In my “Notes on Strauss and Husserl,” I discuss the following passage from Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History:
To grasp the natural world as a world that is radically prescientific or prephilosophic, one has to go back behind the first emergence of science or philosophy. It is not necessary for this purpose to engage in extensive and necessarily hypothetical anthropological studies. The information that classical philosophy supplies about its origins suffices . . .
Strauss has two objections to using empirical research into anthropology and folklore as a route back to the prescientific Greek mind. The first and strongest objection is that such studies are simply not necessary. The second is that such studies are “necessarily hypothetical.” Which studies is he thinking of here? And in what sense are they “hypothetical”?
In my “Notes . . . ,” I speculated that Strauss may have been alluding to such works as James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Ernst Cassirer’s Mythical Thought, which drew upon extensive ethnological research to recapture how primitive man experienced the world. Given that Strauss was a student of Cassirer and broadly familiar with his work, I rate it highly likely that Strauss read Mythical Thought.
There is no doubt, however, that Strauss read Heidegger’s Being and Time. Indeed, as I show in “Notes . . . ,” he paraphrases Being and Time just before the quote above, in the very same paragraph. In section 11 of Being and Time, Heidegger discusses “The Existential Analytic and the Interpretation of Primitive Dasein [human being]. The Difficulties of Achieving a ‘Natural Conception of the World.’” Here Heidegger argues that ethnology has questionable assumptions (although he does not object to it being “hypothetical”). Beyond that, Heidegger thinks ethnology is simply not necessary for returning to the naïve way of seeing the world.
Heidegger begins on a cautionary note:
The Interpretation of Dasein in its everydayness [which is equivalent to Strauss’s pre-scientific “natural” or “common-sense” outlook] . . . is not identical with the describing of some primitive stage of Dasein with which we can become acquainted empirically through the medium of anthropology. Everydayness does not coincide with primitiveness, but is rather a mode of Dasein’s Being, even when that Dasein is active in a highly developed and differentiated culture — and precisely then. Moreover, even primitive Dasein has possibilities of a Being which is not of the everyday kind . . .
Everydayness is not primitiveness. Everydayness is a possible way of being that all humans have. Civilized people can be absorbed in the world, and primitive peoples can be pulled away from it.
Nevertheless, even though everydayness is not simply the same as primitiveness, examining primitive peoples can be useful for the analysis of Dasein because such people are relatively simple and naïve, which makes it easier to discern essential structures of human existence. Regarding the simplicity of primitive peoples, Heidegger says, “‘primitive phenomena’ are often less concealed and less complicated by extensive self-interpretation on the part of the Dasein in question.” The naïveté of primitive peoples means that they are more engaged with the world, as opposed to more civilized people, who tend to be alienated from it:
Primitive Dasein often speaks to us more directly in terms of a primordial absorption in ‘phenomena’ (taken in a pre-phenomenological sense). A way of conceiving things which seems, perhaps, rather clumsy and crude from our standpoint, can be positively helpful in bringing out the ontological structures of phenomena in a genuine way.
But even though phenomenological philosophy might benefit from the study of primitive peoples, our primary access to them is through ethnology, which presents a problem. Ethnology, like all sciences, has philosophical presuppositions which structure how it gathers and interprets data.
. . . ethnology operates with definite preliminary conceptions and interpretations of human Dasein in general, even in first ‘receiving’ its material, and in sifting it and working it up. Whether the everyday psychology or even the scientific psychology and sociology which the ethnologist brings with him can provide any scientific assurance that we can have proper access to the phenomena we are studying, and can interpret them and transmit them in the right way, has not yet been established. . . . Ethnology itself already presupposes as its clue an inadequate analytic of Dasein. But since the positive sciences neither ‘can’ nor should wait for the ontological labors of philosophy to be done, the further course of research will not take the form of an ‘advance’ but will be accomplished by recapitulating what has already been ontically discovered, and by purifying it in a way which is ontologically more transparent.
Heidegger is not saying that ethnology can be dismissed a priori. One can, of course, examine the assumptions of ethnologists to determine whether or not they render their findings useless for phenomenologists. Thus, Heidegger is merely cautioning us that the findings of ethnology cannot be accepted uncritically.
The paragraph quoted above ends with a footnote about Cassirer’s Mythical Thought, in which Heidegger points out that Cassirer himself believed that the foundational assumptions of his studies might be inadequate and that they might benefit from “the phenomenological horizons disclosed by Husserl.”
Having registered his methodological objections to relying uncritically on ethnology, Heidegger then argues that ethnology is also unnecessary.
Heidegger makes clear that he understands why philosophers of human existence are tempted to embrace the results of the social sciences. Every philosophical anthropology needs to start somewhere: “No matter how easy it may be to show how ontological problematics differ formally from ontical [i.e., empirical] research there are still difficulties in carrying out an existential analytic, especially in making a start.”
A particularly important philosophical desideratum is “to work out the idea of a ‘natural conception of the world.’” To recapture mankind’s naïve, pre-theoretical engagement with the world, the immense riches of ethnology offer themselves as a way forward. But they are “merely a semblance” of a solution. The real issue gets lost in the riches of ethnological data, because the truth we are seeking about ourselves is not found in the data. It is found in what we bring to the data:
We shall not get a genuine knowledge of essences simply by the syncretistic activity of universal comparison and classification. Subjecting the manifold to tabulation does not ensure any actual understanding of what lies there before us as thus set in order. If an ordering principle is genuine, it has its own content as a thing, which is never to be found by means of such ordering, but is already presupposed in it. So if one is to put various pictures of the world in order, one must have an explicit idea of the world as such. And if the ‘world’ itself is something constitutive for Dasein, one must have an insight into Dasein’s basic structures in order to treat the world-phenomenon conceptually.
In short, ethnology is not necessary to recapture the natural conception of the world. We already know the answer. We are the answer. Everydayness, the “natural conception of the world,” pre-theoretical “common sense” is a way that we relate to the world. It is something that we can do. Thus, the task is to turn toward ourselves and figure out how to do it. This involves self-reflection, self-observation, and the ruthless criticism of second-hand and half-baked ideas absorbed from the culture. This is the task of phenomenology.
Is Strauss’ rejection of ethnology an allusion to Heidegger’s thoughts in Being and Time? I think it is likely, given the phenomenological tenor of Strauss’ whole discussion and the fact that, as we have already seen, Strauss paraphrases Being and Time earlier in the very same paragraph.
But whatever Strauss’ methodological reservations about ethnology, the stronger reason for rejecting such studies is that they are simply unnecessary, which Strauss then demonstrates. He shows that simply by reading the classics with a phenomenological eye, it is possible to get a sense of how the early Greeks saw the world before the emergence of science and philosophy.
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 Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 79–80.
 Being and Time, pp. 76–77; Sein und Zeit, pp. 50–52.
 Being and Time, p. 490, note xi; Sein und Zeit, p. 51, note 1.
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