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After Spinoza: wiser, freer, happier

3:AM: Of course it’s for your work on Spinoza that you are best known. To introduce us to this philosopher, can you say some general things about why he is a particularly important and special thinker to you? And why contemporaries should know about him?

UR: Spinoza was a very rigid and autonomous thinker whose works exhibit a strong sense of systematicity. What I mean thereby is the following: Spinoza is always very clear about the implications of a certain claim for claims in other fields. Hence I do not think that the systematicity of Spinoza’s works is simply due to his usage of the geometrical method. On the contrary, his usage of the geometrical method is, in my view, a matter of the exposition of this systematicity, rather than of proof. Still, his usage of this method shows that he had firm idea of how things cohere with each other. To get an understanding of these connections is extremely instructive, even if one does not follow him in all his points. Moreover, Spinoza’s is as rich as it is rigorous, one can find interesting and challenging views on almost everything: metaphysics, religion, knowledge and science, morality, social life, and politics as wells as, of course, all kinds of mental phenomena.

3:AM: You were incredibly ambitious in your book on his masterwork Ethics, writing about it as a systematic whole rather than doing what others usually do, which is to pick themes and arguments and focus on those. So did you do that because you think something is lost if it is treated piecemeal and the architecture of the work is ignored? Can you say why you approached him as you did, and how this is different from others?

UR: What I did was the following: I developed a wholly new interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy of mind according to which the Ethics can be defended against the Hegelian charge of the disappearance of finite subjects. In order to do this, I had to get a grasp of the Ethics as a whole. In elaborating my view however, I did a lot of piecemeal analysis of particular concepts, claims and arguments; and I also engaged in very close reading of particular passages. Surprisingly, I have found a lot of textual evidence and argumentative support for my rather unusual reading. So, it was the overall intention and not my method which was particularly ambitious.

3:AM: You think Spinoza is out to show that we can explain our subjective experience and that this is important because the explanation makes us wiser, freer and happier. Is that right?

UR: Yes, this is the central contention of my reconstruction, and I have to add that this claim is directed against the idea that the Ethics aims at some kind of Eleatic monism according to which the perspective of finite subjects is unreal. To my view, this amounts to an unsatisfying account of Spinoza’s philosophy. In any case, it would not make any sense to call such an account ‘ethics’. We have to keep in mind that, according to Spinoza, there is nothing good or bad for God. I also cannot see how an Eleatic reading fits to Spinoza’s political theory and social philosophy which accentuate the ideal of the free individual. It was because of this dissatisfaction that I was looking for another way of reconstructing Spinoza’s metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

3:AM: A theory of the human mind then seems to be essential to Spinoza’s approach. Can you say something about this?

UR: Let’s have a look at the organisation of the Ethics: the parts on the mind and on the emotions constitute some kind of bridge between the metaphysics of part one and the more practical parts four and five. The idea behind this structure is easy to grasp: according to Spinoza, the first thing we have to do is to clarify the ontological concepts such as being, causation, or modality. These concepts should allow for explanations of nature that undermine all kind of anthropomorphism. Once this is done, we can start analysing human life, and, in particular human mentality. Spinoza seems to think that we have to understand how the human mind is working and how it produces all the qualitative differences of our experiences, before we can continue with a discussion of ethical issues such as social life, freedom and happiness.

3:AM: Descartes is perhaps the great contrasting philosopher, with his mind body dualism. Can you say how Spinoza contrasts with Descartes? Was rejecting Descartes part of what Spinoza was explicitly doing in this work?

UR: There are many differences between Descartes and Spinoza of which the rejection of mind body dualism is only the most prominent. Other important differences concern epistemological issues. Descartes is an epistemological fundamentalist, and his rationalism is tied up with what is also called ‘innativism’. He thinks that in order to acquire true knowledge we have to rebuild the whole system of knowledge. In doing this, we have to rely on a few indubitable ideas, so called “innate ideas” which are essentially distinct from ideas which are either acquired or fictitious. In his early works Spinoza seemed to be impressed by Descartes’ epistemology, but later he rejected the idea that we can separate innate ideas from acquired or fictitious ideas. Finally, there are differences in their theories of emotions which are too numerous to be dealt with here. Nonetheless, we should not merely focus on the differences between Descartes and Spinoza, there is also much continuity. Many of the differences just mentioned grew out of Spinoza’s attempts to further develop Cartesian concepts.

3:AM: You relate Spinoza’s metaphysics and philosophy of mind to contemporary discussions about the mental as explicable entities in their own right. Can you say how Spinoza’s ideas are still relevant in thinking about this realm?

UR: It is not a particular idea, but rather the underlying strategy of the Ethics why I think Spinoza is an interesting point of reference in this discussion. Contemporary discussions on this issue usually rely on the following alternative: we either have to explain the mental in terms of the physical, or we must accept that subjective experience is something inaccessible to all kind of rational explanation. For Spinoza, this alternative is misleading. If we want to explain subjective experience, we cannot be satisfied with the identification of the physical processes underlying the mental life. Instead, we have to understand how meaning is produced, and to do so we should also examine the influence of language or history. Spinoza’s approach is thus not reductionist, but it seeks to involve, on the contrary, all kind of causal factors.

3:AM: Spinoza gave imagination a central role in all our perceiving and representing didn’t he? Can you tell us about this?

UR: Let me emphasize first that Spinoza’s concept of imagination is much wider than one expects when talking about imagination, for he dismisses the categorical distinction between sensation and perception on the one hand, and imagination on the other. Imagination is underlying both processes of having impressions from out and of fantasising about external things from inside. This is completely counter-intuitive, for we make this difference in daily life and this, moreover, rather automatically without any special effort. Furthermore, we think that we can fantasise at will, whereas this is not possible with veridical processes like perception or sensation. We therefore assume that veridical processes like perception or sensation and like imagination are completely different processes. Spinoza dismisses this categorical distinction, for several reasons. First, he does not think that fantasising a thing is a more “voluntary” act than perceiving it. To him, both processes are rather a way of undergoing affections, than of bringing something about. Secondly, he thinks that there is something true involved in all our ideas, we simply have to analyse them rightly to see this. On the other hand, there is much imagination, or to put it more bluntly, construction, involved in our perception.

3:AM: Now throughout your account of Spinoza you provide reasons for thinking of Spinoza as being systematically rational and having no need for theological categories. Yet the fifth part of Ethics talks about the eternity of the human mind. So how do you understand what Spinoza is arguing here?

UR: There are of course many theological concepts used in the Ethics. The crucial question is if they are really essential to the basic metaphysical or psychological claims of Spinoza, or not. I think that in many of Spinoza’s seemingly theological statements the theological vocabulary can be eliminated without loss. Now you ask whether this is possible also with respect to part five of the Ethics. Let me emphasise that there are many different claims contained in part five, which have to be carefully distinguished. I cannot do this here in detail, but one of the points of my book was to show that most of these claims can be translated in to epistemological claims. The notion that there is some part of our mind which is eternal can, for instance, be equated with the claim that in principle all our subjective experience can be expressed in terms of completely true, i.e. eternal truths. Understood in this way, the term ‘eternity’ is denoting a possible epistemic achievement.

There is another point, which is to be distinguished from the doctrine of the eternity of the human mind, and which to my view is a bigger challenge for a non-theological interpretation, i.e. the claim that in the amor Dei intellectualis we are blessed. Spinoza explains this by saying that in having complete knowledge of some item of God, or nature, it is not only the case that we love God, but also that he loves us back. I must confess I cannot see how we can make sense of the idea that God loves us back without employing some traditional theological vocabulary. So there is some incoherence in this respect, but this incoherence is a problem for all readings, those who take Spinoza as a naturalist philosopher and those who read him as a theologian.

3:AM: Self-knowledge and explanation as therapy seem to be at least partly what Spinoza thinks justified his system in the Ethics. But you have written independently about the limited use of philosophy as therapy. So are you not sympathetic to Spinoza’s conception of philosophy? And how does your interpretation of him as an epistemic individualist square with his political, intrasubjective commitments?

UR: In the article you are referring to, I discussed some of assumptions one has to hold in order to make sense of the notion that philosophy could be some kind of therapy. I showed that this notion is relying on the idea that we may alter or even change our mental states by reflecting on our concepts. I argued that this is possible to the extent in which our mental states are cognitive or representational states. The point where I depart from Spinoza is thus not his idea of philosophy as such, but the idea that all kinds of mental states are completely representational. Furthermore, I warned against the following mistake: we can ascribe philosophical reflection some therapeutic effect, but we cannot infer from this that reflection is the essence of psychotherapeutic processes. Psychotherapy may involve some kind of philosophical reflection, but its effectiveness depends primarily on the relationship to the therapist. My skepticism concerning the limited use of philosophy as therapy is thus less a principal departure from Spinoza’s conception of philosophy than it expresses some worry towards mistaken ambitions of philosophers in a field where we lack competences. To handle a therapeutic relationship requires another kind of professionalism than to think about concepts.

As to your second question, I cannot explain this in detail. I just want to point out that it is completely wrong to assume that my individualist interpretation questions in any sense Spinoza’s political commitment. On the contrary, to my view we cannot understand many tenets of his political theory, unless we reject the Hegelian or Eleatic picture of Spinoza’s metaphysics as wrong. And I think this is an important legacy of the enlightenment in general. To my mind, the notion of individuality is often merged with the idea that individuals are completely autarkic, isolated entities. This is not at all what I claim.

3:AM: Was Spinoza a naturalist given his ambitions for science and his minimal (non-existent?) theological commitments? In this was he more iconoclastic than say Leibniz, Hobbes and Descartes? I guess the question is just how radical were his ideas?

UR: This is difficult to say right away. Radicalness is a category the application of which requires a close analysis of the relation of an approach to the ideas maintained in its environment. Now although these philosophers shared many ideas, we should be careful not to underestimate the differences of the contexts in which they lived and worked as well as of the precise use they made of certain ideas. Furthermore we should not mistake radicalness with iconoclasm. I would say for instance that Spinoza is more radical, but less iconoclastic than Descartes.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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