The Histories of Philosophy, Vol. III: The Enlightenment Ch. I We ‘Other’ Spinozans
For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Cartesian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the Catholic dualist is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical philosophy.
At the beginning of the 16th century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Intellectual debates had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the 18th century. It was a time of direct conversations, shameless discourse, and open disputations, when theologies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when philosophies 'made a display of themselves.'
But twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Cartesian bourgeoisie. Spinozism was carefully confined; the Ethics were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Republic of Letters took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of Hegelianism. On the subject of Spinoza, silence became the rule. The legitimate and dialectical philosophers laid down the law. The cogito imposed itself as model, enforced the norm, safeguarded the truth, and reserved the right to speak while retaining the principle of secrecy. A single locus of Spinozism was acknowledge in the phenomenological tradition as well as in every history of philosophy course, but it was a utilitarian and reductive one: Spinoza’s substantial dualism. The rest had only to remain vague; proper demeanor avoided contact with other aspects of Spinoza’s system, and verbal decency sanitized one’s speech. And Spinozan behavior carried the taint of atheism; if it insisted on making itself too visible, it would be designated accordingly and would have to pay the penalty.
A reader asked me on Twitter recently whether Hume was a closet Spinozan. And the answer is yes.
Before I continue, have you read Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment? Go read it and then come back.
Israel’s amazing study, which was really crucial to my understanding of that phase of philosophical history, shows, among many other crucial points, the same thing I parodically suggest above: that though Spinoza and all of his works were vigorously banned and persecuted, the sheer distribution of manuscripts of the Ethics and the Tractatus, and the references to them in so many works of the later, more moderate Enlightenment make it clear that Spinoza was also widely read.
In fact, Spinoza was so widely read that virtually every major philosopher of the time went out of his way to critique, refute, or simply castigate Spinoza, often in what is considered a major work (Israel details this vigorous work of cultural criticism carefully). The denunciation of Spinoza became an almost obligatory shibboleth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but, as Foucauldianally suggested above, only certain parts of Spinoza’s philosophy could be discussed.
Spinoza came after Descartes and was influenced by him, and thus falls well within the parameter of what we might cal “early modern philosophy." But the fascinating thing about the Enlightenment’s treatment of Spinoza is that the Republic of Letters, though nominally freed from the censorious diligence of Catholic dogma, actually reproduced in its textual relationship to Spinoza the logic of heresy, pure and simply: Spinozism was considered infectious, and dangerous not only as an idea but as a text. The difficult task of the Enlightenment philosopher was not unlike that of a Medieval disputation, in other words - how do we refute heresy in such a way as to demonstrate conceptual mastery of it, but without addressing its particulars to a contagious extent?
The answer, for the history of philosophy, was substantial unity, Spinoza’s supposed "monism." Spinoza’s Ethics starts from a discussion of substance. And the first part of the Ethics, while hardly the simplest, is, from a theological and 'moral’ perspective, the safest: it asserts the existence of God, and does not, as the thorny later parts do, discuss the relationship between God’s perfection and man’s will, for example. More importantly, substantial unity corresponded, for the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers, to a dogmatic assertion that had already been made, disputed, and rejected inside the Catholic Church - univocity, or Scotism, as it is sometimes called: the philosophy of the great Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, whose doctrines had held great influence for a time but ultimately succumbed to the refutations of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas. These Thomistic refutations of the unity of substance were widely available; moreover, they were approved by the Church; and, best of all, they were compatible both which empiricism and with rationalism, at least in so far as both empiricists and rationalists were equally able to borrow Thomistic arguments and then dismiss Aquinas himself as a Scholastic arcanist.
I would suggest, in short, that the conceptual familiarity and the moral stability of the concept of substance is the reason virtually all critiques and refutations of Spinoza in the 18th and 19th century focus on the first part of the Ethics. This is true as late as Schopenhauer and Hegel, both of whom devote a surprising amount of attention to Spinoza.
To return to the question: is Hume a closet Spinozist? My answer is yes, and I arrive at that answer by a comparative assessment. The first question I ask myself is, does Hume’s refutation of Spinoza resemble those found in some many texts by his contemporaries? And the answer is yes, yes it does. That’s the basic parameter around which I try to map the specificities of Hume’s texts.
First of all - and a crucial detail as far as I’m concerned - Hume doesn’t understand Spinoza as a Jewish scholar. This is not simply a case of paranoid anti-anti-Semitism: it’s endemic to the argument. Most respondents to Spinoza’s metaphysics, including Schopenhauer and Hegel, say something along the lines of, "This is a Jewish mumbo-jumbo mystical version of the properly organized Catholic concept of substantial unity, which we’ve already refuted. Henry More, like Schopenhauer and Hegel, used Spinoza’s "Jewishness” as a general code for all the ways that Spinoza’s metaphysics didn’t quite resemble the Catholic versions of the same ideas; this generalized anti-Semitism spares them the trouble of reading the text too deeply and being contaminated by it. That Hume avoids this gesture is significant. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Hume has read Spinoza’s Ethics deeply and carefully.
Future blog posts will need to explore this claim more thoroughly, but I would argue that Spinoza’s conceptual influence on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature is profound. I would suggest that both its complexity and its arguments owe a deep debt to the geometric structure of the Ethics, and that the simpler, shorter revisions of the THN that comprise Hume’s later philosophical output are an effort, in part, to scrub the traces of geometric Spinozism from his writing.
The fascinating thing about Hume’s refutation of Spinoza is that of all the philosophical concepts Hume goes out of his way to refute, Spinoza is the only philosopher Hume critiques personally, by name. Look at the table of contents for Book I, Part IV of the THN, 'Of sceptical and other systems of philosophy:
Of scepticism with regard to reason
Of scepticism with regard to the senses
Of the antient philosophy
Of the modern philosophy
Of the immateriality of the soul
Of personal identity
Conclusion of this book
No individual philosophers are named. Spinoza appears, interestingly, in the section on the immateriality of the soul, conforming, yet, again, to the Christian habit of responding exclusively to Spinoza’s arguments about substance. Hume, like More, locates Spinoza’s atheism in the same place as his substantial unity - interestingly, More ties both back to the geometric order of the Ethics. But Hume critiques the 'sceptics,’ the 'scholars,’ the 'peripatetics,’ and the 'Cartesians,’ always in the plural. There is only one philosopher he attacks in the singular: Spinoza, the most radical and dangerous, around whom no school has formed.
The attention Hume pays to Spinoza entirely belies the dismissive tone in which he discusses his ideas. The same is true of Hegel, who devotes more pages to Spinoza in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy than he does to an other thinker except Kant (more than he devotes to Descartes, incidentally). But unlike Hegel, who, as usual, is talking out of his ass, Hume has clearly read Spinoza deeply and carefully. Spinoza’s influence is felt everywhere in the Enlightenment and after, but Hume enjoys Spinoza just a little too much. So yes, I think Hume’s critique of Spinoza, itself incorrect, originates in an impulse to wrestle with his ideas without publicly embracing them.
You know the Cartesian cogito? The one that’s been the bane of Western philosophy from the moment of its birth, which is the herald of the Enlightenment and the birth of modern thought? Yeah, that one. The thing is, it’s not even Cartesian. As Descartes admits in a letter to his friend Mersenne, he knew about the passage in Augustine, though, not surprisingly, he minimized its influence on him and its relation to his own concept (always a sure sign of influence, just like when Freud disavows Schopenhauer and Nietzsche).
Here’s the thing with this post. I’m basically saying that one of the most generally accepted assumptions about the history and development of Western philosophy, especially in the last 500 years or so, deliberately disavows an important chain of influence that clearly roots Descartes’ “radical new conception” in a much older tradition of Aristotelian thought. Not only is Augustine a predecessor for Descartes’ cogito, but a very similar idea appears in one of the greatest works of speculative thought ever written, The Metaphysics from Ibn Sina’s immense and unparalleled encyclopedia, The Healing (al Shifaa).
Now, nobody has ever taught me this connection between Descartes and Ibn Sina or between Descartes and St. Augustine. How do I know about them? I know about them because I read The Metaphysics of The Healing, and I read Descartes’ collected letters in Adam and Tannery’s Oeuvres. And now you know about it, because I just told you. These ephemeral chains of transmission are, I would suggest, a key element if not the very heart of pedagogy. That’s what the essence of pedagogical experience comes down to, both for the teacher and the student - making connections. This is the reason we should pay teachers a living wage - so they have time to sit down and make these connections. And this is also the reason why teacher tenure matters. I don’t mean “tenure” as a contractual codicil but literally as the amount of time a teacher has been teaching. That’s the weakness of programs like Teach for America, which are well-intentioned but deeply flawed, because dumping an Ivy-League undergraduate with 3 months of pedagogical training in an inner-city classroom just about ensures that the teacher won’t have the experiential tools to connect ideas for their students the way they need to be connected. Teaching experience isn’t just about job security, it’s about quality teaching. Not surprisingly, this is something standardized testing absolutely can’t account for. Standardized testing will show you how many students know the formula for finding the area of a circle, but it won’t tell you how excited they were to learn it, how clearly the teacher explained it, and how long it stuck in their minds - whether they brought it up again in another class, used it in a paper…or even taught it to somebody else, extending these tenuous experiential links one step further.