Disappointing (non-)response by Arthur Melzer to my and other people’s criticisms

Perspectives on Political Science16 of us wrote reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the June and October issues of Perspectives on Political Science. Melzer has now written a 10,000-word response. Unfortunately, he did not engage with most of the reviews. His wording is curious:

In the space allotted me for rejoinder, it would clearly not be possible to reply to each of the essays individually, and it would be unbearably tedious if it were. Most of the essays, at any rate, stand in no particular need of reply.

I’m not sure about any of those three claims!

For what it’s worth, my review made the following points:

  • Melzer misinterprets, or interprets partially, some evidence about esotericism, e.g. in Machiavelli and Rousseau;
  • Melzer is not clear about whether contextualist/Cambridge-School interpretations are esoteric;
  • Melzer works with a straw man when he discusses “strictly literal” readings, as opposed to esoteric ones;
  • Melzer does not respond to the most important critiques of Strauss’s methodology.




CSI Cambridge: history of political thought as detective-work

UPDATE: This article has now been published, in History of European Ideas 41:8 (2015), pp. 1178-94.

My paper ‘History of Political Thought as Detective-Work’ has now been accepted by History of European Ideas. The paper uses a detective analogy (following Collingwood and others) to give practical principles for textual interpreters on how to draw plausible inferences from incomplete, ambiguous evidence about what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote.

david-caruso-csi-miamiI used a different analogy in the versions of this paper I gave at York, Reading, Durham, KCL and Kent in 2010-2012, but that analogy was too controversial to get published, and I only make it explicit in a forthcoming chapter in Winfried Schröder, ed., Reading Between The Lines (de Gruyter, forthcoming). But those who read between the lines of the current paper will see what I’m really arguing. For what it’s worth, the different analogy was also present in the original version of my ‘Anti-Strauss’ article, but the referees rightly made me take it out. Still, it’s there implicitly. My critique of Strauss has always been a vehicle for far more important ideas.

Here is the abstract of my History of European Ideas paper:

This paper offers practical guidance for empirical interpretation in the history of political thought, especially uncovering what authors meant and why they wrote what they wrote. I thus seek to fill a small but significant hole in our rather abstract methodological literature. To counter this abstraction, I draw not only on methodological theorising but also on actual practice – and on detective-work, a fruitful analogy. The detective analogy seeks to capture the intuition that we can potentially find right answers but must handle fragmentary evidence that different people can plausibly read in different ways. Placing the focus on evidence, and on combining different types of evidence, suggests that orthodox categories like ‘contextualist’ and ‘Marxist’ too often accentuate differences between scholars. This paper instead highlights core principles that unite us – ideas that underpin good textual interpretation across all ‘schools of thought’.

Symposium on Arthur Melzer’s new book on esoteric philosophy

I’m part of a symposium of reviews of Arthur Melzer’s important book about esoteric writing, Philosophy Between the Lines, in the journal Perspectives on Political Science (vol. 44 no. 3, 2015). This is a two-part symposium, with Melzer responding to the reviews in the second part, in the forthcoming issue. The first part of the symposium has contributions from a variety of authors:


  • Francis Fukuyama drives a further wedge between Strauss and silly criticisms of his alleged effect on US foreign policy;
  • Michael Frazer asks if some philosophers writing about esotericism actually did so esoterically;
  • Adrian Blau challenges some of Melzer’s evidence as well as what appear to be false dichotomies between esoteric/non-esoteric and literal/non-literal readings of texts – click here for a summary of my views and a copy of my article;
  • Douglas Burnham questions the idea of ‘historicism’ and asks how well Nietzsche fits this category;
  • Rob Howse questions Melzer’s evidence about the relationship between persecution and esotericism;
  • Miguel Vatter makes further distinctions between types and aims of esotericism;
  • in separate pieces, Norma Thompson, Catherine/Michael Zuckert, Larry Arnhart, Roslyn Weiss, Grant Havers and Peter Augustine Lawler each develop different aspects of the account of ancient versus modern esotericism/society.

How to do history of political thought

Interpreting textsHere is my draft chapter on how to interpret texts, for a book on methods in political theory that I’m editing for Cambridge University Press.

I’m keen for comments – however critical! The only problem is that I need comments by August 1st if possible, as I’m submitting the book manuscript on September 1st. Sorry for the crazy deadline.

I’m particularly keen to hear from current graduate students (MA or PhD), or advanced undergraduates, as that is who the chapter is aimed at.

Even if you’ve never met me, I’d love your criticisms and suggestions! Please download the article and email me at Adrian.Blau [at] kcl.ac.uk – thanks!

My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

UPDATE: here is an overview of the first part of the two-part symposium of Melzer’s book, and a link to the journal.

Where Leo Strauss grew up

Back in July, I went to a conference on ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’, in Marburg, Germany. After the conference finished, some of us took a trip to Kirchhain, the little town where Leo Strauss was born and grew up. Many thanks to Thomas Meyer (Munich), who organised the trip to Kirchhain and is writing a biography of Strauss that sounds like it’s going to be a must-read.

I’ve previously posted a picture of Strauss aged 12, and I’ll post a couple more pictures at some point, but here are some pictures of Strauss-related buildings in Kirchhain:

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss was born

The house where Strauss grew up

The house where Strauss grew up

The school where Strauss went

The school where Strauss went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

The synagogue where Strauss and his family went

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

Some of the buildings that the Strauss family owned (for businesses including furniture-making, I think)

























Leo Strauss, aged 12

Here’s a newly discovered picture of Leo Strauss aged 12, dressed in Japanese naval costume, celebrating the Kaiser’s 1912 visit to Kirchhain, where Strauss grew up.

The translation, courtesy of Dietrich Schotte of Marburg University, is:

‘School of Kirchhain

Callisthenics and Japanese dexterity exercises

for the Kaiser’s birthday, 1912.’

In the coming weeks, I’ll post more pictures relating to the young Strauss, taken from my visit to Kirchhain, after a Strauss conference in Marburg.

Strauss aged 12, closeup Strauss aged 12

Leo Strauss conference, Marburg, July 19-20

I’m giving a paper at a conference on Leo Strauss, on July 19-20. The conference, in Marburg, is called ‘Reading Between The Lines: Leo Strauss and the History of Early Modern Philosophy’. Also speaking are Jonathan Israel, Gianni Paganini, Al Martinich and Edwin Curley, amongst others.

My paper is called ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’. I don’t normally like titles with parentheses, but I reject the idea of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ partly because I reject the usefulness of the classic hermeneutic texts – Schleiermacher, Gadamer, and so on. Indeed, my claims about the irrelevance of a ‘Straussian hermeneutic’ (see also this critique of mine) is less important than my comments on the irrelevance of hermeneutics more generally. I reckon we can get far more useful guidance elsewhere on how to interpret texts. People who’ve been following the blog should have an idea of where I think we should look!

Michael Forster’s critique of key hermeneuticists

I’ve just read Michael Forster’s bitingly critical account of leading hermeneuticists, in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy. You can download a pre-proof version here.

Forster downplays the importance, originality and/or quality of writers like Schleiermacher, Hegel, Dilthey, Heidegger and Gadamer, and praises the contributions of Ernesti, Herder, Schlegel, J.L. Austin, and Quentin Skinner.MichaelForster

Forster argues that much that is good in Schleiermacher’s writings isn’t new, and much that is new isn’t good. Hegel’s influential contributions are ‘dubious’ and, on closer inspection, ‘misguided’. Dilthey’s position is often ‘naive and unsatisfactory’. Heidegger’s contributions are largely ‘unoriginal’ and their value ‘greatly exaggerated’. What is distinctive in Gadamer is ‘misguided and indeed baneful’, and in places ‘woefully inadequate’.

Forster praises Ernesti’s Institutes, which ‘makes many points which can still be read with profit today’. Having now read Ernesti – who I’d never heard of – I agree with Forster. (You can read Ernesti here – also downloadable as a PDF.) For example, on pp. 63-4 Ernesti notes that if we are interpreting a text in another language, we should first try to grasp how that language was generally spoken, then consider the author’s own idioms – a standard idea in Cambridge-School interpretations in the history of political thought, which recognise that we need to understand the linguistic conventions of the day, but that we must also bear in mind that authors sometimes break with these conventions. That said, I don’t believe Forster is right that on pp. 70-1 of the Institutes, Ernesti says that the parts of a text must be interpreted in light of the whole text. (I have much more I could say about the desperately unclear idea of a hermeneutic circle, but I won’t get into that now.)

Forster supports J.L. Austin’s idea of ‘illocutionary force’, and Quentin Skinner’s application of it to textual interpretation. My own view is that there are better ways of capturing this idea, but Austin’s and Skinner’s basic points are legitimate and useful.

Foster is refreshingly blunt about what is good and bad in the hermeneutic literature. He really doesn’t hold back. In the early twentieth century, he writes,

real progress in hermeneutics more or less comes to an end in Germany, and indeed in continental Europe as a whole, it seems to me (in keeping with a precipitous decline in the quality of German philosophy generally at the time).

I wonder what kind of reception Forster got when he moved from Chicago to Bonn earlier this year! The above comment is something I won’t be quoting when I give a paper on ‘The Irrelevance of (Straussian) Hermeneutics’ at a conference on Leo Strauss at Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s old university, Marburg, on July 19.

Was Shakespeare a schoolteacher? How sloppy are some journalists?

Several people have been claiming that Shakespeare spent a few years working as a schoolteacher in Titchfield, a village in Hampshire. The claims have some plausibility and may be right. But I’m interested in how sloppily the BBC reported the story. The BBC makes it sound like a definite finding. Surprisingly, the Daily Mail newspaper is more even-handed, as we’ll see. And the claims about Shakespeare make some interesting intellectual errors in their own right.



What is it like to be Leo Strauss?

Last year, I published a critique of Leo Strauss. Strauss was an important and influential thinker who is controversial in two ways. He’s a conservative, and may have influenced many neoconservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations. I don’t care about that. What I do care about are his historical interpretations, especially his claims that writers like Plato and Machiavelli hid secret messages in their texts using odd techniques which Strauss often seems to have been the first to spot. I have no problem with the idea that some people have written esoterically, but I do doubt the particular claims that Strauss makes. Near the end of my paper, I wrote a little satire, mimicking Strauss’s approach and parodying his style to ‘prove’ that Thomas Hobbes hid secret messages about the music of Beethoven – even though Hobbes died 91 years before Beethoven was born. While writing the satire, though, I suddenly saw what it might have been like to be Leo Strauss. I had been finding lots of astonishing parallels between Hobbes’s writings and Beethoven’s music – it was starting to get freaky. And suddenly, a thought started to flash into my head: ‘Is it possible that Hobbes was actually writing about Beethoven?’ I didn’t even finish this thought: of course, Hobbes could not have been writing about Beethoven. But that moment showed me how easy it is to read too much into a mere coincidence. Strauss and his esoteric bookshelves, by Adrian Blau And this is where Strauss goes wrong. There is a natural human bias to look for evidence which fits one’s ideas, or to interpret things to support one’s ideas. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. If you think you don’t suffer from this … well, I’m very happy for you, but you’re probably not going to be the next Sherlock Holmes. Scientific methods arose in part to counteract biases such as confirmation bias. Scientists shouldn’t just look for evidence which fits their theories: they should question their evidence, test their theories, compare different explanations, and so on. If he had applied such principles, Strauss would not have made many of the claims he made. What is it like to be Leo Strauss? I can’t say for sure, but one brief moment, I might just have known.