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Compared to the craze about their most famous 17th century painter, Rembrandt, the Dutch treat their most famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, with heavy neglect. Just recently an African professor narrated me how strange it was to him to try to find the house where Spinoza lived in Rijnsburg, stepping from the bus and seeing no signs. And how strange it was to him as well to notice that the house itself didn’t provide much information about his life and work. He is not alone. Many of those visiting the Netherlands from all over the world try to find traces of the famous philosopher, and find not more than a few crumbs. Crumbs that would not even have been there but for the hard work of a few dedicated volunteers…

Today I had a meeting with one of the volunteers involved in trying to do something about this, by writing texts to be provided in the one room in Spinoza’s last house in the Hague, which can be visited two hours a week. Wim Goris has done his own research into several aspects of Spinoza’s life, such as his food, his means of transport, and also of his death – to wit, his burial. We were having a coffee in the building next to the little elevated grassfield in the center of the Hague, where Spinoza’s remains are supposed to have been scattered with many others. Wim explained that the café used to be the house of the warden of the New Church where Spinoza had been buried by his friends in a rental grave of 12 guilders. And naturally, we were contemplating the little amount of interest there had been up till now on the precise facts of his burial and what had happened to his bones.

That there had been a grave was not even known to me before. I had visited the monument on the burial area several times, but had never thought much about Spinoza’s bones, as I had this vague idea that they were scattered and never had a clear location. Of course I had my photo taken there as many others will have too. But I had – I confess – thought more of how to use it on social media than of the remains of the thinker with whose work I had communicated on a daily basis for almost nine years, when I did my PhD research in the 1990s.

But now, over coffee, we spoke of why his philosophy still appeals to so many readers, even if it has so often been misinterpreted even by serious scholars. It must be because he reflected on life as it is. On its finitude and the sense of eternity that we can even have amidst all change and perishing. On the connectedness of human life to all other life, our bodily, emotive, thinking and spiritual constitution – he tried to think it all together in an age that tried to split it all up. That must be one of the reasons why there is so much interest in his work in places like Japan, and in most African countries – places where practices of life as connected and interconnected have been preserved amidst the inevitable disconnecting forces of modernization.

Duting that conversation I suddenly wanted to know, for the first time, where the bones are, like one can in the case of a Christian saint for whose remains a golden box is placed in a cathedral, or at least a stone vault. I noted by myself that it is not stupid to want to connect to the actual remains of someone whose life has added greatly to human understanding. It helps to be aware, in the moment, in the body one is in now, of the meaning he created, or channeled in his life.

Drinking our coffees, we had to comfort ourselves with the realization that his remains were at least somewhere in that little grass field outside the café. They will have been returned into the cycle of life to such an extent, after three hundred plus years, that he will be there just somehow, in the place, in the air maybe even.

Maybe it was that moment, in a conversation, where I said to a relatively new friend, that I had four friends in philosophy: Jesus, Nietzsche, Spinoza and Derrida. It was an intellectual conversation, in which humor and reflection naturally mixed. After I went home I thought back to that confession, and realized – of course – I had mentioned no women. Why? I noticed something else – that Nietzsche was the only non-Jew in the group. Well, now my mind was looking for all kinds of secondary things, of course, free-wheeling, whereas the joking remark in fact was meant to say something about me – to give some fragments from which to build my portrait: the shamanistic, zen-riddle loving, nature metaphysic, deconstructive playing, strongheaded woman-girl. One can build that portrait not because I am like them. Not because they are like me. Because I like to be with them, my mind likes to play with theirs. They are my friends.

Now two days later I woke up very early, from a dream, in which I was meeting Derrida. I finally had the chance to check some things about his philosophy with him, while we were having a short conversation, so I did. And he answered seriously and very much to the point. I realized I had to remember what he said, what I said, as this conversation was giving me these unique pieces of understanding I had been looking for. But when the dream ended, and I immediately tried to recover it, I found it was already gone! In the dream, the conversation was also not long. There were many women, some of whom he had a relationship with, maybe his wife was there amongst them. Everybody wanted to talk to him, because it was so unique that he had returned from the dead just for this one evening. In fact we were all gathered at a party to celebrate this and be with him and enjoy the evening.

We went up, in a lift/elevator, and I was told we were going to the 50th floor or so, the top of the building. I was a bit scared, as it was so high, and far below us was the ground. On the top of this building was a tropical garden, planted on both sides of this completely square walking path, and it was a gorgeous summer evening with a pinkish honey-fluid sky and the palm trees softly rustling. Waiters were walking around with drinks, the gathered friends were finding their way after coming out of the lift, in the lush garden, and there I spoke briefly and philosophically with him, before he was claimed by someone else who wanted to use this brief moment that he was amongst us again. Before returning to the other world once more. He would be there just for this one evening. For this return/farewell party.

So I spoke too short with my philosophical friend, he would vanish once more, and on his/our friend-party he was soon mingling with too many people. On top I forgot the important checked aspects of his philosophy. Still I felt remarkably satisfied and at peace, finally, to have spoken with him and touched on these open spaces in his work or in my understanding or in whatever web we were in, weaving along with all the others before and after us. Almost established their meaning. And forgotten. And enjoyed. If you can still follow me, that is the kind of philosophical friendship that characterizes me, and that is me.

This was the weirdest blog post of them all, I guess. that means, considering style. The content is clear, of course. For who understands. Interpretations are welcome. Deconstructive ones please. Or shamanistic ones. Or zen ones. Or nature metaphysic ones. No theological, Freudian, or Jungian ones – they won’t do.

An impression? In this direction? New York-ish?

No credits defined, photo taken from this website

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!

The research I did for my PhD thesis on Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, in the late eighties and the early nineties, left me with an aversion for the idea of an esoteric philosophy. I had set myself to reading the works that were seen as authoritative studies on the TTP in those days, and among them were those that made a lot of work of discovering the esoteric philosophy that would be hidden in the so called exoteric texts of Spinoza. I could understand that the deep and difficult roads travelled by Spinoza inspired readers to imagine that there would be something even deeper and more mysterious between the lines – hidden kabbalism for instance. The problem was, however, that those same interpretators ignored some very obvious and explicit things Spinoza said about religion. It didn’t make sense, as he had risked a lot to be so open about what was important to him.

Just the other day, however, the idea of an esoteric philosophy came up in another context. I was attending a lecture of a Dutch colleague, who was speaking about studies he had done which were somewhat outside the field of ‘official’ academic philosophy. He said that he would not write the insights they had given him down until he was more certain about what he wanted to claim, and he joked this to be (for now) his esoteric philosophy. The idea not to write on things before one can give more than just an opinion on them is close to my heart, so I could relate to his statement very well. It reminded me of the ten, fifteen years that I worked to say something well-founded on what I have called here anim(al)ism, a concept I am still exploring further. It is a broad term for relating with the world while recognizing ourselves to be among animals as among relatives, and even among other non-human souls, and to be able to communicate with them in other ways than the rationalist and empiricist epistemologies recognize.

I thought that I had come far in this respect. Until just yesterday, when I had an unexpected experience. I was with academic friends, the theologians with whom I have been sharing research on ethics over the past 15 or more years, in our research group on theological ethics. Being, I think, the only non-theologian by training in the group, I am always very careful not to claim anything ill-founded on religion, and because of that I try to stay very close to my personal discoveries in the field. One of the nice colleagues asked my views on ‘revelation’ – which made me quite uncertain. As a philosopher one tends to think of Heidegger and Husserl on hearing that word, but I was certain that he was hinting in another direction – and he was, more in the direction of Karl Barth. I could not position myself in the academic theological debate on the matter, but still wanted to answer him meaningfully. I tried to word very carefully how my intuitions on ‘anim(al)ism’, on shamanism, and my encounters with the different ‘Abrahamic’ and some Asian religions had formed my views, and how this all made me see the Christian idea of ‘revelation’. I confessed that I had thought about this for quite some time, and would love to write more extensively on it, but wouldn’t know how to ‘sell’ the plan – being an academic philosopher and not a theologian of Christianity.

Then, slowly, it dawned on me… there was some esoteric part in my own philosophical existence too… but I don’t like that. Speaking and writing have a different format, and academic writing has quite a few demands which sometimes forces one to let some part of one’s thinking remain ‘esoteric’ for now. The aim is to study, however, just as long as necessary to be able to write one’s insights down properly, in a discussion with the relevant and knowledgeable authors. So much still to be done!

 

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.

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.