Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Defense of Radicalism

In both the popular and academic imagination, "the Enlightenment" is a cipher for restraint, intellectual modesty, tolerant open-mindedness, and a willing to be persuaded by what Jurgen Habermas calls "the unforced force of the better argument."

There is a kernel and more than a kernel of truth to this stereotype.

The truth of this stereotype arises from the history of the Enlightenment that begins with Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes; continues on through Locke and Rousseau; and culminates in Kant's magisterial critical philosophy. The motto he gave to the Enlightenment -- sapere aude! -- is one that we here at the EU have adopted as our own.

But alongside the tradition mentioned above -- the "moderate Enlightenment" -- there was another Enlightenment, a radical Enlightenment. The hero of the radical Enlightenment was a heretical Jew named Baruch (or Benedictus) Spinoza.

In his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza presented the first attempt to explain religion in fully naturalistic terms.

Famously, he argued that when God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, what God really said that was that this fruit would decrease their power of activity and vitality. But Adam, misunderstanding what God said, interpreted what God said as a moral prohibition.

In the Ethics, Spinoza argued that there is only one substance, and that it is God ("Deus, sive Natura" -- "God, that is to say, Nature"). He argued further that there is no free will, that everything that can happen necessarily does, and that God's power is not that of a sovereign.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, to be accused of "Spinozism" meant that one's career was over, and one would be lucky to keep one's freedom. Intellectuals accused each other of crypto-Spinozism in ways reminiscent of red-baiting in the 1950s in America. There was a fierce backlash as philosophers attempted to distance themselves from Spinoza and his followers.

It might be said that there's something reactionary about the moderate Enlightenment -- the Enlightenment of Locke and Kant. Certainly if one compares Locke with the radical critics of capitalism at the time, such as the Levellers and Diggers, Locke looks conservative, at the least. And Kant looks reactionary in contrast with moderates such as Hume, let alone Spinozist radicals. Yet the radical Enlightenment also helped keep the moderate Enlightenment honest.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the heirs of the radical Enlightenment were Marx, Nietzsche, the American pragmatists, the Frankfurt School, and the antihumanists of the 1960s. Since the 1980s there has been a systematic and terrible backlash against the radical Enlightenment on all sides.

The defenders of the moderate Enlightenment -- of whom Habermas is the best-known in Europe, and Rawls the best known here in the States -- saw no need for engagement with the 20th-century's radical Enlightenment. And the enemies of the Enlightenment could point to the radical Enlightenment and denounce "liberals" and "homosexuals" just as the enemies of Enlightement denounced "Spinozists," "materialists," and "Jews" in earlier eras.

If the Enlightenment is to have a future worth having -- and I do not think I go too far in saying, this means, if humanity is to have a future worth having -- the Enlightenment must once again become radical.

This means less Locke and Kant, more Spinoza and Marx; less Rawls and Habermas, more Adorno and Foucault -- less apologies for "humanitarian interventionism," more power (potentia) for the multitude.


Anonymous Yusef said...

Thanks for your post, Dr. Spinoza.

I think that I (we?) are resolving some sort of deep-seated dilemma, ( which we might even deny is there,) between thinking and taking action, or maybe better: a dilemma between an image of thought which is passive and an image of thought which is active and capable.

The Northern Prince ( Hamlet ) said this, in what is perhaps the most famous speech in the English language:

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."

Perhaps in this the Northern Prince is exemplifying what finally comes of the thinking of the Northern philosopher ( Kant.) I'm not sure.

What I know is that I want to keep my conscience, and I want to keep, and increase, my capacity for action.

I think we are working in this direction... It may not be pretty for onlookers, but it is working so far for me.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

There's something right about that, Yusef.

Hamlet experiences an utter passivity -- he's paralyzed by the possibilities. He is not only clever but also hyper-reflexive.

Kant also makes hyper-reflexivity a moral duty -- "always act according to that maxim which you could at the same time will to be a universal law." In other words, relentless self-scrutiny.

There's not much room for spontaneity, exuberance, or wildness in either Kant or Hamlet. That's a problem -- a fatal one.

But you're right that the solution to this is not to throw off the shackles of thought, but to find an image of thought which is not "dogmatic" and which is not pacifying.

I've long puzzled at the presence of Hume in Deleuze's thought. But one of the things that Hume does is he shows us how thought has become sluggish and burdened by its obsessions with dogma and doctrine. In rejection of this, Hume advances a skepticism which restores the powers of thought to the things of this world.

This may be the link between Hume and Spinoza in Deleuze's thought. Because Hume is read an "empiricist," and Spinoza as a "rationalist," Deleuze is confusing. But Hume and Spinoza are both thinkers of immanece, of "habits" (Hume) and "affects" (Spinoza).

3:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you both for interesting input.

I don't have much time to respond now, but will return with more elaboration in the coming days.

Just a few thoughts, first to Dr. Spinoza: I'm intrigued by the concept of "radical" Enlightenment as you explained it. But I'm wary of your resurrection of Marx and his contemporary followers, among them Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Just as Yusef worries about fascist tendencies in present day American society, I'm just as nervous of the fascism of any neo-socialistic tendencies.

Next, to Yusef: As a citizen of the country of Hamlet I can assure you that Kant would never be seen as "Nordic" in this neighboring country to Germany. He is considered too pedantic and pietistic - in other words: too German, but still also held in much awe. Nevertheless, I count him as the founder of philosophy as a modern SUBJECT. At least that's how he is treated in most of Europe. And I certainly don't regard him as an 18th century cousin of the brooding Danish prince. Kant's whole idea of the categorical imperative is most certainly an activist one.

Finally, to you both - and in the true spirit of the blog - have you come across this book http://tinyurl.com/n7xxc. I've just ordered it from Amazon and look forward to it very much. I have a feeling it could add extra oxygen to the debate.

Thanks again for your blog,

Orla Schantz

4:33 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

With respect to "the fascism of any neo-socialist tendencies":

Negri and Hardt make little disguise of being revolutionaries. The same could be said of Deleuze and Foucault, and many others. I myself am not yet prepared to sign off on revolution -- but the day may come when that changes.

Nor are Hardt and Negri liberal, in the sense of a general commitment to bourgeois capitalism and parliamentary democracy as conducive to maximal human flourishing.

In this respect too they follow the radical Enlightenment of Spinoza (as read through Marx and Deleuze), not the moderate Enlightenment of Locke (as read by Nozick) or Kant (as read by Rawls or Habermas).

So, it seems fair to say that Negri and Hardt are neither liberals nor reformers. They are revolutionary socialists, at least on paper, and make no disguise of it.

But is that enough to show that they are thereby "fascist" or have "fascist tendencies"? I don't think so -- not by a very long shot.

One of the many ways in which thought and action are today constricted is that any alternative to the liberal social order is attacked as "fascist."

I don't accept the analysis, which Adorno and Horkheimer made famous in Dialectic of Enlightenment, according to which fascism is itself a result or product of the liberal social order.

But I do think that if we are to evade the return of a new and different kind of fascism, we will need to learn once again how to think in terms other than those provided to us by the apologists of the liberal social order.

One will see that I have rather quickly and crudely established a relation between the moderate Enlightenment and liberalism on the one hand, and the radical Enlightenment and socialism on the other. That was my intent.

Moderates and radicals, liberals and socialists, have needed and still need each other. The anxiety aroused by socialism is one of the reasons why American liberalism is hamstrung.

The Left Needs More Socialism

6:47 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, to be accused of "Spinozism" meant that one's career was over, and one would be lucky to keep one's freedom. Intellectuals accused each other of crypto-Spinozism in ways reminiscent of red-baiting in the 1950s in America. There was a fierce backlash as philosophers attempted to distance themselves from Spinoza and his followers."

Cute, but not entirely true. When Jacobi "unveiled" Lessing as a Spinozist in his Letter to Mendelssohn, popular esteem for Lessing was so great that Spinozism itself became fashionable. For religious 'reactionaries' (I use your blunt term--perhaps a better might be 'irrationalists') like Jacobi, Spinozism was wicked, but by the time of Fichte, it was openly accepted by large bodies of thinkers.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

Mr. Roth,

You raise some excellent objections; I didn't know that Lessing's reputation increased after he was 'outed' as a Spinozist. However, might it have been the case that "Spinozism" was both "openly accepted by large bodies of thinkers" and, at the same time, considered subversive by the institutionalized authorities?

Have you looked at Beiser's The Fate of Reason and, if so, would you recommend it?

11:59 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

I think that was my point, that Spinozism was accepted by some and rejected by others. The problem is with the phrase "institutionalized authorities"--this suggests a political establishment, who, I suspect (though I really don't know) couldn't have cared less about Spinozism. The orthodox Christians and anti-rationalist doomsayers like Jacobi were critical of Spinozism as resulting in nihilism, but it's unclear to what extent these figures were "establishment" or "authorities"--Lessing himself was far more "canonical" as a thinker. As for Beiser, I'm sorry, I haven't read it.

3:26 PM  
Blogger James said...

You say "The defenders of the moderate Enlightenment -- of whom Habermas is the best-known in Europe, and Rawls the best known here in the States -- saw no need for engagement with the 20th-century's radical Enlightenment." This seems laughably wrong. Habermas spent much of his energy during the 1980s engaging with Foucault and Derrida at a serious level. Have you forgotten Foucault and his scheduled conference on the Enlightenment that was cancelled because of Foucault's untimely death in 1984?

By the way, Beiser's book is great.

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most profound book that I have read in the last 10 years has been,"The Radical Spinoza", by Paul Weinpahl, 1979. This one work reconciled for me, not only Marx, by Perennial Philosophy, Advaita Vedanta, etc. I am in complete agreement with your premise that nothing is more necessary to the resurrection of a spiritually bankrupt and dead Marxism than an infusion of a re-examined Spinoza.

4:18 AM  

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