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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!

 

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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].