Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Between Spinoza and Kant

Among the various philosophers who influenced Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, I want to single out, for now, Kant and Spinoza. Kant and Spinoza stand out because they adopted radically different solutions to a common problem, and because both solutions were attractive to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

The problem concerns how to think about the place of humans in the natural world, a problem that took on new form and importance in the intellectual and cultural upheavals of the 17th century (the scientific revolution, the fact of religious pluralism, and the rise of bourgeois capitalism).

The Spinozistic solution is to think of humans as nothing more than a piece of the natural world. At the beginning of Book III of the Ethics, Spinoza denounces those who want to think of humanity as "an empire within an empire" -- as something distinct. Spinoza then goes on to use his theory of physics (how bodies affect other bodies) to develop a theory of the emotions, virtues, and vices.

The Kantian solution is to think of humans as not merely outside of the natural world but also as (somehow) creating it. Space and time are "forms of intuition"; cause and substance are "categories of the understanding." The world as it is in itself -- including "the real us" -- is non-temporal, non-spatial, non-causal, and non-substantial -- and so entirely unknowable and yet thinkable (indeed, necessarily thinkable!).

Thus, while Kant might concede to Spinoza that, with respect to knowledge, humans are only a bit of nature, nevertheless we also stand outside of the natural (=knowable) world. Kant shows how our capacity to stand outside of the knowable (=natural) world is deeply connected with our "spontaneity," i.e. our capacity to judge, to evaluate, and to think.

So, on the one hand, a picture of human beings as nothing other than bits of nature and entirely knowable in those terms (Spinoza); on the other, a picture of human beings as standing outside of nature in some way that we can think but cannot know (Kant).

To borrow terms from John McDowell's Mind and World (1991), there is here a forced choice between "bald naturalism" (Democritus, Spinoza, Quine) and "rampant platonism" (Plato, Kant, Husserl). Yet McDowell wants to discern a neglected alternative, "naturalized platonism," and to this end enlists Aristotle and Hegel.

I think that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud might also be thought of as "naturalized platonists," in the following sense: on the one hand, each wants to recognize the distinctiveness of human cultural achievements; on the other hand, each wants to stress that these achievements are made possible due to conditions which differ in degree, but not in kind, from conditions that hold elsewhere in the natural world.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Spinoza writes:

I think that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud might also be thought of as "naturalized platonists," in the following sense: on the one hand, each wants to recognize the distinctiveness of human cultural achievements; on the other hand, each wants to stress that these achievements are made possible due to conditions which differ in degree, but not in kind, from conditions that hold elsewhere in the natural world.

I can't quite follow you there. Basically, what do you mean when stating that "cultural achievements...are made possible due to conditions which differ in degree, but not in kind, from conditions that hold elsewhere in the natural world"?

If you are saying that for instance Nietzsche is creating (and relying on) a methaphysical parallel universe (and that, of course, could be argued in his ideas of The Eternal Return) he is also adament in his comment that The world is womanish: There is NOTHING inside..

I can't find the quote now - it's way past midnight - but you might know it yourself. If I get the time I'll look it up.

Lumping together Marx, Nietzsche and Freud is always risky, I think.

Orla Schantz

5:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't quite believe that Spinoza is the "bald naturalist" as McDowell wants him to be. He has a strong concept of the subject, especially in his "Ethics". The subject consitutes itself by sepatating itself from natural incentives, bodily impulses and wordly greed. This strong subject cannot be derived from mere nature, but by identifying it with god as nature (deus sive natura), only the rational part of Plato's model of the soul is the source of subjectivity.
By constituting a modern subject, I think, Spinoza sacrifices his epistemological naturalism.

Caroline Sommerfeld-Lethen

4:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really, really, really need to read Kant again and actually understand what he's saying. Much like most people who describe Kant, it's obvious that you have either failed to understand his Critiques or have just read what other people have said about him (and which is more often than not wrong). To start off with, the world according to Kant is NOT "non-temporal, non-spatial, non-causal, and non-substantial;" for all we know, it could be all of those. What Kant said is that it is impossible to know what the world is in itself because we only have our perception of it, and perceptions are only that. Go back and read the Critique of Pure Reason at least.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous General Semantics said...

Yes! There may actually be little distinction between Kant and Spinoza. Spinoza decided there was no reason to leave God out of it, Kant decided there was no reason to leave God in. But the metaphysics are pretty much the same.

9:26 PM  
Blogger tommy ollendorff said...

let's save the word "need" for necessities.
perhaps he ought to read kant, or should read kant, but I cannot envision needing to read him.

need, in such a usage, is an iron fist in a velvet glove; both dishonest and unkind.

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