Spinoza Wars

It now has been sixteen years since I defended my PhD on Spinoza. It was a warm day in June, many family members, old friends, and the new colleagues I had recently acquired, had shown up: all the ingredients for a happy day were present. And still, below everything was a very bitter undercurrent, as the one professor who did most of the supervision was not there (and I was glad for it) – since, after years of philosophical nourishment, he had decided that my work did not deserve a place in the ‘Spinoza-world’. The amazing and sometimes frightening events that had occurred in the years before had made this clear to me: I would stop trying to be a Spinoza-scholar, for it would cost me clarity of thought, would I enter into the monster fight which it appeared to entail to do so. I was immensely grateful to the university where I could start a new research project, where people believed in my talent to develop new lines of research. And to the publisher who believed in my book and put it into the market, against the wish of my former supervisor.

In the meantime this book, a scholarly close-reading of Spinozas Theological Political Treatise (see side bar for a link), has found its small group of readers who are, as any commentaries or reactions I find somewhere on the internet show, good readers. I never find gross misinterpretations, and readers seem to understand the point that I made. What was that point? In those days the French school of Spinoza-interpretation was still the most important, among which the works of Alexandre Matheron were most dominant after their publication in 1969 and 1971. Strange books, which impressed many by their Hegelianising interpretation of Spinoza – forcing a ‘geschichtshilosophisches’ scheme on the seventeenth century thinker. Where Spinoza said ‘in so far as’ (people are reasonable, e.g.) Matheron changed this into Spinoza proclaiming a necessary step in the development of human world history. Also, I found that most interpretations accepted implicitly nineteenth century ideas on ‘the genius’: Spinoza would have reached into eternal truth, and thus had to ‘translate’ his insights for his contemporaries, who were sadly stuck in contingent existential frames of thought. He would have had a masterplan to bring enlightenment and the end of actual religious traditions (most like people in those days thought that Marx had thought out a masterplan to reach the ideal state of communism).

I found all those theories very unscientific, not doing justice to what doing involved philosophy (as Spinoza’s philosophy was involved: he analysed the major problem of his time and society, which was the relation between religion and politics, and tried to offer altenative ways to deal with it, which would not lead to the violence and oppression that was the normal outcome of things) is about. The philosopher, just like any human being, holds a certain position in society, in cultural and political realities, and if he is interested in value fields, he will try to analyse what’s going on, meanwhile reconstructing philosophy itself, trying out new approaches in epistemology, in ontology, in all aspects of his trade that his subject needs to be understood. This kind of hermeneutical, deconstructive approach of mine was considered outrageous back then, and I am happy to find that it has become more generally accepted among (a group of) readers of Spinoza.

But still, the Spinoza world is a strange one. It contains almost fanatical positions, which to my opinion have their origin in the relation of Spinozas works to current events, as the great problems of our days seem to be a globalized version of what plagued seventeenth century Europe: the violence and oppression which seem often to result from the mix of growing levels of education and vested interests of religious institutions. ‘Spinozists’ often speak like religion busters, or on the contrary try to defend religious institutions as a necessary reality due to the unenlightened nature of ‘ordinary people’. In short: Spinoza is used as a weapon in a great war, and academically this leads to Spinoza Wars, where argumentation counts for less than positions chosen. In this post, I want to stick to my farewell to those wars, so I will not put forward a view on what Spinoza ‘really believed’ (when I asked my second supervisor why he could not accept my work, he replied ‘Spinoza does not believe this!’ – without any explanation – one should accept his view on his authority). At this point in my  life however, I feel very strongly on not wanting to add to violence in thought and the suppression it seeks of the free development of individual minds. As standing my ground in the Spinoza world after the events surrounding my PhD research would have surely fed my aggresive side, I am very happy now that I quit that world. Spinoza will keep on being hotly debated as long as the world is in the process of modernisation/secularisation. A better understanding of what he said on religion and politics still awaits another era. But all the same: striving for such an understanding is essential as his work tries to help in the battles which go along with this process.

Baruch (or Bento as he was called initially) Spinoza lived in the Netherlands from 1632 – 1677 as the son of jewish immigrants who fled religious persecution in Portugal. He started his career as a tropical fruits salesman at the market, but became the most important Dutch philosopher ever. For those people who do not like living amongst immigrants with different cultures, faiths and customs, this should make them think twice. What Rembrandt is for the Netherlands in art, Spinoza is in philosophy.

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7 comments
  1. Thank you Angela for lifting up part of the veil of academic life around in this case Spinoza. I feel for your situation then as i recognize such situations.
    Often I sit near spinoza’s memorial where he is buried in The Hague and vibrate a little with his extremely clear mind and extraordinary courage. He would be saddened by smallness of any kind. Well done to avoid things as Spinoza wars and thanks for enlightening me about their presence, I did not know.

    • Thanks, Ineke, for your kind words. And for sharing your special experience of connection with Spinoza near his gravesite.

  2. Adelin Van Hecke said:

    Dear Angela,

    All I feel while I read your story is PAIN!!!!

    On the other hand: “He or she that fights and runs away lives to fight another day”
    Remember Churchill: “We’ll never surrender!!!” ….. He had right…!!!
    And Ceasar: “Losing one battle doesn’t mean losing the whole war!!!… He did also…!!!

    Never give up please.

    • Thanks, Adelin, for your kind words.

      I did not hate anyone who put me through what I experienced, nor did I see my choice as ‘giving up’.

      Analyzing the situation however, and looking into my heart, I strongly felt I did not want to spend my life’s energy on fighting for one Spinoza-interpretation.

      Instead I used the sad events for my benefit: broadening my view in philosophy. When asked now what I do I can say ‘I am a philosopher’, instead of ‘I am a Spinoza expert’. I am happy with that outcome.

      On the other hand it is a bad thing how academia often works: when vested interests bring people to suppressing new insights, and thus making the scientific openness and ‘objectivity’ into a travesty. Writing down my story had the aim to protest against this situation, which I think is dangerous for society as a whole.

  3. John Halonen said:

    Yes, this meta-issue is epistemological:
    Why people of good intentions look at the very same thing and are very convinced of differing meanings? I have a team of different doctors and they look at my cancer and they all have different thoughts meaning what to do–sometimes opposite even. This is a philosophical problem that kills people–maybe me as my radiological interventionists prepare to freeze part of my hip and my oncologists warn it is a foolish, dangerous, even Quixotic thing to do. All well intentioned professionals at the Mayo Clinic. I wish people could agree! As is, it is imperative for me to decide for attack and ablate or safely retreat for quality of life–quality of life being another most important of all philosophical issue.

  4. Albert Sonntag said:

    When your supervisor said ‘Spinoza does not believe this!’ he/she was saying that the University is closed. All has been figured out already and the academics are the custodians of truth and the guardians of the established order of things. In fact, as Goethe and Nietzsche both acknowledged with great admiration, Spinoza was always an outsider.

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