Month: October 2014

Spinoza and Intellectual Fashion

Let’s for a moment indulge in a thought experiment and imagine that intellectual disciplines have conjointly formed a country, and that each has taken the form of a major geographic feature. Literature, for example, with its depth of color and rich and ever-changing reflective surfaces, could be a lake; history a river. My vote for philosophy is that it be a mountain—a cragly, sloping surface built up over the ages, owing its origin to the collision of overwhelming tectonic changes. Its impassive presence would tower over everything around it, tempting its visitors to grapple with it, climb its sloping sides, and reach its summit. This mountain would beckon—indeed it would dare you—to mine its treasures. Its most distinguishable quality, however, would be its stability, the seeming quality of always having been “there.” The reason is that change comes to philosophy ever so gradually, for ideas are not easily discovered. Indeed, philosophy is the least teleological of disciplines. Whitehead aptly quipped in Process and Reality that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Of all the disciplines, therefore, philosophy ought to be the least subject to the contingencies of intellectual fashion.

For this reason, I’ve often wondered at the extent to which intellectual fashion might undergird a philosopher’s influence and reputation. Let’s for example take the case of Spinoza. It is hard to accept that intellectual fashion has much sway at all about how we interpret and understand Spinoza. Indeed, my first impulse is to be wise enough not to associate such a towering figure with the whims of fashion. His long-cemented influence is beyond question, even if his reputation, much on the rise now, has had its ebbs and flows. The form of his writings, moreover, from the deductive rigor of his “geometrical” method to the learned philology of his hermeneutical treatises ought to make him especially immune to the contingencies of fashion.  Yet this is why his case is so interesting, for in spite of philosophy’s seeming stability, here we have an example highlighting the centrality of intellectual fashion in philosophical interpretation.

Before getting to the details specific to Spinoza, let me ground what I mean by intellectual fashion in philosophy by appealing to what Heidegger in Being and Time calls Stimmung, variously translated as “mood” or “attunement.” For Heidegger, mood is a world-disclosing phenomenon. This means that the way the world appears to us, how we understand and relate to the world, is a function of mood. Mood is not something extraneous from us, but constitutive of who we are. It arises neither from the “outside” nor from the “inside,” but from “out of Being-in-the-world, as a way of such being.” Phenomenologically speaking, mood is an environment in which we are deeply immersed, not an interior or exterior condition apart from us. Mood is therefore a condition for the possibility of understanding the world and relating to it. As such, mood is prior to and coextensive with reflection.

Another characteristic of mood is that it applies not only to individuals–it also has a social dimension. There is nothing new in saying that the way we perceive the world is culturally conditioned. However, understanding this conditioning through the phenomenon of mood widens our perspective of just how such a conditioning works. Here I come to my point: if we extend our understanding of mood to the present discussion, we can say that in the world of ideas, intellectual fashion is the social expression of Stimmung.

Now back to Spinoza. Here I do not focus on the substance of Spinoza’s metaphysics nor on his reflections on religion and politics, only on how two interpreters frame their presentation of this philosopher. This frame is part of the scaffolding that a contemporary interpreter needs to build in order to make intelligible the writings of a philosopher that lived in a world, and spoke a language, different from our own. This scaffolding therefore must precede any later discussion about the substance of a philosopher’s work.

In a recent essay, the Spinoza biographer and scholar Steven Nadler writes about a latter-day attempt by the Portuguese-Jewish community of Amsterdam–the very community that in 1656 excommunicated Spinoza–to lift the ban against this great thinker. As one of four scholars consulted by the community, Nadler recommended that “there were no good historical or legal reasons for lifting the ban, and rather good reasons against lifting it.” He writes:

The ban against Spinoza was the harshest ever issued by the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community. Though the writ speaks of “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds,” without telling us exactly what they were, for anyone who has read Spinoza’s philosophical treatises, there really is no mystery as to why he was expelled. In those works, Spinoza rejects the providential God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; insists that the Bible is not literally of divine origin but just a haphazard (and “mutilated”) compilation of human writings handed down through the centuries; denies that Jewish law and ceremonial observance are of any validity or relevance for latter-day Jews; maintains that there is no theological, moral or metaphysical sense in which Jews are different from any other people; and rejects the idea of an immortal soul.

Nadler then imagines what Spinoza himself would have to say about his own banishment and subsequent rehabilitation. “If we were to ask Spinoza, ‘Would you like the ban lifted?’ I am certain that his answer would be, ‘I could not care less.'”

Contrast this with the portrait of Spinoza by Bertrand Russell some sixty years earlier:

Spinoza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. History of Western Philosophy (London: George Allen and Unwin), p. 592.

Like most interpreters, especially when addressing a lay audience, Russell and Nadler want to frame their subject sympathetically so to urge their readers to engage seriously with Spinoza’s ideas.  Both of course refer to the same texts, yet they frame him by saying nearly opposite things about his philosophical character.

Russell’s book is the fruit of a series of lectures delivered in the 1940s at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Over the years the book became a huge popular success, which earned Russell a myriad readers. To make Spinoza sympathetic to them, he frames Spinoza as the misunderstood victim of ethically compromised institutions. This was probably a perspicuous rhetorical move because Russell’s audience, if skeptical at all, would have been more skeptical about religious and political institutions than about religion and politics as such.  The winds of skepticism, already blowing hard, had not in mid-century become as fully radicalized as they are now. On this telling, one cannot help but sympathize with Spinoza’s plight. He was ethically “supreme,” as a “natural consequence” of which he was regarded as “a man of appalling wickedness.” Thus is Spinoza made intellectually palatable, even if one senses in Russell a certain weariness and a wryly ironic tone.

Nadler’s Spinoza, on the other hand, far from being the “noblest and most lovable” of the great philosophers, is a thoroughgoing and open-eyed blasphemer. Nadler is correct to say that Spinoza’s contemporaries understood him only too well. In Nadler’s framing of the philosopher, however, Spinoza’s rejection of established religious and political orthodoxies is the very thing makes him sympathetic. His Spinoza is not noble or lovable. He is sexy, cool, hip–radical! If Russell’s tone is wryly ironic, Nadler’s is factual but provocative, to an extent gleeful, knowing and direct.

He writes: “I think a larger, and more pressing, question concerns the wisdom and efficacy of enforcing orthodoxy, or conformity in the matter of ideas (as opposed to conformity in the matter of behavior), in religious communities.” In other words, truth ought to prevail when in full-on collision with religious orthodoxy. Indeed, Amsterdam’s Jewish community cannot rescind Spinoza’s expulsion without also contradicting its most sacred beliefs. With its emphasis on Spinoza’s transgressive thought, Nadler’s essay is a characteristic exposé of the currently fashionable depiction of Spinoza as a central figure in what Jonathan Israel has termed the “Radical Enlightenment.”

What are we to make of the differing portraits of Spinoza, one as noble and lovable, the other as a transgressor and scofflaw? The answer is that each reveals something of the Stimmung of its time. These portraits disclose something about us and our relation to our world, our values, how we see ourselves and who we aspire to be. They are mirrors of the day, its anxieties and hopes. They disclose our mood.