Destruktion or Recovery?: Leo Strauss's Critique of Heidegger

By Smith, Steven B. | The Review of Metaphysics, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Destruktion or Recovery?: Leo Strauss's Critique of Heidegger


Smith, Steven B., The Review of Metaphysics


Of the numerous legacies bequeathed by Leo Strauss, his influence on the study of German philosophy frequently goes least mentioned. Apart from some early reviews and other occasional pieces, Strauss left no major work on any German thinker.(1) With the exception of the chapter on Max Weber in Natural Right and History and a short essay on Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil written near the end of his life, there are no works on such giants of the German Aufklarung as Mendelssohn, Kant, and Hegel to rival his studies of other seminal figures in the history of political thought.(2) Why, for example, did Strauss not write a Thoughts on Kant to parallel his study of Machiavelli, or The Argument and Action of Hegel's `Philosophy of Right' to complement his commentary on the Laws of Plato, or The Literary Character of Nietzsche's `Zarathustra' modeled after his essay on Maimonides's Guide of the Perplexed? In any case, for a thinker like Strauss who has emphasized that what a person does not say is almost as important as what he does, such a startling omission calls for comment.

The one partial exception to Strauss's generally curt treatment of German philosophy is, of course, Martin Heidegger.(3) One could almost say that Heidegger is the unnamed presence to whom or against whom all of Strauss's writings are in large part directed. Strauss's acquaintance with Heidegger went back to the early twenties. He described how upon hearing Heidegger in 1922, it slowly became evident that Heidegger was preparing a "revolution" in thought the likes of which had not been experienced since Hegel.(4) Heidegger brought to the study of philosophy a "passion" to the problems which showed up the "lostness" and emptiness of the then regnant academic orthodoxies, including that of his erstwhile dissertation adviser, the neo-Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer. The famous confrontation between Heidegger and Cassirer at Davos in 1929 confirmed this fact for anyone with "sensitivity to greatness."(5)

At the same time that Heidegger commanded Strauss's highest respect, he also elicited many of his sharpest criticisms. Heidegger accepted Nietzsche's proposition that human life and thought is radically historical. The meaning of Heidegger's "radical historicism" was not void of political consequences.(6) Heidegger was not the only thinker of note but he was the greatest thinker to embrace Hitler's revolution of 1933. Since the publication of Victor Farias's Heidegger and Nazism in 1989 the now infamous "Heidegger problem" has become something of a public scandal.(7) Strauss pointed to this scandal long ago. "One is bound to misunderstand Heidegger's thought radically," he wrote, if one does not see its "intimate connection" to the events of 1933.(8) Heidegger may have surpassed all his contemporaries in terms of "speculative intelligence," yet he was "at the same time intellectually the counterpart of what Hitler was politically."(9) Indeed, Strauss notes that Heidegger, who had never praised any other contemporary political movement or leader, even refused to repudiate National Socialism long after Hitler had been "muted."(10)

It is one thing to trace the influence of Heidegger on Strauss, quite another to evaluate it. Does Strauss's alleged "Heideggerianism" provide the reader with a critical perspective on some of the problems of modernity not available to those operating within a more standard liberal democratic framework? Or does Strauss's appropriation of certain Heideggerian tropes lead to dangerous antiliberal doctrines crucially at odds with the spirit of individualistic modernity? This latter possibility has been developed at considerable length by the French critic Luc Ferry in his book Rights--The New Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns.(11) Here we find the most impressive case to date alleging Strauss's indebtedness to Heidegger and bemoaning the political consequences of that indebtedness.

The core of The New Quarrel is that Strauss took over Heidegger's wholesale critique of modernity, but turned it away from first philosophy or "fundamental ontology" and gave it a more directly political meaning.

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