Immortality as a language game

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

Or life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) held that the meanings of words could only be understood within ‘forms of life’. We don’t simply come to use language by a teacher pointing to an object, a chair for example, and saying, ‘chair.’ This misconception, that words had meanings that could be understood outside their wider context was, for Wittgenstein a mistake:

Naming appears as a queer connection of a word with an object.—And you really get such a queer connection when the philosopher tries to bring out the relation between name and thing by staring at an object in front of him and repeating a name or even the word ‘this’ innumerable times. For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.



“Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” – Wittgenstein

We know someone is adept at communication when they use language correctly, hence Wittgenstein’s famous slogan: ‘meaning is use.’ There are rules for using a language within every domain, rules for what Wittgenstein called a ‘language game’, to draw attention to the fact that speaking a language is part of a rule-bound activity, or of a form of life. He gives a number of disparate examples of language games, including:


Forming and testing a hypothesis— Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams— Making up a story; and reading it— Play-acting— Singing catches— Guessing riddles— Making a joke; telling it— Solving a problem in practical arithmetic— Translating from one language into another— Asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying.

For Wittgenstein then, to understand someone, we have to know which language game our interlocutor is playing, and be at least open to playing by and have a tacit understanding of the same rules. The same also goes for the rules or ‘grammar’ of religious belief.

Suppose someone were a believer and said: ‘I believe in the last Judgement’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.’ You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said ‘There is a German aeroplane overhead’, and I said ‘Possibly. I’m not so sure’, you’d say we were fairly near.

It may seem on the surface that the person who speaks the last Judgement is making a scientific claim, but this is a misconception. There is a particular (religious) language game in play here, and we only confuse matters by interpreting his remarks as if they were part of another language game, that of science. Asking if there will be a Last Judgement within the context of the scientific language game is absurd as asking if a violinist has scored more points than the conductor during a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

The Wittgensteinian philosopher of religion D.Z. Phillips (1934-2006) claims that it makes no sense to ask for proof of validity of religious beliefs once they are understood as language games: ‘philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs,’ he writes. ‘After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over.’ Phillips sums up his view by listing examples of religious rituals and suggests their possible significance or functions:

A boxer crosses himself before the fight; a mother places a garland on a statue of the Virgin Mary; parents pray for their child lost in a wreck. Are these blunders or religious activities? What decides the answer to this question is the surroundings, what the people involved say about their actions, what their expectation are, what if anything, would render the activity pointless, and so on. Does the boxer think that anyone who crosses himself before a fight will not come to serious harm in it? Does the mother think that the garland’s value is prudential? Do the parents believe that all true prayers for the recovery of children lead to that recovery? If these questions answered in the affirmative, the beliefs involved become testable hypotheses. They are, as a matter of fact, blunders, mistakes, regarding causal connections of a kind. […] But perhaps the activities have a different meaning. Perhaps the boxer is dedicating his performance in crossing himself, expressing the hope that it be worthy of what he believes in, and so on. The mother may be venerating the birth of her child as God’s gift, thanking for it, and contemplating the virtues of motherhood as found in the mother of Jesus. The parents may be making their desires known to God, wanting the situation which has occasioned them to be met in Him. The beliefs involved are not testable hypotheses, but ways of reacting to and meeting such situations.

In the same way, for Phillips, those who assess talk of immortality of the soul as if it rested on a claim about duration beyond death are really missing the point. Rather, the meaning of eternal life, for those who speak of it is not ‘something which happens after human life on earth is over’ but ‘the reality of goodness, that in terms of which human life is to be assessed.’ For Phillips then the question of the immortality of the soul is an ethical one, and not one of assessing a quasi-scientific or metaphysical belief.

The soul which is rooted in the mortal is the soul where the ego is dominant […] The immortality of the soul by contrast refers to a person’s relation to the self-effacement and love of others involved in dying to the self. Death is overcome in that dying to the self is the meaning of the believer’s life […]. I am suggesting then, that eternal life for the believer is participation in the life of God, and that this life has to do with dying to the self, seeing that all things are a gift from God, that nothing is ours by right or necessity.

The Wittgensteinian approach to religious statements is not without its critics. Stephen Law points out that it is disingenuous to claim that the believer has a different relation or approach to her creedal statements than her atheist opponent. And it certainly appears that many sincere Christians, Muslims and Jews do believe quite literally in a life after death. Even if we take the view that there views are simply naïve compared to a more sophisticated philosophical theology, would that not be, to say the least, a little patronising? Can we really accept that for example, a regular church goer does not believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead?

Over eight centuries ago, Maimonides could write in his Essay on the Resurrection about the common people who he describes as needing:

precept after precept, precept after precept, now here, now there [Isa. 28:13]. The sense of it is that they understand but little, the comprehend a bit, a little here, a little there. But the right thing to do is to address each group according to its capacity.

However, if written today, such statements might be considered unacceptably elitist. And yet, literalism seems to be a blunt tool for interpreting religious beliefs and texts, and perhaps an anachronistic one at that. Looking back to the way that generations of religious philosophers have interpreted and reinterpreted sacred texts  bearing in mind the Talmudic adage that the “Torah speaks in the language of human beings.” We see that at least as far back as Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – c 40 CE), scriptural passages were read as allegories or parables. We might, therefore, be taking an unduly narrow approach if we dismiss texts and mythologies describing life after death as merely prevalent forms of pseudoscience.




Why nothing matters

I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent. – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)

In my dialogues there are no answers. But sometimes a question is the flash of an answer. – Edmund Jabès (1912-1991)

This is the revised text of a talk I gave at CANAL gallery, Haggerston on 18 March 2017 in response to the exhibition ‘What kind of hole am I?’ work by Bol Marjoram.

For the next ten minutes I want to talk to you about nothing. About two kinds or better, two aspects or senses of nothingness.

The first is instantiated by lacunae or absences, and conveniently enough, these are illustrated both literally and metaphorically, in and by the holes in Bol’s books.


As he says,

Please direct your attention towards the holes, it is the holes that matter.

The second kind of nothingness, presents me with a stiffer task, as I can do more than gesture towards what I might call ‘absolute’ nothingness: which I will identify with a kind of infinite potentiality, ultimate emptiness – a nothing that lacks nothing.

To see what I mean by that, accept my invitation to look through the holes and beyond.

So the first kind of nothingness goes hand in hand with what is felt to be lacking there. It’s a privation of whatever it may be that we might normally, perhaps tacitly expect to be present.

It can provide a kind of relief, as when the workman digging up the road with a pneumatic drill outside our bedroom one Saturday morning, stop to take a tea break. Rushing to the bar at the interval in the middle of an intense or agonizing theatrical performance.

It can show up as boredom: waiting for something to happen. Diverse responses to composer John Cage’s ‘4’33”’ (1952) a piece with no notes, range from the dismissive, through the perplexed to the contemplative. But what is essential to this piece is its boundedness. It is finite and must necessarily be performed within the four and half minutes – plus three seconds – of a concert programme. And of course, there is not total silence. Audience members breathe, cough, fidget, and giggle nervously between the movements. Like the two-minute silence at the cenotaph, its power lies not so much in itself but in that it disrupts and by doing so draws attention to the normal, the unnoticed, the conventional course of things.

Or this nothingness can present itself as dangerous, as when we have to mind the gap, or find ourselves in a state of anxious boredom, with nothing to be but a fertile market for snack foods to fill our bellies, and brain candy (Candy Crush Saga) to fill our minds.

Perhaps it is for this that nothing is more subversive than nothing: conspiracies of silence, silent protests, strikes, civil disobedience which is markedly non-action, the not-doing what is required by the state.

The nihilistic seventies movement known as punk took as its emblem the safety pin; re-pairing deliberate rips in clothes, holes emphasized by –visible mending. The material lacunae visualized a deliberate absence of musicianship, practice, denying the finished smooth surfaces demanded by the despised overproduced prog rock supergroups.

Or think about the revolutionary work of Lucio Fontana, such as Spatial Concept Waiting (Tate Modern) which is nothing more – and nothing less – than an incision of the canvas, puncturing the two-dimension into a three-dimensional space. In 1968 Fontana told an interviewer that, ‘my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery’. The morbid, eschatological illusion may not be entirely accidental, as we shall see.

So often the presence of the missing is felt more strongly than if it were present. Valentine Schmidt’s beautiful photographs of the Berlin Olympic Village seem to me to be haunted by figures conspicuous by their absence: the triumphant athletes of an illusory and transitory Aryan master race and the ghosts of those – the aunts and uncles I never got to see – oblivious then to the death camps waiting for their arrival.

For the American rabbi Richard Rubenstein, the ultimate absence at Auschwitz, is that of a providential personal god, whose deafening silence in the face of horrendous evils announces the breaking of the thread uniting heaven and earth. He writes, ‘We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God.’

This death of God, understood perhaps as the same death of other grand narratives – continuous scientific progress, the triumph of rationality – is no less felt at the personal level.

Maybe we’ve experienced the very nadir of the ground beneath our feet giving way, when we experience an existential crisis, perhaps brought on by abandonment, bereavement, or betrayal.

In these moments we may fall into a pit of despair but if we have the grace, we can fall not into but through it, dropping down further into a reconfigured identity, a bottomless falling that is exhilarating, terrifying and beautiful. [The phrase ‘touching the void’, springs to mind]

There! Right there

There we find, if we don’t overlook it, an experience of what Rubenstein calls holy nothingness, a nothingness lacking nothing, an ‘indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence…the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’ Rubenstein is drawing on ancient mystical tropes. The Jewish Kabbalists spoke of Ayin, the Buddhists ‎śūnyatā, while the medieval Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308) referred to that which ‘when it is thought through itself, neither is nor was nor will be. For in no existing thing is it understood, since it is beyond all things…When it is understood as incomprehensible on account of its excellence, it is not improperly called ‘nihil’ (that is ‘nothing’) ”.

So, this second aspect of nothingness is a nihil or nothing or emptiness so perfect, so unbounded, eternal and unchanging that it can contain an infinite space of possibility.

Deep down we may experience a yearning for this ultimate nothingness, the desire for annihilation which when conceived pathologically, Freud called Thanatos a death-instinct, a drive to return to the state of inanimacy in which we once rested from the origin of the cosmos.

If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal  reasons–becomes inorganic once again–then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones”.

(Beyond the Pleasure Principle)

The metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne saw something dark, even satanic in nothingness, declaiming that while small could become great, acorns grow into oaks,

[A]bsolutely nothing, meerly nothing, is more incomprehensible than any thing, than all things together. It is a state (if a man may call it a state) that the Devil himself in the midst of his torments, cannot wish.

But when conceived positively, this desire can motivate a kind of self-transcendence or what the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (following Spinoza) called Self-Realization! a movement out of the narrow ego, towards an identification with whole ecosystem in which we are constituted – or put more paradoxically perhaps, falling in love with life itself.

And what of the holes. Pay attention to the holes and then look through and beyond them. Perhaps they are not just lacunae, gaps in the materiality of the work, but portals. Step inside them. As the Sufi mystic Rumi writes:

People are going back and forth across the threshold
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Nothing but nothing, nothing else is inexhaustible. Nothing will never let you down. As Lao Tzu says of the ‘root of Heaven and Earth’ or the Tao or Way, ‘use will never drain it’.

In fact, for this sage, nothing is that without which


can be


Thirty spokes
Share one hub.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

What kind of hole am I? Bol Marjoram runs alongside This Heaven: Valentine Schmidt until 1st April 2017 at CANAL60 De Beauvoir Crescent
London N1 5SB

020 7923 9211
0786 606 3663

open Thur – Sat 1-6pm during exhibitions
or by appointment

Burbea, Rob, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on emptiness and dependent arising (West Ogwell: Hermes Amara Publications, 2014)
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, Holocaust Theology: a reader, (Exeter : University of Exeter Press, 2015)
Donne, John, ‘Twenty-Six Sermons (25) Preached at the Spital’, 1622
Duclow, Donald F., ‘Divine Nothingness and Self-Creation in John Scottus Eriugena’ in his Masters of Learned Ignorance: Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)
Freud, Sigmund ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVIII (Toronto: Hogarth Press, 1955) pp.7-64.
Jabès, Edmond, From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991)
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans. D.C. Lau, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003)
Marion, Jean-Luc, God Without Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)

About nothing

f3ef1dae7ebfcca387f0272e1dd138d0_numbers20clipart200-number-zero-clip-art_187-227For reasons that will become apparent, I’m contemplating the idea of emptiness at the moment. And perhaps something more empty than emptiness, more absolute than mere negation, more devoid of anything and everything than just void.

What I’m talking about is perhaps what the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein refers to as Holy Nothingness, the infinite God, which can be in no sense a thing such that it might resemble the finite things of this universe. This conception of God would reject even such understandings, found in say, Tillich and Aquinas, of the Divine as ‘being itself’. Rather, it makes Him out to be, if anything, infinite potential, ultimate non-being. So, as Rubenstein explains, the very absence of anything, makes for ‘an indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence. God as the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’(1)

For the next four weeks I’m going to explore some ideas around nothingness, absence, lacunae, silence. So, watch this (empty) space.


Thirty spokes

Share one hub.

Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.

Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

Lao Tzu (551-479 BCE) Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963).

Jewish philosophers think the afterlife

10.30am, Saturday 23rd July 2016

This session is hosted by Beit Klal Yisrael


When we wonder whether there is life beyond the frontier of death, what kind of life are we talking about? Would a life without end be a life worth living, especially if it was lived in the body in which we died? In this session, we will be investigating how three (arguably) Jewish philosophers might have attempted to make sense of the widely held notion of the eternal soul.

We will not, I’m afraid, be investigating the empirical evidence for life after death, such as past-life memories and near-death experiences. The thesis I wish to explore is that when considered carefully, the possibility of immortality need not rest on a belief in personal survival at all. Rather, attaining or realizing eternity is concerned with the here and now, how we understand and act in this world rather than what will befall us in the world to come. In other words I wish to interpret the tradition of afterlife as an ethic for living, for as Spinoza put it, ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not death’ (Ethics IVP67).

However, there are a number of preliminary questions we may wish to examine before or during the session, including:

  • What is ‘Jewish’ and what is ‘philosophical’ about Jewish Philosophy? Are Maimonides, Spinoza and Wittgenstein, Jewish philosophers?
  • Can reason penetrate mysteries such as what happens to us after death?
  • What traditional Jewish beliefs are there concerning the afterlife? Does progressive Judaism have anything to say?
  • Why might we wish to imagine there is life after death?
  • What kind of language do we use when we express religious beliefs: scientific, allegorical, metaphorical or mythical?
 A draft handout and a reading list for the session can be found here

10.30 – 14.00 Saturday 23rd July

Essex Unitarian Church, 112 Palace Gardens Terrace, London W8 4RT – Nearest Tube: Notting Hill Gate

(Ring bell for the library which is downstairs. Regretably there is no disabled access.)

Please bring something to eat and drink for a light vegetarian shared lunch

On being unreasonable


There is a much-quoted polemic by the early theologian Tertullian (c. 160-220 CE) which encapsulates a seemingly eternal tension between philosophy and religion, faith and reason:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that “the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart.” Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.

This antagonism between faith and reason was earlier played out in the death sentence passed on Socrates for refusing to recognize the state deities, and later in Spinoza’s expulsion from the Amsterdam Jewish community. As the pendulum swings in the opposite direction, we witness the continuing ascendancy of Western European secularism and, as it reaches its zenith, New Atheism. For myself, and in my conversations with friends, both atheist and theist, from deeply secular to doggedly religious, this dilemma is often experienced as the pull of the noetic against the tug of the affective: the voice that demands, “Why can’t you explain what you mean?” and the one that replies, “Why don’t you shut up and listen?” It’s worth remembering, however, that the division does not correspond neatly with the division between religious believer and secular atheist. Among people of faith and even within the minds of adherents, there is conflict and cognitive dissonance – which is at the same time a visceral unease –  between the God of the philosophers and scholars, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

I started the philosophy of religion course I am teaching at the London School of Philosophy by looking at three ways at looking at religion. Functional definitions concentrate on the role religions play in society, for example by binding individuals together in cooperative wholes. Traditional and especially analytic philosophy of religion tends to focus on the substantive aspects, viewing religions as if they were constituted by sets of beliefs which can be analysed, dissected and measured against a standard of evidential warrant and rational justification. This approach demands that statements such as ‘There is a God’ are supported by rational arguments – or at least by an account justifying the redundancy of such arguments.

However some writers claim that religions should not be viewed as if they were a system of doctrines at all. One example is the Wittgensteinian philosopher D.Z Phillips (1934 – 2006), who suggests that the substantive conception of religion  misses the point. Rather, he claims, religious language, expresses a heartfelt need, existential anxiety or deep wondering:

To ask whether God exists is not to ask a theoretical question. If it is to mean anything at all, it is to wonder about praising and praying; it is to wonder whether there is anything in all that. This is why philosophy cannot answer the question ‘Does God exist?’ with either an affirmative or a negative reply […] ‘There is a God’, though it appears to be in the indicative mood, is an expression of faith.

~Religion without Explanation

Reading Phillips might point us towards such an expressive conception of religion, a third way of viewing religion as an affective response to our deepest questions and yearnings. This is what the theologian Paul Tillich called our “Ultimate Concern”.

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns — cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfilment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.

~Dynamics of Faith

Martin Buber makes perhaps the the most radical, almost ascetic, demand of our understanding of religion, that it can only be attained, not in examining the doctrinal belief but in the act of encounter:

Philosophy errs in thinking of religion as founded in a noetic act, even if an inadequate one, and in therefore regarding the essence of religion as the knowledge of an object which is indifferent to being known. As a result, philosophy understands faith as an affirmation of truth lying somewhere between clear knowledge and confused opinion. Religion, on the other hand, insofar as it speaks of knowledge at all, does not understand it as a noetic relation of a thinking subject to a neutral object of thought, but rather as mutual contact, as the genuinely reciprocal meeting in the fullness of life between one active existence and another. Similarly, it understands faith as the entrance into this reciprocity, as binding oneself in relationship with an undemonstrable and unprovable, yet even so, in relationship, knowable Being, from whom all meaning comes. [Italics mine]

~Eclipse of God: Studies in the relation between religion and philosophy

It is important to note that Buber is not suggesting that this encounter is purely subjective and that with which it takes place is ‘mind-dependent’ or a mere idea or social construct. Rather, what he elsewhere refers to as the Eternal Thou is real even if undefinable. Buber insists, “Many true believers know how to talk to God but not about Him. If one dares to turn toward the unknown God, to go to meet Him, to call to Him, Reality is present.”

So do we have to choose between the two: set aside our Aristotelian rational souls in order to apprehend an ultimate reality promised by religion, or alternatively pull back from the abyss of  Leap of Faith before and sacrifice our deepest yearnings on the uncertain altar of the Enlightenment?

Yesterday I serendipitously encountered a possible solution, or at least a rephrasing of the problem,  in my reading of two books:  one was Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, the other the Book of Genesis. Towards the end of the narrative of the Flood, we read that Noah blessed two of his sons (though rather unfairly it seems not Ham, whose son Canaan is cruelly cursed), namely Shem and Japheth.

And he said,

  “Blessed be the LORD

  The God of Shem;

  Let Canaan be a slave to them.

  May God enlarge Japheth

  And let him dwell in the tents of Shem;

  And let Canaan be a slave to them.” (Genesis 9:26-27)

Now tradition has it that Japheth was the ancestor of the Greeks. The early rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel interpreted this as sanctioning the Bible being translated into Greek, while no translation into any other language was permitted. And the nineteenth-century Hassidic rabbi Tzaddok HaCohen quoted ‘Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem’, as being fulfilled when, after the Hasmoneon victory over the Greeks, the Jews were able to integrate Greek philosophy into their own culture. But HaCohen also believed that the Jewish exile had a Divine purpose, to absorb ‘points of essence’ from the host cultures, this being a reading of the mystical idea of Tikkun, the reclamation of the hidden, divine sparks in order to restore the world to harmony.

So rather than faith/reason we have a different duality, that of host/guest, where the same person or the same tradition alternates between the two different roles, or can even perform both simultaneously – in relation to the stranger within its midst as well as to the greater nation within which it is a stranger. Some would say that we are ultimately guests of the Infinitely Great on whose land each one of us is merely a resident alien.

Richard Kearney in his provocative book Anatheism: Returning to God After God takes as an exemplar the first patriarch Abraham. Despite being, in the words of Psalm 119, “a stranger on this earth”, Abraham offers hospitality to the three divine ‘men’, angels perhaps, at the Terebinths of Mamre (Genesis 18). In the face of theophany, he humbly offers them water and bread. And perhaps as his reward, the angels announce the future arrival of another stranger, the child Isaac that his elderly and barren wife Sarah will bear.

For the atheist, openness to the unknown other does not mean embracing ‘the delirious delusions of theism’. Nor for the agnostic or the reflective theist, does it enthrone a new belief or religion. ‘It simply invites us to see what has always been there a second time around.’

Can we take the risk, gambling all that we have, yet knowing we can never possess the prize, even if we know what it was? As Kearney suggests:

For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God, no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.

A man of substance

Thank you to everyone who came my class on Baruch Spinoza at the London School of Philosophy. We focused almost entirely on Spinoza’s metaphysics, his argument for substance monism, that there is only one substance, God, and that everything that exists is in God. As so often with a great philosopher, it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate introduction in a single session. This is why I chose Spinoza’s conception of God as the one substance, as the topic of the class: it doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his ideas, but his monism is fundamental to them all.

spinozaThe most difficult aspect to our modern, post-Kantian sensibilities is the way that Spinoza purports to prove the existence of God from a definition: the necessary existence of substance. In a letter to his friend Ludovic Meyer, Spinoza wrote:

The first things that I should like to be noted about Substance are the following–First, that existence pertains to its essence, that is, that its existence follows from its mere essence and definition.

We recall that Spinoza defined substance as not depending on anything else for its existence or for it to be conceived. Consequently he argued that it must be causa sui – the cause of itself. And if the cause of itself, then it must exist necessarily. These kind of ontological arguments now seem to us, to say the least, unconvincing. But perhaps Spinoza is not trying to convince any of his contemporary readers, let alone a twenty-first century (new) atheist. Maybe as a Jew, even after his expulsion from his community, he took God’s existence as a given, as obvious as the existence of the universe, of reality or of being itself. One could counter that perhaps nothing exists, but in that case, you’re really not playing the game –  you’re no longer doing metaphysics.

The question I’ve been pondering these last few days whether we need metaphysics at all to philosophize. If what draws us to philosophy is some kind of existential dissatisfaction, a nagging doubt that we are only living, and not living well, then why not cut to the chase,  bypass the seemingly unanswerable ‘What is?’ and go directly to the more pressing question of ‘What is it we should be doing?’

In the structure of the Ethics, Spinoza very approximately follows the conception of philosophy of his great predecessor René Descartes. Using a memorable analogy, Descartes wrote in the Principles:

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (9B:14).

When Spinoza finally gets to the ethics of the Ethics, we see why the unity of Substance and the fact not only of our own inclusion as a ‘part of Nature’ but also of the essential – and metaphysical – interconnection of all humans, gives firm support to a creed of cooperation and a spirit of brotherly love.

 To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together should seek for themselves the common advantage of all (IVP18S).

What is more, Spinoza, somewhat optimistically, describes a virtuous spiral by which the more we seek knowledge and attain it, the  more we wish to share it with others:

The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater (IVP37).

Throughout the Ethics, there appears to be a consistent blurring of the boundaries of the conventional self. For the person seeking freedom, this is not so much something that is achieved but realized through the (self-)knowledge of our metaphysical status as mere modes participating in the Divine substance. Spinoza’s God is not then a distinct and distant being; nature is not an object, not even a unique object to which any countable noun could refer. I rather agree with Arne Næss that if we could really see through an only apparently separateness between individuals, then acts of kindness, generosity and compassion would seem to us not altruistic, but self-interested, an identification with a larger whole that transcends not only ourselves but even family and community.

A more recent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas expresses such a view beautifully:

Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is the perhaps supernatural gift of seeing each human person as being absolutely similar to the human person in the diversity of the historical traditions which each person continues. It is a school for xenophilia and antiracism.

(‘Monothéisme et langage’ in Difficile liberté)

The Excellence of Happiness

This guest post has been contributed by Richard Baron.

Aristotle Bust White Background Transparent

Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics (often just called the Ethics) in Ancient Greece, a society that was very different from ours. So booksellers think it only belongs in the academic philosophy section. It does belong there, but it should also be found in the self-help section. It does not offer any magical slogans that will advance your career or improve your love life. But it is one of the finest self-help books ever written.

The reason is that its basic approach is not to tell you what to do in specific circumstances, but to set out the qualities it is good to have, so that you will act well in good times and in bad. These qualities are the virtues, but one of the best features of the book is that “virtue” (arete in Greek) has a wider meaning than is normal today. It covers all sorts of excellence, both moral and intellectual, including courage, liberality, technical skill and wisdom. This broad meaning frees our minds from the tradition that sees poverty and humility as admirable. But the precise and detailed nature of Aristotle’s comments on virtues saves us from the flabby modern alternative of “Look at me, I’m awesome!”

And what is the goal? Aristotle calls it eudaimonia, often carelessly translated as “happiness”, but better rendered as “flourishing”. We should seek to exercise our specifically human talents to the full. It is no surprise that he concludes that the best life is one like his, the life of a philosopher. But we can admire his inspirational message even if we do not agree with him on that point. And we can admire it even more because it is conveyed in plain and sober prose, without any flights of fancy.

We need to make allowances when reading a book from so long ago. We no longer accept slavery, or the subordination of women to men. But the Ethics remains one of the most influential books on how to live that has ever been written. Read it, and be influenced.

Richard Baron is a philosopher who works in London.