Thursday, 23 May 2019

FREEDOM and FAITH - Spinoza's Tractatus


The profound and far-reaching disturbances [Storungen - is the German word Schumpeter used to describe how economic and political upheaval are closely linked, whereupon he developed his idea of schopferische Zer-storung, creative destruction - note also the affinity between de-struction and "ruction"] that we are witnessing around the globe pose enormous challenges in depth and in scale to the most fundamental of our beliefs. Truly, "the time for hesitating's through" as The Doors prophesied fifty years ago, and "our world's become a funeral pyre" or at least threatens to become so. In a short span of time, we have been thrust back to a time that perhaps most closely resembles the period of combined crisis and re-casting of the Western world in the 1930s - except that now this is no longer a "European civil war" but one that truly threatens to engulf the whole of humanity. Yet the only hope we have to overcome this period of frightful danger lies surely and steadfastly in our faith in the principles of Truth, Reason and Freedom - principles that are as inalienable as they are non-negotiable. 

The Evil Han Chinese Empire for perhaps the first time in history threatens to do just the opposite, that is, it asks under cover of "negotiation" to alienate these principles without which indeed life itself would be worthless.

We shall not fall for this impious and execrable trap. In the words of Nietzsche, we shall not accept the invitation of the (Han Chinese) Ape to the Great City. Like Zarathustra, WE WANT THE CITY! Because it is our heritage. Because it is our legacy. Because it is our very reason to be alive! Cheers.

We saw earlier that Thomas Hobbes’s political theory starts from vastly more robust logical and philosophical premises than does Spinoza’s – which is why Hobbes will stand forever as the most advanced and coherent ideological exponent of the bourgeoisie and of its socio-economic and political system. Whereas Hobbes attributes the institution of the State as a contractual arrangement between ultimately selfish atomized individuals to the instinctual fear of death at the hands of any other individual in the state of nature where “man is a wolf to man” (homo hominis lupus), Spinoza instead sees the State and civil society as the acquisition of pre-existing “natural rights” in the state of nature that are simply inducted into or transferred to the new State (what we call “the acquisition of natural rights into the civil state”) through the exercise of human reason because this is the best way to maximise individual and social welfare through the security and safety that the State offers to each individual:

[5] Nevertheless, no one can doubt how much more beneficial it is for men to live according to laws and the certain dictates of reason, which as I have said aim at nothing but men’s true interests. Besides there is no-one who does not wish to live in security and so far as that is possible without fear; but this is very unlikely to be the case so long as everyone is allowed to do whatever they want and reason is assigned no more right than hatred and anger. For there is no one who does not live pervaded with anxiety whilst living surrounded by hostility, hatred, anger and deceit and who does not strive to avoid these in so far as they can. If we also reflect that without mutual help, and the cultivation of reason, human beings necessarily live in great misery, as we showed in chapter 5, we shall realize very clearly that it was necessary for people to combine together in order to live in security and prosperity. Accordingly, they had to ensure that they would collectively have the right to all things that each individual had from nature and that this right would no longer be determined by the force and appetite of each individual but by the power and will of all of them together. (P.197)

But the objection is readily moved: assuming, as does Spinoza himself following Hobbes, that individuals are ultimately selfish, how can they agree to form a State that guarantees the safety of each? Because it is abundantly obvious that if individuals are endowed with a “reason” that allows them to see beyond their individual selfish gratification to the common good, then it is obvious that such a state of nature could never have existed state of nature – precisely for the reason that the ability of individuals to be reasonable means that they were never single-mindedly selfish in the first place! By introducing “reason” as a substantive faculty and not just a formal, mechanical, instrumental, calculating, utilitarian one as did Hobbes, Spinoza simply assumes away the problem to which he claims to have found a solution! Where Hobbes avoids this evident contradiction or tautology is by arguing that not “reason” - understood either as an ethical altruistic faculty or even as instrumental reason, as a simple formal logical utilitarian calculus - induces human beings to agree to be subjected to the law of the State to secure their own safety; but rather it is “fear” – the fear of violent death at the hands of other selfish humans, the metus mortui; fear which is an elemental emotion entirely consistent with the barbaric and violent conditions of the state of nature – where “the war of all against all” prevails; it is irrational Fear, not Reason (either substantive or instrumental) that induces and impels selfish individuals to alienate their free-dom (everything is allowed) and exit the state of nature in favour of the political State.

[This extremely subtle but vital distinction in Hobbes’s political philosophy between instrumental and substantive Reason is one that I uncovered through the reading of Nietzsche. Only later did I discover the same analysis in one of Norberto Bobbio’s finest essays on Hobbes. Here it is:


3. La definizione che Hobbes dà della legge naturale non differisce formalmente dalle definizioni tradizionali. Per Hobbes la legge naturale è un dettame della retta ragione •. Come tale la legge naturale si differenzia dalla legge positiva che è posta dalla volontà. Ciò che costituisce la differenza della definizione hobbesiana da quella degli altri giusnaturalisti è il diverso significato di ragione. Per Hobbes la ragione è una operazione di calcolo con la quale traiamo delle conseguenze dai nomi convenuti per esprimere e notare i nostri pensieri. Non ha un valore sostanziale, ma soltanto formale; non ci rivela l'essere, ma ci mette in grado di ricavare da certi principi certe conseguenze; non è la facoltà con cui apprendiamo la verità evidente dei primi princìpi, ma la facoltà del ragionamento. È stato detto, ancora recentemente, che la ragione di Hobbes non ha un significato antologico, ma metodologico '. Essa non è un apprendimento di princìpi evidenti ma un metodo per pensare. La concezione ch'egli ha della ragione non è metafisica, ma strumentale. Lo stesso Hobbes, alla definizione sopra riportata di legge naturale, fa seguire questa annotazione: « Per retta ragione nello stato naturale dell'umanità, diversamente dalla maggior parte degli scrittori che la considerano una facoltà infallibile, intendo l'atto di ragionare, cioè il ragionamento, proprio a ciascun individuo e vero, nei riguardi delle azioni che possono portare utilità o danno agli altri uomini » 6
Da questo diverso significato di ragione deriva una differenza fondamentale tra la concezione hobbesiana della legge naturale e le concezioni tradizionali. Per_ queste ultime la naturalis ratio o recta ratio prescrive ciò che è buono o cattivo in sé-stesso; per Hobbes, invece, indica ciò che è buono o cattivo rispetto a un determinato fine: « Quelle che chiamiamo leggi di natura non sono altro che una specie di conclusione , tratta dalla ragione in merito a quel che si deve fare o tralasciare » '. E con una maggior chiarezza: « ... non sono che conclusioni, o teoremi, relativi a ciò che conduce alla conservazione e alla difesa di sé stessi » 8• Del resto, non vi possono essere princìpi per sé veri in una filosofia nominalistica come quella di Hobbes, secondo la quale « vero e falso sono attributi del discorso, non delle cose, e, dove non vi è discorso non vi è né verità né falsità » 9•  (N. Bobbio, “Legge naturale e legge civile nella filosofia politica di Hobbes” in Da Marx a Hegel, p.16-17)]

True, in the earlier quotation Spinoza does refer to the human wish to avoid fear. But this avoidance is not “instinctual”! Instead, it is dictated by “reason” and the “true interest” of human beings – in other words, a reason that is more than just instrumental, a mere calculus of utility, but one that is a shared substantive common goal of all human beings! In other words, substantive Reason! That Spinoza con-fuses (misconstrues and mixes together) the two quite distinct notions of substantive and instrumental reason can be gleaned quite easily from the previous quotation and from the one that follows, and indeed from his entire preamble to his theory of the State:

[4] From this it follows that the right, and the order of nature, under which all human beings are born and for the most part live, prohibits nothing but what no one desires or no one can do;2 it does not prohibit strife or hatred or anger or fraud or anything at all that appetite foments. This is unsurprising since nature is not bound by the laws of human reason which aim only at the true interest and conservation of humans, but rather by numberless other things that [191] concern the eternal order of the whole of nature (of which human beings are but a small part), and all individual things are determined to live and behave in a certain way only by the necessity of this order. When therefore we feel that anything in nature is ridiculous, absurd or bad, it is because we know things only in part. We wish everything to be directed in ways familiar to our reason, even though what reason declares to be bad, is not bad with respect to the order and laws of universal nature but only with respect to the laws of our own nature.

Spinoza fails to understand that his idea of Reason cannot stand because it seeks to be both things at once, instrumental and substantive, and therefore it seeks to separate substantive Reason from faith purely on first principles, a priori, deductively or dialectically – something that we are showing to be impossible.


[2] Hence, in order to determine how far each person possesses freedom to think whatever they wish about faith and who we should regard as the true faithful even if their beliefs differ from ours, we must [correctly] define faith and its fundamental principles. This is what I propose to do in this chapter, and at the same time I propose to separate faith from philosophy which, indeed, has been the principal purpose of the whole work. [179]

Given these premises and tenets, the very purpose of Spinoza’s Tractatus becomes immediately un-tenable. If there is to be any freedom in a society, Spinoza stipulates, then the expression of freedom - which must at a minimum follow the formal requirements of instrumental reason - must be separated from faith. Because, if it were otherwise, if faith could interfere with logic and calculation, then the reasoning process itself which is the indispensable ingredient of all reasoning – philosophical or scientific – could not take place – and faith could and would interfere at the very least with freedom of expression, let alone with any other freedom. Yet this distinction entails that it is entirely possible for faith – any faith or at least “true” faith – to be separated and distinguished from practical reasoning and activity in society so that it does not interfere with the functioning and order of that society. But this proposition is manifestly false – for the simple reason that all faith must have a concrete, practical content! Faith is not just an empty belief void of real content. Faith, like all human thoughts, must have a specific real referent to which it points: it must exhort or forbid human beings to do or refrain from doing particular acts, to engage in or desist from specific conduct and practices!

The specious tenor of Spinoza’s argument is made all the more evident in the following passage:
[13] It remains only to show that there is no interaction and no affinity between faith or theology, on the one side, and philosophy, on the other. By now this must be obvious to anyone who knows the aim and the foundations of these two disciplines, which are certainly as different from each other as any two things could be. For the aim of philosophy is nothing but truth, but the aim of faith, as we have abundantly demonstrated, is simply obedience and piety. The foundations of philosophy are universal concepts, and philosophy should be drawn from nature alone. But the foundations of faith are histories and language and are to be drawn only from Scripture and revelation, as we showed in chapter7. Faith therefore allows every person the greatest liberty to think, so that they may think whatever they wish about any question whatever without doing wrong. It only [184] condemns as heretics and schismatics those who put forward beliefs for the purpose of promoting disobedience, hatred, conflict and anger. On the other hand, faith regards as faithful only those who promote justice and charity as far as their reason and abilities allow. (pp.183-40)


If “the aim of philosophy [which for Spinoza is indistinguishable from and interchangeable with reason] is nothing but truth”, then it follows that reason can lead to “truth”. Yet, as we have demonstrated, only instrumental reason can tell us what is not true! Most important, neither instrumental nor substantive Reason can ever tell us what is true! And the reason why substantive Reason cannot establish “truth” for us is that ultimately truth is a belief based on faith! By stating that “the aim of philosophy is nothing but truth”, Spinoza is clearly implying that whereas philosophy and reason can have “truth” as an “aim”, and possibly lead to it, the same cannot be said of faith. But this statement is manifestly false because (ironically and facetiously using logic as instrumental reason!) we have shown that philosophy itself must ultimately rely on faith if it is to seek the “truth” – any “truth” and every “truth”! Of course, faith also cannot establish or ascertain “truth” – and yet “truth” is certainly its “aim” – in total and blatant contradiction with Spinoza’s ill-conceived and sophistical contention here!

Just as he did when he inducted “natural rights” from the state of nature into the civil state by defining and assuming away all the evident contradictions contained in his political theory, so now Spinoza exasperatedly hopes that the vain repetition of a non sequitur will lead us – to follow him in this fantasy of separating substantive Reason from faith!

We have established it as absolutely certain that theology should not be subordinate to reason, nor reason to theology, but rather that each has its own domain. For reason, as we said, reigns over the domain of truth and wisdom, theology over that of piety and obedience. For the power of reason, as we have shown, cannot extend to ensuring that people may be happy by obedience alone without understanding things, while theology tells us nothing other than this and decrees nothing but obedience. Theology has no designs against reason, and cannot have any. For the dogmas of faith (as we showed in the previous chapter) determine only what is necessary for obedience, and leave it to reason to determine how precisely they are to be understood in relation to truth. Reason is the true light of the mind without which it discerns nothing but dreams and fantasies. (Spinoza, p.190)

But this is precisely the entire point! The crux of the contention! Neither substantive Reason nor instrumental reason can determine how precisely the dogmas or tenets of faith are to be understood in relation to truth! Neither substantive nor instrumental reason can ever establish any “truth” whatsoever except negatively in the case of instrumental reason – by showing that a given proposition or project is logically contradictory or practically counter-productive - or as an article of faith in the case of substantive Reason! Spinoza is seeking to reduce truth to the calculus of utility – which can be accomplished only by instrumental reason in a negative sense (in the sense of “this is untrue because it is contradictory and illogical”). But truth cannot be reduced or confined to instrumental reason because the meaning of truth requires the faith of substantive Reason and faith in substantive Reason! Hence, substantive Reason cannot possibly be disentangled from faith in its pursuit of truth. Spinoza confusedly argues that he has achieved just this when in fact he has merely separated instrumental (not substantive!) reason from faith – and therefore also what he calls “philosophy”, by which he intends the ambit of substantive Reason but in fact is only logic or instrumental reason, from theology!

The central political question then becomes for us (I am using the Hegelian distinction between being-in-itself and being-for-itself where the former is the inert world and the latter refers to human consciousness [Bewusst-sein], the “for us”) in Western civilisation to determine, first, on what rational bases we can ground this “faith in Reason and Freedom” that arises from the inter-subjectivity of “truth” – and thence what specific social institutional arrangements can best protect and enhance the Freedom entailed by out “faith of and in substantive Reason”.


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