Leo Strauss – The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy

This Wednesday, 23rd September from 5-6:30pm in ib3.307 the Deakin Philosophical Society will meet to discuss an article by Leo Strauss entitled 'The Mutual Influence of Theology and Philosophy'. The article deals with an issue that has repeatedly cropped up in discussions over the last few months: what can philosophy say about theology and vice-versa. This article gives an intriguing answer. Find a copy here (please note that pp. 116 and 117 are in the wrong order, sorry). If you don't get time to read the entire eight pages, the argument is summarised in the last section: IV.

Strauss opens with the contention that 'No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian' because, for the philosopher, 'there can never be an absolute sacredness of a particular or contingent event' (p. 111). For the theologian, 'experience [revelation] and not reasoning based on sense perception, is the root of biblical wisdom' (p. 112). In essence, the philosopher and the theologian determine what is good philosophy or good theology according to different criteria. Hence, although the conflict between philosophy and theology 'is the secret of the vitality of the West' (p. 113), throughout the history of this conflict 'philosophy has never refuted revelation. Nor ... has revelation, or rather theology, ever refuted philosophy' (p. 117).

The same could be said of science as is said of philosophy. In the last few centuries science has come to know more than philosophy, but it has not refuted theology either (p. 114). Importantly for Strauss, however, it has never needed to. It's only the modern philosophers who have turned their hand to refuting theology. In the past Socrates was content to say to theologians: 'I do not reject your divine wisdom, I simply do not understand it. My wisdom is merely human wisdom' (p. 113). We modern philosophers, however, or so Strauss contends, busy ourselves with attacking revelation. But in the process we eat our own heads.

Yes, eat our own heads (not Strauss's words, but metaphorically his point). Philosophy turns its tools against theology, but in the process commits one of the biggest sins in philosophy - it begs the question. 'Philosophy demands that revelation should establish its claim before the tribunal of human reason, but revelation as such refuses to acknowledge that tribunal', Strauss argues (p. 116). So the philosopher urges the theologian to justify revelation, but only on philosophical grounds, i.e. only if the theologian rules out the possibility of revelation beforehand. Therefore, the philosopher has answered her own question before the game even begins. Big PHILOSOPHICAL mistake. Hence she eats her own head.

So, the big question: Are the only two options for modern philosophers (1) to end the debate with theology or (2) beg the questions we ask of them? We don't have to accept the possibility of revelation if the debate ceases, but then what would we do? On the other hand, if we continue the debate and don't accept the possibility of revelation we beg the questions we ask the theologian to debate. Hmm, tough one.


Dylan Nickelson.
President, Deakin Philosophical Society.

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