Spinoza, Locke, Reid, Rorty

Today in CoPhi: Baruch (nee Benedict) Spinoza (and Susan James on his concept of the passions), John Locke (not the “Lost” one) and Thomas Reid on personal identity (and John Dunn on Locke’s concept of toleration) & more Romano on Rorty.

First an observation: yesterday I found it a bit surprising that so many students seemed perfectly sanguine to think of themselves as the reductionistic/eliminativist “information systems” Craig Venter and Alex Rosenberg apparently take us to be, shorn of free will, intentionality, personhood, even subjective reality, thinking about nothing (ever), devaluing and mistrusting their own experience, not apprehending the immediate experiential value of a sunset or a stroll on the beach. 

Hmmm. Guess that begins to explain the flatness of personal affect, the absence of detectable enthusiasm, the resistance to the power of ideas evident in some. 

(Only some, I must hasten to add.)

Information is not wisdom. It’s not even knowledge. Information systems do not experience the soaring spirituality Sagan and Tyson have celebrated. Information systems don’t care about reality, they don’t in fact give a flying bleep about much of anything. 

I wondered in class if it really makes a pragmatically-practical difference whether we sign on to radical scientism or not. The practical difference it now seems to make to me is, I notice, is that I find myself shuddering for the future of a species (the future Rosenberg says we “can’t think about”) saddled with such a burden of apathetic indifference towards its own nature and fate.

Ok, enough rant. That is all. For now. I’m sure it’ll get better. 

Spinoza (“Spinozer,” my old teacher from Brooklyn called him) believed in Einstein’s God (or would have), and vice versa. Gambling with your soul?  Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. God doesn’t play at anything, or listen to anyone, or save or punish or forgive or do anything intentional and deliberate. No more than nature does, anyway. God just is. Paul Davies:

Sometimes (Einstein) was really using God as just a sort of convenient metaphor. But he did have, I think, a genuine cosmic religious feeling, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe. Not just its majesty, but its extraordinary subtlety and beauty and mathematical elegance. 

You could say the very same of Spinoza.

In HAP 101 we tried to make sense of the Buddhist-inspired statement that we’re not part of nature but all of it. Spinoza offers another take on that disorienting notion.

In so far as the mind sees things in their eternal aspect, it participates in eternity.

I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or ugly, well-ordered or confused.

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. 

 Nothing in nature is by chance… Something appears to be chance only because of our lack of knowledge.

The passions of hatred, anger, envy, and so on, considered in themselves, follow from the necessity and efficacy of nature… I shall, therefore, treat the nature and strength of the emotion in exactly the same manner, as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids. 

They were pantheists, Spinoza and Einstein, a lot less tormented by the vast and starry universe than Pascal (“all these stars frighten me”) with his personal and possibly punitive God. As we noted  Jennifer Hecht noting, there’s a howling statistical error at the heart of Pascal’s specious reasoning: “We may be struck by lightning or not, but that doesn’t make it a fifty-fifty proposition.” This contrasts sharply with Spinoza’s view. “What Pascal decried as the misery of man without the Biblical God, was for Spinoza the liberation of the human spirit from the bonds of fear and superstition.


[Descartes to Deism… Tlumak on free willDescartes before the horse (& Spinoza/Einstein slides)… Spinoza @dawnPantheism SEP… John Locke Can Walk]

Spinoza, says Susan James, was interested in our capacity to maintain ourselves as ourselves, which he called our conatus. How do we do that? By breathing, sleeping, fighting, friending,… but ultimately he thought our best bet was to resign ourselves to an acceptance of rational necessity. 

“Spinoza thinks that, in so far as you’re passionate,” subject to external influence, “you’re in bondage and unfree.” How to free yourself? Become mentally active, get “a better understanding of yourself and the world,” and experience his version of cosmic bliss or supreme happiness. And what does this maximal understanding come to, in a word?Pantheism

In Spinoza’s vision, there is no ultimate distinction between different individuals. We are all part of the same single substance, which is also God. This means that our sense of isolation from and opposition to one another is an illusion, and it also means that our sense of distance from God is mistaken… Given that the universe is God, we can therefore be confident that whatever happens to us happens for a reasonPassion for Wisdom

And still they called him heretic and atheist, and excommunicated him despite his “intellectual love of God,” which he said was “the highest felicity.” God only knew why.

He’s still a good guy to follow on Twitter, btw.

  1. “[True & blessedness does not consist in enjoying wellbeing not shared by others or in being more fortunate than others].” (TTP)
  2. “It is the of reason to conceive things under a form of eternity.” (E5p29pr)

Locke said the key to personal identity is memory. Oh-oh! But Thomas Reid, Mr. Scottish Common Sense, helpfully said you can get there from here: if you remember  yourself in (say) 1998, and that Self remembers itself in 1980, and that one remembers version 1975, and so on… well, you’re the same person you were back in the day. Whew! That’s a relief. The Ship of Theseus may be seaworthy, after all. 

But Walter (“That’s the way it is”) Cronkite used to ask “Can the world be saved?” Honestly, it’s too soon to tell. But I think William James had it right when he wrote:
“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

Cesar Kuriyama told TED he intends to record, splice, and archive a second of every day of his life. He wants never to forget. What would Locke say? Or Nietzsche?
“Consider the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or today; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates and the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—“Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—“Because I always forget what I wished to say”; but he forgets this answer, too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.”


Gayatri Devi says if you want a better memory you must make yourself forget more. 

Locke is more familiar to Americans as the underwriter of our pursuit of life, liberty, and property. (Thomas Jefferson, we know, edited Locke on that last point.) He defended separation of church and state, and toleration. A very enlightened guy, for his time and place, but still not clear-sighted about freedom from worship for those who choose it.

In his continuing discussion of Richard Rorty, Carlin Romano points to the “vulgarization of the word ‘pragmatic’ by ordinary Americans, who used it as a synonym for crass everyday practicality…” I’m not sure I’d agree that everyday practicality is crass at all, but it’s true that the word has been abused. Especially by political chatterers.

Rorty wrote with “energy, humor, great tolerance, an exemplary clarity… and a rare ability to communicate enthusiasm and sheer love of ideas.”  Well, no wonder he aroused so much jealousy and resentment among his peers! Also, he was extremely “well read.” He liked Dewey. And he thought philosophy should acknowledge its “literary character.” I have close colleagues (close as in near) who don’t agree, with any of those points of substance and style. I do.

 Rorty dismissed the “relativist” charge, saying the “view that every tradition is as rational or as moral as every other could be held only by a god [who’d] escaped from history.” That’s not us.

But he, too, was given to excess. Where Spinoza said all is necessity, Rorty said all is contingency. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in-between.

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