Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Contra (Goldstein's) Spinoza

Rebecca Goldstein essayed an interesting effort on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza the other day. I've just now had time to get back to it. The heart of her argument is that:

Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.
This is, of course, the muddled dream of the Enlightenment. The problem begins with who can be reasonable. Africans have been excluded; as have children; as have women. People without property. People with insufficient education (denied them because of their social or economic status, if for no other reason). The very definition of "reason" itself is quite narrow, limited to Western European ideals, so that "Arabs" and "Egyptians" cannot, by definition, be reasonable, as they don't reason as we do.

What a slanderous statement that is, eh? But consider that many Christians and Muslims in the "eastern" traditions of the Orthodox or Coptic churches (Christian) and many Muslims reconcile quite easily issues of technology and scientific knowledge with issues of spirituality and metaphysics (the Mad Priest gives us an excellent example of the insistence on an empirical standard as the bedrock for one's thoughts. Empiricism is thoroughly grounded in the "rationalism" of Hellenistic thought, so much so that many modern philosophers think of the Hellenists almost strictly in terms of empiricism, which is an irony in itself). We in the Western tradition don't reconcile those two streams nearly so easily, and in fact insist on their uneasy alliance (at best) or outright conflict (at worst). Who is more "reasonable"? We in the West, or they in the "East"? As Spinoza said, we favor the circumstances we were born into. But where is the universal standard of reason which will release us from these shackles?

Jewish rabbinic thought is an unrelenting application of reason to the problems of life. It is complex, convoluted, as rigorously argued and developed as any body of law in any culture. Yet does it lead to agreement? Does the law? All lawyers are taught to reason in the same way; indeed, the terms of discourse in law are some of the narrowest possible. Does this make lawyers partake in the same identity? To some extent it probably seems so, especially to non-lawyers. But do we really want everyone in the world to think and act as a lawyer must?

Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.
It isn't an option at all. To even imagine you can cede your responsibilities, is an illusion. Jean-Paul Sartre established perhaps the most reductivist, individual centered philosophy of modern thought; but in establishing an ethic within that restrictive framework, he ruthlessly removed any illusion that an individual could be an island, separate unto herself. Sartre's ethic sprang from a simple premise: only the individual can choose, but in doing so, the individual chooses for all humankind. How I choose to understand my responsibilities, or lack thereof, to others, in other words, means I choose for all of them, because my choice determines my actions, and my actions determine and my choice determine my understanding of their actions, and their response to me. If I think I cede this responsiblity to a church or a community or a political system, I delude myself. This is not a responsibility I can escape. The sooner I understand that, the closer I am to the truth.

This discussion, then, is predicated on an irreconcilable conflict:

...for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government — only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.

It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.
But truth, and my truth? Spinoza's idea of truth was predicated on "first principles," what we now call an "appeal to authority," and consider a logical fallacy when used incorrectly. Surely we should not allow clerics to unduly influence government. But if we are going to insist only on the standard of evidence, how do we effectively oppose the brute utilitarianism of Omelas? Even John Rawls' appeal to the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance" are merely an appeal to "there but for the grace of God go I." In the light of reality, it is never an appeal to evidence, except evidence that society is less stable than it might be. But the risk of change is destabilizing, too, and so the status quo remains cemented in place, upheld by evidence and defended by reason.

The reasoning, at least, of those whose reason is deemed to "count." Perhaps it is worth pointing out that the "military industrial complex" and the resistance to nationalized healthcare which extends back to Truman's presidency, is not the product of "religion-infested politics." At least not as Ms. Goldstein uses the term. Both positions are the result of reason, and of the efforts of "reasonable men." "The Best and the Brightest" is the phrase David Halberstam preserved for us; and he was referring to the architects of the Vietnam War, that triumphantly reasonable effort to bomb Southeast Asia out of Communism and civil war. In fact, all of the wars of the 20th century which America was involved in were eminently reasonable affairs, or so we were told. The invasion of Iraq and Israel's invasion of Lebanon are justified by appeals to evidence and reason, as well.

When do we reach that stage when reason makes us all think alike? Or is it only "we" who are capable of being reasonable, while "they" are ignorant and superstitious? And so we have a duty to make them see reason, too?

Aren't we back where this started, claiming "a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding"? Doesn't that seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do?

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