:: Article

books forged in hell etc

Steven Nadler interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Steven Nadler is the off da heezie fo sheezie OG in the history of philosophy rage. He’s always thinking and writing about Leibniz, Arnauld, Malebranche but goes large with Spinoza and his heresy, his view on the immortality of the mind, the harshness of his cherem, his book forged in hell, his deep secularism, Descartes and the priest and the painter, Occasionalism, why Descartes is like Daffy Duck, and the radicalism and iconoclasm of his brood of historical thinkers. All in all, this is fa sho fa-sheezy. Forceful!

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always wondering about things or did something happen?

Steven Nadler: Actually, as I headed off to college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. Neither of my parents had gone to college, so they could not provide much guidance on what to do once I got there. I assumed that, like many of my high school peers (I’m from Roslyn, on Long Island, NY), I would end up pre-law or something like that, but I can’t say I really gave it much thought. After all, what did I know? I had spent most of my high school years interested in sports and music; I really had no serious intellectual interests at the time. I did realize by that point that I was not likely going to be playing shortstop for the New York Mets or center for the New York Rangers, and thus that I’d need a backup plan.

What happened was, my very first class in my very first semester as an undergraduate, at Washington University in St. Louis, was an Introduction to Philosophy (I’m not quite sure why I had signed up for it – perhaps just out of curiosity). I had never read any philosophy at all, and had no idea what to expect. But the professor, Red Watson—with whom I am now good friends–was so full of energy, so enthusiastic, that he really made philosophy exciting. Right then and there I was hooked, and I immediately knew that that’s what I wanted to spend my life doing. I was thrilled by the teacher and by the material, and I never looked back. The hard part was telling my parents that I would not, in fact, be going to law school, but graduate school in philosophy. They seemed amused.

3:AM:Your book on Leibniz, Antoine Arnauld and Nicolas Malebranche makes much of the historical context in which the three thinkers discussed their views, and this is something that’s true of your books. So generally, are you seeking continuities or discontinuities with the contemporary philosophical concerns in your work? Perhaps you could illustrate your answer by saying something about how these three connect/disconnect from us?

SN: To be honest, I’ve always resented the question, often asked of me (and, I suspect, also asked of other people who do history of philosophy): “Do you also do philosophy?” or “Do you have any philosophical interests as well?”, as if we are “mere historians”. I don’t see any discontinuities between what I do and what my colleagues working in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, etc. do. Philosophy is, by its nature, a dialogue, an engagement with others over certain kinds of problems, ideas, and arguments. Sometimes the dialogue takes place in person; more often, it happens through our writing and our teaching, as we critically consider what others have said on this or that topic. Everyone who does philosophy is engaged in this kind of dialogue. It’s just that the philosophers whom those of us who do history of early modern philosophy are in dialogue with happen to be long dead. This kind of makes our job harder, since we have to not only figure out and assess what this or that philosopher from the past said, but then consider how they might respond to our assessment (since they are no longer around to respond on their own behalf). In this way, historians of philosophy have to hold up both ends of the dialogue themselves. But that’s the fun of it: trying to figure out not only what Descartes or Leibniz or Malebranche or Spinoza meant to say, but also how they would or could respond to our reconstructions and critiques. I’m a big fan of the “what would/could/should dead philosopher x say about this?” style of doing history of philosophy, although there’s always the danger that it veers into anachronism.

Incidentally, this is what I think distinguishes doing history of philosophy from doing intellectual history. We who do history of philosophy are philosophers, and have the philosopher’s interest in understanding and evaluating theses (for their truth) and arguments (for their validity or soundness). We want to know, for example, not only what Descartes believed accounts for the intentionality of mental acts, but also whether his explanation of this makes decent philosophical sense. Similarly, it is fascinating to examine the various aspects of Leibniz’s solution to the problem of evil, not so much as a species of Christian apologetics, but as a particularly good entry-point for understanding a rich and intriguing metaphysics.

So I am, of course, interested in philosophical problems that are still of contemporary concern, but I’m especially interested in the way in which those problems were addressed by seventeenth-century thinkers (as well as the way in which they addressed problems that are no longer of contemporary concern). And coming to understand how those seventeenth-century thinkers dealt with such problems requires not only knowing something about the philosophical problems themselves and the claims made by those thinkers, but also, I believe, taking account of the philosophical context in which they worked, as well as (I would argue) the historical, scientific, and religious contexts as well. It would be hard to understand and properly assess the coherence of Malebranche’s views on causation and freedom, for example, without knowing something about seventeenth-century theological debates about divine grace.

In terms of my books (as opposed to journal articles, which are addressed primarily to other scholars), my hope has been to illuminate philosophy in this period for a broader audience, one beyond the world of professional philosophers. At a certain point in your career, there may come an urge to reach readers beyond fellow colleagues in your field. This, at least, was my experience, and this point came soon after I got tenure (1992) and my children were past the toddler stage. I occurred to me that if I was going to take time away from doing things with them, it had to be for a project of some general importance (like a biography of Spinoza) that would be of interest to more than just twenty or so other scholars.
In my books on Spinoza and other early modern thinkers, I wanted to show this general audience how interesting and important a philosophical period the seventeenth century was, and I felt that the best way to do this is to make the philosophy “come alive” (if I might use that old cliché) by relating it to personal and historical circumstances. Arnauld, for example, was an incredibly sharp philosopher, and could easily hold his own with the finest contemporary philosopher working in the analytic mode (although he tended to be rather short tempered and obnoxious when others disagreed with him). But while I and other scholars of early modern philosophy might find his writings by themselves of interest, what really works if you want to introduce this fascinating philosophical figure to a lay audience is revealing his personality and the larger theological and religious cause for which he was fighting.

3:AM: You’ve written extensively about Spinoza. There are several interesting strands to Spinoza and one is the nature of his heresy. He was expelled from the Jewish community in very harsh terms wasn’t he, and you link this particular harshness to the doctrine of immortality don’t you? Could you say something first about this biblical and rabbinical tradition concerning the immortality of the soul?

SN: There does not seem to be any single Biblical or rabbinic or later Jewish tradition concerning the immortality of the soul. It is not a halachic or legal question but rather a metaphysical one, and so there has historically been a good deal of latitude for speculation and (in good rabbinic tradition) differences of opinion (although not all the ancient sages were sufficiently ecumenical on this topic).

In Hebrew Scripture, in fact, there really is no doctrine of immortality at all, at least none that I can see, aside from an occasional hint here or there (e.g., in the book of Daniel). In rabbinic thought, on the other hand, there is a great variety of views on the post-mortem fate of the soul. Some authoritative figures do offer a robust doctrine of the immortality of the soul in a world-to-come (where divine reward and punishment are meted out), but others insist that God’s justice plays out in this world. It seems to me that Maimonides, for example, in his philosophical writings really does reject a robust doctrine of personal immortality (which, I would insist, needs to be definitively distinguished from the question of the resurrection of the dead, which Maimonides does include among the essential tenets of the Jewish faith).

3:AM: So did Spinoza reject all of these teachings and received wisdoms?

SN: That’s a complicated question. What Spinoza rejected were all those teachings and doctrines of the Abrahamic religions that reeked of superstition: the personal immortality of the soul, the notion of a God who is a kind of person or anthropomorphic agent exercising providence; a metaphysical or moral sense in which the Israelites were God’s “chosen people”; the continued validity of Jewish law after the end of the Israelite commonwealth and the destruction of the Second Temple; and the divine origin of the Bible. These are, he believed, morally and politically harmful doctrines that lead to psychological bondage to the passions of hope and fear, and to moral and political enslavement by ecclesiastic authorities who know how to manipulate those passions. On the other hand, Spinoza did believe that the Bible, a compilation of human writings by highly imaginative and ethically outstanding individuals, is an important source, not of theological, historical, philosophical, or scientific truth, but of moral edification. In that sense, it is “divine”. But then again, any work of human literature that inspires one to treat other human beings with justice and charity qualifies as “divine”, since it thereby leads to true piety.

3:AM: Spinoza’s view on the immortality of the mind are tricky aren’t they? Are they incoherent?

SN: I agree that they are “tricky” and difficult. But I don’t think they are incoherent. In fact, what he is saying is rather simple: When you’re dead, you’re dead. Still, there is an eternal element in the mind of the person who has knowledge – namely, that knowledge itself, the true and eternal ideas that a philosophically inclined person acquires over his/her lifetime. These ideas were there, in Nature, before a person came to exist, and they will be there after a person dies. In this lifetime, that individual can embrace or tap into these adequate and eternal ideas in Nature and in this sense “participate” in eternity. This will bring great benefits to that person – which is to say that in this lifetime, the pursuit of knowledge (which for Spinoza is equivalent to virtue) has its (natural) rewards. Because those ideas are eternal truths, there is a sense in which something that belonged to that person remains after his/her death. But there’s nothing personal about it, and it is certainly not a doctrine of immortality. In fact, Spinoza goes out of his way in the Ethics to avoid using the term ‘immortality’, and speaks only of the “eternity of the mind.”

I believe that much of what Spinoza has to say on this topic is very closely related to what he found in the works of medieval Jewish rationalists (like Maimonides and Gersonides), and that much of the frustration that has plagued scholars trying to make sense of Part Five of the Ethics (where Spinoza discusses the eternity of the mind) is due to the fact that they have not taken this Jewish intellectual context into account. Much of the Ethics is best understood in a Cartesian or Hobbesian context; but Part Five, and even elements of Part Four, really are a kind of engagement with an earlier intellectualist tradition in Jewish philosophy.

3:AM: You relate the particular harshness of his cherem to the time, 1630, when there were particular controversies about immortality gong on in the Jewish community don’t you? Was Spinoza then being deliberately provocative or was it just bad luck that he walked into the middle of this?

SN: He may have been deliberately provocative, although he claimed to hate scandal and quarreling. But I don’t think it was bad luck. He knew who the rabbis of his community were and he was familiar with their theological and intellectual concerns. He certainly knew that Rabbi Mortera, Rabbi Aboab, and the others took the issue of immortality very seriously (as we know from their writings), and he knew that the Iberian-Catholic background of this Amsterdam Sephardic community may have led it to a somewhat more robust eschatological outlook than is usually found in other Jewish communities of the time. So I think he knew exactly what he was doing. Jewish Amsterdam in the mid-seventeenth century was just the wrong place and the wrong time to be dismissing the immortality of the soul, and Spinoza cannot have been unaware of this.

3:AM: In your last book about Spinoza you say that his scandalous treatise ushered in the birth of the secular age. This gives him a very important role in contemporary discussions about secularism and modernity. So can you just sketch out the main points of his scandalous treatise for us?

SN: Perhaps the most shocking features of the Theological-Political Treatise are his denial of the possibility of miracles, his views on the nature and interpretation of the Bible, his account of prophecy, his understanding of divine providence, and his demand that in the modern state people should be free to think what they want and say what they think, and that religion and faith must not exercise any kind of oversight on philosophical or scientific inquiry.

To elaborate a little: Unilke Hume, who argued that the belief in a miracle can never be sufficiently warranted, Spinoza argued for the stronger claim that miracles are, in fact, metaphysically impossible. Whatever happens, happens in and through God or Nature; but since God is identical with Nature, it is incoherent to think that God might act contrary to Nature. Thus, if a miracle is a supernatural violation of the order of Nature, it is in principle impossible. Divine providence, in fact, is nothing but the order of Nature itself.

The prophets, meanwhile, were not intellectually gifted individuals, as Maimonides and others had argued. In fact, they were generally uneducated and simple folk who just happened to be of outstanding moral character and endowed with especially vivid imaginations. Thus, they were skilled at morally edifying storytelling. Their writings, therefore, are not necessarily a source of scientific, philosophical, historical, or even theological truths (again, as Maimonides had insisted). The prophetic books are, on the other hand, especially well suited for inspiring justice and charity.

Spinoza was the first to argue, in some detail, that the Bible is not literally the work of God, nor was the Torah written by Moses. The Pentateuch, as well as the later writings, were composed by various authors, and these works were handed down through generations and finally redacted by someone in the Second Temple period, most likely Ezra, or so Spinoza argues. What we thus have is a rather “corrupt and mutilated” collection of documents. It should be respected not for the words on the page, but for the message it conveys. Scripture should thus be interpreted like any work of literature—seek the meaning intended by its author by investigating who that author was, the circumstances in which and purposes for which he was writing, and so on, all without assuming that the meaning of the text (i.e., what the author believed) is identical with what is philosophically or scientifically or theologically true.

Finally, Spinoza argues that the state is best served by tolerating freedom of thought and expression. Contrary to what some have asserted, however, Spinoza did not argue for the separation of church and state. While individuals should be absolutely free to believe whatever they want when it comes to God, including not believing anything at all, matters of open religious practice and worship were a matter of public concern – since they are social activities — and so fell under the bailiwick of the sovereign, who was solely responsible for insuring the peace and well-being of society.

I am still surprised at how rare it is to see the Treatise included in philosophy courses, and how little scholarly attention has been given to its contents, relative to how much has been written about the metaphysics and epistemology of the Ethics. You’d never know that Spinoza was primarily concerned with moral, political, and religious issues.

3:AM: He’s basically setting out what conditions need to be assumed for science isn’t he – especially in his denial of any kind of supernaturalism, nature’s availability for study of laws and principles governing it and so on? You were involved in discussing this and the fate of morality in the light of this naturalistic worldview with religious believers who couldn’t see where morality could come from if it wasn’t based in belief in God. How do Spinoza’s thoughts help answer their worries?

SN: Sadly, I’m not sure that Spinoza’s thoughts were at all helpful in addressing their worries. They simply could not see the incoherence of believing both that all moral values depend on the will of God and, at the same time, that God deserves to be called “good” and “just”. It makes no sense to speak of God’s goodness and justice, except in a trivial way, if there are not objective and God-independent moral values and standards by which to judge God’s character, and if all such values depend simply on what God wills. It’s the old Euthyphro problem: is the pious pious because the god’s love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious? As Socrates shows Euthyphro, if it is pious only because the gods love it, then it must be concluded that the gods are capricious and arbitrary agents.

What Spinoza brings to the debate is the rejection of making any ethical attributions of God. His idea is that there are no moral values whatsoever in God or Nature. Whatever is, just is. Nature does not exist for the sake of something, nor does anything in Nature exist for any purpose or reason. God (Nature) is not a providential agent who has plans or acts for the sake of ends; to believe otherwise is simply to project the teleology of human action upon God and anthropomorphize it. It is, Spinoza insists, the most basic kind of superstition, and a dangerous one at that. It leads us to think that God will reward or punish us based on how we behave, and thus we end up submitting our lives to religious authorities.

3:AM: In the seventies and eighties the thesis that modernity was secular and that conditions for modernity were incompatible with religion was pretty much an orthodox view. These days the position of religion in modernity is pretty strong and so the secularization thesis is under revision. For many this is a scandal, that religion is not dying. Are you surprised by the fact that so many of Spinoza’s views have not been taken up by so many? Would Spinoza have been scandalized by this new modernity, or would he have recognized it as being similar to his own milieu and to be expected?

SN: I doubt that Spinoza would be surprised at the continued strength of religious belief in modern society—and by ‘religious belief’ here I mean the imaginative and superstitious kind of religious beliefs that are centered around a providential God (as opposed to what Spinoza calls the “true religion”, which involves only treating others with justice and charity). My guess is that he would regard it as a common response, grounded in human nature, to uncertainty in the world and a natural expression of the desire for some form of psychological comfort. Still, it is shocking to learn what percentage of the American population has fundamentalist beliefs about God and religion, rejects evolution in favor of creationism, believes that morality has its origin in God’s will, and so on. It would certainly scandalize Spinoza, and probably sadden him, to see how little progress we’ve actually made since his time. I suppose it is too much to expect a broader segment of the American population to read Spinoza, or any philosophy – after all, we are now a fairly illiterate society. Whenever I’m in Europe – in Paris, London, or Amsterdam, for example – I am always impressed by the serious books being sold in the many independent bookstores and being reviewed in the mass-circulation newspapers and magazines. I wish we had that kind of literary culture here.

3:AM: Your new book is about another great skeptic – Descartes. But your portrait expands his image from just a great philosopher. You frame the portrait by investigating the meeting between Descartes and the painter who is supposed to have painted his portrait by Hals now in Copenhagen and the basis of the copy we’re all familiar with that’s in the Louvre. Why?

SN: I wanted to write a book on Descartes. But the world certainly did not need another academic overview of Descartes’s philosophy, of the sort that proceeds through each of the Meditations. On the other hand, we’ve had a spate of good biographies of Descartes lately, so there was no reason for me to undertake another one. Still, I thought there was a really interesting story to be told about the Hals portrait of Descartes, and that it could be put to good use as a “portal” into Descartes’ life, times, and ideas. Moreover, I’ve got a strong amateur’s interest in seventeenth-century Dutch art, and this project, like my earlier book Rembrandt’s Jews, gave me the opportunity to indulge it. It is an eccentric book, since it combines philosophy, biography, religious history, and art history, but I think (or at least hope) it works.

By the way, I certainly would not call Descartes (or Spinoza) a “skeptic”. On the contrary, one of his goals was to prove skepticism wrong and establish that true scientific knowledge of the world was possible.

3:AM: Were you surprised by what you discovered about Descartes as you wrote this portrait? In particular, did you find that approaching him in this rather intimate way shed new light on philosophical doctrines many professional philosophers will be perhaps over-familiar with?

SN: Not really surprised, but definitely intrigued. By this point, I am pretty familiar with Descartes’s life and ideas, but it was very interesting while writing this book to come back to little things that, while not at all secret, I had not paid much attention to before – like the details of his relationship with these two Catholic priests, Bloemaert and Ban — and to read more closely some of his letters in which he describes the finer points of his life in the Netherlands. I do think that this book gives us a more intimate and personal view of Descartes than is found in the usual biography.

3:AM: Did working on the book shed new light on Malebranche and his doctrine of occasionalism which you’ve written about in earlier books?

SN: Not this book, but I am interested at some point in writing a book on Cartesianism that focuses on the years 1663 to 1674. 1663 is when Descartes’s works were put on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, and 1674 is the publication year of Malebranche’s Search After Truth, which really transformed Cartesian philosophy (and its reputation) in the period. Between these two events, a good deal of interesting and important Cartesian activity took place, with figures like Louis de la Forge, Géraud de Cordemoy, Arnold Geulincx, and Johannes Clauberg – philosophical activity that, in some respects, made possible the more unorthodox innovations of Malebranche. The book would be called (with some irony) The Good Cartesians. Right now, however, I’m working on a book on Spinoza as moral philosopher – an unjustly understudied topic – which will offer a detailed analysis of his metaethics and his normative ethics.

3:AM: I guess the relation of Descartes to his early schooling at La Fleche and its Augustinian and Jesuit roots is one that intrigues – what was Descartes relation with theology?

SN: I would say of Descartes with respect to theology just what Chuck Jones, the great creator and animator of Loony Tunes (Bugs Bunny et al.), once (in an interview) said of his character Daffy Duck: that he boldly goes yet fears to tread. Descartes did not want to get into theological disputes, and he certainly did not want to pronounce publicly on matters of revealed religion (e.g., Eucharistic transubstantiation, the Trinity, God’s attributes, and so on). And yet, he couldn’t help himself. When Arnauld, in the Fourth Objections to the Meditations and in subsequent correspondence, asked him to explain how his metaphysics of body was compatible with the Tridentine Catholic dogma of real presence in the Eucharist, he cautiously offered some fairly radical speculations. When another Catholic priest, the Jesuit Denis Mesland, also pressed Descartes on this issue, Descartes went even further, although he told Mesland to keep it all to himself. It was apparently just this engagement with revealed religious matters that finally, in 1663, landed Descartes’s works on the Index of Prohibited Books, “until corrected”. There is a marvelous book on all this, by Jean-Robert Armogathe, titled Theologia Cartesiana. It seems to me that there is still a good deal of interesting work to be done on Descartes and theology and religion.

3:AM: Ursula Renz thinks Spinoza is more radical than Descartes but less iconoclastic. Would you agree?

SN: In her interview with you, she does not really explain what she means by this. But I would say that it all depends. In terms of science and basic philosophical principles, Descartes was extraordinarily iconoclastic, particularly if the “icon” in question is Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy and science. Spinoza was, in many ways, a Cartesian in this domain, and thus more a follower than an iconoclast or innovator. But in terms of religion, Descartes was fairly conventional, or at least so he seems, whereas Spinoza was incredibly iconoclastic, rejecting almost all the central dogmatic tenets of the major revealed religions. It is, in fact, hard to imagine a more iconoclastic thinker in this period than Spinoza, or a more radical one when it comes to metaphysical, theological and political matters.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to our readers who will want to go further into your intriguing philosophical world?

SN: Of course, everyone should read Spinoza’s Ethics (and I do mean all of it, not just Parts One and Two for the metaphysics and epistemology, but to the end, so you can see why the book is called “Ethics”) and his Theological-Political Treatise (which, sadly, almost never gets taught in philosophy courses – which means it almost never gets taught at all, except perhaps in courses on Jewish intellectual history).

But I assume you mean books of more recent scholarship. So here’s some that have been really important for me (and I’m limiting the list to books in English):
Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza – simply a fascinating read by one of our greatest historians of philosophy.
Richard A. Watson, The Downfall of Cartesianism – this book, published almost fifty years ago, really opened up the study of Cartesian metaphysics and epistemology after Descartes.
On Spinoza, Edwin Curley’s Behind the Geometric Method is a brief but first-rate introduction to Spinoza’s philosophy (although I should also mention his highly influential but more specialized Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation).
There is also Daniel Garber’s Descartes’s Metaphysical Physics, a groundbreaking look at the intriguing relationship between Descartes’s metaphysics and his science.
And, to give a nod to Leibniz, there is Donald Rutherford’s Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature, which offers an original and persuasive approach to systematizing the various dimensions of Leibniz’s philosophy.
There are many other important and influential works I could name here, by such superb scholars as Bob Sleigh, Tom Lennon, and Margaret Wilson, all of whom were extremely important influences (and generous colleagues) to me over the years. But you said “five”, so five it is.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 17th, 2013.