SPINOZA’S LEGACY, by Richard Rorty
[This is a shortened and revised version of the first of two Spinoza Lectures given at the University of Amsterdam in 1997. The longer version appeared under the title “Is it desirable to love truth?” in Richard Rorty, Truth, politics and ‘post-modernism’ (Assen: Ven Gorcum, 1997).]
If one thinks of philosophy as the love of wisdom, of wisdom as the grasp of truth, and of truth as the accurate representation of an order that exists independently of human language and human history, then may well doubt whether philosophy is possible. Important twentieth-century intellectual movements have denied the existence of such an order. I shall use the term “pragmatism” to characterize this denial, because the alternative—“post-modernism”—has been damaged by profligate overuse.
The quarrel between the pragmatists and their predecessors that has emerged over the last hundred years is something new. It gradually took shape as a result of attempts to resolve an older quarrel—the one that Plato said was between the gods and the giants (that is, between philosophers like Plato himself and materialists like Democritus). That quarrel was about what the natural order is like, not about whether there is such a thing. In what follows, I shall argue that Spinoza’s attempt to overcome Cartesian dualism is the beginning of a train of thought that eventually leads to pragmatism, and thus to the replacement of the old quarrel by a new one.
Plato believed that grasping the natural order of things can bring about blessedness–a kind of happiness of which the animals are incapable, and which results from the realization that something central to human beings is also central to the universe. Blessedness, in this sense, consists in the realization that the intrinsic nature of the universe is on our side.
The materialists also believe that wisdom consists in the grasping of the natural order of things, but they think that no comfort can be derived from contemplating this order. We can derive practical, utilitarian profit from grasping the natural order, but we cannot find consolation in doing so. Mechanistic materialism’s picture of the universe gives us only the sort of cold intellectual satisfaction experienced by Euclid—the kind produced by having successfully brought order to a confusing variety of apparently unrelated items. It cannot produce a sense of harmony between human aspirations and non-human things.
This quarrel was renewed in early modern philosophy when mechanistic accounts of the natural order triumphed over Aristotelian hylomorphic and teleological accounts. In this period, it is exemplified by the opposition between Hobbes and Spinoza. Both men tried to come to terms with an account of the natural order which seems to leaves no place for the kind of happiness that Plato believed human beings might come to have.
Hobbes’s solution was that human beings must use artifice to do what nature cannot do: they must construct a second, political, order, in order to become less fearful and less miserable. Politics, rather than philosophical contemplation, is our only recourse. But Spinoza thought that the new, mechaniistic, account of the natural order could be reconciled with Plato’s ambition–the attainment of blessedness through increased knowledge.
Spinoza’s way of reconciling the new explanations of the way things worked with the hope of such blessedness was to say that there were two equally valid ways of describing the universe: a description in terms of matter and a description in terms of mind. God or Nature could be viewed with equal adequacy under the attribute of extension and under the attribute of thought.
Before Spinoza, it had seemed that one had to choose sides: the gods and the giants could not both be right. If reality was simply atoms and void, then the hope of blessedness was vain. Spinoza claimed that one did not have to choose between the body and the spirit, for the two were, properly understood, one. The natural order, he suggested, is expressed in many ways, only two of which—extension and thought–we are able to grasp. The order and connection of corpuscles is the same as the order and connection of ideas. The mind knows only insofar as the body prospers, and conversely.
Spinoza’s Ethics is filled with propositions that would have struck Plato as paradoxical, as when he tells us that “The more we understand particular things, the more we understand God” (V, Prop. 24). Throughout the Ethics, Spinoza insists that the ascetics are wrong: the more active the body is, the more penetrating the mind. Bodily activity, the interaction of the body with many different things, goes hand-in-hand with the ascent of the mind toward God. Spinoza is friendlier to the body than any previous admirer of Plato. He is also friendlier to Democritus. He urges us not to be discouraged, as Socrates was, by the absence of good teleological explanations of natural events. For the more you understand about the purely mechanical order and connection of those atoms, the more your mind comes to resemble that of God.
Spinoza’s reconciliation of body and mind, matter and spirit, relies on the notion of equally valid alternative descriptions of the same reality”. But that notion contains the seeds of its own destruction. For once we allow it into philosophy, the very idea of the natural order is in danger. So, therefore, is the idea of philosophy as the quest for knowledge of what is really real.
Before Spinoza it was taken for granted that any two competing descriptions of anything could be compared in point of adequacy. The less adequate description could then be deemed a description of appearance, and the more adequate a description of reality. But as soon as one deploys the idea of equally adequate alternative descriptions, one will wonder whether it matters whether one is talking about the same reality in two equally valid vocabularies, or about two different appearances of the same underlying reality. As soon as one begins to raise that question, one begins the slide from Spinoza’s utterly knowable universe to Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself. For if two irreconcilable descriptions can both somehow be valid, is there any reason to believe that either has anything to do with things as they are in themselves–things as undescribed?
Once one raises the latter question, one is on the brink of a slippery slope.. As soon as one stops saying, with Plato, that the body and the atoms are mere appearances of something else, and says instead that they are the universe described in one very useful way among other very useful ways, one may wonder if there is any better test of a descriptive vocabulary than its utility for human purposes. Perhaps Protagoras had a point: maybe man is the measure of all things. Why not think of descriptive vocabularies as tools rather than attempts at representational accuracy? Why not drop the question of how things are in themselves, and instead devote oneself to the question of which descriptive vocabularies get us what we want? The slide from Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself to Nietzsche’s and William James’ pragmatism thus becomes as precipitous as the slide from Spinoza to Kant.
Pragmatists suggest that to have an order is simply to be described in a language, and that no language is any more natural–any closer to the way things really are–than any other. Any descriptive vocabulary comprehensive enough to relate lots of the things we talk about to lots of other such things is a description of an ordered universe. But once one starts thinking in terms of equally valid descriptions, the idea that nature might have a preferred self-description begins to seem merely quaint. Nature under a description will always exhibit an order. But nature undescribed in any human language? That is simply the thing-in-itself–an utterly useless notion, a philosopher’s plaything, a toy rather than a tool.
In short, the more one thinks about alternative languages for talking about nature, the less need there is to think about the nature of nature. The possibility arises that one might become blessed by contriving a new language for human beings to speak, rather than by getting in touch with something non-human. The old idea that blessedness can be obtained by getting in touch with a natural order begins to be replaced by the new idea that blessedness might be obtained by finding a new way to talk. Hobbes’ suggestion that artifice is needed to do what nature cannot do begins to sound more plausible.
This suggestion was taken up by the Romantics, who attempt to achieve blessedness by self-creation—by becoming a lamp rather than a mirror. Once one begins to think of languages as artifacts, it seems natural to supplement Hobbes’ account of the genesis of political artifacts can be supplemented by Shelley’s account of the role of the poetic imagination in intellectual and moral progress.
The effect of thinking about language is to turn the attention of philosophers away from the natural sciences. By the time of Shelley and Hegel, mathematics and physics no longer dominate the philosophical scene. The willingness to talk Galilean mechanics as a paradigmatic intellectual achievement, which was common to Hobbes and Spinoza, begins to seem quaint. For Kant had already suggested that the language of natural science should be thought of as useful for some purposes and not for others: the vocabulary deployed by Verstand has little connection with that deployed by praktische Vernunft. The description of the world in terms of atoms and the void is obviously good for technology, but useless for morality and for poetry. But technological purposes have no natural priority others. One could claim they do only by reviving the appearance-reality distinction that Spinoza’s notion of equally adequate descriptions had undermined.
I have been singling out one element in Spinoza’s thought–the idea of equally valid description in different languages—and suggesting how it can be seen a turning-point in the history of philosophy. It is the point at which one begins to stop looking backward to Plato and Democritus, and starts looking forward to Romanticism, Nietzsche, and pragmatism. But looking at Spinoza’s role in the history of philosophy in this way is, of course, to neglect Spinoza’s own deepest conviction: that every apparent diversity will be resolved when one takes a larger view: that the more things are related to one another, the less problematic they become.
Spinoza thought that there is always a hidden unity to be found behind every apparent variety. The success of mathematical physics at finding simple and elegant laws confirmed a view he also expressed in theological and political terms: he urged behind the many vocabularies in which men speak of God and of the socio-political order there is a single natural order to be discerned. Every way of worshiping God, like each way of ordering society, has the same end. To believe otherwise, Spinoza thought, is to let the imagination take the place of the intellect.
Although Spinoza was less ascetic, friendlier to the body, than had previously seemed compatible with the pursuit of blessedness, he was no friendlier to the imagination, or to poetry, or to artifice, than were Plato and Savanarola at their worst. Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind—the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness.
Spinoza’s hostility to metaphor and artifice is clearest in the Theologico-Political Treatise. In that book, he helped prepare the way for the Enlightenment’s ecumenical conviction that all religions come down to the same thing. The differences between them are merely differences in the local situations of human beings, and of the consequent differences in their imaginations. Trying to break free of fundamentalist literalism, Spinoza tries to translate Scripture from the language of the imagination into something more like the language of the intellect. He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome.
Just as truth is one though unfortunately expressed in diverse metaphors, so true religion is one, though prophecies are many. “The power of prophecy”, Spinoza says, “implies not a peculiarly perfect mind, but a peculiarly vivid imagination”. (TPT, 19) Religious ceremonies are many, but blessedness is one. “Ceremonies are no aid to blessedness, but only have reference to temporal prosperity” (TPT, 70). Christ was an improvement on Moses because “he taught only universal moral precepts, and [therefore] promises a spiritual instead of a temporal reward.” (TPT, Elwes translation, 70) “The nature of natural divine law,” he says, is “universal or common to all men, for we have deduced it from universal human nature” (61), and “it does not depend on the truth of any historical narrative whatsoever.” Adam could have as good a grasp of the divine law and of human nature as we ourselves, for history has added nothing to human knowledge, other than an increased ability to gain “temporal rewards”.
Metaphor, history and diversity are firmly relegated by Spinoza to the realm of what, following Descartes, he thinks of as confused ideas. New metaphors can only heap confusion on confusion. The eternal, the true, and the clear are names for the same thing: God or Nature rightly understood, understood as a whole rather than in part. Spinoza is an utterly convinced adherent of the doctrine Kierkegaard called “Socratism”: the historical moment does not matter, for the teacher is merely an occasion. What Christ said in parables can better be said more geometrico.
Hegel said that nobody can be a philosopher who is not first a Spinozist. He meant, among other things, that nobody can take philosophy–as opposed to poetry and prophecy–seriously who does not hope to see everything converge, come together, form a systematic unity. To be a philosopher in this sense, you have to yearn for a natural order. You need to take the reality-appearance distinction, and the literal-metaphorical distinction, very seriously indeed.
Paradoxically, enough, however, it was Hegel who, following up on Vico and Herder, suggested that philosophers take historical narratives seriously. He was the first to make plausible the idea that constructing such a narrative might yield better results than proceeding more geometrico. His own narratives suggest the possibility that we can let the distinction between earlier ideas and later ideas take the place of the Cartesian distinction between the confused ideas of the imagination and the clear ideas of the intellect. This proposal was taken up by Nietzsche and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s narrative about the West’s liberation from Platonism, and Heidegger’s counter-narrative, are at the heart of their respective philosophies. If Hegel brought historical narrative into philosophy, both by precept and example, Nietzsche and Heidegger brought metaphor into it. Those two helped us break down the barriers between philosophy and poetry, and overcome Plato’s conviction that philosophy and poetry are related as the higher to the lower.
As long as languages are viewed, as they were in the seventeenth century, as alternative ways of expressing the same limited range of ideas, it will be hard to take either history or metaphor seriously. It will be easy to think that philosophy’s task is to rise above diversity and to seek simplicity of utterance. But Hegel helped us get rid of the seventeenth century’s “way of ideas” by casting doubt on the Cartesian notion of “clarity and distinctness” and the Lockean notion of “simplicity”. He was, as Wilfrid Sellars remarked, the great foe of immediacy. Yet Hegel was unable to take the step that Nietzsche and Heidegger went on to take–the step away from quasi-scientific sysematicity. From the point of view of post-¦Nietzschean thought, Hegel looks like a man with one foot in each camp: historicist enough to have become a pragmatist, yet Platonist enough to have remained a metaphysician.
One can put this latter point in Habermasian terms by saying that Hegel’s historicism almost, but not quite, enabled him to abandon subject-centered reason for communicative reason. To abandon subject-centered reason is to abandon the idea that clarity can substitute for consensus–the idea that the philosopher can circumvent the language of his or her tribe by finding a short-cut to Truth. It is to abandon the conviction that we shall recognize truth when we see it–an idea which was basic to Spinoza’s thought and which he abbreviated as the doctrine that truth is self-certifying. Spinoza claimed that a perfect and adequate idea—sigillum sui et falsi–could be seen to be such, and therefore seen to be true, simply by possessing it. (Ethics, II, Def. 4 and Prop.13)
The idea that metaphor and imagination will never be eliminated, and that moral progress is made possible by the imagination producing ever new metaphors, chimes with the idea that rationality is a matter of finding agreement among human beings, rather than of discovering which ideas are adequate to reality. For now the political problem–the problem of creating social cooperation between human beings–becomes a problem of tolerating alternative fantasies rather than of eliminating fantasy in favor of truth. The question is not how to get human beings to live in accordance with nature but of how to get them to live in the same community with people those who have very different notions about what is most important in human life.
In this respect, Habermas and Dewey are the heirs of Hobbes–of the idea that political artifice replaces philosophical contemplation as the source of a higher, specifically human, form of happiness. The thesis that the hope for objectivity is nothing more nor less than a hope for intersubjective agreement goes hand in hand with the thesis that no language is more adequate to reality than any other language. But that means giving up the distinction between clear and confused ideas. There is no room for that distinction once one gives up the correspondence theory of truth.
So far I have been suggesting a way of looking at the development of philosophical thought since Spinoza’s time. I shall conclude by turning to the question I broached at the outset: of whether a pragmatist–someone who has given up the goal of achieving an accurate representation of the natural order of things–can still love wisdom? What, if anything, can a pragmatist, mean by “loving truth”, or by “achieving wisdom”?
The difference between the pragmatists and their opponents is that between treating the capitalized noun “Truth” as an unhappily hypostatized adjective and as the name of something that deserves to be loved. On the pragmatist view, the adjective “true” is a perfectly useful tool, but the use of the noun “Truth” as the name of an object of desire is a relic of an earlier time: the time in which we believed that there was a natural order to be grasped.
I have been arguing that Spinoza’s suggestion that two vocabularies which cannot be translated into one another may nevertheless be equally valid opened the door led to pragmatism, and thus to doubt about the idea of an object called “The Truth”. But if truth not a possible object of love, then it would seem that Socrates and Spinoza were simply deceived. . That is an insufferably condescending way to describe men for whom most of us feel an instinctive and deep attraction.
This was a perplexity Nietzsche experienced. He sometimes speaks of Socrates as the sardonic iconoclast who betrayed the tragic sense of human greatness, and thus diminished us. But elsewhere he praises him as a model of intellectual honesty. Analogously, Nietzsche sometimes pays Spinoza the highest compliment he can imagine by calling him his own precursor. (Letter to Overbeck, July 30, 1881) but sometimes describes him as “a sophisticated vengeance-seeker and poison-brewer” (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 25). In the latter mood, Nietzsche thinks of Spinoza as someone who presented his own heart’s desire as if it were the product of cold, impersonal, inquiry. (BGE 5).
Nietzsche wanted, but did not find, a way of praising the courageous daring of the lives lived by Socrates and Spinoza, while continuing to reject the rhetoric of truth-seeking both employed. The awkward position in which he was placed by his instinctive sympathy with these two figures was a symptom of his vacillation about truth. It is not easy to reconcile Nietzsche’s repeatedly proclaimed love of knowledge and truth with his perspectivism and his pragmatism. It is as easy to find passages in which Nietzsche says contradictory things about Truth as it is to find passages in which he says contradictory things about Socrates or Spinoza.
A pragmatist like myself who is also an admirer of Spinoza has to find some other reason to praise Spinoza than his God-intoxication, his overwhelming desire to emend his intellect in order to achieve union with the divine mind. The best solution to this problem, I think, is to construe the love of Truth as an attitude toward one’s fellow human beings rather than as an attitude toward something that transcends humanity and its history. Then one can praise Spinoza for his conversability rather than for his desire to transcend finitude.
When we praise a scientist or scholar for the love of Truth what we often have in mind is simply her open-mindedness: her curiosity about opinions different from their own, tolerance for the existence of such opinions, and willingness to modify their own views. When we say that someone loves truth more than self we sometimes mean simply that he or she respects his or her colleagues enough to prefer a view with which they can all, freely and peaceably, come to agree upon to the view he or she herself presently holds. Construed in this way, the love of Truth is simply conversability—a tolerant absence of fanaticism, a willingness to hear the other side.
The affection Spinoza generates in his readers is the sort we feel for someone who brings out the best in us by assuring us that there is something in what we say, that we are guilty of nothing more than premature enthusiasm. Spinoza, the critic of asceticism, does not chastise us, but instead advises us how we can more frequently experience hilaritas (an affect which, Spinoza said, cannot be in excess.). We cherish Spinoza for some or the same reasons we admire Hume, a philosopher with whose doctrines Spinoza’s have little in common. We think of them as typifying the Enlightment at its best—as enemies of fanaticism and friends of open-mindedness.
To praise Spinoza for the attitudes towards his fellow humans he shared with Hume obviously does not require that we accept a definition of truth as adequate representation of a natural order. It does not even require the Habermasian doctrine that argumentative inquiry is a quest for universal validity. The whole idea of a quasi-object which functions as the goal of a quest–either the Platonic idea of a natural order or the Habermasian idea of a set of universally valid beliefs–can be set aside if we construe the love of Truth conversability. The Platonist and Spinozist image of all things coming together in a single vision can be replaced by the image of a maximally free and rich form of human sociability. The unity of mankind, from this perspective, is not a product of human beings’ ability to share a common understanding of a natural order, but rather of their willingness to tolerate, and to try to see the best in, each others’ fantasies.
But there is still another way to construe the love of Truth. Rather than thinking of it either as the desire for the blessedness which would result from the grasp of a natural order, or as conversability, we can also construe it as a form of truthfulness–the quality of being true to oneself. Sometimes when we say that the love of Truth is a virtue we simply mean that honesty, sincerity and truth-telling are virtues. But sometimes we mean something more, as when we praise Blake or Kierkegaard for having had the courage to stick to their guns–to hold on to their central insight, the truth as they saw it, even when everybody thought they were crazy. Such courage is yet another of the virtues for which we praise Socrates, who stood by his central beliefs despite the fact that this made him almost unintelligible to his contemporaries.
Pragmatists, I would suggest, should think of the love of truth as an attempt to combine conversability with the courage to stick to one’s deepest convictions. Such a combination is not easy, but Socrates, Spinoza and Hume achieved something like it. They managed to synthesize the virtues of the virtues of the self-involved genius with those of a conversable companion and useful citizen. They thereby brought the metaphysical and strange together with the literal and familiar.
The idea that we all have a duty to love truth is, for a pragmatist, the idea that we should all aim at such a synthesis. The reason we are so inclined to hypostasize Truth, to turn the adjective “true” into a capitalized noun, is that we would like to overcome the tensions between idiosyncracy and conversability by finding a language that commensurates all languages, a master-tool which coordinates the uses of all lesser tools. We hypostatize the idea of such a language into the idea of a natural order, and we think of the adequate representation of that order as providing us with such a master-tool.
If Hegel is right that anyone must be a Spinozist if he or she is to be a philosopher, then nobody can take an interest in philosophy who has never been intrigued by the thought of such commensuration, of a master-language. One’s imagination will not be gripped either by the figure of Socrates or by that of Spinoza unless one is fascinated by the possibility of such commensuration. There are many people who are not fascinated by this possibilty, and whose imagination is not so gripped. Pragmatists think that that is not a matter for rebuke–that a lack of interest in philosophy is not a vice. In the sense in which one must be a Spinozist in order to philosophize, philosophy is not a universal human concern, nor should it be.
Not everyone has a duty to take an interest either in the quarrel between Plato and Democritus or in that between metaphysicians and pragmatists. any more than it is compulsory to care about the differences between Catholicism and Calvinism, or about those between Christians and noncChristians. As William James said, for some people Christianity is simply not a live or forced option–not something that they need think about. The same goes for philosophy.
As pragmatists see the matter, someone who has little or no interest in either religious or philosophical questions should not be told that he or she has a duty to seek answers to those questions, or a duty to justify his lack of interest to others. Before the Enlightenment we told that we also had duties to God. The Enlightenment told us that we also had duties to Reason. But pragmatists think that our only duties are to ourselves and to other human beings. Socrates, Spinoza and Hume are heroic figures because they performed both sets of duties exceptionally well.
April 25, 2006
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