“The relation of history to reason,” observes Jurgen Habermas, “remains constitutive for the discourse of modernity—for better or worse” (1987, 392). The worse of it is: the modern premise of reason's imbeddedness in history means that unless we can demonstrate—through an increasingly suspect “grand narrative” of “reason in history”—that history is fundamentally rational, we must accept that reason is fundamentally historical and that all our “knowledge” is merely temporary, local, and arbitrary.
To avoid this collapse into historical relativism, we must reassess the crucial premise: reason's historicity. Why is the modern mind so utterly captivated by the idea that every mind is a prisoner of its times? This question receives its most probing treatment in the work of Leo Strauss. His rediscovery of the theory of esotericism—which is the premodern understanding of the relation of reason to history—poses important new challenges to the whole historicist paradigm. It points the way to a “posthistoricist” relegitimation of reason through a return to Socratic rationalism.