Stanley Rosen

by Jacob Howland, McFarlin Professor of Philosophy, University of Tulsa

Stanley Rosen earned the BA at the University of Chicago in 1949, having attended classes for only nine months because he had been excused by placement exams from the rest of the program. His undergraduate school year was largely devoted to reading and writing poetry; his first book, Death in Egypt (1952), was a collection of poems. From 1950 to 1952 Rosen studied in the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, and from 1952 to 1955 he attended the Committee on Social Thought, also at Chicago. He studied Greek with David Grene, political philosophy with Leo Strauss, and other philosophical subjects (including Thomas Aquinas and Descartes) with Yves Simon. His 1955 PhD dissertation, “Spinoza’s Argument for Freedom of Speech,” was completed under the direction of Leo Strauss.

            In 1956, Rosen joined the Philosophy Department at the Pennsylvania State University, where he was eventually appointed Evan Pugh Professor of Philosophy. He was a Fulbright Research Professor at the University of Paris in 1960-61. While in Paris he spent time in the company of Alexandre Kojève, whose influence on him was no less significant than that of Strauss, and whose philosophical doctrines he analyzes, in connection with those of Strauss, in the title essay of Hermeneutics as Politics (1987). In 1994, after almost forty years at Penn State, Rosen left for Boston University, where he served as Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy and University Professor for fourteen years before retiring with emeritus status in 2008. Rosen continued to be intellectually active right to the end of his life. Two volumes of his collected essays in philosophy, devoted to ancient and modern themes respectively, came out in 2013, and his final book, on Hegel’s Science of Logic, was published in 2014. This summer, St. Augustine’s press will publish the edited transcripts of his Gilson Lectures, Platonic Productions: Theme and Variations.  

            Rosen’s philosophical legacy is twofold. His lectures served as a paradigm of philosophical teaching for several generations of doctoral students, many of whom now hold positions at colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada as well as overseas. His influence may extend even further, however, through his seventeen books and over one hundred twenty-five articles and chapters in books. Rosen’s writing, a mixture of boldness and concision leavened with wit, won him a worldwide reputation among students of metaphysics and epistemology, political philosophy, rhetoric, and literary theory. His books and articles have been translated into over ten languages, including Chinese and Hebrew.

            The breadth of Rosen’s thought makes it difficult to characterize his philosophical accomplishments in a few words. His first book, Plato’s Symposium (1968), and his later books and articles on Plato’s metaphysical and political thought, including Plato’s Sophist (1983), Plato’s Statesman (1995), and Plato’s Republic (2005), transformed Plato studies in the English-speaking world. When Plato’s Symposium was published, the field was dominated by analytically-trained scholars, and it was customary to study the arguments of the Platonic dialogues in abstraction from other, ostensibly insignificant features of the text. Thanks in large part to Rosen’s work, scholars now take it for granted that the philosophical significance of the arguments cannot be grasped apart from the dramatic and literary contexts in which they are advanced, and that the dialogues must be studied as coherent literary wholes.

           Rosen also wrote on the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including G.W.F. Hegel (1974), The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger (1993), and The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (1995). His interest in the history of philosophy was never merely philological or antiquarian, however. Throughout his career, Rosen turned to the past in order to come to grips with the present. He learned from Strauss and Kojève that the genuine philosopher is above all engaged with the present, and that the thought of the ancients is indispensable for understanding our modern and post-modern situation. At the same time, it would be fair to say that in certain fundamental respects he was always a Platonist—with the caveat that he was centrally concerned to correct modern misperceptions of Plato, including the tendency to see him as a somewhat crude forerunner of systematic thought. Rosen argues forcefully for the goodness of reason. His reliance, wherever possible, on non-technical language reflects his conviction that ordinary experience is the basis of the intelligibility of philosophy. He returns repeatedly to the problem of the relation between philosophy and poetry, or to put it another way, to the relation between the accurate articulation of our apprehension of what is and the contemplation of conceptual structures of our own making. Finally, no other contemporary thinker has so consistently and compellingly articulated the essential role of Socratic eros in the philosophical endeavor.

            In his second (and probably most influential) book, Nihilism (1969), Rosen introduces the overriding critical theme of his ouevre. The book begins by reflecting on the consequences of the separation of the conception of “reason” from the conception of “good” in modern rationalism, which took the value-neutral science of mathematics as its model. It follows from this separation that reason can say nothing about its own goodness, or that the assertion of goodness is necessarily non-rational. In Rosen’s formulation, nihilism is a condition in which the sense or significance of speech is indistinguishable from silence. Yet he shows that the two leading critical responses to modern rationalism in the twentieth century, Heideggerian ontology and the “ordinary language philosophy” originated by Wittgenstein, culminate in the silence of internal contradiction and radical historicity. In the face of this philosophical crisis, which he sees as only one of the more recent manifestations of the perennial problem of nihilism, Rosen advises us to reacquaint ourselves with Plato’s understanding of the Ideas as objects of noetic vision and the Good as the fundamental principle of intelligibility. But as he explains at length in The Question of Being, this reacquaintance is impeded by the powerful influence of Heidegger’s misinterpretation of Platonic metaphysics as a kind of ontological utilitarianism that itself gives rise to an instrumentalist conception of reason and thus to nihilism.

            Like Nihilism, The Limits of Analysis (1980) is a spirited defense of philosophical reason and in particular of metaphysics. In this book Rosen shows that analytical philosophy depends for its intelligibility on the context of analysis, but is unable to provide a conceptual understanding of this context (and in particular of the analyst himself). The analytical project of conceptualizing the world thus fails, but its failure is highly illuminating: “the very attempt to understand the world leads to a conceptual reconstruction that separates us . . . from the world we set out to understand” (p. 222). Analytical philosophy is unable to maintain the distinction between philosophy and poetry, which is to say that it culminates in nihilism. While “there is no solution . . . compatible with our humanity” to the problem of conceptual reconstruction, we can at least “retain our grip on the problem and hence avoid dissolution by its ostensible solutions” (p. 222). We may do so only by moderating what Pascal called the esprit géométrique, or the desire for a theoretically rigorous account of human experience, with the esprit de finesse, the judicious understanding of experience as a unity of irreducibly heterogeneous elements. Because analytical philosophy is intrinsically immoderate, however, Rosen predicts that it “will succumb, sooner or later, to some combination of doctrines drawn from post-Heideggerian thought” (p. 153).

While the foregoing prediction has proved prescient, Rosen holds no brief for deconstructionism and post-modernism. The latter modes of thought are no less lacking in finesse, and therefore no less extreme, than those they seek to replace. The philosophical esprit de finesse is characterized by openness to the wholeness of the whole. This openness is rooted in Socratic eros, and Heidegger’s philosophical epigones are erotically deficient. To take a small but telling example, Jacques Derrida’s attempted deconstruction of Plato’s Phaedrus, which rests upon his characterization of Plato as “nothing by intention but a metaphysician of presence,” fails because Derrida “seems to have a tin ear for theology” and “has nothing to say about divine madness” (1987, pp. 72–74). These shortcomings render him insensitive to the relevant context of analysis, namely, the dramatic and literary wholeness of the dialogue itself, and thus to the evident playfulness of the passages he takes so seriously. Rosen asserts that Heidegger’s misinterpretation of Plato is rooted in a similar mistake (1993, pp. 10, 191).

Eros links the human and the divine. It is accordingly suppressed when the difference between these spheres is no longer admitted, or when metaphysics succumbs altogether to Derridean différance and therewith to the denial of transcendence. In that case, as Rosen makes clear in Hermeneutics as Politics, humanity threatens to degenerate into bestiality. Rosen’s defense of the erotic enterprise of philosophy thus turns into a defense of humanity itself. This becomes especially clear in two of his collections of essays, Metaphysics in Ordinary Language (1999) and The Elusiveness of the Ordinary (2002). Rosen maintains that the need for the extraordinary activity of philosophy arises in ordinary experience: “all human beings desire the good life,” and “the good life always participates in philosophy” (1999, p. 232). The ordinary, understood as “the common web of human experience,” is “that from which we make our approach to philosophy” (2002, pp. 296–97). Philosophy must accordingly offer an account of its relation to ordinary experience that establishes its own ability to provide “a plausible response to the needs elicited in human beings by the everywhere compelling features of everyday life” (1999, p. 230). Everyday life, however, is captured neither by Heidegger’s notion of “average everydayness,” which amounts to the “denatured residue of the richness of ordinary experience,” nor by Nietzsche’s conception of the everyday as “the decadent residue of worn-out world-historical epochs” (2002, pp. 295–96). Philosophy must furthermore avoid transforming ordinary experience into a technical artifact, as in the case of Husserlian and Heideggerian phenomenology on the one hand and ordinary language analysis on the other. We may note in this connection that Rosen’s very high ranking of Plato seems to reflect his agreement with Strauss that the Platonic dialogues provide a truer phenomenology of pre-theoretical life, and in particular of the ordinary beginnings of philosophy, than other thinkers have been able to furnish.

Two final points. First, while he learned much from Strauss, Rosen's own thought moves well beyond political philosophy into the domain of metaphysics, about which Strauss essentially remained silent (cf. 2000 with 1992 and 2002, pp. 135-58).  Second, Rosen's platonism is perfectly consistent with his preference for modern enlightenment over the ostensibly more moderate and prudent conservatism of the ancients.  This preference proceeds from the recognition that the modern revolutionary enterprise...[is] more noble than the classical understanding of noble resignation (1999, p. 238).  As Rosen is quick to point out, the insight expressed in this claiim is netiher ancient nor modern. It springs instead from philosophy itself, a way of life that is at all times open to human beings.  The greater nobility of modernity is not the consequence of modern arguments, but rather of the genuine philosophical nobility of the ancients, as manifested in the revolution instigated by Socrates (1989, p. 19.)


This essay was previously published as “Stanley Rosen,” in Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, ed. John Shook (Bristol: Thoemmes, 2005), and is reprinted by kind permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. The author thanks Nalin Ranasinghe, Charles Griswold, and Drew Hyland for their assistance in updating the text.



Death in Egypt: (Golden Goose Press: Columbus: 1952).

Plato’s Symposium: (Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 1968; 2nd rev. ed., 1987).

Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay (Yale University Press, New Haven and London: 1969).

G.W.F. Hegel: An Introduction to the Science of Wisdom (New Haven and London: 1974).

The Limits of Analysis: (Basic Books, New York: 1980).

Plato’s Sophist: The Drama of Original and Image (New Haven and London: 1983).

Hermeneutics as Politics: (Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford: 1987).

The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought (New York and London: 1988).

The Ancients and the Moderns: Rethinking Modernity (New Haven and London: 1989).

The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger (New Haven and London: 1993).

Plato’s Statesman: The Web of Politics (New Haven and London: 1995).

The Mask of Enlightenment: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York and Cambridge: 1995).

Metaphysics in Ordinary Language: (New Haven and London: 1999).

The Elusiveness of the Ordinary: Studies in the Possibility of Philosophy (New Haven and London: 2002).

Plato’s Republic: A Study (New Haven and London: 2005).

La production platonicienne (Presses Universitaires de France: 2005)

Essays on Philosophy: Ancient, ed. Martin Black (St. Augustine’s Press: 2013)

Essays on Philosophy: Modern, ed. Martin Black (St. Augustine’s Press: 2013)

The Idea of Hegel's Science of Logic: (University of Chicago Press: 2014).

Platonic Productions: Theme and Variations: The Gilson Lectures, ed. Andrew German (St. Augustine's Press, 2014).

The Language of Love: An Interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus (St. Augustine's Press, forthcoming).


Further Reading

Bai, Tongdong. “Plato, Strauss, and Political Philosophy: An Interview with Stanley Rosen,” Diotima: A Philosophical Review,

vol. 2 (2001), pp. 3-26.

Friedrich, Volker. “Ich bin ein Gott”: Volker Friedrich im Gespräch mit Karl R. Popper, Max Bense, Gianni Vattimo, Richard

Rorty, Neil Postman, Stanley Rosen, Carl Mitcham (München, 1995).

Hibbs, Thomas. “Modern Ancients: Stanley Rosen’s Achievement,” The Weekly Standard, vol. 8, no. 11 (Nov. 25, 2002), pp. 31-34.

Hill, Geoffrey. “Discourse: For Stanley Rosen,” The New Criterion vol. 21, no. 10 (2003), p. 32.

Ranasinghe, N. (Ed.). Logos and Eros: Essays Honoring Stanley Rosen, (St. Augustine's Press, 2006)

Rosen, Stanley. “Leo Strauss and the Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” Leo Strauss’s Thought, ed. A. Udoff

(Boulder and London: 1991), pp. 91–112.

Rosen, Stanley. “Leo Strauss and the Possibility of Philosophy,” Review of Metaphysics, vol. 53 (2000), pp. 541–64.