Writing Philosophy

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 that 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.

To Read is to Listen

As Georges Clemenceau once famously said, war is too important to be left to the generals. Sometimes I despair that something of the sort must equally be said about philosophy: it is too important to be left to academics. True, generals kill their enemies, academics parse texts–one can only smile. However, if the phrase “life of the mind” is to be understood in all its fullness, the juxtaposition is apposite. What is required from academics, and generals, is a sturdier wisdom than what either seems able to muster.

Recently I was put in mind of this when perusing the entry on Albert Camus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The section on The Myth of Sisyphus begins with a quotation from its first paragraph, one of the most provocative openings I have ever read in a philosophical essay. Here is Camus’s text in the standard English translation by Justin O’Brien, whose great merit is that it hews closely to the French original:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.

Here is how the writer of the SEP entry quotes this seminal text:

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

Notice not only the egregious emendation at the end, but also the change to a more casual tone. Far from arbitrary or justified by a need for economy, these changes support the unmistakably academic tenor of the parsing that follows:

One might object that suicide is neither a “problem” nor a “question,” but an act. A proper, philosophical question might rather be: “Under what conditions is suicide warranted?” And a philosophical answer might explore the question, “What does it mean to ask whether life is worth living?” as William James did in The Will to Believe.

From here on, after the unjustified and self-satisfied “gotcha!” that declares that suicide is neither a problem nor a question but an act, and the condescending rephrasing of Camus into acceptable “philosophical” form, the entry takes off into a series of well-formed propositions followed by lucidly stated conclusions—too bad it all has so little to do with Camus.

Let’s agree that to evaluate the soundness of an argument it is important first to parse it, that is, to understand all its premises and test whether its conclusions are valid. This is no less true of an essay on logic than on suicide. A good reader, however, also listens to the text by developing a keen ear for rhetorical precedence and by paying close attention to historical context.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus ends his first paragraph with this key observation: “These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.” The sentence echoes one of Pascal’s most famous passages in the Pensées: “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know” (Sellier 680). For a reader attuned to rhetorical precedence and historical context, the text now opens up, disclosing a rich web of meanings not possible to glean from a mere parsing of the argument. This attunement to precedence and context could further point the reader to Pascal’s The Art of Persuasion, with its fuller examination of what he calls the “powers” of the heart and the mind, both gateways to knowledge.

In other words, there is in the background of The Myth of Sisyphus an unstated epistemology contextualizing fundamental ideas which, if I were to guess, Camus assumed his reader knew.

The flowering of philosophical thought sometimes depends on the discovery of the resonance between a later text and an earlier one. For this, it is necessary to be keenly attuned to both texts, to listen with care. This bit of wisdom is lost on the writer of the SEP entry, who no sooner is he done quoting Camus than he goes on to a supposedly clearer William James. Instead of care for the text, there is complacency and abandon. Philosophy is indeed too important to be left to tin-eared academics.

Mediterranean Irony

A recent opinion piece by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, about goings-on at the Bank of England, put me in mind of a flavor of pessimism not obviously associated with England. Let’s call it Mediterranean irony. Here is Cohen’s opening paragraph:

Guildhall at the heart of the City can be a lulling sort of place after a long day. The statuary and vaulted timber ceiling of the medieval great hall lead the eye to wander and the mind to muse on Britain’s strangest quirk–its centuries of continuity. Grace is said, claret is served, glasses clink and dreaminess sets in. A keynote speech from a central banker is all that is required to complete the soporific effect.

Here’s an example of Mediterranean irony, by Albert Camus, a master of the form:

It struck me that I’d better see about dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.

As in all forms of irony, the meaning  is hidden or oblique. The specific difference in Mediterranean irony, however, is that a happening of some moment is buried in a desert of ordinariness, in the barrenness of the everyday–a central banker at the “soporific” Bank of England delivers a policy speech that impacts the lives of millions around the globe; Meursault buries his mother in what turns out to be just another tedious Sunday.

Examples of Mediterranean irony show up everywhere–from Montaigne to Camus and well beyond–once you develop an ear for it. I’m not sure this is a blessing, especially if you think as I do that one of the greatest perils of our age is nihilism, but it is certainly one of the many gifts left us by the endlessly creative spirit of Mediterranean culture.

Writing, what for?

I love the word “blogosphere.” It’s a collective noun (first strike against it), and has a slightly disreputable ring to it (second strike). One pictures a horde of productive typists clamoring for attention. The word puts me into a defensive crouch, which energizes me to think–that’s what I love about it. When the clamor is loud, when the notes are all played forte, it’s hard to hear the music. I see an opening: I shall be playing piano.

Why write? Some want to convey information. More ambitiously, philosophers seek to discover ideas, while poets, with their craft, shape ideas to cast them in a particular light. I write for a different reason.

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

Michel de Montaigne, 1533-1592

In his essay Of idleness, Montaigne writes that unless minds are “kept busy with some definite subject that will bridle and control them,” they become flat-out unruly. Extending the equine metaphor, he then compares his mind to “a runaway horse” so wild that it gives birth to many chimeras and fantastic monsters. His self-imposed task is “to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness” by putting them in writing. In simple apprenticeship, I shall follow this great sage and contemplate and record my own chimeras and fantastic monsters.

Montaigne concludes his essay with a therapeutic turn that unfailingly gives me pause. “I hope,” he writes, “in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.” Being no stranger to that baleful emotion, I think it best to part here with Montaigne, and be satisfied merely to contemplate my own terrifying thoughts, much as the later Montaigne would do.

The harshly judging “I” that in the early essays makes the mind ashamed of itself gives way, in the later essays, to a more forbearing observer, consistent with the skepticism Montaigne develops in the course of his project. In Of experience, his last and one of his greatest essays, he writes of the “natural infirmity” of the mind. The observing “I” that begins as an uncompromising judge develops into a witness skeptical of man’s natural capacities. Could it not be that he came to regard the harshness of his earlier self-judgment as a kind of monster, a symptom of the natural infirmity of the mind? Given our all-too-human makeup, the therapeutic prescription to shame the mind fails. Some thoughts, he seems to be saying, no matter how chimerical or fantastic, are best contemplated with an evenness of temper–or failing that, passed over in silence.