Tag Archives: Metaphysics

I gave myself a challenge, by indicating I would talk about “Humanity’s place in nature, according to Spinoza and Ubuntu”, when asked to speak at the yearly Spinoza Summer Week. I did so this morning, and it was a truly philosophical session. What I mean by that I will explain below.

The summer week is organized by the Dutch Spinoza Society, a club that dedicates itself to maintaining the houses where Spinoza lived, and making them accessible to the public, as well as to furthering the academic study of his work, AND the study of his work by interested readers. This happens in reading circles and in the week, each July, for which a theme is chosen, to which speakers are invited – this year it was: Spinoza and Ecological Thinking. And it was done in a rural environment suitable to philosophize.

As reading material (yes, the participants prepare themselves in a serious manner, which creates meaningful sessions) I had given them a series of propositions from part I of the Ethics, and an article by Michael Onyebuchi Eze – Humanitatis-Eco (Eco-Humanism). The article argues that African Philosophy on Ecology goes beyond the anthropocentrism present in Westers-style Environmental Ethics, by focusing on a decentered, Ubuntu-style, cosmology of nature. The main point, as I pointed out: we should forego the desire to ‘fix’ the environment we need for our species, and start to learn about the sacredness of trees and rivers, as well as of the relations of the living and the not-yet-living generations. A certain awe, materially practised (don’t destroy the bark of a tree that protects your village), will change the human relation to nature in a more profound manner than moral prescriptions for protection of environments can.

We read quotes from the article, as well as from and about Ramose, Mbiti and Tempels. The upshot: a certain orientation in life is more important for ecology than technological fixes driven by limited perspectives (we should save species x). This orientation is informed by the idea that all of nature – be it in individual creatures or in species, or even forces such as wind or water, is an expression of ntu (divine energy) that flows through all being (ubu). This view – I say it hesitantly, translating in a western philosophical word – means there is a certain subjectivity, a certain awareness in all the differentations that make up ubuntu-nature.

This was an imperfect communal attempt at dialogical, intercultural reading, as all dialogical crossing of worlds is by necessity. Now we took the next step: to try to elucidate this through Spinoza’s ideas on conatus and immanent causation – and vice versa. These words were key, where Spinoza says that in the same way in which we may say that God is its/her/his own cause, we may say that it/he/her is cause of all things. (Proposition 25, part I). Every individual and individuated being thus, against the Aristotelian mainstream that declares it to be contingent, gains a certain necessity and inner divine-ness. This does not mean – I warned – that one can deify one’s ego. What is divine is this power to differ, to vary, to be individually different itself, not the form which it takes. The creative force, so to speak – my audience paused and wondered – the ‘ntu‘. So now I had done it, I had used that African concept to explicate Spinoza’s idea of immanence.

Followed a discussion whether Spinoza should be understood to be a metaphysician, and what ‘metaphysics’ means when it doesn’t involve transcendence. Spinoza ‘naturalized’ metaphysics, I said – claiming there is no ‘beyond nature’, but there is a beyond our distorted, desire driven understandings of the world as revolving around us (anthropocentrism). And now ubuntu – is it metaphysical? In this Spinozistic sense, perhaps? I argued yes, when we understand that ubuntu thinking of nature doesn’t recognize the Cartesian dualistic cleft in the world that Spinoza had to deal with to begin with. The physical and the spiritual (matter and mind, thinking and extension) are not separated, thus the metaphysical is always already in the changing, contiguous phenomena we perceive.

This was not a lecture, I called this morning a ‘session’ on purpose. I provided the materials and the main questions, which then interacted with the questions of the audience (the discussion on ‘metaphysics’ was not prepared but arose there and then) and led to a kind of shared, while individually diverse, certainty we had grown in understanding. One participant came to me and thanked me ‘for not using a powerpoint’ – they overload you with knowledge, he said, and there is no shared learning and thinking. Well that made my day of course – I am not against powerpoints, they can be very stimulating in the right context, but this – reading texts and discussing them from shared questions – truly philosophizing – remains the best!

Last winter I found an email in my mailbox with an invitation, out of the blue, to give two lectures in Southern Germany. Near the Bodensee, in a village called Weingarten, which translates as Vineyard. IMG_20180731_132347273The organisor of a yearly philosophical summer week, Dr. Hälbig, had found my German article of a few years ago on Emanuel Swedenborg. If I wanted to come and speak on him and on Spinoza. The theme of the week was the other side of the Enlightenment. Of course I said yes, especially after a friendly phonecall with Herr Hälbig. Not all of my readers know that I feel verbally more at home in German than in English, as I spent quite some time in with relatives and friends in the country. Still it was a challenge to see if I could also speak as freely for a group of interested people who would not all be versed in philosophy. This past week I was there. Close to the Swiss border, in this very hot summer, in a continental climate.

I had the opportunity to stay there three days, and also hear several German colleagues whom I didn’t know before. Especially two of them, full professors, surprised me the by their truly German style of doing philosophy – which reminded me of my student days at Leiden university, where some of my teachers also knew that style. One of them spoke on Leibniz’s metaphysics, and doing so took the audience on a dizzying ride through metaphysical arguments from the Middle Ages to Immanuel Kant, discussing the problem of freedom. When I also saw an essay he recently published on freedom I was stunned by its exclusively German list of references. Even to discuss positive and negative freedom he didn’t need Isaiah Berlin, but other, German authors. In English language philosophy the opposite is of course also the case, where many great continental thinkers who were mentioned here would not even be known by name.

The other was a Kierkegaard specialist, who took us through the dark moors of protestant existentialist experience of sin, aptly summarized by an elderly lady who attended as ‘Sündensumpf’. While listening my mind kept wandering back to my student days, where for the last time I had been immersed so deeply in North-European and German ways of seeing life through philosophy. And to the very specifically German style of doing philosophy, from which I obviously had removed myself so far that for my bio I had just indicated that I taught philosophy at my university, while all the other speakers had listed, in the right order, their Studies, their PhD, their Habilitation (second research exam after the PhD, neccesary to become a full professor). The exams and titles and positions which I had forgotten to mention, perhaps also because somewhere along the way I must have lost interest in the game of academic hierarchy.

What struck me also, upon reflecting, is that there is no such thing as continental philosophy. French philosophy is just as different from German philosophy as Anglo-saxon philosophy is. And I thought further about the debate on the existence of a specifically African philosophy on which I had been reading over the past years. In this debate, the participants often struggle with the claim of European philosophers that their ideas are universal, whereas those of philosophers of other continents were supposed to be local and bound to their specific cultures. Here, in Weingarten, among the vineyards,img_20180802_072942504.jpg that suddenly appeared as a non-issue. For everything here was so German, including the appropriation of Kant, who was mentioned in every second sentence, so to speak, and always with the full realization of the very specific historical and cultural context of his philosophy. No, things were even more localized, for, as Germans do – always discussing the differences between their constituent peoples at dinner or at the bar (in this case the closest two – the Frankish and the Swabians), there was no escaping the grounded and situated nature of the philosophy being done. It kind of relieved me. After all we are all in the same boat: Anglo-saxons, French, Swabians, Tamils, Han-Chinese, and Igbos – we all come from our own fields with different animals, foods and fruits, and our own histories of power struggles over them, and the identities we developed while tending to them. And from these very local circumstances somehow in all cases thoughts emerge that may attract others from other fields and languages, making them interlocal, although never universal or global in asimple manner. In this case the fields grew grapes. IMG_20180730_171723862

My lectures went well, years of teaching philosophy to non-philosophy students had done their work. The participants liked it that I discussed texts with them and took them along the very personal and existential questions about modernity I have had ever since my early teenage years. And I was relieved all the German idiom I had gathered was still there and helped me to get into a real dialogue with very nice, interested and interesting people, some professional philosophers, others from other professional backgrounds. It was a good experience, to visit my neighbors in their homeland, and sit and philosophize in the vineyard.

IMG_2105I just say things, sometimes. Things that just come to my mind. It is out of a kind of playfulness. Playing with thoughts, observations and words. It is something we did at home when I was little. I mean we, the kids. Sometimes it was irritating, over the top and not nice to one of us or to someone else. When it made us laugh, it didn’t always feel like having fun. Often the laughter covered up tensions in the tribe we were, seven kids. But whatever it was, the art never left me. The art to come up with strange observations. And I must confess that I’ve hurt others saying witty and clever things that were not nice, and I only realised afterward. That is the down side of it. The up side is for me however that it helps to think. To gain some new and surprising insight. From my own words (they, themselves are not the result of thinking, they just bubble up from somewhere). Or from the reaction they provoke in others.

Like the other day, when I watched the cat sitting like cats can with her paws folded inwardly towards her own chest. I said to my loved one: ‘the cat is also praying for us’. You see? A remark like that is not the result of reflection, it is just a strange thought being formed into words. I was completely baffled about his reaction, though. He said, completely serious: ‘yes, in my country (which is in West Africa) it is said that only human beings can skip their prayers and live. Animals can not skip one day – or they will die. They always have to pray.’ What had I expected? Just a compliant smile about my silly observation, perhaps. Or, nicer, a really friendly reaction because of my kind intention towards the cat. But not being taken serious – and more having my observation being fitted in a foreign frame of thought about animals and religion.

The only slightly comparable view of animals I know of is Thomas Aquinas’ remark that whereas human beings have to choose the good, in order to do God’s will, animals are created with an innate propensity to do what they are meant to do. The good in the creation sence, that is. Thomas distinguished between for levels or aspects of ‘law’  – and law meant for him not a fortuitous rule but the telos of things: what is meant to be. There is the eternal law, the ‘ideas in God’s Mind’ – say things as they are meant to be on the cosmic and eternal scale. There is natural law, which is the order of creation – how things should behave in time and space. Then there is the human law, which is the closest one can come to being accidental, as it is how things should be according to human morality. But that is neither completely accidental, as it is reigned by practical reason. But human morality is plural, Thomas is clear about that. It is contingent, one might say with that beautiful philosophical word. Factual. Not eternal. The fourth aspect or level of law is divine law as it has been revealed to mankind. It gives humans a better way to direct their lives than just practical reason, as it teaches us not only how things should be in a moral sense, but also spiritually. It leads us, quasi circular, to what we can know (not by reason, but through revelation) of eternal law.

For animals things are not complicated as that, in the eyes of Thomas. They do not have to struggle theologically, philosophically and ethically through so many levels, which perhaps conflict and complicate things amongst each other. For them all levels are conflated: they just do what was meant for them to do. God has blessed them by withholding them the curse of free will. The viewpoint I just learned, that stems from one of the many West-African traditions (or perhaps from the Arabic heritage that was brought in with islamic religion) was only similar to Thomas’s, though, in the sense that it distinguishes the human and the non human animals primarily by their relation to the Creator and not by their level of consciousness or their intelligence. There is a great difference, though, too. The praying animal is not that blessed as the Thomist animal. It does not have moral freedom perhaps (the freedom to choose evil over good), like humans have. But it has a certain kind of spiritual freedom. Humans can always turn away from God and repent again, it seems – until they come to their natural death. That is not real freedom, it is being treated like children.

The non-human animal on the contrary is taken more seriously, spiritually. It can choose to turn away from God, but only at its own mortal peril. Which make animals seem to be more serious pillars of all there is. Without them praying the fabric of the world would start to crumble. So in that frame of thought, I was right to utter the words: ‘the cat also prays for us.’ I didn’t know what I meant when I said it, but somehow I was dead-serious too. Then, how does it come that writing about such metaphysical stuff always makes me want to giggle? Is it just the remainder of the practices of my youth to surprise each other and make ourselves laugh? Or is it because it becomes clear that the most serious stuff of philosophy, the stuff about God and Creation, and How Things Are Meant to Be can only be approached by becoming a child in some sense of that expression – by just playing with funny and crazy thoughts and words, because practicising rational argumentation without the slightest fun can never come that far?

Those who have read my posts before will know that, ontologically, or let us not be afraid of that word, metaphysically, I move on the hermeneutic, deconstructive, pragmatist side of the philosophical road. Not because I believe in some authoritative declaration like the one of Heidegger that ‘metaphysics is not possible any more’, but just because I see that this approach gives us better chances to articulate what drives life, thinking, being in our time. Because it provides more ‘truth’, that is, more understanding. Hermeneutic, because understanding the power of interpretation and taking it into account, may guard us from some ideological delusions. Deconstructive, because becoming aware of how things, or views of things become constructed by historical, political and ethical conditions, may guard us from taking things in the seemingly solid manner in which they pose. Pragmatist, because pragmatism is the only positive ontological approach that takes the dynamic, deconstructive structures in which we live since the times of Darwin and Nietzsche seriously.

Just yesterday I talked in my ethics course on Immanuel Kant’s criticism of dogmatic metaphysics. As one of the students remarked, Kant does not do away with metaphysics (thinking in a demonstrative fashion on what is beyond the empirical) entirely. No, he doesn’t. But he restricts metaphysics to the search for the possibility conditions of pure reason (the practical and the theoretical). That is: we will only venture in the realm of the unseen to find the principles that explain it to be possible that we talk morals with each other, or do science. Like the principle of unity in the world, which might be called ‘God’. (pragmatism doesn’t need this anymore – it accepts there to be multiverses, rather than a unified universe – and thus it can accept polytheism as a sensible approach) But what Kant dismisses is to perform a kind of reasoning that pretends to be able to logically demonstrate objective truths on the nature of God, his eternity, the creation of human beings, etcetera. Speaking on such things can only be done in the axiomatic manner he practices, for instance when he claims that we need the concept of free will to explain the possibility of morally right actions. We cannot say anything, he insists, about free will as such, as it is objectively, for we do not know such things, in the manner which we would call justified knowledge.

Well, that is the situation we are in, philosophically. Kant drew our attention to the limits of reason, and hermeneutics, deconstruction and pragmatism try to articulate the logic at work in the borderzones that it has discovered to be there where Kant saw (from a distance still) razor sharp frontier lines. I would not try to just do some good old metaphysics, as I aim to avoid creating confusion in my readers or my students. There is only one thing about this situation, that tickles me from time to time: good old metaphysics is fun. I understood this again when I took this one book in my hand, that Spinoza published during his lifetime in his own name (and which is sadly so much neglected by Spinoza researchers): his handbook on The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, which is followed by his own Metaphysical Thoughts.

Reading the latter makes one feel the joy of their author, to follow the route of abstract thought in it’s utter logicality. Like where he argues that absolute good cannot exist and that ‘those who keep seeking some metaphysical good not qualified by any relation are laboring under a misapprehension, in that they are confusing a distinction of reason with a real or modal distinction.’ Huh? What is this all about? Is this dogmatic metaphysics? Is spinoza not rather trying to articulate in other words what Kant repeated in his own time… that we should never take the world of appearances for the world of reason? And did Aquinas or Plato do something radically different in their works? In other words, was Kant’s disctinction between dogmatic metaphysics and critical reasoning not just a marketing strategy to sell his old wine in new bags?

If so, should we really forsake the fun of doing metaphysics? Or would the risk to fall into ideological traps be too great? It surely is when we throw away the ladder of critical reasoning which might take us out of the world of abstraction in which we will descend – if it doesn’t live up to our needs. So we should still be hermeneutic, deconstructive and pragmatist, while playing the game. I know only of one person who does this in these days – but he is not a philosopher. It is funk bassist Bootsy Collins, who has taken James Brown’s rhytm concept of ‘the One’, which was also supposed to have a spiritual meaning, and builds from it seemingly crazy revelations like these from the ‘High Trinity of Funk’:  ‘It is not good for humans to be funkless and separated from the One, you see One is not a lonely number as it contains the essence of all there is.’ You may think I have lost it, but I think I have not. I find in these texts the good old Fun of Metaphysics, but now with irony as it’s critical ladder. Exploring playfully the language of abstraction, which is strange, mysterious, and revelatory at the same time.

Spinoza lived from 1632 – 1677 and is most well-known by his posthumously published work Ethics.

I cited from Spinoza’s Principles of Cartesian Philosophy with Metaphysical Thoughts, in the translation of Samuel Shirley, published in 1998 by Hackett Publishing Company. This work was originally published in 1663.

Bootsy (William) Collins was born in 1951 and started as member of the band of James Brown. Later he played in the famous bands Funkadelic and Parliament, and nowadays he creates and performs under his artist’s name Bootsy.

I cited from his album Tha Funk Capital of the World, published in 2011.