Mitochondrial Vertigo

September 6, 2010

Richard Rorty’s Last “Spinoza”

Filed under: Rorty,Spinoza — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 3:58 pm
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It occurs to me that it would be good to post this last view of Spinoza offered by Richard Rorty, a revision of an earlier papers he had written. I have not compared the two versions so I can make no claim to changes that Rorty came to,  but Rorty offered me the piece possibly still in draft form to represent his thoughts on Spinoza in the last months of his life – I did not realize he was ill.

To add some reflective thoughts on this version of Spinoza offered by Rorty, although I significantly disagree with a main tenet of his objection, that Spinoza placed “no value” on metaphor, which you find here:

He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome.

reading this piece actually started me thinking rigorously about Spinoza and metaphor, upon which I wrote several times, perhaps most strictly in the post Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination. In this I also feel that Rorty misses something important in Spinoza as he attempts to parse out when we are transcending our finitude and when we are bound by the “language of our tribe”:

One can put this latter point in Habermasian terms by saying that Hegel’s historicism almost, but not quite, enabled him to abandon subject-centered reason for communicative reason. To abandon subject-centered reason is to abandon the idea that clarity can substitute for consensus–the idea that the philosopher can circumvent the language of his or her tribe by finding a short-cut to Truth. It is to abandon the conviction that we shall recognize truth when we see it–an idea which was basic to Spinoza’s thought and which he abbreviated as the doctrine that truth is self-certifying. Spinoza claimed that a perfect and adequate idea—sigillum sui et falsi–could be seen to be such, and therefore seen to be true, simply by possessing it. (Ethics, II, Def. 4 and Prop.13)

Metaphor itself is in a sense circumventing the language of one’s tribe, a way quite akin to holding to the non-representable Truth  – for instance I have always found the linguistic studies of Achilles’s rule-breaking protest speech in the Iliad provoking, even in the same vein I ventured experimentally upon an Antigone solution to language transgression which suggest that there is both a subject-transgressing and language transgressing ethic to Truth commitment. And I think it incorrect to think that Spinoza took a view of the Truth that was in any way Representationalist, or vision-oriented, especially in a way that fixed the “subject’. As he insisted, we must “avoid falling into pictures” (E2p48s) in any Cartesian sense, rather it is our affirmations and denials that structure us and express our powers. Despite what Rorty fears, one does not possess the Truth in Spinoza, that can be certain.

The way that I see it, as Rorty tries to isolate the social bonds of conversability from finitude-escaping in Spinoza I think he misses the way that Spinoza grasps both in one hand without devaluing either in just the same way as he does in his treatment of the “two languages” of the Attributes. For Spinoza one is never detached from one’s community of fellow citizens, human beings and languages, anymore than one is detached from oxygen and atmosphere. One is never in a subject-oriented way staring into the Truth against the truths of your tribe so to speak, but is always caught in variable degrees of power and pleasure, degrees that ultimately undermine any absolute sense of subject.  Rorty in his sensitivity to Truth-hawking fails to see how the embrace of one – the Truth – by Spinoza’s argument enforces (rather than reduces) the other, something that Balibar does an excellent job of illustrating in a braid of Reason and Passion. But this is perhaps just another way of me saying that Rorty is even more of a Spinozist than he realizes as Spinoza would affirm all the values he most cherishes.

Mostly though given that this essay comes back to me due to some Rorty discussion we have been having over at Deontologistics, Rating Philosophers, I wanted to post it again to cenotaph the pleasure of knowing Rorty through his books, and the generosity he showed in the very brief email discussions we had when he was living, given that I was no one of standing. Perhaps he is as much an authentic inheritor of Spinoza’s legacy as anyone.

SPINOZA’S LEGACY, by Richard Rorty

[This is a shortened and revised version of the first of two Spinoza Lectures given at the University of Amsterdam in 1997. The longer version appeared under the title “Is it desirable to love truth?” in Richard Rorty, Truth, politics and ‘post-modernism’ (Assen: Ven Gorcum, 1997).]

If one thinks of philosophy as the love of wisdom, of wisdom as the grasp of truth, and of truth as the accurate representation of an order that exists independently of human language and human history, then may well doubt whether philosophy is possible. Important twentieth-century intellectual movements have denied the existence of such an order. I shall use the term “pragmatism” to characterize this denial, because the alternative—“post-modernism”—has been damaged by profligate overuse.

The quarrel between the pragmatists and their predecessors that has emerged over the last hundred years is something new. It gradually took shape as a result of attempts to resolve an older quarrel—the one that Plato said was between the gods and the giants (that is, between philosophers like Plato himself and materialists like Democritus). That quarrel was about what the natural order is like, not about whether there is such a thing. In what follows, I shall argue that Spinoza’s attempt to overcome Cartesian dualism is the beginning of a train of thought that eventually leads to pragmatism, and thus to the replacement of the old quarrel by a new one.

Plato believed that grasping the natural order of things can bring about blessedness–a kind of happiness of which the animals are incapable, and which results from the realization that something central to human beings is also central to the universe. Blessedness, in this sense, consists in the realization that the intrinsic nature of the universe is on our side.

The materialists also believe that wisdom consists in the grasping of the natural order of things, but they think that no comfort can be derived from contemplating this order. We can derive practical, utilitarian profit from grasping the natural order, but we cannot find consolation in doing so. Mechanistic materialism’s picture of the universe gives us only the sort of cold intellectual satisfaction experienced by Euclid—the kind produced by having successfully brought order to a confusing variety of apparently unrelated items. It cannot produce a sense of harmony between human aspirations and non-human things.

This quarrel was renewed in early modern philosophy when mechanistic accounts of the natural order triumphed over Aristotelian hylomorphic and teleological accounts. In this period, it is exemplified by the opposition between Hobbes and Spinoza. Both men tried to come to terms with an account of the natural order which seems to leaves no place for the kind of happiness that Plato believed human beings might come to have.

Hobbes’s solution was that human beings must use artifice to do what nature cannot do: they must construct a second, political, order, in order to become less fearful and less miserable. Politics, rather than philosophical contemplation, is our only recourse. But Spinoza thought that the new, mechaniistic, account of the natural order could be reconciled with Plato’s ambition–the attainment of blessedness through increased knowledge.

Spinoza’s way of reconciling the new explanations of the way things worked with the hope of such blessedness was to say that there were two equally valid ways of describing the universe: a description in terms of matter and a description in terms of mind. God or Nature could be viewed with equal adequacy under the attribute of extension and under the attribute of thought.

Before Spinoza, it had seemed that one had to choose sides: the gods and the giants could not both be right. If reality was simply atoms and void, then the hope of blessedness was vain. Spinoza claimed that one did not have to choose between the body and the spirit, for the two were, properly understood, one. The natural order, he suggested, is expressed in many ways, only two of which—extension and thought–we are able to grasp. The order and connection of corpuscles is the same as the order and connection of ideas. The mind knows only insofar as the body prospers, and conversely.

Spinoza’s Ethics is filled with propositions that would have struck Plato as paradoxical, as when he tells us that “The more we understand particular things, the more we understand God” (V, Prop. 24). Throughout the Ethics, Spinoza insists that the ascetics are wrong: the more active the body is, the more penetrating the mind. Bodily activity, the interaction of the body with many different things, goes hand-in-hand with the ascent of the mind toward God. Spinoza is friendlier to the body than any previous admirer of Plato. He is also friendlier to Democritus. He urges us not to be discouraged, as Socrates was, by the absence of good teleological explanations of natural events. For the more you understand about the purely mechanical order and connection of those atoms, the more your mind comes to resemble that of God.

Spinoza’s reconciliation of body and mind, matter and spirit, relies on the notion of equally valid alternative descriptions of the same reality”. But that notion contains the seeds of its own destruction. For once we allow it into philosophy, the very idea of the natural order is in danger. So, therefore, is the idea of philosophy as the quest for knowledge of what is really real.

Before Spinoza it was taken for granted that any two competing descriptions of anything could be compared in point of adequacy. The less adequate description could then be deemed a description of appearance, and the more adequate a description of reality. But as soon as one deploys the idea of equally adequate alternative descriptions, one will wonder whether it matters whether one is talking about the same reality in two equally valid vocabularies, or about two different appearances of the same underlying reality. As soon as one begins to raise that question, one begins the slide from Spinoza’s utterly knowable universe to Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself. For if two irreconcilable descriptions can both somehow be valid, is there any reason to believe that either has anything to do with things as they are in themselves–things as undescribed?

Once one raises the latter question, one is on the brink of a slippery slope.. As soon as one stops saying, with Plato, that the body and the atoms are mere appearances of something else, and says instead that they are the universe described in one very useful way among other very useful ways, one may wonder if there is any better test of a descriptive vocabulary than its utility for human purposes. Perhaps Protagoras had a point: maybe man is the measure of all things. Why not think of descriptive vocabularies as tools rather than attempts at representational accuracy? Why not drop the question of how things are in themselves, and instead devote oneself to the question of which descriptive vocabularies get us what we want? The slide from Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself to Nietzsche’s and William James’ pragmatism thus becomes as precipitous as the slide from Spinoza to Kant.

Pragmatists suggest that to have an order is simply to be described in a language, and that no language is any more natural–any closer to the way things really are–than any other. Any descriptive vocabulary comprehensive enough to relate lots of the things we talk about to lots of other such things is a description of an ordered universe. But once one starts thinking in terms of equally valid descriptions, the idea that nature might have a preferred self-description begins to seem merely quaint. Nature under a description will always exhibit an order. But nature undescribed in any human language? That is simply the thing-in-itself–an utterly useless notion, a philosopher’s plaything, a toy rather than a tool.

In short, the more one thinks about alternative languages for talking about nature, the less need there is to think about the nature of nature. The possibility arises that one might become blessed by contriving a new language for human beings to speak, rather than by getting in touch with something non-human. The old idea that blessedness can be obtained by getting in touch with a natural order begins to be replaced by the new idea that blessedness might be obtained by finding a new way to talk. Hobbes’ suggestion that artifice is needed to do what nature cannot do begins to sound more plausible.

This suggestion was taken up by the Romantics, who attempt to achieve blessedness by self-creation—by becoming a lamp rather than a mirror. Once one begins to think of languages as artifacts, it seems natural to supplement Hobbes’ account of the genesis of political artifacts can be supplemented by Shelley’s account of the role of the poetic imagination in intellectual and moral progress.

The effect of thinking about language is to turn the attention of philosophers away from the natural sciences. By the time of Shelley and Hegel, mathematics and physics no longer dominate the philosophical scene. The willingness to talk Galilean mechanics as a paradigmatic intellectual achievement, which was common to Hobbes and Spinoza, begins to seem quaint. For Kant had already suggested that the language of natural science should be thought of as useful for some purposes and not for others: the vocabulary deployed by Verstand has little connection with that deployed by praktische Vernunft. The description of the world in terms of atoms and the void is obviously good for technology, but useless for morality and for poetry. But technological purposes have no natural priority others. One could claim they do only by reviving the appearance-reality distinction that Spinoza’s notion of equally adequate descriptions had undermined.


I have been singling out one element in Spinoza’s thought–the idea of equally valid description in different languages—and suggesting how it can be seen a turning-point in the history of philosophy. It is the point at which one begins to stop looking backward to Plato and Democritus, and starts looking forward to Romanticism, Nietzsche, and pragmatism. But looking at Spinoza’s role in the history of philosophy in this way is, of course, to neglect Spinoza’s own deepest conviction: that every apparent diversity will be resolved when one takes a larger view: that the more things are related to one another, the less problematic they become.

Spinoza thought that there is always a hidden unity to be found behind every apparent variety. The success of mathematical physics at finding simple and elegant laws confirmed a view he also expressed in theological and political terms: he urged behind the many vocabularies in which men speak of God and of the socio-political order there is a single natural order to be discerned. Every way of worshiping God, like each way of ordering society, has the same end. To believe otherwise, Spinoza thought, is to let the imagination take the place of the intellect.

Although Spinoza was less ascetic, friendlier to the body, than had previously seemed compatible with the pursuit of blessedness, he was no friendlier to the imagination, or to poetry, or to artifice, than were Plato and Savanarola at their worst. Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind—the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness.

Spinoza’s hostility to metaphor and artifice is clearest in the Theologico-Political Treatise. In that book, he helped prepare the way for the Enlightenment’s ecumenical conviction that all religions come down to the same thing. The differences between them are merely differences in the local situations of human beings, and of the consequent differences in their imaginations. Trying to break free of fundamentalist literalism, Spinoza tries to translate Scripture from the language of the imagination into something more like the language of the intellect. He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome.

Just as truth is one though unfortunately expressed in diverse metaphors, so true religion is one, though prophecies are many. “The power of prophecy”, Spinoza says, “implies not a peculiarly perfect mind, but a peculiarly vivid imagination”. (TPT, 19) Religious ceremonies are many, but blessedness is one. “Ceremonies are no aid to blessedness, but only have reference to temporal prosperity” (TPT, 70). Christ was an improvement on Moses because “he taught only universal moral precepts, and [therefore] promises a spiritual instead of a temporal reward.” (TPT, Elwes translation, 70) “The nature of natural divine law,” he says, is “universal or common to all men, for we have deduced it from universal human nature” (61), and “it does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever.” Adam could have as good a grasp of the divine law and of human nature as we ourselves, for history has added nothing to human knowledge, other than an increased ability to gain “temporal rewards”.

Metaphor, history and diversity are firmly relegated by Spinoza to the realm of what, following Descartes, he thinks of as confused ideas. New metaphors can only heap confusion on confusion. The eternal, the true, and the clear are names for the same thing: God or Nature rightly understood, understood as a whole rather than in part. Spinoza is an utterly convinced adherent of the doctrine Kierkegaard called “Socratism”: the historical moment does not matter, for the teacher is merely an occasion. What Christ said in parables can better be said more geometrico.

Hegel said that nobody can be a philosopher who is not first a Spinozist. He meant, among other things, that nobody can take philosophy–as opposed to poetry and prophecy–seriously who does not hope to see everything converge, come together, form a systematic unity. To be a philosopher in this sense, you have to yearn for a natural order. You need to take the reality-appearance distinction, and the literal-metaphorical distinction, very seriously indeed.

Paradoxically, enough, however, it was Hegel who, following up on Vico and Herder, suggested that philosophers take historical narratives seriously. He was the first to make plausible the idea that constructing such a narrative might yield better results than proceeding more geometrico. His own narratives suggest the possibility that we can let the distinction between earlier ideas and later ideas take the place of the Cartesian distinction between the confused ideas of the imagination and the clear ideas of the intellect. This proposal was taken up by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s narrative about the West’s liberation from Platonism, and Heidegger’s counter-narrative, are at the heart of their respective philosophies. If Hegel brought historical narrative into philosophy, both by precept and example, Nietzsche and Heidegger brought metaphor into it. Those two helped us break down the barriers between philosophy and poetry, and overcome Plato’s conviction that philosophy and poetry are related as the higher to the lower.

As long as languages are viewed, as they were in the seventeenth century, as alternative ways of expressing the same limited range of ideas, it will be hard to take either history or metaphor seriously. It will be easy to think that philosophy’s task is to rise above diversity and to seek simplicity of utterance. But Hegel helped us get rid of the seventeenth century’s “way of ideas” by casting doubt on the Cartesian notion of “clarity and distinctness” and the Lockean notion of “simplicity”. He was, as Wilfrid Sellars remarked, the great foe of immediacy. Yet Hegel was unable to take the step that Nietzsche and Heidegger went on to take–the step away from quasi-scientific sysematicity. From the point of view of post-¦Nietzschean thought, Hegel looks like a man with one foot in each camp: historicist enough to have become a pragmatist, yet Platonist enough to have remained a metaphysician.

One can put this latter point in Habermasian terms by saying that Hegel’s historicism almost, but not quite, enabled him to abandon subject-centered reason for communicative reason. To abandon subject-centered reason is to abandon the idea that clarity can substitute for consensus–the idea that the philosopher can circumvent the language of his or her tribe by finding a short-cut to Truth. It is to abandon the conviction that we shall recognize truth when we see it–an idea which was basic to Spinoza’s thought and which he abbreviated as the doctrine that truth is self-certifying. Spinoza claimed that a perfect and adequate idea—sigillum sui et falsi–could be seen to be such, and therefore seen to be true, simply by possessing it. (Ethics, II, Def. 4 and Prop.13)

The idea that metaphor and imagination will never be eliminated, and that moral progress is made possible by the imagination producing ever new metaphors, chimes with the idea that rationality is a matter of finding agreement among human beings, rather than of discovering which ideas are adequate to reality. For now the political problem–the problem of creating social cooperation between human beings–becomes a problem of tolerating alternative fantasies rather than of eliminating fantasy in favor of truth. The question is not how to get human beings to live in accordance with nature but of how to get them to live in the same community with people those who have very different notions about what is most important in human life.

In this respect, Habermas and Dewey are the heirs of Hobbes–of the idea that political artifice replaces philosophical contemplation as the source of a higher, specifically human, form of happiness. The thesis that the hope for objectivity is nothing more nor less than a hope for intersubjective agreement goes hand in hand with the thesis that no language is more adequate to reality than any other language. But that means giving up the distinction between clear and confused ideas. There is no room for that distinction once one gives up the correspondence theory of truth.


So far I have been suggesting a way of looking at the development of philosophical thought since Spinoza’s time. I shall conclude by turning to the question I broached at the outset: of whether a pragmatist–someone who has given up the goal of achieving an accurate representation of the natural order of things–can still love wisdom? What, if anything, can a pragmatist, mean by “loving truth”, or by “achieving wisdom”?

The difference between the pragmatists and their opponents is that between treating the capitalized noun “Truth” as an unhappily hypostatized adjective and as the name of something that deserves to be loved. On the pragmatist view, the adjective “true” is a perfectly useful tool, but the use of the noun “Truth” as the name of an object of desire is a relic of an earlier time: the time in which we believed that there was a natural order to be grasped.

I have been arguing that Spinoza’s suggestion that two vocabularies which cannot be translated into one another may nevertheless be equally valid opened the door led to pragmatism, and thus to doubt about the idea of an object called “The Truth”. But if truth not a possible object of love, then it would seem that Socrates and Spinoza were simply deceived. . That is an insufferably condescending way to describe men for whom most of us feel an instinctive and deep attraction.

This was a perplexity Nietzsche experienced. He sometimes speaks of Socrates as the sardonic iconoclast who betrayed the tragic sense of human greatness, and thus diminished us. But elsewhere he praises him as a model of intellectual honesty. Analogously, Nietzsche sometimes pays Spinoza the highest compliment he can imagine by calling him his own precursor. (Letter to Overbeck, July 30, 1881) but sometimes describes him as “a sophisticated vengeance-seeker and poison-brewer” (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 25). In the latter mood, Nietzsche thinks of Spinoza as someone who presented his own heart’s desire as if it were the product of cold, impersonal, inquiry. (BGE 5).

Nietzsche wanted, but did not find, a way of praising the courageous daring of the lives lived by Socrates and Spinoza, while continuing to reject the rhetoric of truth-seeking both employed. The awkward position in which he was placed by his instinctive sympathy with these two figures was a symptom of his vacillation about truth. It is not easy to reconcile Nietzsche’s repeatedly proclaimed love of knowledge and truth with his perspectivism and his pragmatism. It is as easy to find passages in which Nietzsche says contradictory things about Truth as it is to find passages in which he says contradictory things about Socrates or Spinoza.

A pragmatist like myself who is also an admirer of Spinoza has to find some other reason to praise Spinoza than his God-intoxication, his overwhelming desire to emend his intellect in order to achieve union with the divine mind. The best solution to this problem, I think, is to construe the love of Truth as an attitude toward one’s fellow human beings rather than as an attitude toward something that transcends humanity and its history. Then one can praise Spinoza for his conversability rather than for his desire to transcend finitude.

When we praise a scientist or scholar for the love of Truth what we often have in mind is simply her open-mindedness: her curiosity about opinions different from their own, tolerance for the existence of such opinions, and willingness to modify their own views. When we say that someone loves truth more than self we sometimes mean simply that he or she respects his or her colleagues enough to prefer a view with which they can all, freely and peaceably, come to agree upon to the view he or she herself presently holds. Construed in this way, the love of Truth is simply conversability—a tolerant absence of fanaticism, a willingness to hear the other side.

The affection Spinoza generates in his readers is the sort we feel for someone who brings out the best in us by assuring us that there is something in what we say, that we are guilty of nothing more than premature enthusiasm. Spinoza, the critic of asceticism, does not chastise us, but instead advises us how we can more frequently experience hilaritas (an affect which, Spinoza said, cannot be in excess.). We cherish Spinoza for some or the same reasons we admire Hume, a philosopher with whose doctrines Spinoza’s have little in common. We think of them as typifying the Enlightment at its best—as enemies of fanaticism and friends of open-mindedness.

To praise Spinoza for the attitudes towards his fellow humans he shared with Hume obviously does not require that we accept a definition of truth as adequate representation of a natural order. It does not even require the Habermasian doctrine that argumentative inquiry is a quest for universal validity. The whole idea of a quasi-object which functions as the goal of a quest–either the Platonic idea of a natural order or the Habermasian idea of a set of universally valid beliefs–can be set aside if we construe the love of Truth conversability. The Platonist and Spinozist image of all things coming together in a single vision can be replaced by the image of a maximally free and rich form of human sociability. The unity of mankind, from this perspective, is not a product of human beings’ ability to share a common understanding of a natural order, but rather of their willingness to tolerate, and to try to see the best in, each others’ fantasies.

But there is still another way to construe the love of Truth. Rather than thinking of it either as the desire for the blessedness which would result from the grasp of a natural order, or as conversability, we can also construe it as a form of truthfulness–the quality of being true to oneself. Sometimes when we say that the love of Truth is a virtue we simply mean that honesty, sincerity and truth-telling are virtues. But sometimes we mean something more, as when we praise Blake or Kierkegaard for having had the courage to stick to their guns–to hold on to their central insight, the truth as they saw it, even when everybody thought they were crazy. Such courage is yet another of the virtues for which we praise Socrates, who stood by his central beliefs despite the fact that this made him almost unintelligible to his contemporaries.

Pragmatists, I would suggest, should think of the love of truth as an attempt to combine conversability with the courage to stick to one’s deepest convictions. Such a combination is not easy, but Socrates, Spinoza and Hume achieved something like it. They managed to synthesize the virtues of the virtues of the self-involved genius with those of a conversable companion and useful citizen. They thereby brought the metaphysical and strange together with the literal and familiar.

The idea that we all have a duty to love truth is, for a pragmatist, the idea that we should all aim at such a synthesis. The reason we are so inclined to hypostasize Truth, to turn the adjective “true” into a capitalized noun, is that we would like to overcome the tensions between idiosyncracy and conversability by finding a language that commensurates all languages, a master-tool which coordinates the uses of all lesser tools. We hypostatize the idea of such a language into the idea of a natural order, and we think of the adequate representation of that order as providing us with such a master-tool.

If Hegel is right that anyone must be a Spinozist if he or she is to be a philosopher, then nobody can take an interest in philosophy who has never been intrigued by the thought of such commensuration, of a master-language. One’s imagination will not be gripped either by the figure of Socrates or by that of Spinoza unless one is fascinated by the possibility of such commensuration. There are many people who are not fascinated by this possibilty, and whose imagination is not so gripped. Pragmatists think that that is not a matter for rebuke–that a lack of interest in philosophy is not a vice. In the sense in which one must be a Spinozist in order to philosophize, philosophy is not a universal human concern, nor should it be.

Not everyone has a duty to take an interest either in the quarrel between Plato and Democritus or in that between metaphysicians and pragmatists. any more than it is compulsory to care about the differences between Catholicism and Calvinism, or about those between Christians and noncChristians. As William James said, for some people Christianity is simply not a live or forced option–not something that they need think about. The same goes for philosophy.

As pragmatists see the matter, someone who has little or no interest in either religious or philosophical questions should not be told that he or she has a duty to seek answers to those questions, or a duty to justify his lack of interest to others. Before the Enlightenment we told that we also had duties to God. The Enlightenment told us that we also had duties to Reason. But pragmatists think that our only duties are to ourselves and to other human beings. Socrates, Spinoza and Hume are heroic figures because they performed both sets of duties exceptionally well.

Richard Rorty

April 25, 2006

June 21, 2010

Notes on the Pantheism Controversy

Filed under: Pantheism Controversy — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 8:11 pm
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posted because of some limited discussion over the pantheism controversy over at Perverse Egalitarianism here

These are some of my reading notes on the so named Pantheism Controversy which sparked a revolution in German philosophical thought and art. I post them here because there is very little actually on the controversy available on the internet or even in many texts. They have not been proofed, and simply stand as they are…notes:

  1. Lessing dies Feb 15 1781 (104 years after Spinoza had died).
    1. Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a very close personal friend of Lessing plans to write a book on the esteemed character of Lessing.
    2. Newly emergent friend of Lessing (since May 1779), Jacobi, hearing of this book, writes with some subterfuge to Elise Reimarus, telling that Lessing late in life confessed his Spinozism to him (knowing that Mendelssohn would be informed, and disturbed by the accusation).
      1. i.      Being a Spinozist was the social/intellectual equivalent of being both an atheist and a blasphemer.
    3. Mendelssohn questions just which version of Spinoza’s thought Lessing might have acceded to, as there was great variety in the understanding, or even availability of his texts, much of it wildly mischaracterized. He requests a clarification of what Spinozism Lessing might have inadvertently agreed with.
    4. Jacobi sends 36 pages in quartos to Mendelssohn, an in depth dialogue of philosophical sharing, which quite frankly shocks Mendelssohn who had felt that he intimately knew  the sum of Lessing’s beliefs. Mendelssohn is angered and hurt by his ignorance of this “great secret”.
  2. Jacobi’s report would later be published as Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, in Letter’s to Herr Moses Mendelssohn.
    1. It tells how Jacobi once showed an unpublished Goethe poem (“Prometheus”) to Lessing, containing the lines addressing Zeus “Was it not omnipotent Time / That forged me into manhood, / And eternal Fate, / My master and yours”.
    2. Lessing responds stating that the poem conveys his own feelings against the notion of a divinity separable from creation, invoking his notion of the Hen kai pan, The One and All, admitting himself to be a kind of Spinozist.
    3. The next morning Lessing raises the issue of the Hen kai pan, challenging Jacobi’s idea of a “personal, extra-mundane God”, stating that he considers it “human prejudice” to “consider the idea as primary and supreme, and want to derive everything from it”
      1. i.      Jacobi: You are going further than Spinoza. Understanding (Einsicht) was everything to him.

Lessing: Only so far as human beings are concerned! He was, however, far from considering as the best method our wretched way of acting according to intentions and giving the idea pride of place.

  1. Jacobi ends the Spinoza discussion by revealing that Spinoza has convinced him that the power of Spinoza’s rational conclusions (pantheism, “deification of the world”, i.e. atheism) forces one to leave rational philosophy behind in favor of philosophical faith. The entire aim of the expose is a philosophical attack on the authority of the Berlin Aufklärung.
  2. Before Jacobi had published his account Mendelssohn publishes a preemptive Morning Hours, or Lectures on the Existence of God, which specifically addresses a fundamental difference between theism (An Infinite One which brings a separate Finite Many into existence) and pantheism.
    1. He attempts to sanitize any future claim to Lessing’s Spinozist pantheism by pointing out that a “refined pantheism” can affirm the basic tenants of theism: a free act of creation, and the objective existence of creation outside God, calling the position harmless. Such a refined pantheism is not developed though.
      1. i.      He claims that Lessing was attempting to reconcile pantheism with “the truths of morality and religion”, cut short only by his death.
    2. Jacobi publishes his Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza, violating decorum and trust by including the text of private letters from both Mendelssohn and Elise Reimarus.
    3. Mendelssohn, old and sick, rushes To the Friends of Lessing to the presses. On Dec 31st 1785 he hurries into the Berlin winter without a coat, trying to get to the publisher. Four days later, in bed, he dies. The Pantheism Controversy claims its first victim.
      1. i.      There Jacobi is called out for using the accusation of Lessing’s Spinozism as a mere tool against the Berlin Aufklärung. Spinoza’s metaphysics are supposed to lead to a Godless nihilism, from which one can only turn to faith.
      2. ii.      Lessing is noted for his irony and humor, and Jacobi is implied to have been taken in by Lessing’s subtlety: the esoteric Lessing must be separated out from the exoteric, dogmatic Lessing.
      3. iii.      The question remains, was Lessing a rational Theist or a Spinozist?
  3. Reason = Nihilism: Jacobi’s portrayal of atheistic Spinozism as the acme of rationality was so dangerous to the Berlin Enlightenment because it conceptually linked Reason itself to the abandonment of religion, but also State authority over religion.
    1. This threat was further complicated by Spinoza’s own Theological-Political Treatise which exegetically turned the Bible into just another document of human history.
  4. Kant essentially assumed the Jacobi reduction of Spinozism, due to the potential of obvious political alienation would be forced to take up the defense of the authority of reason within his own particular system: He was not a Spinozist.
    1. Kant learns of the Pantheism Controversy through Hamann in late 1784, reading Jocabi’s Buchlein, pronouncing that he approved of the presentation and that Spinoza’s system had never made much sense to him.
      1. i.      Kant had not read closely because in a footnote Jacobi had claimed that passages in the Critique of Pure Reason were completely in the spirit of Spinoza.
        1. This association was the beginning of Jacobi’s general lumping of Kant with Spinozism.
      2. ii.      There is no evidence that, like many others had, Kant felt the need to make study of Spinoza.
    2. Oct 16, 1785 Mendelssohn sends Kant a copy of his Morning Thoughts, and Kant finds it filled with the same rationalist arguments in theology that he had refuted in the First Critique.
      1. i.      Kant recoils that in the prefatory remarks he has been labeled “all-destroying”.
      2. ii.      Kant disciple Schütz urges Kant to attack Mendelssohn as some had read it as a refutation of the First Critique.
        1. Schütz is only allowed to publish Kant’s lettered response “the last testament of dogmatic metaphysics and at the same time its most perfect product” along with his own review of Morning Thoughts.
    3. Jacobi yearns to know what Kant thinks of his position, but Hamann replies that Kant told him that “he has never studied Spinoza and, being taken up in his own system, that he has neither time or desire to get involved with anyone else’s” (Nov 30 1785).
    4. In January things change. After Mendelssohn dies vaguely at the hands of Jacobi, Herz and Biester urge Kant to take up Mendelssohn’s cause, and come to the aid of the Berlin Aufklärung.
      1. i.      Kant says that he might do something to expose this attempt of Jacobi to make a name for himself through farce and hocus pocus.
    5. In February a Jena publication carries an announcement of Jacobi’s work and denouncing Jacobi’s loose association of Kant to Spinoza.
      1. i.      March 24 Jacobi confesses to Hamann that he had been too cavalier associating Kant and Spinoza, but warned that if Kant joined the “mongrel dogs” of Berlin he would regret it.
    6. In May Hamann passed Jacobi’s new pamphlet to Kant, which invokes Kant’s own limits for speculative philosophy.
      1. i.      Hamann reports back that Kant was generally content, and that Kant really would likely remain neutral. He did not want to get involved.
  5. Goethe writes, “Spinoza does not prove the existence of God; existence is God” calling him a theissium and christianissimum. To both Goethe and Herder Spinozism “intrinsic infinity” holism and Lessing’s Hen kai pan seemed to provide a solution for the problems of modern epistemology.
    1. Goethe first reads the Ethics in the summer of 1773.
    2. Goethe, Herder had met with Jacobi in Weimar for a Spinoza conference Sept 1784, but fail to come to agreement. Jacobi failed to gain alliance against Spinoza.
    3. He and von Stein conduct a study of “holy” Spinoza in November of 1784: “I feel very near to him, though his spirit is much deeper and purer than mine”.
    4. Herder, who has been present at some of these readings gave to Goethe and von Stein a Latin copy of the Ethica with the inscription: “Let Spinoza be always for you the holy Christ.”
    5. Early 1785 Goethe writes a short essay adapting him to his own system “Studie nach Spinoza”.
  6. Herder in God, Some Conversations (1787) sets out in dialogue form the basics of Spinozism: One self-dependent Substance which is not the transitive, but the immanent cause of all things, not a cause that breaks in, occasionally, from the “outside”.
    1. The fundamental success of Scientific observation put God at the disadvantage of being unneeded by otherwise well-working mechanism, either entering into it only now and then miraculously, or simply remaining distant like a watchmaker.
    2. Spinoza is said to have a problem of Unity, there being two Attributes (thought and extension). This is seen by Herder to be resolved in the German Leibniz, which makes thought to be the highest grade of organic, “substantial” force, taking God as the Primal Force (Urkraft) in all organic systems of force.
      1. i.      By abandoning the dimension of the extramundane, Neo-Spinozism placed God within the very rational, immanent processes of Nature itself, that shows itself to Scientific inquiry.
    3. Herder also saw Neo-Spinozism as against the kind of personal piety that anthropomorphically reads God as separate from creation, but also at human disposal, as he wrote in a letter to Jacobi “You want God in a human form, as a friend who thinks of you” (Dec 20 1784). The old theologies are dying out.
    4. In letter to Jacobi he also expressed that Jacobi was wrong in how he had interpreted Spinoza’s original Being, ens entium. It was not an empty, property-less thing, but rather a full, positive infinity.
      1. i.      Sub specie aeternitatis properly understood makes the material world the realized reason of God.
  7. Heine, a radical Lutheran saw in Spinoza’s pantheism a removal of the Deist (distant God) Theist (overlooking God) traditional religion belittlements of the Body, the suppression of the flesh.
    1. In mind was Luther’s exposure of the Catholic solution to the problems of suppressing the flesh. The church simply “taxed” sensuality through indulgences.
    2. He wished a restoration of Germanic pre-Christian religions, sensuous pantheism, which Christianity in its spiritualization and abstraction had turned into pan-demonism.
      1. ii.      Spinoza’s embrace of the material world as thoroughly divine would help in the philosophical revolution to put Germany in touch with its Teutonic original mind.
      2. iii.      He predicted that the “demonic” ancient energies of German cult would be dramatically released in revolution that would pale that of the French: Spinozist pantheism hid within itself the neopaganism power of the earth and spirit, and the divinity of humanity.
  8. Hegel: “Spinoza is the high point of modern philosophy; either Spinozism or no philosophy”
    1. Moving in the direction of Herder, Hegel tried to change what he perceived to be a Spinoza static, abstract unity into an active, living Spirit: something of the ancient anima mundi.
      1. i.      The importation of the Negation, and teleological world progress.
    2. Hegel writes to Schelling in 1795 of the ““storm that is gathering above the heads of the oppressors and gods of the earth”.
      1. i.      Schelling writes back “I have become a Spinozist!” tempered by his Fichtean appropriation of Spinoza’s Absolute, and “There is no personal God, and our supreme effort lies in the destruction of our personality, the passage into the absolute sphere of being.”

May 6, 2010

Glass Man Syndrome: Brittle Transparency and Humanity

Filed under: The Glass Man — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 2:15 am
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Below is a brilliant survey of the Glass Man syndrome by Gill Speak, an apparent psychological melancholic disorder that characterized concerns of the early 17th century. I have always felt that Spinoza at his grinding lathe somehow intuited that his work on glass was equivalent to his work on the Ethics, the Ethics being something like a grinding form against which and with which the human body-mind interacted. I did not have much support for this intuition, and still do not, but after listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation”  for the second time – I don’t know why I listened to it again, it’s just one of the more enthused and precise lectures on Spinoza I have heard – I renewed my thoughts on the matter. Selcer does a wonderful job parsing out the famous mentally impaired Spanish poet on the question of what makes you the “same” individual over time, bringing into the equation Cervantes’ short novella “The Glass Graduate” about an intellectual who believes he has been turned into glass, with the result that, like a super computer, due to speed of transmission in his substance he is able to achieve unconventional intelligence. Cervantes writes:

As Gill Speaks shows this man of Glass conception was somehow symptomatic of the newly modern age, and as Descartes in his mediations refers to the example as a form of madness, and as melancholic Constantin Huygens (friend of Descartes) also wrote of the Glass delusion, and as Spinoza spent some time in the Huygens household among the sons, it does find a curious constellation of associations. Spinoza the glass worker and philosophical psychologist, and the case of the Glass Man.

Most notable is that the Glass Man is he who fears any contact with others and the world,  for fear that he will shatter, and Spinoza’s advisement that Good and Evil are simply judgements of interaction with external effects, some which will destroy us, some preserve us. And then there is the issue and image of speed and transmission. At the very least a powerful image of knowledge, thought and body to weigh. Is the pragma of the intellectual not the moated ivory tower of academic institutions, but rather the man of glass?

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April 23, 2010

Muay Thai: Martial Art of Spinozist Clarity

Spinoza and the Downward Elbow

The philosopher Spinoza – and those readers come from my past incarnation at Frames /sing know that I am a radical Spinozist thinker – challenged that he would write of the emotions as if they were the lines and planes of Euclid. The things most unclear, he would make crystal. I and my wife are recently returned from Thailand, a two month trip that almost exclusively involved her fulltime training and fighting in the Thai art Muay Thai (which means merely Thai boxing). After a few years of dedicated one on one training under a Thai instructor here in the states, it was time to see the art in its organic context, the country of its birth and most acute and aesthetically pure practice. To see,  learn and fight. I trained as well for the first month, but our raison d’être was my wife’s dedication the sport. And the training is grueling, in a beautiful way.

For those who don’t know, aside from the sub-culture influence of the Tony Jaa action film Ong Bak (2003) which featured the unsurpassed Muay Boranish “fightclub” scene below (note the issues of Nationalism and class, no translation is needed) …

Muay Thai is a martial art most recently brought to public’s awareness through the rise of MMA cage sports which have vied for the post-boxing entertainment dollar. It’s most basic movements help form the blueprint of the “standup” aspects of MMA fighting (along with Western boxing), although what comes through such a negotiation of techniques and rules really isn’t Muay Thai any longer. In the Western eye Muay Thai gained much of its reputation for being seen as especially brutal, as it employs not only kicks and punches but makes proficient use of elbow and knee strikes (whose dynamism can be seen exaggeratedly in the Jaa clip above). Muay Thai is seeping aesthetically into the Western consciousness in much the same way that so-called Kung Fu populated the American mind in the 70’s with near definitional power. Now when heros fight on film they use trademark Muay Thai blows as proof of their virility, even Sherlock Holmes delivers a fight-ending (?) prototypical Muay Thai front kick in Robert Downey jr.’s recent modernization of the cerebral cluefinder.

Nation, Class and Movement

Aside from these spectacular influences and imaginations, the Muay Thai of Thailand is quite different. It is the national sport and woven into the fabric of Thai notions of nationhood, masculinity and aesthetics, perhaps to even a greater degree than baseball is in America. Whole swathes of Thai society – and most fighters come from the poorer ethnic minority regions to the Northeast, Isan, just as much of the sex trade industry draws Isan women – are devoted to Muay Thai as a sport. Every Thai boy (and very, very rare girls) dream of becoming a Buakaw or a Sanchai or Yodsanklai (ironically, Buakaw who is possibly the most recognized Muay Thai fighter in the world earned his standing fighting in Japanese K-1 max tournaments which bar a great deal of what makes Muay Thai what it is – elbows and clinching). It is perhaps fair to say that unless you understand Muay Thai, you will fail to understand Thailand, and Muay Thai is only something I’m beginning to understand.

It’s an interesting martial art and sport, and this is the aspect that brought me to write. Firstly, it is designed for smaller framed people. Its emphasis on speed and directness of impact is difficult to properly carry out by heavy-bodied people. For this reason the well-muscled Western men who often gravitate towards fighting simply distort its forms and application – its essential, full-bodied whiplike action – often beyond recognition. It is not a big man’s art, and some of the best Muay Thai in thailand is fought by the innumerable 12 and 14 year olds in rural festivals throughout the countryside and towns. Secondly, it is a martial art whose logic was organized by warfare itself. It was assumed that in battle you would lose a weapon, would experience injury. So the thought goes, if you lose a spear the same motion of attack can be accomplished with a fist or an elbow. If you injure your lower leg, strike in the same manner with a knee. It is designed around the attrition of battle, and because it heritage is thinking in terms of battles there is great emphasis on ending the combat as soon as possible. There is an incredible economy of motion and directness in the under-structure of Muay Thai.

Part of this directness comes through in the training of Muay Thai. Instead of elaborate katas (pre-formed, repetitions of attack and defense) that have to be memorized as you pass through levels of “belts” and authority – the only belts in Muay Thai are the belts won in stadiums – the blows are elemental. Within a week of hard training you can achieve a modest efficacy that surely would make you dangerous to some significant degree. Though there are deep subtleties in techniques that can take decades to perfect, the basic movements can be taught very quickly and practiced with real world consequence. The art is extremely pragmatic, and grounded in this world. There is nothing etherial about it (unless you see it practiced by the highly skilled). It is a plebian art.

Another feature that is of interest is that the greatest difficulty Westerns have in learning Muay Thai (and much of what is taught in the United States in gyms may not qualify), is that in order to strike properly you have to relax to an incredible degree. The fight impulse in the Western masculine conception is a clenched brutality. For a Thai the threat of violence is met with relaxation. It is not an elevated spiritual principle, but rather more a psychological aesthetic of the person and body. When you watch Muay Thai matches they are most often characterized by the opponents standing within range of each other, calming trading and receiving blows, some of which are blocked, some not. Principal is to never look desperate to strike or react. Often after a blow the receiver just shrugs. Emphasized is the display of a nonchalance, but a nonchalance that is explosive. Fights are only 5 rounds, and the first round often isn’t even spent attacking. Opponents will mostly tap each other and rock in a sleepy motion with almost no intent to harm. Usually not until the 3rd round is action full-force. Counter to Western ideals, backing up is seldom penalized and is often seen as a sign of strength.

What occurred to me as my wife trained and fought there (and Western women are having an interesting impact on the traditional highly masculine sphere of Muay Thai boxing), was the ways that Muay Thai as both an art and a sport was something of a Spinozist art incarnate. The directness and simplicity of its powerful blows and defenses spoke of Spinoza’s aim to speak of the world of the affects like a geometer. The absolute economy of closely arced kicks were a Spinozist dream of motion. It’s teachable modes of training matched the common man democracy powers that Spinoza championed when he claimed that each person has as much right as the power he has to act. Non-reactive aesthetics of calm eruption coupled with a pragmatism that makes weapons out of the weaponless is ideal to Spinoza’s world of possibilities. It is this that always struck me when I was there. It is the actionability of a person.

April 16, 2010

Standing for the King

Filed under: Thailand — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 4:48 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

There was an odd sensation – is that what it was, a sensation – when everyone in the theater began to stand before the film had started. There actually were very few of us waiting to see Burton’s cockamamie Alice which made it all the more odd and curious. A beautiful commercial/homage to the King of Thailand – who is the only King Thailand has ever known in more than sixty years of  “modern” times – dramatically played. It was more moving than anything the Republicans artfully produced from Reagan to Bush. You almost felt a soul pervade the room as the human characteristics of Thai esteem – images of gentleness, compassion, intellect, adventure – struck cords in your own person. What was most surprising was all the intellectual and emotional defense mechanisms against media manipulation that have helped organize me as an American subject, the kinds of disavowal that distance me automatically from powerful ideological effects whether they be the inundations of product advertisements or political spin-heads on tv, paid me little defense. The sense of the King, the sensation of the King of Thailand (a country I was coming to love), swept through me. One understood that “glue” of a King, as some theorists like to say “the body of a King”. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, nor entirely a transportive one, but as the financial, military and affective teeth of two sides in the Thai conflict begin to be shown – and it may get bloody – there is something to learn from Kingship. We do decry these authoritarian, imaginary modes of identification, large scale projections of health into the air, atmosphere or photograph, modes by which we are “enslaved”. But these are also modes of congruence, excelerators of agreements whose power to hold the disperate should not be simple-mindedly dismissed. It seems that indeed they should be criticized, dismantled, laid bare, but as well, what they are doing must appreciated as well. It is I think a question of history and aesthetics, and more even of aesthetics. There are many Kings.

As a Spinozist I for some time thought that the war against imaginary relations was univocal and persistent, each and every imaginary relation as it was encountered in the world is better to be de-composed. This was I think a fundamental misunderstanding of the imaginary in Spinoza. The biggest realization is that Spinoza operates from a thorough-going skepticism and humility, a sense of the ironic absurd, one in which even mathematics is imaginary. Imaginary relations are real, embodied powerful things, doing real conatus-driven things in the world. There is no such thing as an inherently bad (or worse evil) imaginary relation. It took me a long time of reading Spinoza to realize this. I hope there is not going to be much theory on this blog, but it will I guess poke through. Most of the time I encounter those that want to go about destroying pernicious imaginary relations in the world I sense that we are dealing with one more very complex, not quite compassionate, highly affective, imaginary relation again. Battles of imagination.

That I encountered this as prelude to Burton’s own privatization of Alice is just one more bit of illuminating irony. Alice who ends as the self-empowered female CEO who starts the Opium wars. Is that what she has become?…hilarious, and digestive.

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