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)

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One thought on “A man of substance

  1. Some immediate thoughts by someone in your Spinoza class at the LSP, with only a scant reading of Spinoza, but a background in literary studies, cultural theory and depth psychology:

    The obvious but perhaps necessary riposte to Levinas’s, to me not very beautiful, assertion is that monotheism has not been a very good ‘school for xenophilia and antiracism’ in its manifestations this week in Australia and Pakistan. I appreciate this post came before those events, but the global geo-political context of the past months, years – decades, centuries – doesn’t tend to support the idea either, whether we’re talking about Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or what one might call the monotheism of Western liberal freemarket global capitalism – based on post-Reformation Puritan ethics.

    In his elevation of ‘the human person’ and the proposition of an absolute ‘similarity’ between all humans, too, Levinas partakes of a privileging of humanity above nature, and a corresponding privileging of identity over difference which have become a target for vigorously interrogation in multiple forms since at least poststructuralism and deconstruction, as well as in postcolonial studies, anthropology and contemporary ideas of the posthuman cf e.g. Rosie Braidotti’s ‘The Posthuman’, Philippe Descola’s ‘Beyond Nature and Culuture’.

    In this context, I am reminded of Foucault’s spiky comment that ‘man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old’ (The Archeology of Knowledge. 1972). Spinoza’s ‘To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man’ might suggest that the prehistory of ‘man’ as a concept fashioned in the Enlightenment – and I note here Levinas’ replacement of the term by the gender neutral ‘human person’ – runs much deeper and longer. I note here too, without having the expertise to comment further, Deleuze’s statement, referenced on Wikipedia, that links Spinoza to Nietzsche along a line that in Deleuze’s words “passes through a form that we often call Man. Spinoza is prior to that form, and Nietzsche sees beyond it. What they share, on this line, is a philosophy of forces that compose such forms and shape the passions of Man.’ (Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. 1970).

    Monotheism – the monotheism of belief in God/’Man’ – is, however, a different thing from monism. I do find the argument regarding the existence of a substance following from its mere essence hard to grasp. But I don’t find ‘unconvincing’ the notion that if something has caused itself, it must exist necessarily. I suppose I am not demanding the kind of apodictic certitude required from a ‘proof’, but isn’t it only unconvincing if we subscribe to a linear view of causality in which every thing is caused by something anterior and separate from itself it? Do we all still do that? Did we ever? So I can provisionally accept the notion of one substance with no problem, while rejecting the naming of it ‘God.’

    Perhaps this is partly because it also strikes me that, far from not really playing, to counter that nothing exists is in some sense playing the metaphysics game very well. The only (sensible?) answers to the queston ‘What is?’ are either ‘Stuff’ or ‘Nothing’. In the first case, the metaphysical referee then tells you that this stuff doesn’t actually exist after all and is only the appearance of reality: keep playing! To answer on the contrary that ‘Nothing exists’ may, in fact, be to win the game, to accede to the ultimate absolute desire of metaphysics, the negation of the physical. That does then end things and the ref blows his [sic] whistle. But then what?! Another possible answer, ‘Who cares?’ might seem to end the game but reallly just imbricates you further in it, like trying to walk off the field of play and suddenly finding insurmountable, invisible walls along the touchlines.

    But some of the real stuff – and stuff, physics says, is, after all, just energy – that exists are trees. I wonder what species of tree, or what individual tree Descartes had in mind when he wrote? I haven’t looked, but I fancifully imagine there are essays and books on the history and influence of trees in philosophy – in the thought-catalysing differences between the olive and fig trees of ancient Greece, the beeches and plane trees of Paris, the sturdy oaks of England! In one version of the story of the ‘discovery’ of gravity, I think Newton is said to be looking at an apple tree as the apple falls, rather than sitting underneath it. And Descartes here is similarly looking at, observing, appropriating the tree, using it as a simile – its organic, natural growth, its natural progress – is ‘like’ that of knowledge, which is crowned by the moral progress and the eventual perfecting of ‘man’.

    This perspective is precisely the privileging of the human – and Western knowledge of ‘man’ – that many take issue with. It participates, too, in the objectification and reification of nature that the post describes later on and seems to want to stand against. Even to have to assert that we are ‘part of Nature’ (note the post-Romantic capitalisation) demonstrates how little we can see ourselves as such, encultured, enlightened, historically, linguistically hu-‘man’-ised as we are. And that fundamental division of Nature from ‘man’ cannot be overcome by Western philosophy, because at its origin and in its core, it avows and needs that division, and its rightness. Does the post itself acknowledge this impossibility by suddenly turning away from nature and back to the argument for human interconnection, human cooperation, ‘brotherly [sic] love’ (fraternitas – primarily a Roman/Roman Catholic concept?)

    All this said, I wonder then whether we could make a move to de-metaphysicalise and de-theologise Spinoza’s conception of the one substance. We would then see ourselves as having the actual physical status of mere modes participating in the one substance which is real – it is the singular energy that the real stuff of the universe, including us – each of us absolutely different from each other and everything else – is made of. (I think that this is, very broadly and loosely speaking, a Deleuzean move?)

    Then we might begin to understand that acts of kindness (etymologically speaking, those things we do for the benefit of our kin) do not transcend – another appeal to the metaphysical – anything, although, given the destruction that our families and communities wreak on themselves and each other in the name of morality and the furtherance of humanity, the wish to transcend them may be strong. Rather, such acts occur on the plane of immanence (pace Deleuze) that is life, as deeds with ramifications always for the much larger, non-human, whole.

    But I wonder, too, if ‘identification with a larger whole’ is not a dangerous phrase, running the risk of enacting this desire for transcendence, putting us in the metaphysical place of a judgemental, moralistic God, making us no longer ‘mere modes.’ Identification of the larger whole, on the other hand, which I think is what is meant – of the universe which we are in and are of, which unfolds before us in all things (humans, animals, plants, so-called inanimate objects) and which we are also always unfolding as we live, might allow us also to get out of the kind of moral position that this post leaves us with – xenophilia, antiracism ‘good’, hence xenophobia, racism ‘bad’. These stances are profoundly conditioned by our geophilosophical locations and monotheological discursive formations. As simple oppositions, they can be easily and are perhaps inevitably inverted by those in other locations and with other monotheisms; those with other things at stake.

    A materialistic monism, referring not to God – any reference to any god(s) is metaphysical -, or man, or morality, but to the absolute physical unity of the universe as energistic system, seems to me harder to understand, harder to live by, but harder to form into potentially destructive moralities than a metaphysical one. It demands not just humility but a reworking of our entire consciousnesses and experiences and histories of ourselves and of all others, human and non-human alike. Perhaps it is ultimately more optimistic (a term coined by Leibniz, made common currency by Voltaire). But then, is the achievement of optimism in those Enlightenment terms really what we are aiming at, as we ask ourselves again what we should be doing, especially in a world manifesting forms of evil which can be seen as – no doubt extreme – symptoms of our own pathological propensity to divide?

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