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Tag Archives: history

Finding Spinoza: The Genetics of Reading

How Larval Subjects found Him

I really enjoy when philosophy is written about like this, as a human experience with context in the world:

That aside, when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension- quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing. I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic- the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? -and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays- I think -but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

I remember digging in the garage where all the philosophy books from my mother’s college classes were keep, on these large, metal, ratcheted, industrial shelves, where boxes of clothing and unneeded objects filled the standing space, and a small bulb burned high and incompletely to fill the room. These were text books I would rumage through to occupy my bored, slightly intrigued mind. I was maybe 10 years old, and probably had gone through some of the compilation texts, no doubt thumbing randomly after drawing them back to my bedroom, when I came upon Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was certainly in no place to understand it, but I vividly recall when I got the worn, handsized volume alone – I can still see the thread-fray at the maroonish binding – how extraordinary the first paragraphs were. They were like heiroglyphics, wherein you know that each substantive word meant something, that the entire meaning of the paragraph, the page, turned upon each word, snaking. And if you figured out what that word/term meant, the place it took, one understood just what such a paragraph, such a page, could do. That was when I came to love philosophy. When I knew it to be more condensed, more word-sure poetic than even a poem, each phrase catalevering higher.

Rorty’s Alternate History of Heidegger

I repost here Rorty’s brilliantly written and imagined alternate history of Heidegger. He contingently falls passionately in love with a young Jewess in 1930, moves to American eventually to teach at Rorty’s literal alma mater the University of Chicago (not mentioning that when he enrolled there while still a 14 year old in 1946, Rorty could have taken a course with the projectional Heidegger – can you imagine the little pubescent/precocious young boy staring at the lowering German, I think Rorty wants us to), eventually taking a formative place in the moderate Right of German politics, a thorn in Habermas’s side.

It shows off something more than just a political, or even philosophical point. I think it shows the glee Rorty felt for the nature of an Idea, even a narrative one, a glee that drove many of his Anti-Realist, a-philosophical musings. There is a tendency I think to minimize the weight of Rorty’s contribution to philosophy, to see him as a something of a popularizer – how can someone be saying something philosophically significant, and still be understood by the “masses”, must not philosophy be a question of access, of initiation, of terms…a profession in code? I sense that Rorty did something more than synthesize and simplify. In any case, this piece contains something of the elan of the man, his Joy, the professional anti-philosopher. 

Aside from this, Graham Harman, Heidegger’s metaphysical revisor/interpreter seemed to enjoy it, so at the very least it takes its place among some of the more entertaining, concisely written “ifs” in the history of philosophy.

The Alternative History of Martin Heidegger | Richard Rorty
From Philosophy and Social Hope (p.190-197 ), originally published in the London Review of Books as ‘Another Possible World’, 8 February 1990. This is an excerpt found at Good Reads:

I take a person’s moral character – his or her sensitivity to the sufferings of others – to be shaped by chance events in his or her life. Often, perhaps usually, this sensitivity varies independently of the projects of self-creation that the person undertakes in his or her work.

I can clarify what I mean by ‘chance events’ and ‘independent variation’ by sketching a slightly different possible world – a world in which Heidegger joins his fellow antiegalitarian, Thomas Mann, in preaching resistance to Hitler. To see how this possible world might have been actual, imagine that in the summer of 1930 Heidegger suddenly finds himself deeply in love with a beautiful, intense, adoring philosophy student named Sarah Mandelbaum. Sarah is Jewish, but Heidegger barely notices this, dizzy with passion as he is. After a painful divorce from Elfride – a process that costs him the friendship of, among other people, the Husserls – Heidegger marries Sarah in 1932. In January 1933 they have a son, Abraham.

Heidegger jokes that Sarah can think of Abraham as named after the patriarch, but that he will think of him as named after Abraham a Sancta Clara, the only other Messkirch boy to make good. Sarah looks up Abraham a Sancta Clara’s anti-Semitic writings in the library stacks, and Heidegger’s little joke becomes the occasion of the first serious quarrel between husband and wife. But by the end of 1933, Heidegger is no longer making such jokes. For Sarah makes him notice that the Jewish Beamt, including his father-in-law, have been cashiered. Heidegger reads things about himself in the student newspaper that make him realize that his day in the sun may be over. Gradually it dawns upon him that his love for Sarah has cost him much of his prestige, and will sooner or later cost him his job.

But he still loves her, and eventually he leaves his beloved Freiburg for her sake. In 1935 Heidegger is teaching in Berne, but only as a visitor. Switzerland has by now given away all its philosophy chairs. Suddenly a call comes from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There Heidegger spends two years slowly and painfully learning English, aching for the chance once again to spellbind seminar rooms of worshipfully attentive students. He gets a chance to do so in 1937 when some of his fellow emigres arrange a permanent job for him at the University of Chicago.

There he meets Elizabeth Mann Borgese, who introduces him to her father. Heidegger manages to overcome his initial suspicion of the Hanseatic darling of fortune, and Mann his initial suspicion of the Black Forest Bauernkind. They find they agree with each other, and with Adorno and Horkheimer; that America is a reduction ad absurdum of Enlightenment hopes, a land without culture. But their contempt for America does not prevent them from seeing Hitler as having ruined Germany and being about to ruin Europe. Heidegger’s stirring anti-Nazi broadcasts enable him to gratify a need a strike a heroic attitude before large masses of people – a need that he might, under other circumstances, have gratified in a rectorial address.

By the end of the Second World War, Heidegger’s marriage is on the rocks. Sarah Heidegger is a social democrat to the core, loves America, and is a passionate zionist. She has come to think of Heidegger as a great man with a cold and impervious heart, a heart which had once opened to her but remains closed to her social hopes. She has come to despise the egotist as much as she admires the philosopher and the anti-Nazi polemicist. In 1947 she separates from Heidegger and takes the 14-year-old Abraham with her to Palestine. She is wounded in the civil war but eventually, after the proclamation of independence, becomes a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University.

Heidegger himself returns to Freiburg in triumph in 1948. There he gets his old friend Gadamer a job, even though he is acidly contemptuous of Gadamer’s acquiescence in the Nazi takeover of the German universities. He eventually takes as his third wife a war widow, a woman who reminds all his old friends of Elfride. When he dies in 1976, his wife lays on his coffin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the medal of the order Pour le Merite, and the gold medal of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This last had been awarded him in the year after the publication of his brief but poignant elegy for Abraham, who had died on the Golan Heights in 1967.

What books did Heidegger write in this possible world? Almost exactly the same ones he wrote in the actual one. In this world, however, the Introduction to Metaphysics contains a contemptuous identification of the National Socialist movement with the mindless nihilism of modern technology, as well as the remark that Hitler is dragging Germany down to the metaphysical level of Russia and America. The seminars on Nietzsche are much that same as those he gave in our world, except for a digression on Nietzsche’s loathing for anti-Semites, a digression that contains uncanny parallels to Sartre’s contemporaneous but independent Portrait of the Anti-Semite. In this world, Heidegger writes most of the same exegetical essays he wrote in our world, but he adds appreciations of Thoreau and of Jefferson, composed for lectures at Harvard and at the University of Virginia respectively. The two essays evince Heidegger’s familiar sentimental agrarianism and suspicion of the urban proletariat. His books in this world are, in short, documents of the same struggle he carried on in the actual world – the struggle to move outside the philosophical tradition and there ‘sing a new song’. This struggle, this private pursuit of purity, was the core of his life. It was incapable of being greatly influenced either by his love for particular persons or by the political events of his time.

In our world, Heidegger said nothing political after the war. In the possible world I am sketching he puts his prestige as an anti-Nazi to work in making the German political right respectable. He is adored by Franz Josef Srauss, who pays regular and worshipful visits to Todtnauberg. Occasionally Heidegger appears with Strauss at political rallies. Social Democrats like Habermas regret Heidegger’s being consistently on the wrong side in postwar German politics. Sometimes, in private, they voice the suspicion that, in slightly different circumstances, Heidegger would have made a pretty good Nazi. But they never dream of saying such a thing in public about the greatest European thinker of our time.

The Habits we Keep


Philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu comes up with a non-mechanistic concept of determinism, closely related to the idea of conditioning, yet implying structures that can be analyzed in terms of history and its effects. He calls it the “habitus”, which is both a thing, but also a thing that acts, something akin to a process. The interesting aspect of this is the way that it employs conceptions of free will. What he argues is that we acquire knowledge in such a way that we weight early knowledge over later knowledge, and then act in such a way so as to maintain our exterior conditions that will preserve the relevance of that early knowledge. This structures both the very way well see the world, (giving us aspect blindness to things/information that might disturb our knowledge bases), and also the way that we materially act upon the world, (therefore the way that the world actually/objectively becomes). It is a large feed-back loop by which the world structures our habitus, our way of seeing, and the habitus works to structure the world. All the while we feel that we are freely choosing (within a delimited range of choices that is not experienced as delimited).

He reads this as a knowledge strategy, as we invest in what we have already invested in, and work to maintain the world that it too brings back the kinds of information that our invested knowledge is good at. Knowledge is both a strategy and a result.

Here is a lengthy quote of the material:

In reality, the dispositions durably inculcated by the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibitions inscribed in the objective conditions (which science apprehends through statistical regularities such as the probabilities objectively attached to a group or class) generate dispositions objectively compatible with these conditions and in a sense pre-adapted to their demands. The most improbable practices are therefore excluded, as unthinkable, by a kind of immediate submission to order that inclines agents to make a virtue of necessity, that is, to refuse what is anyway denied and to will the inevitable. The very conditions of production of the habitus, a virtue made of necessity, mean that the anticipations it generates tend to ignore the restriction to which the validity of calculation of probabilities is subordinated, namely that the experimental conditions should not be modified. Unlike scientific estimations, which are corrected after each experiment according to rigorous rules of calculation, the anticipations of the habitus, practical hypothesis based on past experience, give disproportionate weight to early experiences.

The habitus, a product of history, produces individual and collective practices more history in accordance with the schemes generated by history. It ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms. This system of dispositions, a present past that tends to perpetuate itself into the future by reactivation in similarly structure practices, an internal law through which the law of external necessities, irreducible to immediate constraints, is constantly exerted is the principle of continuity and regularity which objectivism sees in social practices without being able to account for it; and also of the regulated transformations that cannot be explained either by the extrinsic, instantaneous determinisms of mechanistic sociologism or by the purely internal but equally instantaneous determination of spontaneous subjectivism. As an acquired system of generative schemes, the habitus makes possible the free production of all the thoughts, perceptions and actions inherent in the particular conditions of its production and only those. Through the habitus, the structure of which it is the product governs practice, not along paths of mechanical determinism, but within the constraints and limits initially set on its inventions.

The habitus which, at every moment, structures new experiences in accordance with the structures produced by past experience, which are modified by the new experiences with the limits defined by their power of selection, brings about a unique integration, dominated by the earliest experiences, of the experiences statistically common to members of the same class. Early experiences have particular weight because the habitus tends to ensure its own constancy and its defense against change through the selection it makes within new information by rejecting information capable of calling into question its accumulated information, if exposed to it accidentally or by force, and especially, and especially by avoiding exposure to such information. One only has to think, for example, of homogamy, the paradigm of all the ‘choices’ through which the habitus tends to favour experiences likely to reinforce it (or the empirically confirmed fact that people tend to talk about politics with those who have the same opinions). And once again it is the most paradoxical property of the habitus, the unchosen principle of all ‘choices’, that yields the solution to the paradox of the information needed in order to avoid information. The schemes of perception and apperception of the habitus which are the basis of all the avoidance strategies are largely the product of a non-conscious, unwilled avoidance, whether it results automatically from the conditions of existence (for example, spatial segregation) or has been produced by strategic intention (such as the avoidance of ‘bad company’ or ‘unsuitable books’) originating from adults themselves formed in the same conditions.

–The Logic of Practice (54;61)

What is interesting about this take is that it accounts for both the subjective experience of freedom, but also the objective need to understand the structuring of that freedom. It employs the structural aspects of descriptive determinism which allows us to investigate the causes of our “insights”, as causes, yet it implicates us as the creators of that world, the world which creates us. It is really conditioning with a vengeance. A self-conditioning, through the conditioning of the world. The world tells us what we want to hear because we have worked to make it “say” those things, but it also makes us hear what we want to hear, by structuring our choices and perceptions.