Archive

Tag Archives: Baruch Spinoza

IMG_3595A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to speak at the Spinoza summer week, in one of the most rural and quiet places in the Netherlands. The theme of the week was Spinoza and Jewish tradition. A subject which I didn’t know very much about, but I interpreted it more widely, to be able to present my textual interpretations of the Ethics, the Short Treatise and the Theological-Political Treatise on Spinoza’s ideas about going beyond religious traditions, and still recognizing the importance of religion for human beings.

One of the benefits of giving the lecture was being invited for the one-day Spinoza tour through North and South Holland (the two provinces by that name) to see all the places where Spinoza lived, in his short life (1632 – 1677). Today I did the tour, with four other interested people, and our guide Jossi Efrat, a passionate narrator. DueIMG_3542 to his great knowledge on the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam (we started out in the Portuguese synagoge over there) and our many questions, we lagged behind on our schedule, and had to skip the end, in the end, which would have included the two houses where he lived in The Hague and the New Church, where he was buried.

This is not a very philosophical post, I agree, but I allow myself this because it is summer, and I promised to two of my co-tour-walkers to write a post about it. It was a day with many impressions. After seeing the place at the Waterloo square, where once a house of the Spinoza family had stood, and the earlier synagogue where the ban against Baruch had been spoken, we went to the Jewish burial site at Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, where I was able to say a siIMG_3565lent salute to the remains of the woman who had given birth to this great thinker: Hanna Deborah. She died when Spinoza was six, and he was raised by his father’s third wife.

We took to the road once more, and came to the newly restored lovely little house in Rijnsburg where Spinoza lived after leaving Amsterdam, possibly because it provided him more opportunity to be in contact with scientists and philosophers at Leiden university, possible also because of his contacts with the Collegiant community (freethinker protestants). I had been to the Rijnsburg house before, the first time when I was still a student, so it must have been thirty years ago. I was invited by the secretary of the Spinoza society, back then, Theo van der Werff, who helped me through my dissertation years like a living pre-internet search engine, finding books and articles and bibliographical details. And providing a lot of support toIMG_3579o. Being in the little house once more was great. Anyone looking for a beautiful seventeenth century philosophical atmosphere should go there sometime. Although most of the interior is not original but reconstructed. For booklovers there are two bookcases filled with old leatherbound books, one the reconstructed library of Spinoza.

Finally we went to Hofwijck, the little palace of the Huygens family, where Spinoza worked together with son Christiaan on his scientific experiments, conducted supposedly in the attic. Some of the original instruments can be seen there. Our guide took us through difficult-to-find paths to show us how Spinoza had walked from the house where he lived in that time, in the village of Voorburg, along the Vliet, a canal connecting several cities, to Huygens’ place. Hard to find because nowadays a railway and a highway IMG_3603are built atop the old infrastructure.

Like I said, we missed out on the The Hague traces of Spinoza, which I however had also walked in the past. They mark the most political phase in Spinoza’s life, as he was involved in the struggle for the highest power in the Netherlands of those days, which was not just about the potential power of the Orange family, but also, which interested Spinoza more, about a more secular society or one in which calvinism had more prominence. Thinking beyond religious traditions, a society where everyone could think or believe as he liked, was one of the things Spinoza was most passionate about. One of his reasons being, I think, very much pro-religion: because belief that is based on duress cannot be true belief…

Although we steeped ourselve in Dutch society and politics of three centuries ago, I am still of the same opinion as I was in my PhD years: that reading Spinoza is to be advised for anyone who wants to develop his/her reflection on religion, freedom, and harmony in society.

 

Another shooting of a US citizen by US police is raising heated discussion – this time an armed citizen, apparently, who according to the police returned fire when she was shot at. Korryn Gaines, the 23 year old who was killed, posted a video some time earlier about her being stopped in her car, while driving without license plates. I was intrigued by her calm and her consistent asking the officer about his Delegation of Authority Order, which I never heard about, and the officer had neither. I wanted to understand what this was about. Some quick reading brought the concept in connection with management theory, legal structures of authority, so called sovereign citizen movements, and the question of freedom and responsiblity – which I felt the need to research further. Now, almost all discussions over the shooting of Gaines are about factual questions: whether she was mentally impaired, whether she was a good mother or not, what about her life, her age, her gun, her boyfriend; and then again about the actions of the officers, could they have done this or that, were they afraid or out to kill her – and tend to overlook the political and anti-political structures she obviously worried about before her death.

So what structures are regulating the relations between citizens and governing powers generally, and how do freedom and responsibility play out in them? And especially when police officers are concerned, who are supposed to be delegated public servants of those powers. Obviously, after bad experiences with being detained and a hostile bureacracy Gaines had decided to not recognize the authority of the police over her life any more. She had given up on the idea that ‘the law’ was lawful, and working for the freedom of herself as a citizen. She explained in videos and in written texts her reasons for not trusting the police and for not complying to their orders, and expressed that she would rather be killed than to cooperate with a system that could kill her also when she would cooperate. On her car she had a card saying ‘Free Traveler’,  and an officer said she acted as a ‘Free Person’,  suggesting that to be a special political position, instead of a general human condition. So who has decided over whose life and in which framework?

Delegation of authority functions in non-official managerial as well as in official contexts, where governing bodies exert power over people. The basic idea it represents is that authority is something else than force/brute power/violence. Authority is recognized as legitimate power, and in political terms it is based on representation. Governmental structures in a democracy are supposed to represent the people, and those working on behalf of the authorities are supposed to legally represent those. This is to make sure that officials will not act out of personal motives, nor be blindly driven by any systemic forces that may be at play in those structures. In businesses or non-governmental organizations the idea is to make a difference between personal responsibility of workers to work for the aim of the organization, and the responsibility of those who are leading the organization to officially back up those people who have the function to take certain decisions. In the course of my life I have observed several times, those in higher management positions to let someone lower in the hierarchy carry out actions that might cause negative reactions without officially delegating them. So when the negative reactions come, their subordinates will carry the responsibility, and not they themselves, as they never ordered them to do this. This shows the importance, in matters concerning the life, health and happiness of individuals that authority is properly delegated, in order for agents to be held accountable for their actions.

In the case of Korryn Gaines, her request for a DOAO was an attempt to protect herself against what she perceived as unlawful actions of the police. The point here is not to determine whether she was legally right or wrong, the question is that what is lawful in the last resort depends on what human beings in a community together hold to be so. What is lawful can in principle always be questioned and put up for discussion. The law can also be ignored or obstructed publicly by individuals out of protest (as in civil disobedience, which is something else than ignoring or obstructing the law for criminal actions). So what is clear is that, not just in the US, but time and again in all modern nations, and especially in the US because of the deadly violence with which confrontations are so often played out, people question whether the police is there for the citizens or for something else. They question, whether they represent a real authority, which implies being officially delegated by democratically recognized officials to do certain things, or whether they act out of other drives. So did Korryn Gaines.

When our modern national states were first being formed, political philosophers tried to make the authority of their governmental bodies understandable by referring to the ‘state of nature’ which was to be understood as a war of each against all – a state which legality should overcome by ‘the people’ transferring their natural right to fend and fight for themselves to the sovereign state power. The state power again was to be exerted by the government and its derived institutions. Spinoza, one of the important thinkers of natural right and the state, warned that in things political, individual people are not just moved by reason, but also driven by irrational passions – which are to be understood as emotional motives which fail to see my own good in relation to the good of others. Passions can be narcissistic, therefore, as well as self-destructive. Or both at the same time. He made clear that for all its power, a state is a fragile thing, continuously in threat of being undermined by individuals (citizens or officials) who do not base their actions on reason, but on passions.

Since the 17th century political philosophy has found new frames to understand political reality. At work in this situation is also something which is described, a.o., by Foucault, and Weber: the system, the complex, the bureaucracy, and its potential to bring generally sane individuals to despair. The system actually undermines authority, as described above, and the responsibilty and accountability that goes along with it. It obstructs the process through which individuals legitimize (ideally) state power through democracy, and through which the authority of the governmental bodies in its turn delegates responsibility to lower officials. How does it do so? Not by replacing reason by passions, but by replacing the (Spinozistic) reason that relates my good to that of the others by a simulacrum – an objectified body of abstractions of real relations. Installing a dense thicket of stamps, identifications, papers, postal services, etcetera, it silently subdues personal responsibility and freedom. The thing with bureaucracy is that, if used correctly, it can protect people, because it regulates and documents everything without differentiation between the status of persons. But used falsely, it can cover up, and even facilitate crimes from governments to the people who live on the piece of earth they rule over. This can be done by denying them (full) citizenship, or by blurring lines of delegation of authority – if no clear order has been given for a certain act of violence, nobody can be held responsible afterwards. We all know cases of encrypted orders like ‘solve the problem’ instead of ‘expell/kill/fire/detain person x’.

In this setting it is clear that there is freedom to act – for perpetrators of evil as well as for those standing up for what’s right. The ‘law’ strictly speaking cannot (and neither can the laws of bureaucratic management) determine human actions like laws of nature determine the movement of natural bodies. People can, and even have to, step outside the rules, to act freely – so they are responsible for their actions, and free – this is not an extraordinary situation and doesn’t depend on any factual aspects – it is the political situation, in which we put all rules and laws up for discussion again. So freedom and responsibility can be appropriated in the voids of laws and rule driven systems. And it is done, all the time, although laws and rules obfuscate that. Police officers take the freedom in the void where they can interpret a person as a danger to themselves or others, and then again are within the law to shoot. And someone like Korryn Gaines takes her freedom deciding to drive without license plates, or to resist arrest, as an act of civil disobedience. The law should protect her life all the same, and here is a conflict within the law between the perceived safety of the officers and the safety of the person they want to arrest. It is one of the voids where people are free and responsible, all of them, so calling her a ‘free person’ is superfluous. Of course she was. And so were the officers who killed her. Every individual, even though living under laws and bureaucracies, remains responsible for what they do. The state of nature is never far away, and no state power should make us forget that.

 

 

I took care to try and analyze just one aspect of this case, to clarify the issue of authority and freedom. This analysis of course leaves many other questions out, that also should be asked. Questions of historical violence by white people against black people, questions of social injustice, questions of the situation in prisons, for men and for women, where sexual violence is very common. But those questions again touch the factual – they regard why someone acted the way they did. They provide the content of actual political questions. I just wanted to discuss the formal aspects of the place and role of the political and the anti-political regarding the freedom of persons to act in this case.

 

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.

More than fourty years have passed since the publication of Derrida’s essay on ‘White Mythology’. I do not hear or see it discussed very often (I must confess that I do not frequent meetings of ‘Derrida-specialists’), but to my opinion it still offers some cutting-edge questioning of the practice of making and using universalistic language, which should be put to use still more in analyses of the role of language in science, literature, politics, advertisement, etc. etc.  What Derrida here writes of the practices of  ‘metaphysicians’, as the philosophers par excellence, observes critically the smart and effaced process of deculturalizing ‘white’ culture in order to be able to sell it for transcultural universal truth. What about his analysis?

He cites Anatole France where he compares metaphycisians to knife-grinders, who do not grind knives and scissors, but coins, effacing the images of the rulers of the countries which have put them into traffic. Although the coins without images are now useless in the real world, the grinders claim for them now to be of indefinite exchange-value! Thus they take words from local languages, and rub their original indicative power (transparency) from them, in order to declare them to be universally applicable. ‘[…] the first meaning and the first displacement are then forgotten. The metaphor is no longer noticed, and it is taken for the proper meaning. A double effacement.’

‘Metaphysics – the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason.’ As is fitting for someone who thinks absolute new beginnings to be only more effacing moves, and who therefore makes a plea for deconstructing what already is in place, Derrida would not want to try to dethrone the (silent) domination of white culture, but only tries to make it less silent, by asking for attention for its Indo-European mythological roots (the effaced faces on the coins), thereby making its users aware of the ‘limit[s] of its plasticity.’ Which is, of course, a subtle way to gnaw at its dominance.

The mentioned limits, and natural restrictions to the secret work of the shamans of white mythology (the philosophers) were always obviously active for Seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza. In his pragmatist view of language, the effacing of the local origins of philosophical language can never be total. His point: ‘[…] language is preserved by the learned and the unlearned alike, whereas books and the meaning of their content are preserved only by the learned. Therefore we can readily conceive that the learned may have altered or corrupted the meaning of some passage in a rare book […], but not the meaning of words.’ And ‘words acquire a fixed meaning solely from their use.’ As it remains bound to the practices and thus the needs of unlearned people, Spinoza could still be optimistic about the positive, edifying role of philosophy.

But isn’t there one tiny problem, which would bring us back to the necessary more pessimistic views of Derrida? The fact that literacy is spreading across the world (helped by metaphoric expressions like ‘the millenium goals’) makes the trust in the ‘unlearned’ as the keepers of semantic transparency rather imaginary. The goals of the millenium (what millenium?, of whom?) are about to suck up all human beings into complicity in the belief in universal language. Derrida, in his later work Spirits of Marx, descried opposition to the injustices of our age by ‘a new international’ of ‘sans papiers’, hackers, and other offenders of ‘white legality’ (not his, but my expression). Should he not have mentioned another category of offenders, the ‘sans diplomes’? Would they not be the only ones to effectively resist the universal ‘newspeak’ which spreads around the globe, while insisting on clarity and transparency? This thought might be empowering to all those who are not able, for any reasons whatsoever, to enter the universe of so-called universal meanings. But they won’t read it, I’m afraid…

Jacques Derrida lived from 1930-2004, Baruch Spinoza from 1632-1677.

I cited from Derrida’s Margins of Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, 1982 [original French edition 1972], and from Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Brill Paperbacks 1991 [original Latin edition1670].