Friday, May 13, 2016

Final: Liebniz and Spinoza

 In early years of the Enlightenment, Leibniz achieved popularity as the spokesperson of a soft-core version of the new faith in reason. In the eyes of many, his Theodicy in particular seemed to promise a happy third way between the hard truths of science and the seemingly out-moded doctrines of orthodox belief. Unfortunately, popularity brought scrutiny, and scrutiny soon led to scorn. With Spinoza largely forgotten and the profound nature of the challenge he represented still poorly understood, Leibniz's metaphysical system baffled most of its readers. Like a dialogue with every other line removed, the monadology lay exposed to incomprehension and ridicule, which it promptly received in undue measure. In England, where resentments over the priority dispute with Newton still festered, Leibniz became the butt of satire from wits such as Jonathan Swift. The unkindest cuts, however, came from France. "Can you really maintain that a drop of urine is an infinity of monads, and that each one of these has ideas, however obscure, of the entire universe?" scoffed Voltaire. As the Enlightenment stumbled through revolution and reaction, both Leibniz and Spinoza emerged from obscurity in strange new incarnations. Spinoza's most popular and enduring persona dates from an evening in 1765 when Gotthold Ephraim Lessing picked up a dusty copy of the Opera Posthuma and discovered between its covers a mystical pantheist. The most infamous atheist of the seventeenth
century became the "God-intoxicated man" of Novalis. Even today, the dreamy, reclusive spiritualist dominates the public image of Spin-oza. The political revolutionary who sought to overthrow theological tyranny and deconstruct the very idea of spirituality has long been forgotten. The battered ghost of Leibniz found new life, too—in a pair of separate and curiously incompatible incarnations. On the one hand, the author of the Monadology was celebrated as a "literary" philosopher, the inventor of "the unconscious," and the purveyor of a magical and romantic vision that could take us well beyond the limits of scientific rationality. On the other hand, somewhat later, Leibniz was hailed as a pioneering logician. Russell and others who sought to place the study of logic at the foundation of philosophy claimed to see in Leibniz's metaphysics an astonishingly prescient and coherent application of fundamental principles of logic.

In the histories of philosophy that dominate the trade, it was Immanuel Kant who sealed the fate of the two greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century. In his effort to tame philosophy into a discipline suitable for the modern academy, Kant trained his attention on the methods whereby philosophers purported to justify their claims to knowledge. He divided his immediate predecessors into two groups: the empiricists, who allegedly relied on sense experience to base their claims to knowledge, and the rationalists, who were said to derive their truths from pure reason. According to Kant's peculiar scheme, Leibniz and Spinoza wound up playing on the same side of history. Together with Descartes—the man Leibniz loathed and Spin-oza regarded as seriously confused—they became the three rational-ists. Leading the empiricist opposition was John Locke—the same whom Leibniz regarded as a wobbly crypto-Spinozist. He was joined by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, whose view that physical objects are only ideas in the head strikes most readers as distinctly unempirical, and David Hume, whose ideas about the mind and causality look remarkably like those of Spinoza. Hegel, who very much liked to see history move along in groups of three, strongly championed Kant's version of events; and the British, who were pleased to see a trio of their greatest philosophers were of the period lined up against three continental musketeers, more than happy to go along with the story, too. As a result, in philosophy classes to the present, where irony tends to be a scarce commodity in any case, Spinoza and the man who dedicated his life to expunging Spinoza's name from the world's memory are presented as happy partners on the same side of a debate about the epistemological foundations of academic philosophy. Only very recently have scholars begun to rescue Leibniz and Spinoza from the revisionist schemes of their philosophical successors. In the conventional histories of philosophy, Leibniz and Spinoza ultimately fall victim not to progress but to the idea of progress—an idea that first gained currency toward the end of the eighteenth cen-tury and that has since been taken up with gusto by all those who have a stake in presenting philosophy as a respectable, quasi-scientific discipline. Once we set aside suspect narratives of the history, how-ever, it becomes clear that, far from being left behind by their modern successors, Leibniz and Spinoza remain unsurpassed today as representatives of humankind's radically divided response to the set of experiences we call modernity. Much of modern thought simply wanders in the space between the two extremes represented by the men who met in The Hague in 1676. The active response to modernity inaugurated by Spinoza has sup-plied the basic theory for the modern, liberal political order, as well as the underpinnings of modern science. Its aim is to show us how to be moral in a secular society, and how to seek wisdom where nothing is certain. In its religious or mystical moments, it is the experience of a new kind of divinity—or perhaps the revival of one that was lost to the western world during the period of theocratic rule. Its effects are easily discerned even in thinkers who publicly derided Spinoza—Locke, Hume, Voltaire, and Nietzsche, to name some examples. And yet, although the world we live in is perhaps better and more originally described by Spinoza, the reactive form of modernity that began with Leibniz has in fact become the dominant form of modern philosophy. Anxious over the apparent purposelessness of the world revealed by modern science; bitter about the threatened demo-tion of humankind from its special place in nature; alienated from a society that seems to recognize no transcendent goals; and unwilling to assume personal responsibility for happiness—a needy humankind has reinvented the Leibnizian philosophy with abandon over the past three centuries. Kant's attempt to prove the existence of a "noumenal" world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the nineteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleol-ogy with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson's claim to have discovered a world of life forces immune to the analytical embrace of modern science; Heidegger's call for the overthrow of western meta-physics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole "postmodern" project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought—all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz. All begin with the conviction that there is some vital aspect of experience which escapes modern thought. All maintain that the purpose of life begins where modernity ends. All claim to discover the special and elusive meaning of existence through an analysis of the putative failures of modern thought. And all remain indissolubly attached to precisely that which they oppose. Leibniz's latter-day followers call the extramodern mystery at the core of existence any number of names: Being, Becoming, Life, the Absolute, the Will, nonlinear rationality, and more. But it is no differ-ent in principle from what Leibniz calls the principle of activity, the immortal soul, and, finally, the monad. The modern Leibnizians pro-duce an equally diverse set of labels for that to which they are opposed: mechanism, instrumental reason, the Enlightenment, west-ern metaphysics, phallogocentrism, and so on. But their nemeses are in the end the same thing that Leibniz calls materialism, the philosophy of the moderns, "the opinions of certain recent innovators," or, in moments of clarity, Spinozism.
LIKE ALL GOOD philosophers, Leibniz and Spinoza must eventually come to a rest somewhere outside of history. The two men who met in 1676 in fact represent a pair of radically different philo-
sophical personality types that have always been part of the human experience. Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend on something that lies beyond. Spinoza counsels calm atten-tion to our own deepest good. Leibniz expresses that irrepressible longing to see our good works reflected back to us in the praise of others. Spinoza affirms the totality of things such as it is. Leibniz is that part of us that ceaselessly strives to make us something more than what we are. Without doubt, there is a little piece of each in every-body; equally certain is the fact that, at times, a choice must be made. Leibniz was a man whose failings were writ as large as his outsized virtues.Yet it was his greed, his vanity, and above all, his insatiable, all too human neediness that made his work so emblematic for the species. With the promise that the cruel surface of experience conceals a most pleasing and beautiful truth, a world in which everything happens for a reason and all is for the best, the glamorous courtier of Hanover made himself into the philosopher of the common man. If Spinoza was the first great thinker of the modern era, then perhaps Leibniz should count as its first human being. Spinoza, on the other hand, was marked from the start as a rara avis. Given his eerie self-sufficiency, his inhuman virtue, and his contempt for the multitudes, it could not have been otherwise.Yet the message of his philosophy is not that we know all that there is to know; but rather that there is nothing that cannot be known. Spinoza's teaching is that there is no unfathomable mystery in the world; no other-world accessible only through revelation or epiphany; no hidden power capable of judging or affirming us; no secret truth about everything. There is instead only the slow and steady accumulation of many small truths; and the most important of these is that we need expect nothing more in order to find happiness in this world. His is a philosophy for philosophers, who are as uncommon now as they have always been.

No comments: