Category Archives: Spinoza

Strange Encounters II

As I concluded the previous post, I argued that the Deleuzian extension of Hume’s project entailed both the affirmation of monism (Spinoza) and multiplicity (Hume). This point is made crystal clear in A Thousand Plateaus when Deleuze and Guattari announce that “pluralism = monism” (ATP, p. 2; see this earlier post where I discuss this theme in the context of William James’ radical empiricism). This effort to bring Hume and Spinoza together, however, is fraught with difficulty, or at least apparently so, in a philosophical landscape that has been forever altered by Kant’s project. Since Kant was woken from his dogmatic slumber, Hume and Spinoza have come to be rethought, if rethought at all, in the context of the conditions for the possibility of experience. In the case of Hume, this has largely led his philosophy to be read as a project in epistemology. Hume comes to be seen as a precursor of a Bayesian epistemology whereby knowledge comes to be constituted through a process of induction that constitutes degrees of belief. Spinoza, at worst, is thrown into the refuse pile of philosophical dogmatists, one of the philosophers who accepted, without question, that guarantees of our knowledge. Spinoza, in fact, goes much further than either Descartes and Leibniz in that while they accept God as the unquestioned guarantor of our knowledge of the world (Descartes) as well as the harmony of the world itself (Leibniz), God remains inaccessible and unknowable; Spinoza, by contrast, argues in the last half of Part 5 of the Ethics that even God can be known.

To state the contrast between Spinoza the dogmatist and Hume the skeptic, one could say that Spinoza presupposes the identity that grounds knowledge while Hume argues that this identity comes to be constituted. Husserl remarked upon this aspect of Hume’s thought, and it is for this reason that I have argued for a Humean phenomenology (see this). So how then can one bring Hume and Spinoza together? Put simply, through a rethinking of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). And this brings me back to the issue that in part spawned the New Hume debate – to wit, Hume’s claim that the “particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed” are powers that provide the reason for the regularities of nature but these powers “never appear to the senses.” What are these powers? The simple answer to this question is that these are the laws of nature that are the subject of natural science, and it is precisely the nature of these powers that are revealed, over time, through the process of scientific enquiry. We could say that this is a scientific explanation of facts. That which appears to the senses, therefore, would bring in our mental faculties and the epistemological problems of how we come to know the “particular powers” of nature. With this we have an epistemological explanation, and form here we are not too far from the Bayesian epistemology mentioned above.

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historical ontology – Spinoza style

In my post on historical ontology over at the new APPS blog (here), I anticipated the following criticism: how is the multiplicity related to actual beliefs and states of affairs? Are you not appealing to some mysterious aspect of reality, a pure becoming so to speak, that transcends the actual, in order to account for how what we actually know becomes other? Is this not contrary to the very spirit of Spinozism to take immanence seriously, and to take it all the way to its natural conclusions? This is a variation on a criticism that is often directed at Deleuze’s theory of the virtual (most notably by Badiou as I discuss here). Fortunately or not, I was spared this criticism to my post, but it still seems appropriate to address it for I think it clarifies a number of points. This also gives me the opportunity to deliver on a long overdue promissory note I offered Steven Shaviro in my response to one of his posts (here) that was itself in response to my post on eternity and duration in Spinoza (here). Some differences will likely remain, but hopefully what’s at stake will be clearer, and with luck Shaviro will feel I’ve made good on the promise.

This post will be long, though it’s likely to be my last on Spinoza for some time. In fact, this will probably be my final blog post at this blog for a while (many other obligations are piling up, though I’ll likely post over at the New APPS blog on occasion). I may make one final post summarizing some of my thoughts about how blogging has fit into (or not) my philosophical work, but most importantly the blog has become, for me at least, a vehicle that compels me to write more, to come up with something to say. Now this might seem to be a good thing but it is not, for I agree with what Deleuze says, in a Nietzschean vein,

What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, or even rarer, the thing that might be worth saying.

With this caveat, therefore, and with utter irony, I’ll now attempt to do good on what I had promised Shaviro in my earlier post.

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the relevance of philosophy (Frege or Spinoza)

Frege’s famous essay, “On Sinn and Bedeutung,” begins with the problem of identity, or equality. If a and b designate the same thing, Frege argues, then ‘it would seem that a = b could not differ from a = a.’ But the latter, as Kant argued, is an analytic statement while the former may ‘contain very valuable extensions of our knowledge’ and cannot be validated a priori. This problem sets the stage for Frege’s well-known solution: ‘a = b’ and ‘a = a’ differ in sense (Sinn) while they are identical with respect to reference (Bedeutung). More to the point, for Frege one may grasp the sense of a statement, word, thought, etc., but ‘one is not,’ he claims, ‘thereby assured of a Bedeutung.’ For Frege fiction is an example wherein one may grasp the sense of the story, follow the adventures of Odysseus for example, and yet this sense does not have a Bedeutung. As Frege puts it, ‘The thought remains the same whether “Odysseus” has a Bedeutung or not.’ In fiction, therefore, it is only the sense or thought that matters. But for Frege whatever ‘aesthetic delight’ we may derive from the thoughts associated with such fictional accounts, the will to truth (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche) will lead us to move beyond them: ‘The question of truth would cause us to abandon aesthetic delight for an attitude of scientific investigation.’ Or again: ‘It is the striving for truth that drives us always to advance from the sense to the Bedeutung.’ It is this striving for truth, this will to truth, that drove Heinrich Schliemann on his quest to determine whether story of the Iliad were merely a story or whether Troy actually existed – that is, he sought to determine whether or not the Sinn of ‘Troy’ had a Bedeutung.

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Spinoza and OOO

I’ve been thinking through a number of issues related to Spinoza and OOO, extending conversations I’ve had with Levi over whether one can read Spinoza in a way that is compatible with OOO while at the same time not bastardizing  Spinoza’s thought or warping it into something that would be unrecognizable to Spinoza (which I think is precisely what Badiou does in his reading of Spinoza). I think Levi and I are agreed that such a reading is possible (though of course I’ll let Levi speak for himself). That said, poring through Spinoza again of late it appears that one must be quite careful in attempting, as Deleuze sought in his reading of Spinoza, to make substance turn upon the modes. Let me explain.

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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.’


Leibniz and neoconservatism

A standard reading of modern political theory, or one could arguably say the standard reading, lays the greatest emphasis upon the state of nature theories and their attendant arguments concerning the social contract. Beginning with Hobbes, this standard reading continues on through Locke and Rousseau, emphasizing along the way the influence of Locke upon Jefferson. Given the revolutions of the late 18th century, especially in light of the social contract justifications given by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, it is perhaps not surprising that this has become the standard reading.

What I would like to argue is that it is precisely the importance of the social contract theorists for the intellectuals who sought a justificatory ground for revolution that has resulted in the great stress that has been laid upon this aspect of modern political theory. Lurking beneath this standard reading of political theory we can find a deeper tension at play, and a tension that provides for a more comprehensive and illuminating account of political and economic processes as they have actually unfolded since the late 17th century. This is the tension between the thought of Spinoza and Leibniz.

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Spinoza or Leibniz

In his excellent book, Before Logic, Richard Mason (who also has a nice book on Spinoza, The God of Spinoza) argues that problems in logic as logicians understand them, and as they attempt to resolve them, are themselves consequences of particular choices, choices that exclude options that might have been on the table had another choice been made. Mason is quite adamant that this does not involve historicizing logic, nor does he adhere to an ahistorical view of logic. The arguments of Mason’s small book are all ‘intended,’ as he claims in the final lines of his book, ‘to show how logic must be part of philosophy, not in any sense before it. Too much must come first.’ And some of what comes first are particular interests and choices that set the stage for the logical developments to follow. One such choice is between Spinoza and Leibniz.

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