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After Spinoza: wiser, freer, happier

Ursula Renz interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Ursula Renz does strenuous brooding on Spinoza’s ethics in Klagenfurt and Zurich. The results of this won a major prize. But she thinks philosophy is largely its own reward and sometimes you worry that you’ll never work it out. She sees Spinoza as more radical than Descartes but breaks less. She thinks after reading Spinoza’s Ethics we will be wiser, freer and happier but she has doubts about philosophy as therapy. She is the jive sister of Spinoza studies.

3:AM: When did you decide to become a philosopher? Were you a philosophically curious child or was philosophy something you came to later?

Ursula Renz: As far as I can tell, I was a philosophically curious child. I always wanted to understand what was going on with and around me. When I was a teenager, we once had to make a test. We got a list of verbs and had to pick out those describing the activities we would most like to do in our future job. Among the verbs I selected figured prominently “to understand”, “to grasp”, “to analyse”, “to comprehend” etc. Unfortunately, I had no idea what kind of profession this could amount to. Philosophy was never an issue in my parents’ house, and we had no philosophy classes at high school (or no classes which deserved this name). So it was only when I went to university at the age of twenty that I got in touch with philosophy. There, however, another problem arose. Philosophy classes were attended often by professionals such as doctors, lawyers, psychologists who were all more educated and eloquent. This was extremely inspiring, but it took me a while against this background to become self-confident enough to think of my own understanding of things as being valuable in any sense.

3:AM: I’m based in England so I wonder if you could tell the readers a little about the place of philosophy in your culture?

UR: Let me specify first what culture we are talking about. I am a German-speaking philosopher, but I am actually living in two places which are out of Germany, in Klagenfurt, a small and provincial town in Austria, and in Zürich, the financial capital of Switzerland. In neither of these places has philosophy ever played a major role in cultural life or society. Klagenfurt is a lovely small city in Kärnten, which is an economically poor, but lovely region close to Slovenia. It is known for three things: It’s situated in a beautiful landscape; it has a rich literary tradition, and it suffers from a problematic history of oppression which has still a problematic influence on regional politics. In Zürich by contrast, it’s primarily money that matters; there is a lot of money there, and you also need more than in most places to make a living there. There is a saying, used rather sarcastically, that in Klagenfurt even the air is philosophical. It draws back to the enlightenment philosopher and patron Franz Paul von Herbert, who was born in Klagenfurt and emigrated later to Switzerland. I sometimes wonder what he thought about the air in Switzerland …

3:AM: You have written a book on Spinoza that won the Journal of the History of Philosophy’s prize for the best book published in that field for 2010. Before turning to the content of that I just wanted to ask you about the rewards of philosophy – what are they, why do you philosophise, what’s the pay-off and how did you feel to receive such a prize?

UR: I am a little bit reluctant to sell philosophy as something which is attractive as such. But to philosophically minded people, it has indeed a lot to offer. Let me start with a comparison. As an activity, philosophy is extremely challenging and thrilling, comparable with climbing or hiking. Solving a philosophical problem or finding a convincing answer to a philosophical question is like trying to get on to the top of an impressive mountain. You have to deal with hard stuff; you focus on one particular mountain, while watching many others; it needs all your skills and technique to get on the top, but it also requires discipline and sometimes even dedication. Arriving there is extremely satisfying, but there is always the risk that you won’t arrive.

There are also other rewards in philosophy, which have to do with the training it offers. Academic philosophy is an excellent training of your analytical skills and over time these may provide you with a more differentiated view on many facets of life. To be able to identify differences which otherwise you would have felt only in a confused way is another important pay-off of philosophy. I must say, I do not share the disenchanted attitude of many academic philosophers that philosophy may not give any answer to existential questions. Of course, we better abstain from expecting easy, simple and quick answers, but sometimes philosophy may provide a deeper understanding of certain problems which is quite valuable sometimes even for daily life. Finally there is the special reward for philosophers who work in the history of philosophy that you get in touch with great philosophers of the past. Sometimes you find allies in them, sometimes it’s simply fascinating to discover foreign accounts, but in any case it’s a rewarding, enlightening experience.

Of course there are also those rewards stemming from recognition. These are important, as in any profession. However, saying this, I do not only think of prizes and the like. I also get lots of recognition in my teaching. It is wonderful to see students becoming enthusiastic about philosophy. I am not a good teacher however, if I am not actually inspired by my research. That’s why it’s so important that professors find enough time to spend with their own research. What was it like when I got the prize? At first, I couldn’t believe it. Then I felt a deep thankfulness. It was a completely unexpected reward. I still am thankful.

3:AM: In your essay ‘Philosophie als Transzendentalphilosophie’ (I just wanted to be able to write that!) you are engaging with modern developments out of Kant. The argument concerns the ‘myth of the given’ and how Kant’s concept of experience relates to this and then what the three later philosophers made of this. Can you first say what you take the Sellarsian ‘myth of the given’ to be and how it relates to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason? And why are these issues so significant? I think that sometimes the general public misses the significance of what philosophers argue about because they aren’t told how the seemingly esoteric disputes relate to them.

UR: When philosophers talk of the ‘myth of the given’ they usually attack a certain way of thinking about the epistemic function of the sensory content. The phrase ‘myth of the given’ is a polemical expression which is to denounce a certain kind of argument which presuppose that in sense experience some knowledge just given to us. This is, they say, a fallacious assumption, for it confuses two notions of sensory content. If we conceive of the sensory content of experience in terms of ‘sense data’ which are simply given to us in sensing, we cannot refer to it in order to ground empirical knowledge. They do not categorically preclude that we probably have sense data in this primitive sense, but this does not imply that one has knowledge. If, on the other hand, we conceive of sensory content in a more complex manner such as that it involves seeing a thing as such and such, then it is not simply given to us, for it depends on the exercise of conceptual capacities. But these capacities are shaped by concepts used in former training, and these concepts may be right or wrong. That’s why according to Cohen all contents of human thought including sensory experience are subject to transcendental analysis, i.e. we have to discuss them upon the grounds that justify them.

3:AM: Both Cohen with Sellars agree that Kant is offering a new holistic account of experience but you contrast their positions at other points. Am I right? Can you explain this?

UR: Let me start with a small observation: Cohen’s important and rich book on Kant’s first critique is entitled Kants Theorie der Erfahrung; one of the first and most important texts Sellars wrote about Kant was his paper ‘Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience‘. Maybe, this is pure coincidence, but I presume that Sellars knew at least the title of Cohen’s book. What’s more interesting though is that Cohen and Sellars, while speaking quite different philosophical idioms, defend the same interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason.

First, they both take the merit of Kant’s first critique to be conceptual in kind. The crucial innovation of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, so their shared opinion, does not consist in any kind of new grounds for knowledge claims. Instead, he developed a new concept of experience and, hence, of empirical knowledge. Second, they both took the essential moment of Kant’s new concept of experience to consist in the idea that every token of experience belongs to a system constituting one’s experience as a whole. Experience comes as a whole and is not composed of self-subsistent mental atoms. This is what I called a holistic account of experience. Finally, they also agree that empirical science plays a major role in Kant’s views on experience.

However, even more important than the particular commonalities in their views on Kant, is the inspiration Kant’s transcendental provides in the development of their own philosophical approaches. Both are committed to a transcendental approach in a very radical way; they both assume that philosophy has to be transcendental philosophy in order perform its task. If the aim of philosophy is “understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest sense of the term”, as Sellars claims, it has to become transcendental philosophy.

3:AM: Interestingly, you argue that both Cohen and Sellars assume that an irreducibly normative ethics is compatible with scientific realism. And you say Cohen is trying to set up a task for ethicists to reject mythic underpinnings of morals and develop a new purely anthropological ethical vision. Can you say more? It sounds like they’re being a bit Spinoza-like in their approach?

UR: Put in this way, this is misleading. Cohen’s is a sharp critique of Spinoza’s ethical approach. The reason for this becomes obvious, if we consider how differently they conceive of the relation between ethics and anthropology. Following a widespread view of Spinoza, one of the basic claims of the Ethics is that ethics, as a philosophy discipline, has to rely on anthropology. This was also Cohen’s understanding of Spinoza, and in many respects it is mine as well. That’s why in the third part of the Ethics, he is developing a theory of affects, before, in part four and five, he deals with ethical issues. In Cohen’s ethics in contrast, the relation between ethics and anthropology is reversed. Ethics is not grounded in anthropology. On the contrary, it is, in Cohen’s own wording, a “theory of the concept of man” which is to derive from the idealistic grounds of Kantianism. The result is not an anthropology in the usual sense of the word, but rather some kind of humanistic ethics, which seeks to capture our intuitions of what matters in morality in a non-reductionist way.

Let’s now add Sellars to this picture. Generally speaking, Sellars is closer to Spinoza, or the widespread view on Spinoza I have just sketched, than Cohen. Cohen was, after all, a very religious man, and one might question whether he would have liked my comparison with Sellars. Sellars on the other hand would probably neither have refrained from being compared with Spinoza, nor, I guess, with Cohen. One of the central points of his approach consists in his view on the irreducibility of normativity. He maintains scientific realism and concludes that scientific insights will overrule most of our ordinary anthropological convictions. But he denies that this calls for a naturalisation of normative claims.

On the contrary, he assumes that the crucial aspects of our ordinary conception of man are related to the notion of personhood, where persons are bearers of duties and rights. This corresponds in a certain way with the relation between the basic claims behind Cohen’s logics or epistemology and his ethics. In his logics, Cohen expresses a strong commitment to some kind of scientific realism. At the same time he claims that the task of ethics is to develop a theory of the concept of man which is anti-naturalist in spirit. To put it in a nutshell one could say both assume that normative claims constitute a principal limit to the reach of scientific explanation.

It is illuminating to discuss also Spinoza’s naturalism against the background of this picture. It is striking that Spinoza does not treat ethical and epistemological normativity in the same way. He has a radically deflationary view on moral normativity, but not so, to my mind, on epistemic normativity. There is a disanalogy in this respect which is often missed, when Spinoza is characterised as a naturalist. His ambitions were in many respects naturalist, but his epistemology is not at all a form of naturalised epistemology. Cohen too, I think, has missed this point.

3:AM: Another area you’ve written about is about how far and in what way our individual knowledge depends on the testimony of others. We’re living in a world where we’re soaked in blogs and sources of testimony from all over. This is clearly an important topic. You say that while testimony of others is often a source of information, we are not simply entitled to knowledge claims based on testimony. Is that right? (I confess my German’s pretty useless so I could have misread this.) Can you say more about the conditions that you think should be satisfied to give testimonies epistemic authority? Again I wonder if this issue is not one that grew out of your studies of Spinoza?

UR: Not really. I started to work on this issue when I had to prepare for the oral exams of my habilitation (a kind of higher doctorate which is usually required in the German countries in order be eligible for full professorships). You have to give a talk about a topic which is rather new for you and defend it in a discussion with professors of all fields of the humanities. I chose to give a talk on testimonial knowledge, because I expected that this is a topic which allows to see and to explain the relevance of the basic problems discussed in post-Gettier epistemology. I then realised that most philosophers, who defend the idea of testimonial knowledge, neglected the reasons why many early modern epistemologists rejected it and maintained individualist conceptions of knowledge. I started to wonder whether there is not a possibility to defend an individualist view on knowledge without embracing epistemic, rationalist or empiricist, fundamentalism.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 17th, 2012.