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The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?

“When he happen’d to be tired by having applyed himself too much to his Philosophical Meditations, he went down Stairs to refresh himself, and discoursed with the people of the House about any thing, that might afford Matter for an ordinary Conversation, and even about trifles. He also took Pleasure in smoaking a Pipe of Tobacco.”

Colerus, The Life of Spinoza 

Graham’s Resistance to Cold

Reading over at Graham’s site, again I encounter his resistance to Spinoza’s Stoicism, the sense that Spinoza’s rationality of affectation, understanding things through causes, is somehow anti-life, or anti-emotion. This is a very common take on the man, in particular the way that he has become encrusted with various essentializations and hagiographies. But it troubles me for a man as sensitive a thinker as Graham Harman (and one that strikes me in person to be rather Spinoza-like, as least as far as I have come to picture Spinoza, and encounter Graham), would fall into this loose-fitting caricature of historical Spinoza or his philosophy.

I posted a response which can be found in the comments section above, which I repost here typos corrected and some bit thoughts added:

I wonder if this is an abstract understanding (reasoned), or a lived one (emotional). That is, is it that you feel the person of Spinoza, the actual person, harbored a great weakness, buried within him? A craftsman of instruments, a political dissident, a faithful correspondent (his friends, and not just admirers) always speak of his person in glowing terms, tales of how easy conversation with him was, showing an incredible personal loyalty. A great lover of the theatre, an amateur draftsman who loved drawing the portraits of visitors, someone who struggled with tuberculosis, but never let it weaken him.

I’m not saying all of this merely to praise him, but rather to position his philosophy within a life to sharpen the meaning of his position. Spinoza’s was not really a Spock-life at all. There is no real sign of that I feel. What he really hoped for (like Nietzsche some years after), as a more active rather than re-active life. Now which man, Spinoza or Nietzsche, lived more joyfully more actively, I would leave it up to you and others to decide. But I sense that there is a deep historical remove from the actual man, the life that generated the philosophy in the case of Spinoza. And in the case of Nietzsche there is a tendency to brush under a rug what is being, as you say, “concealed”.

I think that in general, when discussing the various Stoic-like positions and their authenticity, it is a danger to use abstract categorization to find dissatisfaction with their aims.

I don’t know, I”m not sure that as much as I admire the writing styles of Nietzsche, if I would want to have lead his life. In the end, Spinoza seems quite a bit happier, engaged, fullfilled (not in the abstract, but in the very fact of the living). Both men were stricken in body, and outcasts of a kind. One railed beautifully. One built as many bridges as he could (in life and in theory).

We are not in the habit of using the lives of philosophers to examine the substance of their positions, but in the case of great ones, I think that this is something one really should not fail to do. And those Logos-defying philosophers like Nietzsche are the ones who should have used the life lived more than any other as a measure. On the other hand, Spinoza, like Socrates, lived his philosophy, considered philosophy as a path, and so his life serves as an example of its worth, just as much the coherence of the arguments.

I would be interested in hear just what you feel, what weakness that Spinoza was harboring deep within, as a person. What is it about Spinoza that you feel is a cold sadism, or is this just an abstraction drawn from an abstraction?

This is not a full defense of Spinoza’s philosophy, for there are aporias in it that trouble me, but I have to say that in looking at the life of the man, I was struck by something quite different than the caricature image that haunts history.

Which philosophers do you feel had greater, non-illusionary, Self-mastery than Spinoza?

Graham’s Resistance to Philosophical Bling

Graham responded with an interesting kind of detachment, as if the substance of his point against Spinoza’s Stoic-like love of the activity of mind really didn’t matter. Objecting instead to the very popularity of Spinoza (I quote only a very brief selection).

Graham: “No aspersions against Spinoza the person, who seems admirable to me. My objection is to the general feel still in the air that if Spinoza anticipated your position, that’s cause for rejoicing, and if you disagree with Spinoza about something, you simply haven’t understood him properly. Zizek was right- he’s “in”.”

To this generalized repulsion from the “fashion” of a thinker, at least this thinker, (quoting the very à la mode Zizek on this subject is more than a bit ironic), I suggest:

There are two issues here, but I’d like to keep track of the more important one, the question of Spinoza’s Spock-like Stocism. First though, the interpretive assumption that Spinoza was right (and anticipated you), is nothing more than assuming (charitably) maximum coherence in a thinker, and this is nothing special about Spinoza. Any Kantian thinks this way, any Heideggerian, any Nietzschean. One looks within someone’s thought for the answer to objections, and strains the capacity of the thought first, in order to most substantially make use of it. It is a matter of seeing the world as best that one can through the “eyes” of that systematic philosopher. As I mentioned though, there seem some rather deep aporias in Spinoza’s approach. As a Spinoza enthusiast I have found problematic his diminishment of metaphor. This troubled me because I knew him to be an lover of Classical Drama. How to reconcile these two? Well, instead of assuming that Spinoza is stricken by a tremendous blind spot, one sees if one can build a theory of the powers of metaphor from within his philosophy. This does not mean that Spinoza objected to my question in advance, but rather that the powers of his philosophy are such that they can be used as a grammar to address a great diversity of problematics. This, to me, is productive thinking.

But back to your essential point, that you are annoyed that he is so popular. I can understand this. But this strikes me as a very odd response to my questioning of your take on Spinoza’s Stoicism. As I tried to suggest, perhaps you are misreading his Stoicism, the vitality and life of it. The man lived powerfully (not saintly), forming significant friendships of deep loyalty at a time of plague, persecution and international wars, and with no personal enmity that I know of. He was deeply engaged in this world, an artist and inventor. What I am saying is that perhaps your understanding of his empowerment through the understanding of causes as Spock-like, or anti-emotional (a very common one), is mistaken.

But your response seems to be something like, “Well, I object to Spinoza’s Stoicism, because I find it annoying that he is so damn popular these days”. What I’m putting forward is, sure, let’s bring measures of objection against him, but let’s do so consistently, across the board. If you feel that Spinoza advocated a Spock-like detachment from life, would you say that the fullness of his life, the admirability of his engagements were entirely a product of his failure  to live up to his philosophy? This would be an interesting thing to argue, but I don’t know where you would get this sense.

Or, if one wants to pair him up with Nietzsche, who holds a great number of theoretical positions in common with Spinoza, and accept as shared between them the valuation of Active vs. Re-active, which of these thinker’s lives do you feel best exhibited the freedom they called for? Who was reacting, and who was not?

I guess, if you approve of Spinoza’s life, his person, and his philosophy is meant as a prescriptive to the life lived, an Ethica, there is a disjunction between your rejection of the significance of his prescription, and your acceptance of his life. One is left only imagining that he failed to do anything he hoped to do. If one says that the Stoic can only be a Stoic by harboring great weakness within (and Nietzsche himself attempts this diagnosis of Spinoza), I think one should at least point to where in Spinoza’s life the dark shadow of this symptom shows itself. Rather it seems, in championing an emotionally charged life one ironically uses abstraction  to disqualify the lived life of Spinoza’s philosophy, instead of considering it on its lived-life grounds.

Graham’s Judo Throws of the Past

Graham also then posits a thought experiment used to discover if a thinker is in his standard “too fashionable”. You imagine a lecture series  “X must be reversed”. If I read him right, he thinks that if the lecture series goes over poorly, the thinker is in too good a standing in the world. There are a number of levels upon which I object to this approach (again, not even sure that I read his point correctly). First of all, it is deeply REactive. That is, it swallows whole the Hegelian and then Nietzschean vision that the business of philosophy is that of Reversing something or someone. What a desolate vision of the pursuit of agreement. (It seemed that Graham thought I was “reversing” him when I mentioned that he appeared to be more interested in Qualities rather than objects, and I tried to explain to him that it is not about reversal, but finding common valuations and paths toward agreement.) Instead, Graham seems to think that reversals are essential to philosophical work. Aside from the sterility of this inversion notion, I think it leads to deep misconceptions of past philosophers. For instance, people want to stake out Spinoza as somehow “reversing” Descartes on the issue of Substance and Representation. The careless cartoon of it obscures some rather significant parallels between the two thinkers, (for instance the possibility that for Descartes and Spinoza ideas were not representations so much as actions), hazing over the mutuality of influence of Scholasticism on both thinkers, not to mention the fact that Spinoza was one of the most respected Descartes scholars of his time, gathering about him a rather distinguished set of Cartesian Collegiants. By throwing the history of philosophy into binaries of complimentary upside-downs, the powers of philosophy are severely restricted. In particular, the genetic connection between historical paths in thinking become abstracted and obscured in a kind of Three-Card-Monte Idealism, trying to keep your eye on just what is being reversed. It is not that philosophers need to be Reversed, a silly idea to me. But simply shown to be insufficient. One simply stretches their ideas as far as they can go, and then when unable, creates something new. The automobile did not “reverse” the horse and carriage. The photograph did not reverse the painting.  Or if in any way that they did, to reduce their transformations to such is a vast over-simplification that hides what is most productive, and I might say, interesting.

If Spinoza, or some other philosopher, is quite popular now, it is because the diagrammatics of the system speak to the requirements of the Age. Plato’s rediscovery in the Renaissance was part of the productivity of the Renaissance. Ficino’s Plato, newly in translation, spoke to the political and ideational needs of the time, much as Arabic Aristotle did in the Middle Ages. When one looks to a philosopher who spreads epidemic across schools of thought, instead of rebelling out of sheer rejection of the “fashion”, if one truly objects, one should look to the reasons why the philosopher has such traction in that Age (why Spinoza now?), and then go about addressing that traction in even better ways. 

And lastly, if one is going to say something like, “Spinoza needs to be reversed!,” I’m unsure that it would be the case that such a lecture “doesn’t go over well” in the way that Graham seems to be suggesting. The “reversal” that he did suggest struck me as a rather over-simplicistic one. Instead of Spock we need passion (or a synthesis). Hmmm. As I’ved tried to point out, the life of Spinoza was not an unenriched life, one which in anyway seems to correspond to just what it is that Graham is attempting to reverse. It is rather an imcomprension on my part as to what it would mean to “reverse” Spinoza. One wonders, is Spinoza reversed if quantum mechanics are shown to be undetermined in the sense that he meant universal determination? I can’t say that this is the case. One could say that the deepest “reversal” of Spinoza occurred through Deleuze’s affect-rich, emotionally charged appr0priation of him (some people find not a hint of Spinoza remaining). Far from Canonizing Spinoza, Deleuze ripped him right off the alterpiece where he had been gathering much dust).

Aside from all this, I do believe that there is a Coldness in Spinoza, but I don’t think it is the Coldness of a life lived coldly, detachedly. It is, as Deleuze I believed, a Cold Wind. A Cold Wind is tremendously affective, it is bracing. If you are to “reverse” Spinoza, one would have to reverse his Cold Wind, the effect of reading him. And I’m not quite sure what that would fully mean. Is Antarctica really the reverse of a desert? Or the reverse of the Artic? Or the reverse of a well-stocked, leather-chaired library, a cozy fire, and a pipe? Thinking too much in binaries is the plague of philosophy (perhaps something we should reverse).

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