15 de enero de 2015

If Spinoza were alive today…

Andy Duncan

The scenario is easy to imagine; such things appear in television drama series daily. Clever scientists discover a way of bringing people back from the dead; each weekly episode features a particular historical figure so as to articulate some contemporary moral dilemma, social problem or hitherto hidden human experience. For the dead of course it is a different story; to be aware suddenly not of the end of life, of the pains of bodily decay and the prospect of the abyss, but to be alive again and breathing in a new world where things are rather different, but in many respects, very much the same.

The producers of such a series would presumably commission writers to tell their tales in keeping with the character and biography of the particular figure being brought back to life, to examine the changes that have taken place in the locations the previously deceased once occupied, and more generally to address the historical and social issues that arise in the difference between the time of the deceased and the time of their reanimation. And apart from the burning questions that motivated the clever scientists to undertake their experiments in the first place, as episodes unfolded and more people were brought back to life, numerous new questions would arise that the writers could exploit to the full.

How long are these new lives going to last? Will they have been able to remember anything of the years intervening since their deaths? Have they been aware of their role in history, and do they wish to clear up any misunderstanding? Is there a God? An afterlife? Or did they just suddenly become aware again, as if one moment they were walking towards the bright white light, and the next, waking in some unknown place many years into the future, surrounded by a television production company?

There would be scope too in the telling of these tales for plot developments involving some not entirely benevolent agency, funded secretly by government, which is very interested in the work of the clever scientists, as well as some of those brought back to life, and that might want to bring back a few of its own. It is not likely though that such an agency would be very interested in Spinoza -- at least not initially.

Spinoza died in February 1677 in a house on Paviljoensgracht in Den Haag that is maintained today as a library and study centre in memory of the philosopher. The family with whom he was living was out at church at the time, and he was receiving a visit from a physician -- the identity of whom is still not well established. Although it was well known he was terminally ill, the suddenness of his departure came as a surprise to those around him. What he was thinking on the morning of his death is a matter for speculation, but it is certain that during his final years, he was preoccupied with making the finishing touches to his philosophical writings, and investigating ways by which these might be published and disseminated. He made no formal will but left specific instructions with friends that upon his death, his writing desk, which contained his manuscripts and correspondence, should be shipped quickly and anonymously to his publisher in Amsterdam. Which is why his work has become one of the most important foundations of the modern age, and is recognised by the cognoscenti as the most brilliant philosophy of all time.

Spinoza belongs in an ancient and venerable philosophical tradition, which sets itself up against dualism. It is perhaps a moot point whether such a tradition of philosophy really exists, whether there has been an actual material trajectory set up always in opposition to dualism. If such a tendency exists, it is surely diverse, historically specific, related always to prevailing dualisms: the ontological commitment of any antidualist philosophy -- that which it affirms -- being thus likewise specific to its place in history. Be that as it may, suspicions about the value of dualism have existed since before Socrates, and Spinoza shared these.

The prevalent dualism of the 17th century was that of spirit and matter, of soul and body. This was sustained by the institutions and doctrines of organised religion. It was also the central ontological distinction of the new philosophy of Descartes, which was in the process of becoming an important element in philosophical justifications for the belief that the assorted scientific practices, which had been emerging recently in reaction to the doctrines, traditions and institutions of religion, could produce a variety of knowledge that, at the same time, would not offend doctrine, nor threaten the traditions and institutions of religion.

In his otherwise neutral exposition of Descartes' metaphysics, Spinoza’s anti-dualism becomes momentarily explicit when he states that the central ontological distinction of the Cartesian system is not an established philosophical truth. “There will have to be a later investigation, whether the substance that is called Mind and Body is one and the same substance, or whether they are two different substances” (1). The grammar of this essentially parenthetic remark is significant: “the substance that is called Mind and Body” affirms immediately that in all but name the two are one; “whether they are two different substances” questions immediately the idea that they might be distinct. Spinoza's anti-dualism is at once an affirmation of the one infinite substance that in the aforementioned “later investigation” -- the Ethics -- will become so important.

The opening propositions of the Ethics are a demonstration that it is absurd to propose two separate substances; that the one infinite substance that cannot but exist, cannot be divided and is congruent with or equivalent to the power of creation, God or Nature. The exposition makes judicious use of well-worded definitions and axioms, and employs medieval logic. It is a scholastic exercise of some complexity that does not read easily in modern times. The general principle underlying the demonstration is also medieval, but easier to grasp: real distinctions are entirely qualitative, while quantitative distinctions can only ever be analytical. Chopping up the world into amounts of stuff, quantities of things, does not describe it -- except locally, for particular ends, in specific contexts. The quantifications in question being always analytical, the outcome of thought or some process of reasoning, which are modes or modifications of thinking, which is in turn an attribute of substance, not a division of it. Real substantial differences are qualitative, infinite and uncountable. There can therefore be but one substance.

The existence of God – defined as “a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence” (2) -- becomes thus a matter of logic rather than belief, and is removed at a trice from the clutches of doctrine. Hereafter, the Ethics is in some sense plain sailing – the rest simply follows logically. Most crucially though, dualism has been banished, and God has emerged as an immanent power very different from the anthropomorphic transcendental deities proselytised by Judeo-Christian tradition. For this, Spinoza's philosophy became completely anathema. Even in the relatively enlightened environment of the 17th century Netherlands, the threat posed by Spinozism to the institutions of religious observance, and perforce to the foundations of society, was apocalyptic, and Spinoza himself was regarded as a heretic.

But actually ... so little is known about the life of the man himself that it is difficult to judge how the status of pariah affected his everyday life. The only book published during his lifetime in own name is his commentary on Descartes, and there is nothing at all controversial about this -- except in so far as it is about Descartes; apart from the above quoted declaration that dividing substance in two is not warranted, it is pure exposition. Spinoza’s heretical reputation cannot then have been based on his published work. And yet rumours spread of an Amsterdam Jew expelled from the temple in his youth for blasphemy, banished forever from the community, now preaching materialism and threatening the truths of Christianity.

In a recent book about Spinoza, written specifically for a series about the Jewish intellectual tradition, Rebecca Goldstein states, in plain contradiction to accepted wisdom, that Spinoza’s excommunication from the Synagogue in 1656 would not have been the social disaster that is usually believed. He simply relinquished all claims on the family business and left the Amsterdam Jewish community behind to lead a quiet life as an itinerant artisan, grinding lenses of high quality. Hereafter his reputation is one of simplicity, economy, intellectual piety and social isolation - apart from contact with a close circle of friends and occasional visiting men of letters, he kept himself pretty much to himself. To this extent he knew perhaps well enough that being a heretic was dangerous, but was able with his good conduct and humility, his way of being in the world, to show those immediately concerned that his ideas might pose some actual threat to their power, that they could in fact do no such thing; to show, in short, that he was but a humble grinder of lenses who dabbled in philosophy.

There is however no doubt that he developed a reputation for advanced thinking, and was well aware that his ideas were radical enough to unsettle the powers that be. With the dissemination from about 1670 of manuscripts that became the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (published unfinished and anonymously in 1674) he was surely participating actively in political debates -- a consequence of which being the decision not to publish [t]he Ethics because of the virulence of reaction to the Tractatus. But his precise position in relation to the ruling powers of the time, in the complex manoeuvring of the beginning of the end of the Dutch Republic, is not known. It is of course well known that when the brothers De Witt met their untimely end at the hands of the Den Haag mob in 1672, Spinoza had to be physically restrained by his landlord, lest he go out into the city to castigate the mob for their ultimate barbarity, and without doubt thereby suffer a similarly gruesome fate. In spite of any humility and modesty, it is easy then to imagine a man of character, of fire and charisma who was prepared to act in defiance of unreason and in defence of principle.

Furthermore, despite his reputed desire never to get involved in public life and to avoid political affairs, there remains the question why, in the high summer of 1673, he took a trip to Utrecht from Den Haag, when at the time, the two cities were at war with each other. Somewhere in the deliberately flooded land of what is now called “the green heart” was the front line in a complex war involving the French, the Spanish, the English, and assorted Hanoverians -- not to mention the disgruntled inhabitants of the no longer so United Provinces of the Netherlands themselves. In order to avoid an unnecessary siege, Utrecht had capitulated in June 1672 to the French, in the person of the prince of Condé -- an enlightened aristocrat who had heard of Spinoza, and who while in the vicinity, thought to invite the great man to Utrecht for a philosophical chat. Then at the last minute, the prince was called away on more important business, and, so the story goes, never got to meet Spinoza. He left instructions however that the philosopher be offered the hospitality befitting one of his stature, and Spinoza spent two, maybe three weeks in earnest metaphysical discourse with local theologists.

The partial record of this event tells an incomplete story in keeping with Spinoza’s established reputation. But there is surely more going on. Apart from the fact that it is recorded that the prince of Condé did at some point meet with Spinoza, and also that Spinoza himself is quoted as not fearing the wrath of the mob upon his return to Den Haag -- suggesting he had been promised the protection of the city authorities, it would seem highly unlikely that a trip from Den Haag to Utrecht by a person such as Spinoza under circumstances of war and civil unrest could have been anything other than diplomatic in nature.

Whether or not his ascetic reputation, his neutrality, modesty and intellectual piety, are effects purely of the paucity of the historical record, coupled with a retrospective personification of his philosophy -- not to mention an idealised vision of the sort of austere and rigorous life that is demanded by philosophy as such; or were rather active elements of a sophisticated personality, created to protect and enable a more subversive will, remains to a degree, an open question. Whatever else, Spinoza was a human being, and it is still likely that at least during his formative years in Amsterdam, in the predominately commercial environment of what was de facto an autonomous and extremely prosperous republic under only nominal control of the Spanish crown, Spinoza's opinions would have been of no real consequence at all -- unless they stood in the way of business. Just as any philosopher living in a decadent society with a developing reputation for iconoclasm, he would have learned quite quickly from experience where, when and in whose company he could express his more advanced opinions.

So if Spinoza were alive today, what would strike him most deeply? If he were reanimated within the intellectual establishment he would surely observe quite quickly that the Cartesian philosophy has survived more or less intact (notwithstanding a few arcane and irrelevant quibbles about the circularity of the cogito) while his own has suffered at the hands of a motley crew of less than sympathetic commentators, who have committed all manner of errors and fallacies during their work, or allowed the prejudices of their times to overlay or otherwise contaminate his -- the trend having been set by early biographers, in particular Colerus, whose need to condemn Spinoza’s blasphemous attitude overwhelmed any ability to interpret his work respectfully or impartially scrutinise the historical record. Even twentieth century academic philosophy, which might have been expected to know better, inherited the prejudices and suspicions of nineteenth century anti-semitism, as well as its Christian moral indignation. For the purposes of teaching and general exposition, Spinoza was planted within something called the "rationalist tradition" which was contrasted with something else called the "empirical tradition" within the latter of which twentieth century academic philosophy happily placed itself.

Spinoza would nevertheless discover during the later decades of the twentieth century, at the margins of academic philosophy, in literature and revolutionary science, work that is not only sympathetic to his, but that advances his essential message into new contexts. He would find here the ends of threads woven into the history of human civilisation, originating with the posthumous publication of the Ethics, that hold his work in the highest possible regard; a tradition that knows how to view the world sub specie aeternis, and that is perhaps still a little awe-stuck by the ease and critical precision with which he was able to employ the positive philosophy. He would note perhaps that even his fiercest critics have to this extent recognized him as the philosopher's philosopher.

It would soon become clear though that dualism has taken on a hydra-like quality, that it mutates sometimes into something called the dialectic, and that the question of the number of substances there can ontologically be is at a strange distance from the burning issues of the day. He would notice that humanity's intellectual practices seem always and everywhere either to be parasitic upon or to reproduce dualisms and dialectical oppositions of one sort another - without being terribly aware of doing so, and to be stubbornly loyal to an underlying and apparently substantial difference between material and non-material stuff.

The body of a person works according to well-established biochemical and biomechanical principles, which can be exploited if it breaks down by using drugs, manipulation or surgical intervention. The mind of a person is immaterial and much less susceptible to control by scientific principles: even though psychology has made valiant efforts, its descriptions have on the whole reflected more the conditions of their times than any essential qualities of mind, and have always left in their wake a troublesome trail of unanswered metaphysical questions. Whatever else, that the mind and the body are essentially different, rather than aspects of something essentially the same, is never seriously doubted.

Spinoza would discern that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the errors involved here originate - even if sometimes the circumstances in which they inhere and the processes by which they are reproduced can be often clearly described. It would not escape his attention that the intellectual practices of humanity have become diversified and specialised to an almost infinite degree; nor that there is a distinct absence of general principles that hold it all together; nor that thought as such has become almost entirely subservient to personal taste and social, economic and political interests. He would likely thus note carefully the existence of philosophers, critics and artists who have confronted or dismantled these tendencies.

The survival of Cartesian dualism would however present Spinoza with a series of problems he would not immediately comprehend. For this survival is not simply the continuing existence of a metaphysical treatise in the Platonic world of ideas, but has become a material element of social organisation, at the end of a long and extremely complex history of social organisation, the like of which Spinoza could never have experienced. The way things change has changed, and somewhere along the line two substances were forged from one. Even knowing the precise history of this event would render the problem none the less perplexing. For how can it be the case that a state of affairs has come into existence that is, strictly speaking, metaphysically impossible? What ever happened to the power of metaphysics? And if there are new powers of social organisation, which, in defiance of metaphysics, have actually produced a substantial difference between mind and body, between spirit and matter, how is it possible that they work at all?

There is a sense in which the film The Matrix articulates precisely what is at stake here. In the world that separates mind from body, there really is no reason to think that one person is stronger or faster than another because of the movements of their “muscles in this place” -- as Morpheus signifies wryly with a flash of his simulated eyes towards an entirely virtual environment. And the discovery that all this reality was software, an illusion designed to pacify the will and sublimate desire, while the native energy of millions upon millions of bodies is tapped in the service of machines, is both glorious revelation beyond comprehension and apocalyptic heresy.

So if Spinoza were alive today would he be making films? Perhaps not, but he would discover that philosophers have moved out into the world and do not only write books -- nor for that matter, do they often call themselves philosophers. Philosophy today is a different thing from what it once was, and appears no longer to be a place where truth is produced; that ideas, reason and logical exposition are no longer relevant to the effort of demonstrating that which cannot be otherwise; that truth itself has become a commodity in bizarre economies of ego management, social representation and political expediency.

In the seventeenth century, it was in metaphysics where the arguments took place, in the twenty-first it is in society -- and everything this entails. In the seventeenth century, the language of debate was Latin and the logic scholastic. In the twenty-first, arguments proliferate throughout a social organism in a multiplicity of languages -- appearing sometimes in one discourse, then in another, and never always obviously related to any counter argument or reference point in a mutually recognisable reality. Under such circumstances, philosophy is just another element in a plurality of signified stuff that has no general relation with anything else.

In Spinoza’s time, philosophy was much more dangerous. In some sense it was heretical even to think things through using the faculties of reason, logically, without succumbing to the dogmas of prejudice, to the authority of scripture, or to the temptations of personal profit. To this extent, the heresy of Spinoza is not so much that he denied the existence of an anthropomorphised or transcendental God, nor even that he made God equivalent to Nature, but that he thought through the idea of God and affirmed this absolutely, without reserve, and thus revealed the truth.

If Spinoza were ever to encounter Negri’s reading of Spinoza, he would read that he (Spinoza) had explicitly turned philosophy into a revolutionary activity; that in his work, metaphysics becomes a site of struggle, a place where the truths of scripture are exposed as illusion delusion and deception, and where the new philosophy of Descartes is seen to fail even before it begins. Negri sees this rupture as the expression of a polarity of power that continues to animate (post)modernity: that between the power that dominates and the power that creates. Negri is emphatic - Spinoza did not so much cause this rupture as articulate it. For it was the material conditions of the times -- of the Dutch Republic, the Golden Age, the birth throes of capitalism - that made such thought possible (and necessary). As a good materialist, Negri would of course say this. As perhaps would Spinoza himself - were he able to look back at his legacy, at the life his work took on after he died, from here, from this metaphysically impossible world, built on incoherent Cartesianism, labouring with his own history, teasing out the causes and effects, finding out why his own work never really stood a chance. And a new question might perhaps arise: what then would actually be dangerous, here, now, in this strange postmodern irreality? And who better to consult than Negri, who after all wrote his book about Spinoza while in prison for, as Foucault put it, being an intellectual? Is it even possible that saying now, exactly what he was saying then, would be as dangerous now, as it was then?

The illusion of postmodernity is pluralism: to be seen as a vast accumulation and proliferation of different but equally valuable ideas, cultural practices, moral judgements and so forth, each of which is free to express itself, to move into the market to find its own niche. On the face of it, this universal relativity, the freedom of expression that has been enshrined in the more “advanced” societies of these times would contrast starkly with the rigid strictures of Spinoza’s. But it cuts both ways: the freedom to express whatever opinion at all reproduces a whole lot of junk, error, misconception, falsity and so forth, all of which supplement the delusions already favoured by ideologues. The goals of truth are not necessarily well served by there being freedom to express opinions. And yet the freedom to speak out, the power this offers to expose the dubious practices of the powerful has a definite value -- even though exercising this freedom hardly diminishes the extent to which the powerful engage in dubious practices, and appears in fact often to spur them on, as they manipulate every medium of communication at their disposal in reaction, strategically producing sound-bites and doublespeak that turn every event to their advantage. In the postmodern world where anything can be said, where everything is possible, where anything can be taken to mean anything else, not much is actually possible at all, and everything is more or less meaningless.

Nevertheless, one theme persists. In spite of widespread, ungodliness, irreligiosity, principled atheism, persistent sectarian conflict, scepticism scientism and nihilism, God is not dead. Not in the least. The power that controls from a distance, from an other place, that determines the course of events, lays down a moral code, restricts the ordinary freedoms of consciousness and disciplines the native desires of bodies, is alive and well. But it is not on the whole called God -- it has taken other names: democracy, health care, science, the law, medicine, social responsibility, subjectivity. Consciousness remains in awe of such notions, as well as of the “other place” where their powers are generated, and from which they exercise their discipline. The “other place” is no longer heaven, the powers are no longer represented by a man with a long white beard parting clouds in wrath, but the logic is exactly the same -- as are the emotional and ethical consequences. It is the same psychological terrorism that has for centuries reproduced fear, generated resentment and perpetuated resident political architectures.

The anti-dualistic attack here cannot then be to demonstrate the necessary existence of a single, absolutely infinite substance, or at any rate, it must surely involve much more than this. It does not appear in any case that a substantial dualism is at issue - it is rather relational, dialectical, axiological, the expression of a polarity of force or power, one pole of which tends to claim a positive value at the expense of the other. But even Nietzsche’s comprehensive, relentless and uncompromising campaign made little difference - and in any case often undermined itself with remarks such as: “I fear we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar” (3) -- a theme that was expanded in bewildering detail during the final decades of the last millennium by Derrida, the ghost of whom still haunts the conscience of today’s intellectual elites with a sense that every attempt to move thought into new spaces, to transform it into different shapes and sizes, to give thinking new trajectories that have nothing to do with where it has been, will fail, because the very languages we use are always already rooted in the past and riven with dualities, suggesting that however incoherent, contradictory and metaphysically surprising they may be, these dualities appear somehow to be necessary. Once again, confusion contradiction and incoherence are allowed to run riot. Once again, simple ordinary reason finds no place to work. It has all been said before in languages that undermine themselves. Simple ordinary reason is a myth; there is no work in any case for any kind of reason. And why should the way things move in the world be subject to thought at all?

Wittgenstein’s observation that is difficult to follow lines of thinking and to depart from these just a little- - “without falling into one of the grooves” (4) -- might be the only antidote to this, the sharpest, most cynical, of postmodernity’s edges. It is difficult, not impossible, and therefore perhaps absolutely essential.

For it does not matter how often it is pointed out that the authority of power is hollow, nor its discipline the repetition of often very violent practices and procedures, its legitimacy is still accepted as normal. The same holds for the power that projects inwards to produce individual human subjects. For it does not matter how often it is repeated that the causes of events should be sought in antecedent events of the same order, human beings still believe that they are different, that they have inside them a sort of something of a different order that makes things happen independently of antecedent events -- their consciousness, their individuality, their desire, their rights, their subjectivity. It does not matter how reasonably and carefully an actual situation is examined, accounted for or explained with reference to antecedent situations, if the account in question threatens the integrity of this inside thing, then arguments and disputes will arise that have nothing to do with reason, nor with the materiality of events, but that exclusively employ logics of resentment and take discourse into a wilderness of mirrors.

As Deleuze pungently observes in his commentary on Nietzsche: “... ressentiment (it’s your fault) and bad conscience (it’s my fault) and their common fruit (responsibility) [are not] simple psychological events but rather ... the fundamental categories of Semitic and Christian thought, of our way of thinking and interpreting existence in general” (5). The enemy is the same as it ever was -- the institutions and doctrines of established religion, which have now melded into the languages, discourses and procedures of scientism, social-democratic governance and free-market capitalism. But speaking out against these makes no sense at all, pointing out their intellectual vacuity with philosophical precision is simply a waste of effort: the powers that be know now that they no longer need an ideology, that their truth is the very architecture of the present. And here is the crux of the matter.

The labyrinthine institutions and massive infrastructures of postmodernity would be the most palpable difference for any traveller just arrived from the seventeenth century. Spinoza’s journey from Den Haag to Utrecht in July 1673 involved barges, horses and carriages and took a number of days; the same journey in the train today takes thirty-eight minutes. The centre of Den Haag is now a mountainous assemblage of steel, concrete and glass that houses the Kafkaesque institutions of Dutch social democracy. Utrecht is less encumbered with tall buildings, on account of a medieval edict, respected to this day by the city council, that no building within the city boundary be taller than its Cathedral tower, and apart from a number of large and grotesque examples of nineteen-seventies modernism, the city centre has retained much of its ancient form. Utrecht is nonetheless a vital exemplar of infrastructural postmodernity; apart from being a centre of industry, commerce and further education, and a busy port on the canal that connects Amsterdam to the river systems of the Rhine and the rest of Europe, it is the central hub of both the Dutch railway and motorway systems, functioning thus as an intersection for traffic arriving and leaving from no less than eight directions.

Bodies become habituated to the environments within which they move, and are accustomed now to moving in rectilinear spaces, to be conveyed by machinery, protected from the elements of the planet by environmental control systems. They do not clamber traipse scramble or ploughter much. Their activities are more passive, smaller and more finely tuned, associated with operating machinery and interfacing with data management systems. The feedback a body receives from such activities is almost exclusively mediated and indirect, and very often purely informational, semiotic, impinging no sense but the intellect. The body is a vehicle, transporting its owner’s knowledge through the interstices of postmodern space, its rhythms tied not to the turning of the seasons, nor to the cycle of the tides, but rather to the timetables of the working day, to the discipline of production, its attention focused at work on the particular tasks at hand, and in leisure on whatever freedoms it can find within the limits set by the circumstances within which it finds itself.

Under such conditions, finding a foothold for a positive philosophy is vital, and it is the issue that will not go away for as long as Spinoza has been brought back to life. For all this contradiction, limitation and confusion arises quite simply from an inadequate understanding of the substance of the world within which we live, of which we are a part and that is all that is the case. No matter what it believes itself to be, however complex and apparently transcendental it has become, the proper way to analyse, understand, and come to know the world is on the basis of its substantial materiality -- which is absolutely infinite. Any effort to transcend this life, or to differentiate it from something else -- whether in the name of a higher value or anything else -- will not succeed, quite simply because it is not possible to exceed the absolutely infinite. Everything there can ever be is always already a constituent of the absolutely infinite. There is no “other place” ... any effort to differentiate or transcend will result only in fundamental error, confusion and unnecessary conflict.

The absolute infinitude of substance is the most important element of the positive philosophy. Spinoza defines absolutely infinite in contrast with infinite after its own kind: “... quod ... absolute infinitum est, ad eius essentiam pertinet, quicquid essentiam exprimit et negationem nullam involvit” (6). Literally translated, in an effort to preserve the logic of the Latin case relations: ... that which is absolutely infinite, to the essence of which pertains, whatever expresses essence and involves no negation. That which expresses essence and involves no negation is absolutely infinite. It pertains by definition to the essence of the absolutely infinite that it express essence and involve no negation. It pertains therefore to the essence of absolutely infinite substance that it expresses the essence of substance and involves no negation of substance. The world is here, in your face, now and always, no more, no less.

At the same time that the infinite substance of the world is expressing its essence, the intellect is able actively to perceive this through the attributes. Attributes are to be understood, according to the definition, as “quod intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam eiusdem essentiam constituens” (7) - that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting the essence of substance. The attributes of substance are infinite, but human beings are limited and have access to only two -- thought and extension. Which is to say that they are thinking beings in an extended world.

This is also where Descartes began, but he was wracked with bad faith: he could have been intoxicated, dreaming or being deceived by an evil demon, so he doubted not only the veracity of his own thought as a thinking being in the world, but also that his body actually existed in extended space. He was left thus alone with his famous cogito ergo sum -- from which he was able miraculously to prove the existence of a traditional transcendental God, and divide substance into two qualitatively distinct realms, each with different rules and principles.

Spinoza on the other hand could never be deceived in his thinking since he knew the substance of the world to be absolutely infinite and thus to involve no negation; for Spinoza, being a thinking being in the world is simply the essential fact of human existence, and this existence is no more or less significant than any other. Reflecting moreover on any particular existence does not produce anything more than a limited view of existence as such. Being a thinking being in the world is, on the other hand, always productive and creative for as long as the world and thought are not limited. The notion of attribute is crucial, for it signifies the active engagement of the intellect in the world by means of which its essential nature is made perceptible. This is materialism of the highest quality, which rules out all dualism from the start, is situated squarely here and now, and fosters no illusions about power.

If Spinoza were alive today, it would be this that would animate his attacks on the purported truths embodied by the architectures of the present. Exposing these as a façade behind which powers of domination and control work to perpetuate their existence at the expense of powers of production and creation, is as dangerous now as it ever was. But it is what Spinoza will do if clever scientists in a television drama series ever bring him back to life. At the end of his episode -- the one in which the foregoing issues are thoroughly ventilated, and during which the not entirely benevolent, secretly funded agency, which was initially uninterested in this austere seventeenth century philosopher, makes efforts nevertheless to prevent him speaking his mind about the world into which he has been unwittingly reborn -- Spinoza will likely do with the remainder of his second life much the same as he did with his first.

Repair as far as possible from active participation with powers that perpetuate received opinion, and refuse to allow his intellect to become party to processes that reproduce untruth. Support himself as some sort of craftsman or artisan, dedicating his life to the perfection of his trade and the pursuit of intellectual freedom. He will value the small things in life, live frugally and perhaps keep cats. He will make good friends, but nobody will describe him as sociable. He will find people with whom to share ideas, and he will write; but will be less reluctant to publish than during his first life, and will learn to make good use of the opportunities for communication and public discussion that are afforded by the internet.

He will have a reputation for being difficult: some will say he is too intellectual; others that he becomes too emotionally involved. His friends will know however both to be based on prejudice, misunderstanding and, above all, fear. They will know him to be passionate, kind and loving, generous with himself, polite and charming; but they will recognise that when chaos, delusion and deception masquerade as truth, he will become sharp, cold and ruthlessly uncompromising.


This essay was inspired by Matthew Stewart’s book about Leibniz and Spinoza, The Courtier and the Heretic -- in particular the opening sentence: “It is our good fortune to live in an age when philosophy is thought to be a harmless affair.” My reaction to this was immediate and somewhat irate -- in which case we are not really doing philosophy! But I was not discouraged, and read on with increasing enjoyment. The final words of the book also stand out: “[Spinoza’s] is a philosophy for philosophers, who are as uncommon now as they have always been.”

I did not immediately react to this; rather I slipped into the contemplative mood that became the labour of writing the essay. Spinoza is without doubt the philosopher’s philosopher, and philosophers are indeed rare creatures. Matthew Stewart had moreover succeeded, where many others have signally failed, to give life to the story of Spinoza while recognizing his genius, but without putting him on a pedestal or disregarding his humanity, and when the historical record fails, to precede using educated guesswork and common sense. I began then to encounter more specific questions: what would Spinoza say if he actually were alive today, what would be the focus of his critical precision, how would he occupy himself, and most crucially -- it seemed to me -- how could any philosophy today be as heretical now as his was then?

My conclusion is quite simply this: philosophy cannot be anything but heretical - it must situate itself outside, beyond and sometimes in direct opposition to the truths generated by the present, and it must become essentially independent of the particular procedures that regulate life at any moment in history. If it does not do this, it is not really philosophy; and if it does so by creating distance and division, it condemns itself to confusion, contradiction and the eternal tyranny of the dialectic, while easily becoming the tool of ideologues and apologists for the established order.

The text of the essay embodies thus a tension between the contradictions and intellectual insecurities entailed by taking antidualistic positions within the remnants of the postmodern condition, and the confident clarity of Spinozism; a struggle to replace the universal recuperation by language of everything into the façade of established reality, with an absolute inclusion of everything within the infinite substance of creation; inverting a negative spiral of infinite regression into a joyful celebration of life. The intellectual trajectory is thus both epiphany and imperative, feeding a tradition that is often called “radical empiricism” and that, whatever it is called, situates itself within the infinite variety of life, while understanding its own thinking somewhat in the manner of Wittgenstein’s ladder -- to be used to climb to a place where the world can be seen aright, and then kicked away.


1. Spinoza, 1961, p. 21.
2. Spinoza, 1996, p. 1.
3. Nietzsche, 1968, p. 38.
4. Wittgenstein, 1981, p. 63.
5. Deleuze, 1983, p. 21.
6. Spinoza, 1977, p. 4.
7. Idem.


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