Thinking of being without heaviness or depth (continued)

guitar-and-fruit-bowl-on-a-table-1918.jpg!Large

‘Guitar and Fruit Bowl on a Table’ (1918) by Juan Gris

 

By Richard Mather

Part 2: Being-without-depth

Sartre in his masterwork Being and Nothingness rejects the duality of appearance and being, saying that “the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy. The appearance refers to the total series of appearances and not to a hidden reality.”

Sartre renounces the Kantian notion of things-in-themselves and rejects the Platonic depreciation of appearances: “But if we once get away from what Nietzsche called ‘the illusion of worlds-behind-the-scene,’ and if we no longer believe in the being-behind-the-appearance, then the appearance becomes full positivity.”

Appearances are neither interior or exterior; they are all equal, according to Sartre. “[T]hey all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged.

§

Sartre offers a critique in Being and Nothingness of Freud’s theory of the unconscious, based on the claim that consciousness is essentially self-conscious. For Ludwig Wittgenstein, the notion of the unconscious is untenable precisely because nothing is unconscious. As Jacques Bouveresse writes in the preface to Wittgenstein Reads Freud, Wittgenstein “regarded the unconscious as really no more than a manner of speaking which creates more philosophical difficulties than the scientific ones it claims to resolve.”  According to Bouveresse, Wittgenstein assumes that “there is nothing ‘hidden’ to exhume, that everything is in principle immediately accessible to the surface, and that we already know, in a way, everything we need to know.”

§

As Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar observes, “lt is only after you have come to know the surface of things […] that you can venture to seek what is underneath. But the surface of things is inexhaustible.”

§

Plato’s distinction between phenomena (appearances) and being (Forms) not only devalues the sensible world but runs the risk of producing nihilism. For if phenomena are counted as nothing and if the hidden world of Forms turns out to be absent, then what is left? In short, nihilism.

§

The following characteristics are typical of the postmodern, according to Fredric Jameson: depthlessness, ahistoricity, a focus on surfaces, flatness, the image and the simulacrum.

§

For Nietzsche, the Apollonian, which is expressed through the arts of painting and sculpture, represents the world as representation. Dismantling Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy releases the Apollonian from the limited role of individual object as mere appearance or phenomena. The Apollonian – without the metaphysical baggage of the Dionysian – is free to be concrete and real.

§

For Nietzsche’s eternal return to work, everything must be brought to the surface. That means no repression, no overlooking of the smallest thing. As Judith Norman in “Schelling and Nietzsche” (chapter 4 of The New Schelling) points out, “Zarathustra cannot become the advocate of return until he has overcome repression and pulled all thoughts onto the same plane.”

Henceforth, there will be no need to  adopt a binary model of surface/depth because everything will necessarily be at the surface.

§

According to Jacques Derrida, words and signs can never fully bring forth what they mean; they can only be defined via reference to words from which they differ. Meaning, therefore, is endlessly deferred through a chain of signifiers. In other words, the traditional depth/vertical model of meaning is abandoned in favour of the surface/horizontal.

§

Nietzsche, in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Joyful Science) says, “What is required is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity!

§

“There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art,” according to Robert Louis Stevenson in his essay “On some technical elements of style in literature.” Rather, all our arts and occupations “lie wholly on the surface” because “it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance.” To pry below the surface is to be “appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.”

§

In a rebuttal of a negative review of their paintings at Macy’s department store in New York City in 1942, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb issue a manifesto, which includes this assertion: “We wish to reassert the picture plane. We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth.”

§

“You live on the surface,” Casaubon is told by his lover in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. “You sometimes seem profound but it is only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity.”

§

According to Jean Baudrillard, a simulacrum is not a copy of the real but is itself a truth (a sign) in its own right without an original referent. This is the hyperreal. Hyperreality, Baudrillard says, is “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”

§

Baudrillard warns of how simulacra arouse the suspicion that “ultimately there has never been any God,” that “God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum.” Indeed, religious iconoclasts are unhappy about simulacra because images ultimately mask the knowledge “that deep down God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed.”

§

Biblical Judeans and classical Greeks believed that images contain the power to replace the divine. The apparent life and efficacy of images are the result of demonic possession (see Deuteronomy 32: 16-17). Not surprisingly, the Hebrews prohibited “graven images” (especially images of the divine) out of their fear of idolatry. Interestingly, the Greek term for image, idolon, can be translated as “simulacrum” or “idol.”  

§

The Roman poet Lucretius says words are like clusters of atoms, with a letter being like an atom. He talks of the simulacrum, that is, the image or “idol” of a thing, traveling at high speed through the void. His poem is a simulacrum of nature in which his Latin letters are deployed (like atoms) to construct the world. One critic interprets this as meaning not that we see the simulacrum but that we see because of the simulacrum. The rapid succession of many simulacra together produce an effect: the image.

§

Does this mean that a translation of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (and there are many) is a copy of a copy and that each translator has to ‘create’ or ‘recreate’ Lucretius’ world with a different set of atoms, a creation that somehow imagines both the poem and the world? But, of course, the world in itself is uncreated and yet Lucretius’ poem is a creation.

§

In §154 of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein remarks that the “problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth.” What is essential, however, is “not hidden beneath the surface.” That is, instead of looking for some hidden source, we should pay more attention to what what happens on the surface. “Try not to think of understanding as a ‘mental process’ at all. For that is the expression which confuses you,” he writes

§

“The idea of thinking as a process in the head, in a completely enclosed space, gives him something occult” (Wittgenstein, Zettel, 606; my italics). That is, occult as in: hidden, cut off from view, not accompanied by readily discernible signs or symptom, with the implication that what lies beneath the surface is mere superstition.

§

According to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, “the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (§113). In other words, the kingdom is in plain sight; it is not occult.

§

Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “the fold” allows us to think beyond the categories of inside/outside and surface/depth because the inside is simply a fold of the outside.

§

Cubist artists typically represent all of the surfaces of pictorial objects simultaneously. The single picture plane in a cubist painting allows us to appreciate what may be called a flat ontology of things.

§

In object-oriented ontology, there is no underlying principle, no underlying or transcendent being. There are only objects. There is no melting of individual objects into some kind of universal and amorphous Dionysian principle. Additionally, there is no vertical chain-of-being with God or man at the top and quarks at the bottom. Rather, objects are horizontally spread out so that there is no top, bottom or even middle object. A star, a human, a plank of wood and an atom could be placed next to each other without any sense of priority or significance.

§

Our revels are now at an end. The baseless fabric of this text shall dissolve, melt into the air, and like this insubstantial life will fade, leaving nothing behind. We are such stuff / As dreams are made on.

Advertisements

Thinking of being without heaviness or depth

Flying-Eagle-Wallpaper-1

By Richard Mather

Part 1: Being and heaviness

People who suffer from depression often complain of a feeling of heaviness; not just in the emotional or mental sense, but as something physical  — a visceral sensation pressing on the chest or wrapping itself around the body and the legs. Some sufferers say it is like having lead weights on their legs.

Among the DSM-IV criteria for atypical depression is: “Leaden paralysis (i.e. heavy, leaden feelings in arms or legs).”

§

René Descartes proposes that we think of the action of mind on body as we think of heaviness impelling a body towards the earth. Before Descartes, the scholastics believed that there was a thing called heaviness that caused objects to fall to the ground.  As Daniel Garber (in his book Descartes’ Metaphysical Physics) explains:

“Heaviness, as conceived by the scholastics, is thus mentalistic in a number of ways. It is imagined to be diffused throughout a body, yet capable of acting on a single point, just like the Cartesian soul, which is somehow thought to be diffused throughout the human body while, at the same time, it is especially connected to the pineal gland.

§

The prophet Isaiah refers to “the spirit of heaviness” as a mental/emotional affliction that separates men from God. Isaiah, who is blessed with a different spirit (i.e. the spirit of the Eternal Elohim), proclaims that his mission is to spread joyful thanksgiving as a means to offloading the burden of heaviness. The Eternal One has done this, Isaiah says, in order to:

“…appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the mantle of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called terebinths of righteousness, the planting of the Eternal One, wherein He might glory.” (Isaiah 61:3; my italics)

§

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a story that focuses on a man named Christian who is weighed down by “a great burden upon his back” — the knowledge of his sin. The heaviness is so unbearable that he leaves his family and sets out into the world to seek deliverance, which comes in the form of an encounter with the Cross. In real life, however, there is no Cross and no divine aid — and yet the burden is real enough.

§

What a relief. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, existence precedes essence. There is no human nature, no weight of human nature. And consciousness is a void, a nothingness, making holes in being-in-itself.

§

There’s a lot to be said for surfaces, for the depthless, for fleetness of foot, of flying through the void where atoms fall and swerve, where composites split apart, reform.

§

The homonym “light” (as in not dark and not heavy) shares the same Old English etymological root. Light as in “not heavy, having little actual weight” comes from the Old English leoht (West Saxon) or leht (Anglian). Likewise, light as in “not dark” comes from Old English leoht (West Saxon) and leht (Anglian).

§

Ilam (pronounced i-la-am) is the Akkadian word for “shining,” a divine power. It is linked to the Akkadian word ellu (which is related to the biblical concept of Elohim or god/s), meaning cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity. It is a literal shining, a literal cleanliness (not just a metaphor for perfection). “Cleanliness is next to godliness”: This proverb (which is popularly credited to a sermon by John Wesley in 1778) is an echo of similar assertions in the Talmud and some Babylonian texts. Surfaces are there to be seen, which is hard to do when you are distracted by dirt.

§

Whatever is to be seen must be seen at the surface level. If it is to exist at all, it must first exist as surface. Depth is the simulacrum of surface and not the other way round as is usually thought.

§

On the subject of weight, the neo-Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter (1887 – 1910) makes some remarkable remarks in his doctoral thesis known as Persuasion and Rhetoric. Socrates, says Michelstaedter, “resented being subject to the law of gravity. And he thought the good lay in independence from gravity, because it is this, he thought, that prevents us from rising to the sun. Being independent from gravity means not having weight, and Socrates did not allow himself rest until he had eliminated all his weight. But having consumed together the hope of freedom and slavery, the independent spirit and gravity, the necessity of the earth and the will for the sun, he neither flew to the sun nor remained on earth; he was neither independent nor a slave, neither happy nor wretched.”

Plato, says Michelstaedter, was disquieted by this state of affairs for he had the same great love of liberty, though “he was not of so desperate a devotion.” So Plato concentrated on meditating, according to Michelstaedter: “He had to find … a ‘mechanism,’ to raise himself to the sun, but, deceiving gravity, without losing weight, body, life. He meditated for a long time, and then invented the macrocosm.” [Michelstaedter’s italics].

§

Contra Nietzsche, the novelist Milan Kundera posits the “unbearable lightness of being.” Assuming that Nietzsche is wrong about the possibility of eternal return, Kundera believes we would experience an “absolute absence of burden,” and that a lack of weight of meaning would make us “lighter than air.”

A life “which does not return” is “without weight.” Whether life is horrible or beautiful ultimately “means nothing.” Individual life lacks significance. Our decisions do not matter precisely because they are light, without weight.

§

The grandfather of Western philosophy, Parmenides, sees the world divided into opposite pairs: light/darkness, warmth/cold, being/non-being etc. One half of the opposition he characterizes as positive (light, warmth, being), the other as negative (darkness, cold, non-being). But which one is positive, weight or lightness? What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? Kundera asks. Parmenides responds that lightness is positive, weight negative.  

§

The Italian writer Italo Calvino explores lightness in the first of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium. After forty years of writing fiction, Calvino decides that the time has come for him to look for “an overall definition of my work.” He goes on to suggest that his working method “has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight”:

“I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

§

Calvino again:

“Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification. The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future…”

§

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience” opens with him navigating the emotional trauma over the death of his son. But is he talking about heaviness or depth?

“There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. […] I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. […] Nothing is left us now but death. We look to that with a grim satisfaction, saying, there at least is reality that will not dodge us.”

Next time: Being-without-depth

Spinoza’s puzzling attributes

spinoza diagram

By Richard Mather

Spinoza’s theory of the attributes is perhaps the most tricky aspect of his ontology. The attributes play a crucial role in Spinoza’s Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata, otherwise known as Ethics. “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence,” Spinoza says. Also: “An absolutely infinite being must necessarily be defined as consisting in infinite attributes.” The attributes help us to understand the world in terms of thoughts and things. Furthermore, their relation to the unity of being (which Spinoza calls “substance” or “God/Nature”) goes a long way to solving the Cartesian mind–body problem.

Background

Spinoza argues that there is only one and unique substance in existence, a substance that is infinite, self-caused, and eternal. This substance is the spatio-temporal world. But it is also God, the self-caused Being. As Spinoza says, “God is one, that is, only one substance can be granted in the universe.” Spinoza famously said that God is Nature. Things and facts are “modes” or modifications of the single substance that is God, conceived under the attribute of extension. Likewise, thoughts, desires, beliefs, ideas etc, are modes of God, conceived under the attribute of thought.

Spinoza argued that mind and matter are not two opposite substances but are two different ways of conceiving one and the same substance. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. According to Spinoza, God has infinitely more attributes — it’s just that we’re not aware of them. This raises puzzling questions, such as: ‘How many attributes are there?’ To which the answer may be ‘two’ or ‘an infinity.’ If there are an infinity of attributes but we only know two of them, are the other attributes hidden? Are they even thinkable? And we must also ask whether the attributes are what the finite intellect perceives of substance as if (but not in fact) constituting its essence. There may be no definite answer to that question because of the unfortunate ambiguity of a particular Latin word, tanquam. Indeed, there is little agreement among Spinoza scholars regarding the best way to interpret the theory of attributes and some of this confusion can be attributed to Spinoza himself, whose own definitions of attributes can be perplexing.

Here are some of the focal quotes from Ethics regarding the attributes:

— By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. (1D4)

— By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence. (1D6)

— It is thus evident that, though two attributes are, in fact, conceived as distinct — that is, one without the help of the other — yet we cannot, therefore, conclude that they constitute two entities, or two different substances. … it is abundantly clear, that an absolutely infinite being must necessarily be defined as consisting in infinite attributes, each of which expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence. (1P10Schol)

— Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing. (2P1)

— Extension is an attribute of God, or God is an extended thing. (2P2)

Some queries (in no particular order)

Spinoza asserts in 1D6 that God is “a substance consisting of infinite attributes.” The fact that he doesn’t he say “infinite number of attributes” is interesting. Does infinity mean a numerical infinity or not? Or does it mean that each attribute is itself infinite (insofar as it expresses substance’s eternal and infinite essence)?

In support of numerical infinity is the following:

— Therefore whether we conceive Nature under the attribute of Extension, or the attribute of Thought, or any other attribute, we shall find one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes, that is the same things follow one another [emphasis mine]. (2P7Schol)

This is known in the secondary literature as parallelism. But it raises the question as to how the hidden/unknown attributes are parallel to the known attributes of thought and extension. Do the other attributes form pairs like thought + extension? Must all attributes necessarily be parallel to the attribute of thought?

The fact that Spinoza speculates but is unable to identify and name the unknown attributes should make us pause. Are the unknown attributions merely metaphysical speculation? Are the unknown attributes merely unknown or are they hidden from thought and hence unthinkable? And if the two attributes known to us – thought and extension – signify God’s indwelling in the universe, are the hidden attributes also immanent or do they signify God’s transcendence?

It is tempting to solve the riddle of the attributes using a kind of Wittgensteinian therapy. The claim that there are an infinity of attributes could then be categorized as a pseudo-statement insofar as it is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. Should we therefore conclude that these unknown attributes are einfach Unsinn (“simply nonsense”) in the sense meant by Wittgenstein: a statement that cannot be independently verified.

Even if we dissolve the riddle of the extra attributes, other questions remain:

Does Spinoza’s God have attributes or do the attributes inhere in God? The former option would suggest there is a real distinction between substance and attributes, but I’m not sure that is right because is threatens to undermine the unity of God.

On a similar note, is there a real distinction between the attributes of thought and extension, or is it the mind’s way of carving reality at the joints?

And finally, do the attributes really constitute the essence of substance?

In E1d4 Spinoza states that “by attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence.”  The Latin original is per attributum intelligo id, quod intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam ejusdem essentiam constituens. The word tanquam can be translated both as ‘as if’ and as ‘as.’  If it is the former, then it suggests that the attributes are not really the essence of substance but only seem to be. If, however, tanquam is translated as ‘as’, we might conclude that each attribute really is the essence of substance. But if so, we then have to explain how God can have more than one essence.  

Some answers (in no particular order)

Because Spinoza never talks of more than two attributes (i.e.extension and thought), Jonathan Bennett, author of A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, argues in favor of the claim that Spinoza’s God has only two attributes. Contrary to the view that Spinoza’s infinity is numerical, Bennett says Spinoza sometimes equates infinity with totality. That is, when Spinoza says that God has all possible attributes, perhaps he means that the two attributes of thought and extension are in fact the totality of attributes. Similarly, G.W.F. Hegel says Spinoza’s claim that there are “infinite attributes” should be interpreted as “infinite in character” and not in number. This is a pleasing solution but it fails to account for the times when Spinoza explicitly mentions the existence of other (nameless) attributes.

Hegel is surely right when he says extension and thought are only the two attributes known to finite minds. But Hegel’s interpretation puts the stress on finite minds and not infinite intellect. This seems right but it does beg the question: Is the infinite intellect capable of perceiving more than two attributes? As far as I can understand it, infinite intellect is essentially the mind of God. So the answer is yes. God’s infinite intellect comprehends all of God’s attributes. (Interestingly, the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God (see 2P11_Corollary), but it is only the collective whole — i.e. the mind/intellect of God — that is able to comprehend  the other attributes.)

So when Spinoza says that the human mind “possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God” (2P47), this might at first suggest that the attributes of thought and extension are all there is to know about God’s infinite essence, thereby putting into doubt the existence of other attributes. However, as we have seen, this does not rule out the possibility that God can comprehend the other attributes, even if we can’t.

Another way of looking at it is to conclude that multiplicity is attributed to infinite substance precisely because of the limitations of the finite mind, when in truth the infinite substance is simple and unitary, that is, one. In other words, attributes are what the finite intellect (individual minds) perceives of substance as if (but not in fact) constituting its essence. This is confusing but it connects with a particular line of interpretation by the so-called subjectivists who argue that each attribute is not really the essence of substance but merely seems to be, and that any multiplicity of attributes is merely apparent. In other words, the terms attribute of thought and attribute of extension are only different ways of expressing the same being of substance. Or to put it another way, the attributes refer to how our minds categorize and rationalize our experiences.

If we can only think of God under the attributes of extension and thought, this presumably means that every other attribute (presuming they really do exist) are not available to human thought and hence unthinkable. And so the claim that there are an infinity of attributes is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless in the sense meant by Wittgenstein: a statement that cannot be independently verified.

And so, in the end, we arrive at an impasse or aporia (to use a term favored by post-structuralists). The issue, as far as I can tell, is undecidable. So it is fortunate that Spinoza’s system manages perfectly well with or without the additional attributes. Indeed, the unknown attributes seem to me to be a kind of vestigial structure, a feature that was either never properly developed or lost its original function. My theory is that the unknown attributes are from an earlier stage in Spinoza’s thinking and were perhaps influenced by the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy found in Judaism or (and this is more likely) Descartes’ notion of God’s attributes as including infinitude, necessary existence, eternality, immutability, benevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Descartes, of course, was Spinoza’s foremost intellectual predecessor, and Spinoza’s philosophy can be interpreted as a radical correction of Descartes’ ideas about God, mind, matter, substance, modes and attributes. I suggest, then, that Spinoza’s ideas about God’s unknown attributes are remnants of his early encounters with Descartes’ philosophy.

*

A REMINDER: The one-day conference “Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Spinoza and Culture” will be held on August 3 at Manchester Metropolitan University, Geoffrey Manton building, room 230, starting 09:30.

Is Spinoza’s pantheistic ontology a template for authoritarianism?

BARUCH SPINOZA IMAGE

 

OVERVIEW:

  • The pantheist ontology of Baruch Spinoza (b.1632 – d.1677) is an attempt to deny the accountability of political evil.
  • Spinoza’s instinct for statist control and his distrust of the common man are displayed in Theological-Political Treatise (published 1670). His masterwork, Ethics (published posthumously in 1677), is a bold attempt (in the guise of ontology) to classify minds and bodies as attributes of the State.
  • In Ethics, Spinoza ‘outlaws’ any vantage point from which we can address or protest the kind of ‘perfect power’ — and its attendant evils — that constitute the essence and existence of the State.

 

By Richard Mather

Little work has been done on the potentially negative effects of perfection and power in Spinoza’s Ethics and how his pantheistic ontology not only devalues theodicy, but affirms a model of power that resists accountability. Spinoza scholar Yitzhak Melamed has suggested there is a logically transitive relation between God’s essence, existence and attributes, but not much is said about how this relates to perfection and power. Brandon C. Look has examined the relation between power and perfection, but he concerns himself largely with the type of (positive) perfection experienced by the individual (e.g. joy as the transition from lesser perfection to greater perfection). There is still work to be done in examining the negative political implications of Spinoza’s system.

In Ethics, Spinoza draws the opposite conclusion from his Jewish intellectual forebear, Philo of Alexandria. Philo advances a theory of the transcendence of the Existent One, creator of the Good (but not evil). Philo makes a crucial distinction between God’s existence (which can be ascertained) and his essence (which is unknowable). For Spinoza, however, the essence of God does not exist in a transcendent dimension. Rather, “God’s existence and his essence are one and the same” (E1p20). And unlike Philo, Spinoza not only assigns everything to God, he says everything is God. Spinoza says there can only be one “substance,” a substance that is both the cause of itself and whose essence involves existence. Spinoza collapses the ontological difference between God and the world, a radical assertion of pantheism that eradicates transcendence and ushers in, perhaps for the first time, a philosophy of immanence.

(I have previously argued on this blog that Spinoza was a panentheist because of his assertion that God has an infinite number of attributes. However, all but two of these attributes are unknown, and they lie beyond the limits of language. And if there is nothing to be said about these unknown attributes (other than Spinoza’s speculative assertion that they exist), then it begs the question whether we should concern ourselves with them, especially if they contribute nothing to the political implications of Spinoza’s ontology.)

By collapsing the ontological difference between God and the world, Spinoza devalues the problem of evil because his pantheism outlaws the idea of a transcendent moral God. Ergo, evil cannot be explained; we can only describe its effects. Moreover, Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent values and the collapse of the God/Nature distinction leaves us (as “modes”) without any vantage point from which to critique power. All we have is a closed system of immanent causation in which God/Nature is the source of power, the expression of power (via the attributes), and the effects of power (modes). Not only is this power necessarily perfect, it is a permanent and ongoing state of affairs for the simple reason that substance is infinite. Spinoza’s refutation of teleology offers us nothing but an endless expression of this state of affairs. Human beings are likewise constrained in that they are simply modifications of substance.

One would mind less if Spinoza’s all-pervasive substance was good rather than icily perfect. But as Spinoza himself admits, God’s perfection is not the same as saying God is good. Far from it. Besides, what we judge to be good or bad is not true in any absolute sense, according to Spinoza: Good is merely whatever agrees with our nature.

And there is certainly no sense that Spinoza’s pantheistic God suffers, unlike Schopenhauer’s Will or William C. Lane’s pandeistic God who commits an act of self-emptying for the sake of love and suffers as part of the creation he has become. On the contrary, how things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference to Spinoza’s pantheistic God, because God is how things are in the world. Indeed, for Spinoza, it is not so much why (bad) things happen but how things happen.

True, Spinoza holds out the hope that some of us may reach a blessed state in which we are able to intuitively grasp the world as a whole “under the aspect of eternity,” but we know from Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise that this is realistically only available to an elite few. The common man and woman, by contrast, have to suffice with Spinoza’s seven dogmas of popular religion.

Tellingly, one of the reasons Spinoza elaborated his seven laws was the need for a popular religion to ensure discipline. Not only was this popular religion to be under the control of civil authorities, this state religion would be (by Spinoza’s own admission) a lie. It is important, Spinoza says, “that he who adheres to them [the doctrines of faith] knows not that they were false” [italics mine] because otherwise “he would necessarily be a rebel.”

Spinoza’s instinct for statist control can be seen in the assertion, “Whatever is, is in God and nothing can exist or be conceived without God” (E1p15). Or to put it another way: Whatever is, is in the State, and nothing can be conceived without the State. Spinoza’s substance-as-State expresses itself equally in things and in ideas (via the twin attributes of “extension” and “thought”), an astonishing concept when one realizes that ideas, thoughts and minds belong to substance/State as much as bodies do. In fact, the very concept of thought (not just individual thoughts) emanates from the State and belongs to the State.

None of which sits well in our post-Holocaust, post-Soviet world, in part because we have seen how power without accountability — a power that apparently constitutes substance’s “very essence” (E1p34) — can have barbaric consequences. This is of particular interest from a Jewish viewpoint, firstly because of Spinoza’s own troubled relationship with Judaism but also because any attempt to explain or justify evil in the wake of genocide and terrorism is morally and conceptually problematic.

Contrary to a competing claim (made by Antonio Negri) that Spinoza gives us an effective ‘other’ to power, Spinoza’s ontology is actually a closed system, a system that invites moral indifference because there is simply no place from which we, as modes, can critique power. Moreover, we are all guilty by implication because each of us is a modulation of this power, both mentally and physically. (Alain Badiou is closer to the truth of the matter when he says that “Spinoza represents the most radical attempt ever in ontology to identify structure and metastructure.”)

More work needs to be done to develop the suspicion that Spinoza’s pantheist ontology is a political ruse designed to bolster the power and reach of the State. But what kind of State? It seems to me that Spinoza is much less interested in social and economic policy than in the ontological apparatus needed to uphold civic and religious institutions with the supreme aim of ensuring discipline. Indeed, Spinoza’s system looks very much like a political and bureaucratic metastructure that manages people. 

There is no doubting that Spinoza is an impressive philosopher, perhaps one of the greatest-ever thinkers, but his icy metaphysics and his patent distrust of the common man and woman are troubling. Of course, Spinoza could not have foreseen the degree to which excessive and murderous statism would blight Europe’s political landscape during the the first half of the 20th century,  but he can (I think) be taken to task for lending credence to the type of managerial politics espoused by superbodies such as the European Union. And for that reason, it is worth reappraising Spinoza’s contribution to political thought.

Hermann Cohen: ethics, messianism and sin

hermann_cohen-picture.jpg

 

This is a collated version of parts one, two and three of my mini-series on the Jewish neo-Kantian ethicist Hermann Cohen.

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the 20th century Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Universal ethics

Hermann Cohen agreed with Immanuel Kant that ethics must be directed towards the well-being of humanity. The essential feature of this is its universality. As Cohen saw it, progress was (or at least ought to be) moving towards universal suffrage and democratic socialism. Following Kant, Cohen defended the so-called categorical imperative; that we should treat humanity in other persons always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant’s famous definition of the categorical imperative is to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”)

The categorical imperative contains, in Cohen’s words, “the moral progress of a new era and the entire future world history.” Although Cohen’s socialism owed more to Kant and the Hebrew prophets than it did to Karl Marx, he was nevertheless critical of capitalism because the individual worker runs the risk of being treated as a mere means for the ends of the employer.

Judaism as the religion of reason

According to Cohen, the human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for religious belief. God is the eternal source of moral law and provides humankind with the imperative to act ethically.

Cohen proclaimed Judaism as the historical source of the idea that humanity can be unified by a single set of ethical laws. He defined Judaism as a “religion of reason” — a revealed type of rationality. And since reason is something that belongs to all people everywhere, a religion of reason must therefore posit a single, unique God for all humanity. In short, a religion of reason must be monotheistic.

Judaism, as interpreted by Cohen, is a set of rational principles that are grounded in God. Not only is revelation given through reason, but a rational religion is necessarily a moral religion. As Kenneth Seeskin describes it in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “God represents the highest moral standard possible: a being who wills the moral law for its own sake all the time.”

To know God is to accept the duty of fulfilling the moral law, and this involves imitating God’s attributes of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, holiness is morality.

Messianism

Cohen believed that it is the duty of the Jewish people to teach universal ethics and he cited the Seven Noahide Laws (the Seven Laws of Noah) as an example of a universally-applicable moral code that is rooted in the bible and in rabbinical thought. It is Judaism’s role to point to the ideal of fulfilled humanity and to draw others to it. Cohen asserted that “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way.”

Interestingly, Cohen played down the notion of brotherly love as the underlying principle of the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor. He instead identified law as the basis of the moral subject. Although “neighbor” in German has generally been understood as “one who is near,” Cohen argued that “neighbor” should be translated as “Other” or “Another.” As such, a man’s “neighbour” is actually the stranger or foreigner. We are commanded to protect the stranger because we are all equal before the law. As Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in Being and Nothingness, “To live in a world haunted by my neighbour is … to encounter the Other at every turn of the road.”

According to Cohen, since Jewish monotheism has an ethical dimension, it inevitably culminates in what he characterizes as prophetic messianism, which is “the dominion of the good on earth.”

He added: “Morality will be established in the human world. Against this confidence, no skepticism, no pessimism, no mysticism, no metaphysics, no experience of the world, no knowledge of men, no tragedy, and no comedy can prevail.”

For Cohen, messianism was no longer a hope for God to intervene in history. In fact, he dismissed the notion of a miraculous coming of the messiah. Messianism is simply a factor in world history. Rather than being a supernatural or eschatological event, it is an expression of faith that humanity is making progress towards the end of injustice. If the messianic future can be thought of as eternal, it is only in the sense that the progress of mankind and world history are eternal.

Ethics, law and autonomy

Convinced that ethics must be law-based, and that law and the State must be restored to the realm of ethics, Cohen called for legal rights to be the duty and goal of economic and cultural life. Indeed, in Cohen’s system of ethical jurisprudence, morality, rights and the law are very closely intertwined. Ethics must find its completion in the philosophy of law.

For Cohen, the ethical subject is a legal subject. Man is a moral actor when his actions can be held accountable in court and when he can claim or bring an action for his rights. As Robert Gibbs explains in his essay “Jurisprudence is the Organon of Ethics,” “action means not a claim simply to a right, but a claim to bring the claim to court.” Cohen’s assertion that each person not only has a claim to his rights but “the claim to a court’s judgement” should be seen in the context of the Seven Noahide Laws because one of those laws is the commandment to establish courts of justice.

Cohen was concerned that legality had for too long been empty of ethical content, partly as a result of the Apostle Paul’s polemics. Indeed, Cohen was highly critical of those who pursue a definition of legality that is divorced from what Gibbs terms “the inner freedom and ethical insight of duty done for its own sake.” By creating a suspicion of law by splitting it away from ethics, the likes of Apostle Paul and Martin Luther contributed to an unfortunate caricature of the Torah as emptily legalistic.

In Cohen’s view, the law becomes self-contradictory when ethics and legality are severed, and that is because we are left with laws arising through force. When legality is separated from the notion of duty done for its own sake, the only recourse by the State is coercion. When divorced from ethics, the law has to be imposed from the outside because it is no longer in our hearts and minds. The ethical-legal subject cannot be a free moral agent if he is coerced by the State into acting ethically.

Ethics, then, must unite inner freedom and law. Autonomy means we are free, but with respect to our will this means only that we may “impose on it a universal law” — the law of the categorical imperative. As Kenneth Seeskin points out in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “[I]n the [Kantian] kingdom of ends, where everyone is rational and every subject’s humanity is respected, no one will follow any orders other than the ones she imposes on herself.”

So it seems that the ethical state is where the will of the individual finds the full meaning and expression of his or her freedom, protected from compulsion by the State. Andrea Poma, in her excellent book Yearning for Form, explains it thus:

“From the ethical viewpoint, however, this individual is, in the situation described, the bearer of the authority of the law; therefore he represents the State, and opposes any powerful, violent subject, though devoid of all authority, since the law only receives authority from itself: it produces the ethical subject and only this task justifies it.”

Science and ethics 

Cohen made a distinction between the logic of science and the ideal of ethics, and noted that the natural world and the world of ethics are perceived very differently. This is because the order of the physical world is unchangeable (e.g, the sun sets in the west, night follows day, etc), while in the ideal world ethical rules can be accepted or rejected. It seems there should be one explanation for science, which is empirically self-evident, and another for ethics, which is something that is open to debate. Cohen reasoned there must be something that allows science and ethics to coexist and interrelate.

Cohen’s answer was to call on God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what is (science, nature) with what ought to be (ethics). Or to put it another way, God is the eventual coincidence of human culture with nature; the real with the ideal. And because God stands outside nature and ethics, He points to the rapprochement between is and ought, thereby helping to bring about moral action in the world, the same moral action that is recommended by the Hebrew prophets as seen through the prism of the Kantian categorical imperative.

As Andrea Poma explains in Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, the advantage of having a transcendent God is that neither nature nor morality can claim priority over the other, meaning that just as ethics must conform to science, so science must conform to ethics. Poma adds: “The idea of God establishes this connection [between nature and morality] securely. This connection, this unity is grounded in the two members of the system of philosophy, in accordance with its distinction from identity.”

For Cohen, then, scientific praxis and moral praxis must become reciprocal. Furthermore, and congruent with Cohen’s own prophetic messianism, it is in the future that ethical principles will be fully realized, at which time the ethical will merge with the ontological, so that being and morality no longer contradict each other. As Phillip Homburg remarks in Towards a Benjaminian Critique of Hermann Cohen’s Logical Idealism, Cohen aims “to assign ethics a status that raises it to the same level of dignity as the concepts of logic or mathematics.”

As well as bridging science and ethics, the Cohenian notion of correlation extends to the relationship between mankind and God. For Cohen, humans are rational creatures, and our ability to reason demands a particular kind of relationship with God. In fact, God’s awakening of reason in humans is God’s revelation to humanity; reason is how God communicates with mankind. (As a neo-Kantian, Cohen knows that reason is our faculty of making inferences, allowing us to move from the particular and contingent to the global and universal.)

It is important to note that the correlative relationship between God and humanity (which Cohen characterizes as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of Holiness’) is respectful of God’s separateness. As Norman Solomon explains in his essay “Cohen on Atonement, Purification and Repentance,” God and man in Cohen’s system of thought are “the inevitable counterpart of the other, mirroring but not merging.” Solomon goes on to say that merging “would obliterate the distinctiveness of God and human; it would verge on pantheism. God’s holiness demands human holiness as its correlate.”

Indeed, Solomon is right to refer to the bogeyman of pantheism because Cohen was markedly antagonistic towards the pantheistic doctrine that identifies God with the universe (or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). Cohen was adamant that while God is the capstone of both logic and ethics, He nevertheless transcends both. Cohen had nothing but disdain for any form of pantheism or mysticism in which God is equated with the world. In this respect, Cohen was very different from Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are virtually synonymous.

To recap, we see that Cohen defined God as the synthesis (albeit a transcendent synthesis) of nature and ethics, which will ultimately unify all humanity into a Kantian “kingdom of ends,” a world in which all human beings are treated as ends in themselves and not the mere means to an end for other people. The realization of the ideal, which is grounded in God and finds its ultimate fulfilment in Him, is mankind’s historic task, his ethical project.

And since the ethical task is distinguished from the immutable logic of being, the ethical task-as-project is thus not determined, only envisioned and recommended by the Hebrew prophets. As such, the ethical task is free to become realized by human beings. While for Sartre, the undefined, non-determined nature of man can never coincide with the brute reality of being-in-itself, for Cohen, the closing of the gap between the real and the ideal is mankind’s historical task, and he envisioned Judaism as fundamental to this duty.

The redemptive potentiality of sin

Anticipating Martin Buber, Cohen said we must recognize the living, breathing individual as a “Thou,” and not just as a generic example of humanity. As significant as the universal ethical ideal is for Cohen, he recognized that ethics is concerned with individuals only insofar as they are members of humanity as a whole. Ethics can’t always deal with individual moral feelings or with sin. In other words, it is religion — rather than ethics — that concerns itself with the sin of the individual.

It is the prophet Ezekiel whom Cohen singled out as bringing a new and important aspect into early Judaism: the sin of the individual for which he alone stands responsible before God. This is Cohen’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31). Whereas ethics offers a collective but not individual self-transformation, Ezekiel’s Judaism promises personal liberation from sin through repentance.

It is only when we acknowledge our own moral failings that it is possible for us to atone and to strive for moral improvement. This act of atonement establishes an intimate and personal relationship between the individual and God. And in relating to God, the individual becomes a unique moral and religious self:

“The apex of monotheism is Messianism, but its center of gravity lies in the relation between God and the individual. At this point Ezekiel deviates from the mainstream of Messianism, insofar as he ceases to look at the world and turns to an inward look into the individual. Ezekiel transmitted to religion the God of the individual man” (Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism).

Moreover, it is through Ezekiel that God informs us that the fateful correlation between sin and punishment is now broken, and so the punishment of death is abolished. In Jewish Writings, Cohen stated that to “sever the connection between suffering and guilt – to discard, that is, the notion that suffering is a punishment for guilt – is one of the most far-reaching consequences of monotheistic thinking, and of momentous significance for man’s approach to the social problem.”

As well as breaking the old connection between sin and punishment, Ezekiel tells us that teshuvah (repentance) now stands as a substitute for public sacrifice. The prophetic rejection of burnt offerings leads to the religious birth of the individual who, instead of performing a public act of sacrifice, now engages in an inward sacrifice of introspection, private repentance and moral improvement. “In myself, I have to study sin, and through sin I must learn to know myself […] I am permeated by the thought that I do not know any man’s wickedness as deeply, as clearly, as my own,” Cohen wrote in Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism.

Interestingly, Cohen offered the view that sin and its subsequent repression has the effect of making a person unique: it lifts him or her out of the impersonal totality of nature. Indeed, it is through sin — and in the recognition of sin — that man first becomes an authentic individual. Nevertheless, the sinner has a choice: stay unique in your sin (we are uniquely bad rather than uniquely good, it seems), or repent and return to the ethical community.

“[For Ezekiel] the individual raises himself up out of his social environment, and indeed through his own sin,” Cohen said. But this sin “is not an end-station for man, but rather an ever repeated beginning of an ever-opening new life.” A new beginning “must be joined” to the public realm, that is, a return to the world.

In other words, sin, introspection and repentance ought to be followed with a renewed commitment to the messianic task of raising up humanity and helping to relieve the suffering of the exploited and the abused, so that they may live better lives. Or as the prophet puts it: God does not desire the death of him who transgresses; rather, God wants you to “turn away and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

*

*

*

END

 

 

Hermann Cohen and the redemptive potentiality of sin

hermann_cohen-picture3.jpg

This is the concluding part of a three-part series on the Jewish ethicist Hermann Cohen.

Hermann Cohen (b.1842 – d.1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather 

Do I desire the death of the wicked? says the Lord God. Is it not rather in his repenting of his ways that he may live? […] Therefore, every man according to his ways I will judge you […] Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, and why should you die […] For I do not desire the death of him who dies, says the Lord God: so turn away and live! (Ezekiel chapter 18, verses 23, 30a, 31, 32)

Anticipating Martin Buber, Hermann Cohen said we must recognize the living, breathing individual as a “Thou,” and not just as a generic example of humanity. As significant as the universal ethical ideal is for Cohen, he recognized that ethics is concerned with individuals only insofar as they are members of humanity as a whole. Ethics can’t always deal with individual moral feelings or with sin. In other words, it is religion — rather than ethics — that concerns itself with the sin of the individual.

It is the prophet Ezekiel whom Cohen singled out as bringing a new and important aspect into early Judaism: the sin of the individual for which he alone stands responsible before God. This is Cohen’s interpretation of Ezekiel’s “Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions whereby you have transgressed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (18:31). Whereas ethics offers a collective but not individual self-transformation, Ezekiel’s Judaism promises personal liberation from sin through repentance.

It is only when we acknowledge our own moral failings that it is possible for us to atone and to strive for moral improvement. This act of atonement establishes an intimate and personal relationship between the individual and God. And in relating to God, the individual becomes a unique moral and religious self:

“The apex of monotheism is Messianism, but its center of gravity lies in the relation between God and the individual. At this point Ezekiel deviates from the mainstream of Messianism, insofar as he ceases to look at the world and turns to an inward look into the individual. Ezekiel transmitted to religion the God of the individual man” (Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism).

Moreover, it is through Ezekiel that God informs us that the fateful correlation between sin and punishment is now broken, and so the punishment of death is abolished. In Jewish Writings, Cohen stated that to “sever the connection between suffering and guilt – to discard, that is, the notion that suffering is a punishment for guilt – is one of the most far-reaching consequences of monotheistic thinking, and of momentous significance for man’s approach to the social problem.”

As well as breaking the old connection between sin and punishment, Ezekiel tells us that teshuvah (repentance) now stands as a substitute for public sacrifice. The prophetic rejection of burnt offerings leads to the religious birth of the individual who, instead of performing a public act of sacrifice, now engages in an inward sacrifice of introspection, private repentance and moral improvement. “In myself, I have to study sin, and through sin I must learn to know myself […] I am permeated by the thought that I do not know any man’s wickedness as deeply, as clearly, as my own,” Cohen wrote in Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism.

Interestingly, Cohen offered the view that sin and its subsequent repression has the effect of making a person unique: it lifts him or her out of the impersonal totality of nature. Indeed, it is through sin — and in the recognition of sin — that man first becomes an authentic individual. Nevertheless, the sinner has a choice: stay unique in your sin (we are uniquely bad rather than uniquely good, it seems), or repent and return to the ethical community.

“[For Ezekiel] the individual raises himself up out of his social environment, and indeed through his own sin,” Cohen said. But this sin “is not an end-station for man, but rather an ever repeated beginning of an ever-opening new life.” A new beginning “must be joined” to the public realm, that is, a return to the world.

In other words, sin, introspection and repentance ought to be followed with a renewed commitment to the messianic task of raising up humanity and helping to relieve the suffering of the exploited and the abused, so that they may live better lives. Or as the prophet puts it: God does not desire the death of him who transgresses; rather, God wants you to “turn away and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)

*

This was the concluding part of a three-part series on the Jewish ethicist Hermann Cohen.

To read part 1, click here

To read part 2, click here

 

 

 

 

The correlation of science and ethics in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy

Hermann_Cohen picture2

Part two of a series on the philosophy of Hermann Cohen

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Hermann Cohen made a distinction between the logic of science and the ideal of ethics, and noted that the natural world and the world of ethics are perceived very differently. This is because the order of the physical world is unchangeable (e.g, the sun sets in the west, night follows day, etc), while in the ideal world ethical rules can be accepted or rejected. It seems there should be one explanation for science, which is empirically self-evident, and another for ethics, which is something that is open to debate. Cohen reasoned there must be something that allows science and ethics to coexist and interrelate.

Cohen’s answer was to call on God as the inevitable and ultimate ideal coincidence of what is (science, nature) with what ought to be (ethics). Or to put it another way, God is the eventual coincidence of human culture with nature; the real with the ideal. And because God stands outside nature and ethics, He points to the rapprochement between is and ought, thereby helping to bring about moral action in the world, the same moral action that is recommended by the Hebrew prophets as seen through the prism of the Kantian categorical imperative.

As Andrea Poma explains in Yearning for Form and Other Essays on Hermann Cohen’s Thought, the advantage of having a transcendent God is that neither nature nor morality can claim priority over the other, meaning that just as ethics must conform to science, so science must conform to ethics. Poma adds: “The idea of God establishes this connection [between nature and morality] securely. This connection, this unity is grounded in the two members of the system of philosophy, in accordance with its distinction from identity.”

For Cohen, then, scientific praxis and moral praxis must become reciprocal. Furthermore, and congruent with Cohen’s own prophetic messianism, it is in the future that ethical principles will be fully realized, at which time the ethical will merge with the ontological, so that being and morality no longer contradict each other. As Phillip Homburg remarks in Towards a Benjaminian Critique of Hermann Cohen’s Logical Idealism, Cohen aims “to assign ethics a status that raises it to the same level of dignity as the concepts of logic or mathematics.”

As well as bridging science and ethics, the Cohenian notion of correlation extends to the relationship between mankind and God. For Cohen, humans are rational creatures, and our ability to reason demands a particular kind of relationship with God. In fact, God’s awakening of reason in humans is God’s revelation to humanity; reason is how God communicates with mankind. (As a neo-Kantian, Cohen knows that reason is our faculty of making inferences, allowing us to move from the particular and contingent to the global and universal.)

It is important to note that the correlative relationship between God and humanity (which Cohen characterizes as the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of Holiness’) is respectful of God’s separateness. As Norman Solomon explains in his essay “Cohen on Atonement, Purification and Repentance,” God and man in Cohen’s system of thought are “the inevitable counterpart of the other, mirroring but not merging.” Solomon goes on to say that merging “would obliterate the distinctiveness of God and human; it would verge on pantheism. God’s holiness demands human holiness as its correlate.”

Indeed, Solomon is right to refer to the bogeyman of pantheism because Cohen was markedly antagonistic towards the pantheistic doctrine that identifies God with the universe (or regards the universe as a manifestation of God). Cohen was adamant that while God is the capstone of both logic and ethics, He nevertheless transcends both. Cohen had nothing but disdain for any form of pantheism or mysticism in which God is equated with the world. In this respect, Cohen was very different from Spinoza, for whom God and Nature are virtually synonymous.

*

To recap part two of this series on Cohen’s thought, we see that Cohen defined God as the synthesis (albeit a transcendent synthesis) of nature and ethics, which will ultimately unify all humanity into a Kantian “kingdom of ends,” a world in which all human beings are treated as ends in themselves and not the mere means to an end for other people. The realization of the ideal, which is grounded in God and finds its ultimate fulfilment in Him, is mankind’s historic task, his ethical project.

And since the ethical task is distinguished from the immutable logic of being, the ethical task-as-project is thus not determined, only envisioned and recommended by the Hebrew prophets. As such, the ethical task is free to become realized by human beings. While for Sartre, the undefined, non-determined nature of man can never coincide with the brute reality of being-in-itself, for Cohen, the closing of the gap between the real and the ideal is mankind’s historical task, and he envisioned Judaism as fundamental to this duty.

*

[Coming soon: Hermann Cohen and the redemptive potentiality of sin]   

To read part 1, click here

 

 

The ethical idealism and prophetic messianism of Hermann Cohen

Hermann_Cohen picture

Hermann Cohen (1842 – 1918) was a German-Jewish philosopher, one of the founders of the Marburg School of Neo-Kantianism and an intellectual precursor to the 20th century Jewish existentialist humanism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Levinas. Starting from the proposition that ethics had to be universal, Cohen outlined a Kantian (and non-Marxist) ethical socialism rooted in the prophetic vision of the Hebrew bible.

By Richard Mather

Universal ethics

Hermann Cohen agreed with Immanuel Kant that ethics must be directed towards the well-being of humanity. The essential feature of this is its universality. As Cohen saw it, progress was (or at least ought to be) moving towards universal suffrage and democratic socialism. Following Kant, Cohen defended the so-called categorical imperative; that we should treat humanity in other persons always as an end and never as a means only. (Kant’s famous definition of the categorical imperative is to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”)

The categorical imperative contains, in Cohen’s words, “the moral progress of a new era and the entire future world history.” Although Cohen’s socialism owed more to Kant and the Hebrew prophets than it did to Karl Marx, he was nevertheless critical of capitalism because the individual worker runs the risk of being treated as a mere means for the ends of the employer.

Judaism as the religion of reason

According to Cohen, the human desire for universal ethics is the foundation for religious belief. God is the eternal source of moral law and provides humankind with the imperative to act ethically.

Cohen proclaimed Judaism as the historical source of the idea that humanity can be unified by a single set of ethical laws. He defined Judaism as a “religion of reason” — a revealed type of rationality. And since reason is something that belongs to all people everywhere, a religion of reason must therefore posit a single, unique God for all humanity. In short, a religion of reason must be monotheistic.

Judaism, as interpreted by Cohen, is a set of rational principles that are grounded in God. Not only is revelation given through reason, but a rational religion is necessarily a moral religion. As Kenneth Seeskin describes it in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “God represents the highest moral standard possible: a being who wills the moral law for its own sake all the time.”

To know God is to accept the duty of fulfilling the moral law, and this involves imitating God’s attributes of mercy and forgiveness. In other words, holiness is morality.

Messianism

Cohen believed that it is the duty of the Jewish people to teach universal ethics and he cited the Seven Noahide Laws (the Seven Laws of Noah) as an example of a universally-applicable moral code that is rooted in the bible and in rabbinical thought. It is Judaism’s role to point to the ideal of fulfilled humanity and to draw others to it. Cohen asserted that “the general love for mankind is the messianic consequence of monotheism, for which the love of the stranger paved the way.”

Interestingly, Cohen played down the notion of brotherly love as the underlying principle of the biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor. He instead identified law as the basis of the moral subject. Although “neighbor” in German has generally been understood as “one who is near,” Cohen argued that “neighbor” should be translated as “Other” or “Another.” As such, a man’s “neighbour” is actually the stranger or foreigner. We are commanded to protect the stranger because we are all equal before the law. As Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in Being and Nothingness, “To live in a world haunted by my neighbour is … to encounter the Other at every turn of the road.”

According to Cohen, since Jewish monotheism has an ethical dimension, it inevitably culminates in what he characterizes as prophetic messianism, which is “the dominion of the good on earth.”

He added: “Morality will be established in the human world. Against this confidence, no skepticism, no pessimism, no mysticism, no metaphysics, no experience of the world, no knowledge of men, no tragedy, and no comedy can prevail.”

For Cohen, messianism was no longer a hope for God to intervene in history. In fact, he dismissed the notion of a miraculous coming of the messiah. Messianism is simply a factor in world history. Rather than being a supernatural or eschatological event, it is an expression of faith that humanity is making progress towards the end of injustice. If the messianic future can be thought of as eternal, it is only in the sense that the progress of mankind and world history are eternal.

Ethics, law and autonomy

Convinced that ethics must be law-based, and that law and the State must be restored to the realm of ethics, Cohen called for legal rights to be the duty and goal of economic and cultural life. Indeed, in Cohen’s system of ethical jurisprudence, morality, rights and the law are very closely intertwined. Ethics must find its completion in the philosophy of law.

For Cohen, the ethical subject is a legal subject. Man is a moral actor when his actions can be held accountable in court and when he can claim or bring an action for his rights. As Robert Gibbs explains in his essay “Jurisprudence is the Organon of Ethics,” “action means not a claim simply to a right, but a claim to bring the claim to court.” Cohen’s assertion that each person not only has a claim to his rights but “the claim to a court’s judgement” should be seen in the context of the Seven Noahide Laws because one of those laws is the commandment to establish courts of justice.

Cohen was concerned that legality had for too long been empty of ethical content, partly as a result of the Apostle Paul’s polemics. Indeed, Cohen was highly critical of those who pursue a definition of legality that is divorced from what Gibbs terms “the inner freedom and ethical insight of duty done for its own sake.” By creating a suspicion of law by splitting it away from ethics, the likes of Apostle Paul and Martin Luther contributed to an unfortunate caricature of the Torah as emptily legalistic.

In Cohen’s view, the law becomes self-contradictory when ethics and legality are severed, and that is because we are left with laws arising through force. When legality is separated from the notion of duty done for its own sake, the only recourse by the State is coercion. When divorced from ethics, the law has to be imposed from the outside because it is no longer in our hearts and minds. The ethical-legal subject cannot be a free moral agent if he is coerced by the State into acting ethically.

Ethics, then, must unite inner freedom and law. Autonomy means we are free, but with respect to our will this means only that we may “impose on it a universal law” — the law of the categorical imperative. As Kenneth Seeskin points out in his book Autonomy in Jewish Philosophy, “[I]n the [Kantian] kingdom of ends, where everyone is rational and every subject’s humanity is respected, no one will follow any orders other than the ones she imposes on herself.”

So it seems that the ethical situation is where the will of the individual finds the full meaning and expression of his or her freedom, protected from compulsion by the State. Andrea Poma, in her excellent book Yearning for Form, explains it thus:

“From the ethical viewpoint, however, this individual is, in the situation described, the bearer of the authority of the law; therefore he represents the State, and opposes any powerful, violent subject, though devoid of all authority, since the law only receives authority from itself: it produces the ethical subject and only this task justifies it.”

*

[Coming soon: The correlation of science and ethics in Hermann Cohen’s philosophy]

Spinoza was right: Free inquiry means piety and peace

spinoza

 

By Richard Mather/Israel News Online 

The political outlook of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) is much like that of Thomas Hobbes, writes Middlebury College Professor Emeritus Victor Nuovo in the Addison County Independent.

“This is not surprising, for he schooled himself in Hobbes’ writings and appropriated most of his ideas from them. Yet on one theme in particular, he far exceeded Hobbes — the topic of free inquiry into the nature of things, or as Spinoza described it, the freedom to philosophize and to publish one’s thoughts and discoveries,” says Nuovo.

Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (published in 1670) makes the claim that this freedom not only does no harm to domestic tranquility and religion, but that the peace and piety of a society depends entirely on it, Nuovo says.

Nuovo points out that Spinoza fastened upon this claim while reading Hobbes. In chapter 12 of his major text Leviathan, Hobbes explains the origin of religion. Hobbes observes that humans are curious creatures and are inquisitive about the causes of things, especially those things that are potentially beneficial or harmful.

From painful experiences we know that these causes often occur without our knowledge, much less our bidding.

“Ours, then, is an anxious and perpetual curiosity, motivated by fear of what may come, by fear of the unknown. In this anxious state of mind we imagine causes, powerful unnatural forces, which we personalize, hoping that by offering them homage we might gain their favor and insure ourselves against misfortune. Thus arise, in the human imagination, the panoply of Gods, demons, invisible spirits, who are taken to be our guardians or destroyers,” writes Nuovo.

Sadly, there are those who exploit our anxieties by inventing magical rites, religious cults and assorted superstitions.

Nuovo continues, “But, Hobbes remarks, there is another kind of human curiosity, which is disinterested and impartial; it is a purely intellectual desire to know and that leads the mind to conclude that there is a first cause of existence that is eternal and infinite, and a supreme power of nature that is omnipotent and inexhaustible.”

This search is impartial and fearless. And it results in the conclusion that there is a single and ultimate power of nature, which is the source of everything, and which we call God.

“This is a purely intellectual notion of God, unaccompanied by neither fear nor hope, but seasoned by pure wonder,” says Nuovo.

Nuovo believes that Spinoza pored over Hobbes’ Leviathan, and did so because he was led there by the central belief of his own monist philosophy, which is that God and Nature (Deus, sive Natura) are one and the same, and that God is the ultimate and rational principle of everything, whose ways can explained. And in the light of this discovery, we learn that the world was not created for the sake of human beings.

Nuovo continues, “The search after truth is an act of pure piety. We honor truth, we respect it, not because it is something we can own, like riches or power that we can use to our advantage, but because truth has no owner. It offers no advantages to anyone. Truth offers only itself, and it is the ultimate judge of all our reasoning and judgments concerning it.”

Truth is clear and transparent. It is enlightening, the very opposite of mystery. It is also joyful.

“Moreover, a society founded on the principle that free rational enquiry shall not be abridged will be free of internal conflict. It will not be plagued by internal conflicts between zealous advocates of rival orthodoxies, whether religious or secular, or by the machinations of predatory demagogues, because every claim to truth will be subject to rational scrutiny, to a calm and dispassionate enquiry by everyone everywhere,” Nuovo says.

According to Spinoza, the commitment to free inquiry manifests itself in our right to change our minds whenever we discover that our beliefs are in error. And in so doing, we will have discovered for ourselves that truth is something to be honored.

“This is the surest means to peace and piety,” concludes Nuovo. “I believe Spinoza had it right.”

To read Victor Nuovo’s article on Spinoza and Hobbes visit here

Spinoza’s intellectual love of God

Spinoza-1-600x580

Baruch Spinoza

It is a popular misconception that Spinoza was a pantheist or even an atheist. He was not. Like the medieval Kabbalists, Spinoza was a panentheist.

By Richard Mather 

Panentheism, meaning “all-in-God,” is situated somewhere between pantheism and classical theism. For pantheists, the world is identical to God, while for classical theists, the world is completely external to God. Panentheists believe  three things: that the world is within God, that God is in all things, and that God is also supernaturally transcendent. To put it another way, God is ontologically at one with the universe and yet remains greater than the universe. The universe does not exhaust what it means to be God.

To use the terminology of mathematical set theory, the universe – the totality of facts, ideas and things – is a subset of God.

If the word panentheist seems alien to Judaism, a synonymous term is available: monistic monotheism. Either way, such a conception of God can be found in medieval esoteric Judaism (Kabbalah), in the writings of seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and in hasidut (Hasidic Judaism) and even in yahadut mitkhadeshet (Reconstructionist Judaism).

In his youth, Spinoza was exposed to Abraham Cohen de Herrera’s Gate of Heaven, a widely influential work of Jewish mysticism written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew. This work was apparently used by Spinoza’s Talmud teachers, Manasseh ben Israel and Saul Levi Morteira. According to de Herrera, God is not just hidden in himself but is also immanent in the universe. Indeed, the material universe “is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God.”

A classic Judeo-panentheistic formulation is memaleh [filling] kol almin u’sosev kol almin – that God fills and surrounds all worlds. This formulation is found in ha-Zohar (the Zohar) and the twelfth-century hymn Shir HaYichud, which contains the words: “All of them are in You and You are in all of them” and “You surround all and fill all and when all exists You are in all.” Similarly, the kabbalist Hayyim Ibn Atar writes in his commentary Or Ha-Hayyim, “The world is in its Creator and the light of the Creator is in the whole world.”

According to hasidut (which emerged as a popular movement less than a hundred years after Spinoza’s death), God both transcends and indwells the universe. The phrase, “The whole earth is full of His glory,” from Sefer  Yeshayahu (Isaiah) is taken to mean that God is in all things.

Hasidic Jews believe that the multiplicity of things we observe in the universe , including ourselves, is due to the screening of the divine light that prevents us from perceiving God as He is in Himself. Similarly, Spinoza refers to things, including ourselves, as “modes” or modifications of God. Both Hasidic Jews and Spinoza believe that only God is substantial. There can be no other substance in the universe but God. That is not to say that individual things aren’t real, just that they are modifications of God and are dependent upon God for their existence.

For Spinoza, because God is infinite, He therefore has infinite attributes, including mind and matter. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. Because God is infinite, God must have an infinite number of attributes, of which we know nothing. There must be an infinity of other divine attributes that are hidden from us, that transcend our senses and our knowledge.

Spinoza has been erroneously characterised as a pantheist because he asserted Deus sive Natura, which means “God or nature.” But he did not mean that God and nature (i.e. the universe) are synonymous terms, but rather that nature is God, but not God in His entirety. The  two attributes known to us – mind and matter – signify God’s indwelling in the universe. But His transcendence is secured by his infinitely many attributes, of which we can only guess.

As such, there are two inter-related aspects of God in Spinozism. First, there is the active, productive aspect, which is God and his attributes, from which all else follows. This is what Spinoza calls natura naturans (“nature creating”), which is wholly identical with God. Secondly, he employed the term natura naturata (or “nature created”) to describe the aspect of God when it is predicated into “modes” such as the laws of motion and rest, logic, the Milky Way, cats, buildings, rocks, minds, beliefs and so on.

Likewise, mystical Jews sometimes envision two aspects of God: Firstly, the impersonal Ein Sof (meaning “there is no end”), which is God in essence, absolutely transcendent, unknowable and limitless, hidden. Secondly, there is God in manifestation, the revealed aspect of God, which is accessible to human perception, and is dynamically interacting through spiritual and physical existence.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a dualistic conception. If so, the Kabbalists wouldn’t have been able to remain true to the strict monotheism of rabbinical Judaism. Rather, they sought (as they still do) to make the universe holy by unifying God-as-Other with God-as-immanent. Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza made a subtle distinction between two aspects of God, and like the Kabbalists, he also had the  fundamental insight that God is one substantial whole. Indeed, God is the only substantial whole.

Like the Kabbalists, Spinoza believed that there is nothing external to God, nothing outside of Him. And like the Kabbalists, Spinoza held that everything that exists is a part of God and is brought into being by God.

Because God is everywhere, and because holiness is literally in the world, religious Jews often emphasise simcha or joy. A popular teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid – “it is a great mitzvah to always be in a state of happiness.” Similarly, Spinoza talks of the “intellectual love of God,” which is when the mind perceives God not only as essence but as the immanent causal power of the universe.

Spinoza writes of the person who has attained the intellectual love  of God that he “is hardly troubled in spirit, but being, by a certain eternal necessity, conscious of himself, and of God, and of things, he never ceases to be, but always possess true peace of mind.” Spinoza refers to this as “blessedness,” which is similar in meaning to shalem (and hence shalom), a Hebrew word-concept signifying wholeness, harmony, prosperity, delight, peace.

Whether we call it blessedness or shalem, the webbing together of God, humans and  creation is at the heart of both Spinozism and rabbinical mystical Judaism.