reactive philosophy

When all is said and done, on Matthew Stewart’s reading of the Spinoza-Leibniz encounter in The Courtier and the Heretic, Leibniz’s philosophy is a reactive philosophy – a philosophy founded on not being Spinoza’s philosophy rather than being a philosophy that is for something, that is an affirmative philosophy. This may be too strong a claim, but Stewart goes even further and argues that the dominant tendency of modern philosophy has been one of a series of ongoing reactions to Spinoza’s thought. Stewart is quite forthright:

And yet, although the world we live in is perhaps better and more originally described by Spinoza, the reactive form of modernity that began with Leibniz has in fact become the dominant form of modern philosophy. Anxious over the apparent purposelessness of the world revealed by modern science; bitter about the threatened demotion of humankind from its special place in nature; alienated from a society that seems to recognize no transcendent goals and unwilling to assume personal responsibility for happiness–a needy humankind has reinvented the Leibnizian philosophy with abandon over the past three centuries…Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the ninteteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forces immune to the analytical embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought–all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz.

To state Stewart’s claim in other terms, Spinoza is the last realist philosopher and since Leibniz we have been largely on an anti-realist path, a path Stewart presents as a failure of nerve, a failure to embrace the immanence of life as fully real and in no need of anything other, anything transcendent, to give it a meaning or purpose. As Stewart puts it, “Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend on something that lies beyond.” It is perhaps not surprising then that Stewart himself, after getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford (in just 3 years) abandoned the academy, claiming at his website that he discovered what he “took to be irrefutable philosophical objections to pursuing a career in academic philosophy.” He went, instead, and made a lot of money as a management consultant, proving the point Thales made after making a killing with his olive press that, as Aristotle presents it, ‘it is easy for a philosopher to be rich if they choose it.’ Much harder to attain is the happiness that requires ‘nothing more than what we have in our hands,’ for if it were easy, ‘and could be found without great effort,’ as Spinoza concludes his Ethics, then ‘how could everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.’


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