Comparing Leo Straus and Wendy Brown’s Political Philosophy

Leo Strauss and Wendy Brown both wrote on the topic of politics at vastly different times. Strauss wrote much earlier, publishing the article in question in 1957. Brown published her text in 2005. As such, the approaches of either author depend on the trends of political theorists and philosophers of their respective days and the ideas in circulation at the time.

Even so, there is some overlap of ideas between the two, but so is there a great difference. This essay will be discussing Strauss and Brown concerning the nature of political theory and then contrasting them, illuminating why there is little overlap. This essay will ultimately find that political theory and political philosophy differ widely, with the former highlighting a study of power and the latter prioritising the judgement of good and evil.

A challenge arises in discussing Leo Strauss’s views on political theory, as his main interest and the topic of his article in question, was that of political philosophy. Of course, there is overlap between political theory and political philosophy, but the differences will make up most of the contrast with Brown. To Strauss, the fundamental aim of political philosophy is the study and pursuit of the good life, in the form of a just society (Strauss, 1957: 343). He highlights the importance of analysing regimes and how leaders of a regime direct change towards a perceived good society (Strauss, 1957: 362-363).[1] As such, part of studying politics is the identification of this good and then how to work towards it. Strauss argues that fundamental goal of political philosophy is judging the good and the bad. (Strauss, 1957: 345).[2]

Strauss contends that we should look to the Classical philosophers for a solution to the problems facing modern Political philosophy. He argues for the virtues of Classical philosophy by indicating the presumed fact that it is the original form of Western philosophy (Strauss, 1957: 356). He maintains that all forthcoming philosophies were mere derivatives of Classical philosophy (Strauss, 1957: 357). I would argue that his is incorrect. Philosophy has grown with new thinkers and contexts, adding onto and changing Classical philosophy to reveal new ideas. While Strauss may appreciate the Classical, being old does not make it necessarily good. Strauss adds additional reasons to appreciate the Classical, however. He suggests that the Classical thinkers moderated their ideas to be pragmatic, thus minimising fanaticism (Strauss, 1957: 356). Ultimately, Strauss’s affinity for the Classical is probably due to their approach to philosophy. While newer thinkers specialise and divide themselves into separate topics, the Classical philosophers constructed entire world visions.

Strauss claims that political philosophy is decaying due to a number of challenges (Strauss, 1957: 345), causing and rising from disagreements on its subject matter (Strauss, 1957: 357). Three main challenges to this are the dogmatism of the scientific approach, professionalisation of the discipline and historicism.

Strauss condemns many scientists’ claims that they do not need to make value judgements due to the perceived unbiased nature of their discipline (Strauss, 1957: 347). He argues, rightly, that all people need to make value judgements to make even the simplest decision. The scientific arrogance that the truth is all that matters is, in fact, a value judgement in itself.

Strauss condemns the professionalisation of social science as he argues that it makes the discipline untrustworthy – steering research results in favour of the highest bidder (Strauss, 1957: 349).

Lastly, Strauss argues that historicism is the main antagonist of political philosophy, as it rejects normative and descriptive distinctions and ultimately devolves into relativism, where the good society cannot be identified (Strauss, 1957: 355).

Brown approaches political theory through arguing for the need to identify its boundaries and challenges in order to establish its unique identity (Brown, 2005: 60). Through this method of identifying challenges, she aims to define political theory (Brown, 2005: 61).

Brown identifies the dissemination of political theory as a challenge and opportunity. Due to shifting understandings of politics (Brown, 2005: 66), a myriad of disciplines can now be described as political theories (Brown, 2005: 65). While this expands the purview of the discipline, it does risk making it too generalised. Brown argues that this can be remedied by limiting political theory to the study of power (as the defining domain of politics) with regards to the interaction of collectives (Brown, 2005: 75-76). Brown stresses the importance of cross-examining themes and learning from other disciplines, but also the importance of maintaining a unique discipline in itself (Brown, 2005: 78-79).

Brown discusses the idea of theory inherent in political theory, stating that theory is meant to act as a reflection of reality that is generalised in order to explain reality without the chaos (Brown, 2005: 80). While I agree with this, I disagree with her claims that theory cannot be “accurate or wrong” (Brown, 2005: 80). Theory needs to have some sort of reflection of reality to have sound premises and an inconsistent or illogical structure can make an inaccurate theory that neither reflects reality nor describes anything. Theories like this can be particularly dangerous, as Brown is right to argue that theories often inspire the fabrication of the reality it has perceived (Brown, 2005: 81).

Brown and Strauss differ immensely in their approach to politics and their goal in its use. This is due to Strauss studying political philosophy, aimed at determining and pursuing the good society, while Brown studies political theory, a study of power in the collective. The former is always normative when the latter does not necessarily need to be. Where accurate contrasts can be made is in both of their condemnation of professionalisation, Strauss for the untrustworthiness it generates (Strauss, 1957: 349), and Brown for it limiting the scope of the study (Brown, 2005: 73). Another difference is that they disagree on the dissemination of politics. Strauss sees it as a challenge that needs to be remedied by a return to the more uniform Classical philosophers, while Brown sees it as an opportunity and a challenge to keep the uniqueness of politics while benefitting from other disciplines.

Ultimately, a contrast between Brown and Strauss is challenging due to their differing disciplines. What this essay has aimed to accomplish is discuss each in their individual contexts and then contrast them. Where the biggest contrast lies may be in their disciplines itself. The gap between political philosophy and political theory is wide, despite a shared adjective.

Bibliography

Brown, W. 2005. At the Edge: the-Future of Political Theory. In Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 60-82.

Strauss, L. 1957. What is Political Philosophy? The Journal of Politics, 19(3), 343-368.

Footnotes

[1] Regimes, in this context, refer to a whole society and not merely the system of government or the current authority.

[2] This is contrasted with Wendy Brown’s definition of politics, but that is almost completely to do with the vast difference between political theory and political philosophy.