Monday, March 12, 2012

Baruch Spinoza, The Emendation of the Intellect (1660)

The life and works Baruch Spinoza have fascinated me since I was a teenager. A teacher who took an interest in my intellectual development assigned me a series of books to read, including Spinoza's Ethics. It was at that time I learned a little bit about Spinoza's life, including his excommunication from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. As for his work, Ethics, I was admittedly too young to appreciate fully what he had written. I did understand that he believed that through reason and scientific inquiry one could come to know nature (which Spinoza referred to as "god"). I also comprehended a monism that was systematically complete, avoiding theological inconsistencies that had plagued monotheism from its Hebrew foundations.

As one reads Ethics, it is difficult to fathom why his excommunication for heresy by Amsterdam's Jewish community was so harsh. While Spinoza's god is not the same as Yaweh of the Hebrews, Spinoza seems reverent and respectful enough to be considered "religious" in his own way. So what could Spinoza have done to offend the leaders of the Jewish community of mid-17th century Amsterdam to warrant excommunicating him from their community forever and ordering its members to have no communication with him or read any of his writings?

Steven Nadler has shed some light on the mystery of Spinoza's excommunication and banishment in his book, Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind and his earlier book, Spinoza, A Life. The curses uttered against him were as vague as they were vicious, and yet his later writings exhibit a reverence of the infinite that is seldom heard or seen. Nadler deduces that the offense leading to Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community was his refusal to anthropomorphize the deity and recognize one's soul as having eternal life.

Whether Nadler is correct, or whether there was a wider offense will never be known. There are some who suggest that he had drawn the attention of Amsterdam's civic leaders, who leaned on Jewish community leaders to control Spinoza's religous and philosophical discussions among the gentile community. According to his biographers, Spinoza did not believe in the literalness of the Scriptures and he was less than observant. The bible, Spinoza believed, was written by men, not god. Spinoza was skeptical that the rabbinate had special knowledge of of the Torah, and disagreed with their interpretations of the Torah. Spinoza also found contradictions in the Scriptures treatment of Judaism's anthropomorphic god: reminiscent of Jose Saramago's god in Cain (see December 20, 2011 post), in a monotheistic world controlled and determined by one god, what room was there for the devil? For sure the monotheistic god had to be responsible for both good and evil. God could not be infinite if it was only responsible for the good. Spinoza was also known to mingle and engage in intellectual studies and discussions with gentiles, some of whom were described by Dutch Calvinist leaders as atheists.

I will soon be attending a play entitled The New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 by David Ives. In anticipation of this theatrical event, my curiosity was piqued as to whether anything in Spinoza's first writing following his expulsion from Amsterdam's Jewish community might reveal his beliefs that apparently led to his condemnation. The Emendation of the Intellect is an unfinished work, only 30 pages long, and was not published during his life, but it does reveal some of his early critical thoughts. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at age 23. Two years later, he began writing The Emendation of the Intellect.

Spinoza opens The Emendation of the Intellect with the line, "After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realized that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save insofar as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity." Freedom from anxiety is an Epicurean value, and biographers believe that Spinoza had been exposed to the philosophy of Epicurus. We can surmise that " Spinoza's "anxiety" includes the precarious financial position he finds himself in at the helm of his family's debt-laden trading business, which he and his brother Gabriel inherited from their father. Spinoza cites that "most men regard riches, honor, and sensual pleasure as the highest good, each of which can be viewed as by-products of the pursuit of commercial success, and Spinoza probably found little happiness in this endeavor. And while he is perhaps "trapped" in the family business, he is at the same time pursuing his intellectual interests, engaging with persons outside the Jewish community of Amsterdam, including Christian dissenters. In his intellectual pursuits, Spinoza "resolved" to discover whether there was a "a true good [that] could alone affect the mind . . and afford [him] a continuous joy to all eternity." This pursuit, he says, is the "highest happiness."

While lack of success and anxiety over risks in the commercial world may be a motivation to seek Epicurean peace of mind, Spinoza was also faced with a cognitive dissonance as his emerging intellectual beliefs became confrontational with his family and cultural community that had taught him much of what he knew in the first place. But Spinoza did not follow the traditional cognitive dissonance model that resolves the anxiety by living a lie or changing his beliefs to suit the majority. He pursued an independent course devoted to improving his intellect --- the subject of his first written (although unpublished) work. The Emendation of the Intellect is a precursor to his Ethics. The Emendation of the Intellect is not intended to explicate Spinoza's views on a deity. In The Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza refers to another planned work, which he calls his "philosophy." This is not Ethics. It is a reference to another unpublished work known as A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, in which he begins to explain his views on god in writing.

We can find in The Emendation of the Intellect several references to Spinoza's views on the human soul, which Nadler says were critical to the harshness of Spinoza's excommunication. For example, "When we clearly perceive that we sense such-and-such a body and no other . . . we clearly infer that the soul is united to the body." Later, "from the fact that I know the essence of the soul, I know that it is united to the body." For Spinoza, the "soul" is a reference to the "mind." And when he says that the soul is united to the body, he means that the mind is united to the brain. Ideas in the mind "correspond to the specific reality of its object [in nature]. This is identical to the saying of the ancients that true science proceeds from cause to effect, except that, as far as I know, they never conceived the soul, as we are here doing, as acting according to fixed laws, a sort of spiritual automaton." Clearly, at this early age of his intellectual life, Spinoza, in contrast to Descartes, did not accept the idea that the soul was separate from the body. He was not a dualist. When a person dies; his/her soul dies.

We find in this small pamphlet, an early Enlightenment rationalist trying to conquer skepticism. (See January 21, 2011 post). And to conquer skepticism in the pursuit of a "true good," he describes a "method" that demands to know "what are the circumstances with which the fictitious, the false, and the doubtful perception are concerned, and how we may be delivered from each of them." Spinoza seeks to confront superstition. What prevents us from having clear and distinct ideas about something and its attributes is confusion --- which causes us to have only partial knowledge of a complete whole or unity composed of many constituents -- failing to distinguish between the known and the unknown, and also attending at the same time without any distinction to the many constituents containing in a single thing. And the source of confusion is fictitious ideas. "The less men know of Nature, the more easily they can fashion numerous fictitious ideas, as that trees speak, that men can change instantaneously into stones or springs, that ghosts appear in mirrors, that something can come from nothing, even that gods can change into beasts or men, and any number of such fantasies." Part of the source of confusion and fictitious ideas arises from when we think of things in an abstract way --- abstraction. "The origin of Nature can neither be conceived in an abstract or universal way." Another source of confusion and fictitious ideas is failure to doubt [question critically], which arises from our "failure to reflect upon the deceptiveness of the senses." Spinoza believes, "if, after being in doubt, a man acquires true knowledge of the senses and of the manner whereby through their means distant things are represented, then the doubt is in turn removed." Finally, the limits of our memory (forgetting), unstrengthened by the intellect, is another source of confusion and fiction. Abstraction, failure to doubt, and forgetful memory give rise to imagination, "arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions."

Several of the postings in this blog have referred to the role of memory, imagination, and the fictitious. (See May 22, 2011 post; June 28, 2011 post; June 12, 2011 post; December 20, 2011 post). Unlike Spinoza, I don't believe that our capacity for fiction and fantasy is necessarily or absolutely detrimental to our ability to appreciate the good. Our capacity for creative arts and fiction have some relationship to our evolutionary success, and while fiction that amounts to self-deceit is not typically positive, it can be viewed in an evolutionary context. (See February 4, 2012 post). But certainly, human imagination has been critical to advance our knowledge of the physical world. (See July 30, 2011 post). Effective fiction may also help us understand our biases and transform the way we see the world, and all for the good. Similarly, we have seen that our capacity for abstraction is probably a key to our evolutionary success. (See October 25, 2011 post and June 12, 2011 post). One wonders what Spinoza would think of John Searle's "modern era of philosophy" infused with a huge body of knowledge, not known to the Enlightenment philosophers, that Searle says is "certain, objective, and universal." (See January 21, 2011 post). Yet at the same time, widespread belief in religious fictions that Spinoza found so troubling in the mid-17th century still permeate social discourse and obscure knowledge of truth (see June 12, 2011 post and February 4, 2012 post): would Spinoza think humanity has made much progress toward "something whose discovery and acquisition would afford [him/us] a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity" because we have now accumulated a larger body of knowledge about life and nature that is certain, objective, and universal? Spinoza, his biographers would argue, and I would agree, still has enormous relevance to the 21st century.

What I found most impressive him about his life is his independence of mind. While strong divisions among nations and and divisions among segments of a society during the mid-17th centure were attributable to slavish acceptance of group norms, our body politic in 21st century United States is likewise extremely divided among those subscribing to different group beliefs. The extent to which "reason" prevails in public disourse, as opposed to bias, emotion, and/or intuition has probably changed only modestly since the mid-17th century. Solutions are seldom sought behind the veil of ignorance that I described in a previous post with a view toward adopting an impartial lens toward justice, the public good, and nature (see January 11, 2011 post).

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