger together--to bring Strauss's questions about philosophy and politics to one's reading of Heidegger, and Heidegger's questioning of the "fundamental premises of philosophy" to Strauss.--Michael Ehrmantraut, St. John's College, Santa Fe.
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Author:Ehrmantraut, Michael
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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