Leibniz and the best of all one-monad universes

Gottfried_Wilhelm_Leibniz,_Bernhard_Christoph_Francke

Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz by Christoph Francke Bernhard (before 1729)

 

By Richard Mather

 

A Thought Experiment

In philosophy, a thought experiment typically presents an imagined scenario with the objective of making a conjecture about the way things are. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy succinctly puts it: Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things (Brown & Fehige, 2014 [1994], para. 1). I make no pretense that my thought experiment contains new empirical data; it doesn’t. On the contrary, this is a purely speculative exercise, an attempt to think the nature of being by creating a space of compossibility, so to speak, between two thinkers separated by some two hundred years: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler.

So the purpose of this essay is to make the case for a heterodox reading of Leibniz’s The Monadology (published 1720) through the lens of Professor John Wheeler’s hypothesis of the one-electron universe (proposed in 1940).

My conjecture is this: That there exists in the knowable universe only one monad; that this monad traverses time in both directions, eventually criss-crossing the entire past and future history of the universe; and that this singular monad interacts with itself countless times, thereby filling the universe with simultaneous appearances of itself. In the course of this article I will consider the possibility that our solitary monad is synonymous with Leibniz’s God, or if the monad in question is rather a created substance that is alone with God, a notion that gains some traction thanks to Leibniz’s admiration for the solipsism of Saint Teresa of Avila. I will also consider whether the one-monad hypothesis is consistent with Leibniz’s own views on harmony, simplicity and perfection.

What is an Electron?

Before delving into either The Monadology or Professor Wheeler’s hypothesis, it is worth asking an obvious, if crucial, question. What is an electron and what are its properties? Put simply, an electron is a negatively charged subatomic particle that is located around (but not in) the nucleus of an atom. Having no known components or substructure, electrons are usually considered to be elementary particles. In fact, electrons exhibit properties of both particles and waves, and they play an essential role in physical phenomena such as electricity, gravity, thermal conductivity, and magnetism. Furthermore, all electrons are identical.

In a telephone call made in the spring of 1940 to his doctoral student Richard Feynman, Professor John Wheeler claimed to have arrived at a solution as to why all electrons are identical. Why do electrons have the same mass, the same electric charge, and the same spin? Wheeler’s answer: Because they are all the same electron; moreover, they are the same electron traveling forwards and backwards in time.

Feynman gave an account of this telephone call in his December 1965 Nobel Lecture:

I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, “Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass.” “Why?” “Because, they are all the same electron!” And, then he explained on the telephone, “suppose that the world lines which we were ordinarily considering before in time and space – instead of only going up in time were a tremendous knot, and then, when we cut through the knot, by the plane corresponding to a fixed time, we would see many, many world lines and that would represent many electrons, except for one thing. If in one section this is an ordinary electron world line, in the section in which it reversed itself and is coming back from the future we have the wrong sign to the proper time – to the proper four velocities – and that’s equivalent to changing the sign of the charge, and, therefore, that part of a path would act like a positron.”

In other words, all electrons are manifestations of a single entity — a single electron — moving through time, both backwards and forwards. When it moves backwards in time, it is a positron. So not only are all electrons the same electron but all positrons are also the same electron [see endnote 1]. If Professor Wheeler is right that this one electron is able to travel forwards and backwards in time over and over again, it effectively means it is able to appear in many different places simultaneously. This one electron moving back and forth some 1080 times (10 to the power of 80 times) looks very much look like all the electrons in the knowable universe [see endnote 2].

According to Wheeler’s theory, the single electron traces out a unique path through spacetime and this is known as its world line. (In physics, the world line of an electron is the sequence of spacetime events that correspond to the history of that electron.) The world line is simply the line traced by the electron as it makes its way through space and time. This inevitably means that half the world lines are directed forward in time, while the other half are curved round in the opposite direction.

Some Similarities

Although a Leibnizian monad is immaterial, it does shares some similarities with an electron. Both are elementary insofar as they have no known subcomponents; neither can be broken apart. Leibniz opens The Monadology with the assertion that the monad “is nothing but a simple substance,” and he clarifies this by pointing out that by “simple” he means “without parts.” A little further on, in §3, Leibniz proclaims that “where there are no parts, there can be neither extension nor form [figure] nor divisibility,” before adding that monads “are the real atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things.”

As I explained earlier, a positron is simply an electron moving in the opposite direction; it is not a different entity. We can, however, label the electron/positron as a pair. And it is on the subject of the electron/positron pair that Japanese-American physicist Yoichiro Nambu says something rather interesting. According to Nambu there is “no creation or annihilation” of the electron/positron pair, “but only a change of direction of moving particles, from past to future, or from future to past” (1950, pp. 82-94).

This is illuminating because Leibniz says something similar regarding monads. Leibniz states that a monad is neither created or annihilated, except by God: “No dissolution of these elements need be feared, and there is no conceivable way in which a simple substance can be destroyed by natural means” (The Monadology §4). Leibniz continues with the following assertion: “For the same reason there is no conceivable way in which a simple substance can come into being by natural means …” (The Monadology §5).

In other words, not only do electrons and monads lack parts, neither can come into being or be destroyed by natural means. While most scientists rule out supernatural or divine causes, Leibniz concedes that only God has the power to create or annihilate a monad. Without God, it would seem that monads and electrons alike are left to their own devices.

Having outlined the one-electron theory and pointed out some similarities between an electron and a monad, my conjecture is this: All the monads that seemingly populate Leibniz’s universe are actually the one and the same monad making simultaneous appearances. In this conception, our singular monad traverses the entire cosmos, interacting with itself innumerable times as it moves back and forth in time, its world line unfolding and refolding over and over, creating what Professor Wheeler describes as a “tremendous knot” [see endnote 3]. 

Perfection, Variety and Simplicity

According to Leibniz, God chose this world because it offered the best possible balance between the simplicity of the laws of nature and the abundant variety of phenomena. This is the reading of Leibniz that is accepted by scholars such as David Blumenfeld, who claims that it is with reference to the “variety/simplicity criterion” that “God makes his infallible choice of the best possible world” (Blumenfeld, 1995, p.383).

According to Blumenfeld, “the actual world has the greatest variety of phenomena governed by the simplest laws that are compatible with maximum variety” (1995, p.387). He adds, “Although more complex laws would accommodate as much diversity, by choosing the simplest ones that do so, God maximizes harmony without trading-off any variety at all.” Notably, Blumenfeld suggests we should understand “simplicity” as “harmony.”

Another Leibniz scholar, Nicholas Rescher, believes that for Leibniz, what makes this the best possible world is the remarkable balance between the the simplicity of the rules needed to govern nature and the plenitude of phenomena. Indeed, it is Leibniz himself who writes:

[W]e may say that in whatever manner God might have created the world, it would always have been regular and in a certain order. God, however, has chosen the most perfect, that is to say the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and the richest in phenomena. (Discourse on Metaphysics §6).

And in The Monadology he states, “And by this means there is obtained as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is to say, it is the way to get as much perfection as possible” (The Monadology §58).

As well as correlating the greatest variety of  phenomena with the harmony or simplicity of the laws that deliver such diversity, Leibniz asserts (again in Discourse on Metaphysics) that the that the most perfect of beings are “those that occupy the least possible space.” He continues:

When the simplicity of God’s way is spoken of, reference is specially made to the means which he employs, and on the other hand when the variety, richness and abundance are referred to, the ends or effects are had in mind. Thus one ought to be proportioned to the other, just as the cost of a building should balance the beauty and grandeur which is expected. It is true that nothing costs God anything, just as there is no cost for a philosopher who makes hypotheses in constructing his imaginary world, because God has only to make decrees in order that a real world come into being; but in matters of wisdom the decrees or hypotheses meet the expenditure in proportion as they are more independent of one another. The reason wishes to avoid multiplicity in hypotheses or principles very much as the simplest system is preferred in astronomy. (Discourse on Metaphysics §5)

In other words, the best world is that which boasts the simplest rules and the utmost diversity of things. As such, we get the greatest possible variety, with the fewest possible materials, and with the greatest possible order.

Leibniz afficianado Gilles Deleuze (1993 [1988], p.66) remarks there are two basic movements between two poles in Leibniz’s philosophy: “[O]ne toward which all principles are folding themselves together” (that is, everything is always the same thing), and “the other toward which they are all unfolding, in the opposite way” (everything differs by manner). In other words, there is a folding movement toward the identical oneness of the solitary monad, and an unfolding movement towards the apparent multiplicity of the its manifold appearances, which presumably form aggregates, eventually giving rise to empirical entities. In the words of Deleuze, “No philosophy has ever pushed to such an extreme the affirmation of a one and same world, and of an infinite difference or variety in this world” (1993 [1988], p.66).

Is God the Solitary Monad?

The hypothesis so far is that Leibniz’s infinity of monads is actually just one monad. But what, or who, is this solitary monad?  

The solitary monad could, of course, be God. According to Leibniz, God is a special kind of monad: a monad without a body, a monad sui generis, a monad that knows everything because it has total and clear knowledge of everything. This is the God particle par excellence. In The Monadology, Leibniz talks of the “greatness” of God,” and slaps down those critics, such as Pierre Bayle (writer of Dictionnaire Historique et Critique), who accuse Leibniz of “attributing  too much to God” (The Monadology § 59).

If God is the monad in question, this monad would undoubtedly be unique, universal and “sufficient” [see endnote 4]. Indeed, we can imagine the God-monad ‘smeared’ (to use a physics term) across the universe, both forwards and backwards in time:

We may also hold that this supreme substance, which is unique, universal and necessary, which is further a pure sequence of possible being, must be incapable of limitation and must contain as much reality as possible.  (The Monadology §40) [emphasis mine]

In this conception, the God-monad contains maximal reality, and is infinitely perfect. It alone has the prerogative that it must necessarily exist (The Monadology §45). As the postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, in his essay “Time Today” (1991 [1988], p.60), says: “God is the absolute monad to the extent that he conserves in complete retention the totality of information constituting the world. … As consummate archivist, God is outside time, and this is one of the grounds of modern Western metaphysics.”

And in The Monadology, Leibniz states:

Thus God alone is the primary unity or original simple substance, of which all created or derivative Monads are products and have their birth, so to speak, through continual fulgurations of the Divinity from moment to moment ….” (The Monadology §47)

Is the Solitary Monad a Created Monad?

But what if the solitary monad is not God, but a created monad? Indeed, Leibniz makes the assertion that “each created Monad represents the whole universe” (The Monadology §62). By its very name and nature, a created monad is alone in some sense. After all, the word “monad” comes from the Greek word for alone: μόνος, monos.  If the monad in question is created, and if this monad is alone as its name suggests, we can say with some confidence that our solitary monad is the sole medium through which the entire universe is created.

It is well known that a monad in Leibniz’s system exists as an independent point of will and is windowless (The Monadology §7), thereby giving rise to the suspicion that the monad is a solipsistic entity. The word “solipsism,” as with the word “monad,” derives from a word meaning “alone,” (this time Latin, solus).

Taken to extremes, if a single solipsistic monad has no windows, and if it creates its own sense perceptions and acts on its own authority, what need is there for any other created monad? In a sense, then, our singular created monad is the universe in that it contains everything required for creation. And so it is this monad (and not the God-monad) that is smeared across the universe.

As such, this monad, which makes up the created world and represents the entire universe from its own perspective, is in a causal relationship only with God, its creator. The spiritual imperative of the monad’s solitary relationship with God is outlined by Leibniz in his Discourse on Metaphysics. He writes:

It can be seen also that every substance has a perfect spontaneity (which becomes liberty with intelligent substances). Everything which happens to it is a consequence of its idea or its being and nothing determines it except God only. It is for this reason that a person of exalted mind and revered saintliness may say that the soul ought often to think as if there were only God and itself in the world. Nothing can make us hold to immortality more firmly than this independence and vastness of the soul which protects it completely against exterior things, since it alone constitutes our universe and together with God is sufficient for itself. (Discourse on Metaphysics  §32) [emphasis mine]

“Only God and itself in the world … since it alone constitutes our universe and together with God is sufficient for itself” sounds very much like our monad’s situation, namely, its unique aloneness with God.

According to the University of Chicago’s Professor Michael Kremer, the “person of exalted mind” cited in the above passage from Discourse on Metaphysics is the 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, Saint Teresa of Avila. Indeed, in a letter to Andreas Morell, “a mystically minded correspondent” [see endnote 5], Leibniz says:

As to St. Teresa, you have reason to esteem her works, I found there one day this lovely thought that the soul must conceive of things as if there were only God and itself in the world. This even yields a considerable reflection in philosophy, which I usefully employed in one of my hypotheses [emphasis mine].

As Kremer helpfully points out, Leibniz’s source was probably the biography The Life of Teresa of Jesus, written sometime before 1567. In chapter 13, we find the following statement: “[F]or the utmost we have to do at first is to take care of our soul and to remember that in the entire world there is only God and the soul; and this is a thing which it is very profitable to remember” (ed. Peers, 1946, p.77).

Following St Teresa, we can say that besides God, there is only the created monad, “since it alone constitutes our universe and together with God is sufficient for itself” (Discourse on Metaphysics  §32). Indeed, this monad (if we extend the religious analogy) is a kind of arche-soul or Logos in the sense that not only does it act as an intermediary between the transcendent Creator and creation, but it populates (or seminates) the universe with countless appearances of itself, thereby bringing the created world into being.

Conclusion

I don’t pretend that my hypothesis of a single monad that fills the universe with countless appearances of itself is anything other than an exercise in poetic speculation. Moreover, there are plenty of problems in the original hypothesis put forward by Professor Wheeler, such as why there are so many more electrons than positrons [see endnote 6]. According to Feynman he raised this issue with Wheeler, who speculated (probably half-jokingly) that the missing positrons might be hiding in protons in the nucleus of atoms [see endnote 7]. (Of course, there is also the possibility that the positrons needed to account for this shortfall might exist somewhere in the universe.)

Although Feynman found Professor Wheeler’s one-electron universe theory hard to believe, the idea that positrons were electrons traveling backwards in time intrigued him.  Years later, Feynman included the theory of the electron/positron pair in his 1949 paper “The Theory of Positrons” (1949, pp.749-759) and he incorporated the theory of reversibile time into his famous Feynman diagrams, which are are pictorial representations of the interactions of elementary particles.

Despite problems in both the original hypothesis of the one-electron universe and my own one-monad conjecture, the idea that we may live in a one-monad universe has certain advantages, one of which is that it goes some way in reconciling the granular and the smooth. Nature is both discrete (thanks to the manifold appearances of the point-like monad) and continuous (because of the unfolding and refolding of the world line). It could even be said that nature is an enfolded continuum of the one monad. Indeed, it is worth noting that Leibniz’s axiom “la nature ne fait jamais des sauts” (“nature makes no leaps” or “nature does not jump”) embodies the idea that natural processes occur continuously (Leibniz, 1896 [1765], p.50).

Another advantage of the theory is the balance between the apparent plenitude of  monads (which presumably give rise to empirical objects) and the metaphysical minimalism of the one created monad. That it may be possible to obtain a world with the greatest possible variety of phenomena from the fewest possible materials, and featuring the greatest possible order, gives the one-monad theory a strange but elegant quality. To reiterate a comment made by Deleuze in The Fold, “No philosophy has ever pushed to such an extreme the affirmation of a one and same world, and of an infinite difference or variety in this world” (Deleuze, 1993 [1988], p.66).

Endnotes

  1. A positron is the antimatter counterpart of an electron.
  2. According to a physics article on website io9, if the one electron universe theory is correct, that particular particle will travel through the universe 1080 times (10 to the power of 80 times) and will, by the end of its journey, have clocked up a staggering 10105 years, that is 10,000 googol years, or 10 to the power of 105 years (Wilkins, 2012, para. 11).
  3. All this talk of lines reminds me of the term “line-of-flight” made famous by postmodernist and Leibniz aficionado Gilles Deleuze. (See Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p.9-10).
  4. “…there is only one God, and this God is sufficient” (The Monadology §39).
  5. Michael’s Kremer’s phrase. On the topic of Leibniz and St Teresa, I am indebted to Kremer and his 2004 paper on philosophy and solipsism, “To What Extent is Solipsism a Truth?”
  6. Many more electrons have been observed than positrons, and electrons are thought to easily outnumber their antimatter counterparts.
  7. In his memoir, Wheeler made it clear that the positrons-hiding-in-protons idea was not meant to be taken too seriously: “I knew, of course, that, at least in our corner of the universe, there are lots more electrons than positrons, but I still found it an exciting idea to think of trajectories in spacetime that could go unrestricted in any direction — forward in time, backward in time, up, down, left, or right” (1998, p.117).

Reference List

Blumenfeld, D. (1995) “Perfection and happiness in the best possible world,” The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz. Edited by Nicholas Jolley, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J.R. and and Fehige,Y. (2014) [1994] “Thought Experiments,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [online], viewed 15 May 2018, <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/thought-experiment>

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) [1980] A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, G. (1993) [1988] The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Translated by T. Conley. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press.

Feynman, R. (1949) “The Theory of Positrons,” Physical Review, 76(6), pp. 749–759.

Feynman, R. (1965) “The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics,” Nobel Lecture 1965. Available at https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1965/feynman-lecture.html

Kant, I. (1855) [1781] Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn. London: Henry G. Bohn.

Kremer, M. (2004) “To What Extent is Solipsism a Truth?,” Post-Analytic Tractatus. Edited by B. Stocker. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Leibniz, G.W. (1896) [1765] New Essays Concerning Human Understanding. Translated by A.G. Langley. New York: MacMillan.

Leibniz, G.W.  (1898) [1720] The Monadology. Translated by R. Latta. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Leibniz, G.W. (1908) [1686] Discourse on Metaphysics. English translation by G. R. Montgomery. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co.

Lyotard, J-F. (1991) [1988] “Time Today,” The Inhuman. Translated by G. Bennington and R.Bowlby. California: Stanford University Press.

Nambu, Y. (1950) “The Use of the Proper Time in Quantum Electrodynamics I,” Progress in Theoretical Physics, 5(1), pp. 82–94.

Teresa of Avila, St (1946) [n.d.], “The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Complete Works St. Teresa Of Avila (Volume 1). Translated and edited by E.A Peers. Reprinted 2002. London & New York: Burns and Oates.

Wheeler, J.A  and K. Ford (1998) Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam, New York & London: Norton.

Wilkins, A. (2012) “What if every electron in the universe was all the same exact particle?,” viewed 20 May 2018, <https://io9.gizmodo.com/5876966/what-if-every-electron-in-the-universe-was-all-the-same-exact-particle>

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Thinking of being without heaviness or depth (continued)

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‘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.

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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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.  

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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.”

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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…”

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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.

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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.”

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[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