Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Freedom, Reason, and Faith - Spinoza's Tractatus

The tragedy and the irony of the capitalist bourgeoisie is that it needs dictatorial power to expropriate workers at the beginning of its reign - to effect what Marx and historians since have called "primitive accumulation" -; it then needs to relent and expand democratic rule as it consolidates its power within national boundaries; but then, as its ill-gotten wealth and power over workers is extended to other working populations in other territories and nation-states, the bourgeoisie begins once more to resist democratic movements at home because (a) they threaten its political hegemony, of course, and (b) they clash with the more dictatorial powers that the bourgeoisie promotes in those other territories or "markets" to ensure maximum exploitation of the workers there!

The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that we discuss below was written by Baruch Spinoza 350 years ago to encourage the Dutch commercial bourgeoisie to defend and uphold democracy in the Netherlands which was being attacked by the conservative loyalist authoritarian landed feudal aristocracy. The Tractatus was an impassioned plea with and warning to this benighted bourgeoisie that unless they seriously defended democracy, they would inevitably succumb to the dark forces of authoritarian anti-mercantilist reaction.

Of course, this is exactly the analogous situation that we are facing right now: having to cajole our own ever-richer and authoritarian international or "globalist" Western bourgeoisie to defend democracy against the onslaught of murderous regimes and populations such as the Han Chinese Dictatorship - and its people! However attracted Western bourgeoisies might be to these pernicious and blood-thirsty Rats, the fact is that without a renewed Western Crusade against these malignant cancerous outgrowths of capitalism, the entire achievements of Western Judaeo-Christian liberal and democratic civilisations will be lost, maybe forever.

But what can be the rational foundations of a new Faith in Freedom and Reason? This is the question we are seeking to answer in our series on "The Concept of Freedom". Enjoy!


[1] Hitherto our concern has been to separate philosophy from theology and to establish the freedom to philosophize which this separation allows to everyone. The time has now come to enquire how far this freedom to think and to say what one thinks extends in the best kind of state. To consider this in an orderly fashion, we must first discuss the foundations of the state but, before we do that, we must explain, without reference to the state and religion, the natural right (jus) which everyone possesses. (Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, p.195)

It is surely no historical coincidence that the rise of capitalism in the last five hundred years runs abreast with that of modern skepticism. (See R. Popkin, The History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza.) The rising European bourgeoisie needed to question and undermine religious faith to the extent that such faith posed a clear and imponent obstacle to the research and experimentation and the elimination of old customs and traditions required to facilitate the relentless advance of capitalist industrial production and distribution. The old faith of absolutist regimes needed to be substituted with a new “marketplace of ideas” in which the “citizens” of the new liberal nation-states based on parliamentary representation could argue, discuss, debate and above all else experiment to their hearts’ content, so long as the real marketplace of the economy, subject to the scientific “laws of the self-regulating market”, was left untouched by religious faith and other inhibitions and superstitions. (On all this, see our “Descartes’s World”.)

In effect, the bourgeoisie could homologate, on one side, the ideology of a technical-neutral economic science that could preserve scientifically the expanded reproduction of bourgeois society and, on the other side, the freedom of thought and of religious observance or faith by means of the corresponding political neutrality of the liberal State in the sphere of public opinion. This was then and remains to this day the essence of bourgeois liberalism – the belief that the technical scientificity of the capitalist marketplace can ensure the efficient reproduction of society – the Economics – on one side, and the freedom of thought, of faith, and even of speech in the public sphere – the Politics – with the homologation of these very heterogeneous spheres – one scientific, Economic, and the other eminently Political – guaranteed osmotically by the technical neutrality of the liberal State – the State of Law.

The secret to the enduring and universal prescriptions, appeal and legitimacy of Political Economy, from Smith to Mill and beyond to the Neoclassics, was all here. And it is precisely on this Political Economy homologating the scientific sphere of Economics with the Political one of public opinion (freedom of thought, of opinion, and of faith) that the liberal State was founded. The technical-neutral legitimacy of the liberal State was based precisely on its ability to secure the inflexible, authoritarian scientific operation of capitalist industry, on one hand, and the liberal tolerance of divergent and conflicting views, opinions, ideas and faiths in the political sphere. It was thus that the neat separation between economic base and ideological superstructure espoused and theorised even by the sharpest critics of bourgeois liberal society (not least Karl Marx and Marxism tout court) could triumph unhindered and unquestioned across the political spectrum from bourgeois conservatism to proletarian socialism. Tolerance in public opinion and absolute discipline in the factory: these were and are the unspoken foundations of liberal bourgeois society and of capitalist industry.

Spinoza’s earnest endeavor “to separate philosophy from theology” must be situated in this politico-ideological spectrum whereby the logico-scientific and instrumental reason of bourgeois industry and science could be freed from the strictures of religious faith and other social customs through the very skepticism that instrumental reason invokes to demolish all unproven and unscientific beliefs and customs. - And therefore, in Spinoza’s own symmetry, the separation of faith from reason is predicated on the skeptical tenet that Reason does not rely on or indeed contain any elements of faith – that the two are mutually exclusive. His is perhaps the most veiled summation of the bourgeois “scientific” skepticism that presents Reason as (a) almost exclusively instrumental reason (logical and mathematical calculation), and therefore (b) as a negative critical tool to be employed in the adjudication of open debate over opinions and beliefs, though not faith itself which, ex hypothesi, is entirely “separate” from and therefore incommensurable with reason itself. In this regard, Spinoza’s novel approach to Reason and faith is ultimately an attempt to promote tolerance in public debate by (i) removing faith from the public sphere, and (ii) reassuring the citizens of the new bourgeois republics in Holland and Britain that their State could act as a technico-neutral institution to guarantee freedom of thought and speech in a “marketplace of ideas” that could function only if the analogous and homologous real marketplace of capitalist production could be left to its own scientifically-established self-regulation. (On all this, the insuperable reference is K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation.)

In reality, however, this impassioned defence of the bourgeois economic marketplace and its political counterpart in the marketplace of opinions (public opinion) could not stand because faith and reason cannot be so neatly separated as Spinoza imagined. Faith and reason are not mutually exclusive because the two are jointly exhaustive. Although instrumental reason is a pure faculty of thought as Wittgenstein showed (we may contradict ourselves in error, but we cannot entertain contradiction), this is certainly not true of substantive Reason. Because the “truth” that substantive Reason seeks to establish is a practical-ethical goal and, as such, it must entail the existence of a belief or faith in the desirability of truth. This is so because there cannot be any ultimate proof – logical or scientific or otherwise – of the desirability of Reason and truth. We are either on the side of these human faculties and goals or we are not. The choice is ours. Yet, this does not mean that we cannot or must desist from advancing overwhelming practical reasons behind our choice to follow Reason and truth, and ultimately to choose freedom. (We shall review the phenomenological grounding of our “faith in Reason” later.)

Thus, “the freedom to philosophize” is not “allowed by the separation of philosophy from theology” and therefore of reason from faith for two concomitant reasons. The first is that substantive Reason engenders and ultimately must be sustained by faith in itself. The second is that faith – blind faith especially – cannot be pure “piety and obedience” and thus it necessarily interferes with substantive Reason. In other words, Reason ultimately cannot and must not tolerate any faith other than faith in reason!

Just as Spinoza’s political theory retraces and in many ways re-proposes Hobbes’s own superbly coherent summation of the fundamental principles of bourgeois society and its underlying foundational ideology, so does his attempted separation of faith from reason reflect – faithfully! – the bourgeois conviction that the reasonable, indeed scientific, technical-neutral functioning of the capitalist economy is the indispensable condition for the existence of a free liberal society – evidently one that is able to separate the public “thing” - the wealth that is common in the “Common-wealth”, the res publica - from the freedom of faith and thought that the bourgeois economy and bourgeois liberalism jointly guarantee. There is an implicit belief in this ideology that the economic base of a society – its material reproduction - (a) can be insulated scientifically and technically (through the human faculty of instrumental reason) from the sphere of public opinion and subjective belief and faith; and (b) such insulation can guarantee the peaceful co-existence of any ideas, customs, beliefs and opinions that members of the society might entertain. The bourgeois ideology of liberalism is all here.

Note that this bourgeois-capitalist ideology – liberalism – does not countenance or envisage the active democratic participation of citizens in the constitution of the State. On the contrary, it assumes that the liberal State is “scientifically” or “naturally” constituted so that the citizens are not the active democratic decision-makers but instead are the passive recipients of “liberties” or “legal guarantees” on the part of this technically-neutral and scientifically constituted “natural” State – “natural” because it is the natural outgrowth of the natural rights and propensities of the individuals that have agreed contractually to found bourgeois civil society and the liberal State! Spinoza’s evident aim in the Tractatus is to draw the “reasonable” acquisition of the res publica, of bourgeois civil society and its State, from the “natural rights” pre-existing in “the state of nature”. In this respect, Spinoza’s political theory is closer to John Locke’s than it is to Thomas Hobbes’s.

It is entirely obvious that this type of “insulation” of economics from politics is homologous and analogous to the presumed separation of faith from reason and philosophy from theology that Spinoza attempts and claims to have demonstrated: the “freedom” – of opinion and faith – guaranteed by “the State of Law” of liberal society depends entirely on this separation! Spinoza assumes here that faith is a pure intense feeling of devotion to a Supreme Being that abstracts from, and voids itself of, any specific content that might concern human behavior – excluding, of course, the very action of focusing on this faith by sheer mental exertion. For Spinoza, faith consists of pure Piety and Obedience. For Spinoza, Reason, by contrast - although like faith it remains a pure mental process (a “tool”, just like instrumental reason or indeed economics for Schumpeter and Joan Robinson was “a box of tools”) that is entirely conceptual and therefore abstract and formal, that is, immaterial – , yet must be applied purely instrumentally to human activities to determine how and to what extent they are feasible.

But it is just as obvious, however, how untenable Spinoza’s proposition is. Faith always and inevitably, like any other thought, must have a material content, not least because it is a material thought process. (One may recall here Kant’s saying that “intuition without concepts is blind, and concepts without intuition are empty”. As we have sought to show in our discussion of Kant in “The Philosophy of the Flesh”, this is probably as close as Kant ever got to admitting that thoughts too are “material”. Heidegger’s anthropological existentialist reformulation of Kant’s idealism in the Kantbuch moves in a parallel direction to ours.) For Spinoza, faith can be without practical content – a pure dimension of thought; an ethereal intension, rather than a practical extension; whereas reason must have a practical extension or application, for otherwise it would not be “reason” at all – that is, both ratio and causa, both calculation of the relation between real material entities and causal link between them. For him faith is an abstract belief or emotion toward the Deity – it is pure “piety and obedience” – and can therefore be “empty” as well as “blind”. But piety toward whom or what, we ask? Worse still, Obedience to whose Will? By contrast, Reason is instead a formal faculty to connect real thoughts and entities: it cannot be “empty” because reason cannot ec-sist without the world; and it most certainly is not “blind” because its only purpose is to be applied to the world  (cf. Kant’s notion of intuition).

Pure faith is “blind” when and because it is devoid of reason, not backed by practical experience. Reason cannot be co-extensive with faith because its goals must always be backed by evidence. Faith other than faith in Reason must be blind; Reason cannot be blind if it wishes to preserve itself. Reason must be concrete; faith cannot be so. Yet, empty faith is pointless! Blind faith is the contrary of “empty faith”: – indeed, it is so “blindly” fixed or fixated on its “points” – the object of faith - that there is no point in arguing against it! It is pointless to attempt to persuade blind faith from pursuing its “point”! The point of blind faith is that it cannot be disproven; it is implicit, total, blind – it is immune to reason and reasoning! (For a more sympathetic approach to faith, but one wholly consistent with ours here, see amongst others M. Cacciari, Della Cosa Ultima, p.127.) This point can be driven home if we begin to think of religious faith in terms of “religious observance” – that is, in terms of the specific conduct that religious faith inevitably prescribes or proscribes!

Reason itself is not immune to faith! Faith is inconfutable; in contrast, the conclusions of reason must be falsifiable! (Cf. Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, The Logic of Scientific Discovery.) Faith is the end of Reason – as the nec plus ultra or ultimate boundary or limit or terminus ad quem of Reason because no more questions can be asked, no more “reasons” can be given. Beyond Reason lies Fichte’s projectio per hiatus irrationalem. Faith is the unstated and unwitting, and perhaps unwanted aim of Reason, its Voll-endung, its con-clusion, its com-pletion, its satis-faction. For Reason not to debouch into faith, it needs to keep its quest end-less, abjuring and eschewing faith. For Reason to keep its integrity, it must renounce and revile all faith except in itself! But then, to do so, it must offer “reasons” – never step over into blind faith, into mysticism. To maintain its faith in itself, Reason must combat all other faiths as false gods. Reason can and must only tolerate itself – and no faith other than in itself! (Cf. the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no god other than me”.)

Thus, the purpose of the state [Respublica]… is freedom. Furthermore, we have seen that the one essential feature in the formation of the state was that all power to make laws should be vested in the entire citizen body, or in a number of citizens, or in one man. For since there is a considerable diversity in the free judgment of men, each believing that he alone knows best, and since it is impossible that all should think alike and speak with one voice, peaceful existence could not be achieved unless every man surrendered his right to act just as he thought fit. Thus, it was only the right to act as he thought fit that each man surrendered, and not his right to reason and judge. So while to act against the sovereign's decree is definitely an infringement of his right, this is not the case with thinking, judging, and consequently with speaking, too, provided one does no more than express or communicate one's opinion, defending it through rational conviction alone, not through deceit, anger, hatred, or the will to effect such changes in the state as he himself decides. (TTP, 293)


Spinoza’s aim is the co-existence of faith and reason (see quotation above). To secure this co-existence, he has to divorce faith from politics and leave politics to Reason. That is precisely the utopia of liberalism, of capitalist ideology: to separate the technical-neutral, scientific operation of the economy, the contractual society of self-interested individuals, from their opinions and beliefs and faiths. If indeed the reproduction of society (simple or expanded) can be secured scientifically through the optimal allocation of social resources by means of the market mechanism, then a similar operation can be achieved in the sphere of public opinion where the free exchange of ideas can lead to a contractual “meeting of the minds” or agreement between individuals such that they will reach a democratic consensus over the laws of the republic and its State. The underlying assumption here is that the market mechanism that governs the sphere of production and distribution of social wealth is (a) dependent on materialistic utilitarian motives from self-interested individuals, and (b) both these materialistic motives and the market mechanism regulating them are independent from and indeed impervious to other beliefs, motives, opinions and faiths that can be freely debated and decided upon in “the marketplace of public opinion”.

The reproduction of capitalist society is thus made to be dependent on technical-neutral objective scientific developments independent of “subjective” faiths and opinions, while these “life-style” choices can be debated democratically and be guaranteed constitutionally by the welfare-tutelary liberal State which serves as an osmotic barrier to ensure that the “subjective side” of faith and opinion does not interfere with the “objective side” of science, technology and economics that ensures the efficient reproduction of capitalist society. Here is Spinoza again:

[14] In order, then, for loyalty to be valued rather than flattery, and for sovereigns to retain their full authority and not be forced to surrender to sedition, freedom of judgment must necessarily be permitted and people must be governed in such a way that they can live in harmony, even though they openly hold different and contradictory opinions. We cannot doubt that this is the best way of ruling, and has the least disadvantages, since it is the one most in harmony with human nature. In a democratic state (which is the one closest to the state of nature), all men agree, as we showed above, to act but not to judge or think according to the common decision. That is, because people cannot all have the same opinions, they have agreed that the view which gains the most votes should acquire the force of a decision, reserving always the right to recall their decision whenever they should find a better course. The less people are accorded liberty of judgment, consequently, the further they are from the most natural condition and, hence, the more oppressive the regime.

The democratic state is “the one closest to the state of nature” because it preserves the utilitarian self-interest of individuals. But to that “utilitarian equilibrium” of possessive individualism, the democratic state advocated by Spinoza adds the security of the liberal State – the protection of “life, liberty, and estate” (John Locke, Two Treatises). Spinoza’s democratic state does not deliberate on the allocation of social resources, on the reproduction of society and the distribution of wealth. Instead, it is entirely confined to the sphere of opinion: -

…freedom of judgment must necessarily be permitted and people must be governed in such a way that they can live in harmony, even though they openly hold different and contradictory opinions. We cannot doubt that this is the best way of ruling, and has the least disadvantages, since it is the one most in harmony with human nature.

Once again, Spinoza’s supposition – his prejudicial assumption – is that the material interests of self-interested individuals in the state of nature are (a) natural and therefore (b) pre-determined and immutable except through abusive violence that the “security” of the State alone can protect and for which the individuals agree to erect the State in the first place! The role of the State, then, is that of securing the natural rights to possession that obtained in the state of nature, and to guarantee the freedom of thought of the newly-formed citizenry. As with Schopenhauer, the fundamental rationale of the State, of the res publica, is the salus publica: the State is Police! The seal of this “opinionistic” stance of Spinoza’s is the fact that the Tractatus is assuredly “political” – but it is above all theologico-political in the sense that its overriding aim is to regulate the relation between Reason as the formation of public opinion and Faith as the foundation of Religion! Spinoza’s only concern is the freedom of thought unburdened from the oppression of rulers and above all from religious interference.

Put bluntly, Spinoza’s aim in the Tractatus is to legitimize the bourgeois liberal State by (a) asserting the dependence of its reproductive economic base on pre-political “natural rights” ascertainable and defensible through “reason” (by which he intends “instrumental reason”) unencumbered by religious faith and other creeds, and (b) seeking to prove the conceptual and practical independence and separation of faith from reason so as to demonstrate the ability of the bourgeois liberal State to guarantee freedom of thought and speech. In other words, Spinoza is contending that faith is politically harmless because it does not interfere with the reasoning of a liberal bourgeois society – so long as those who observe their faith in liberal society stick to pure faith as piety and obedience! The circulus vitiosus, the tautological reasoning in Spinoza’s argument would be laughable if it did not come from such a genial mind! (Incidentally, it is obvious from our analysis that we side with Massimo Cacciari against Antonio Negri in their epic diatribe over the assessment of Spinoza’s political philosophy and theory of the State. Far from being a revolutionary democrat, as Negri contended, Spinoza here reveals himself as a proponent of the liberal bourgeois State, as Cacciari maintained.)

In a democratic state (which is the one closest to the state of nature), all men agree, as we showed above, to act but not to judge or think according to the common decision.

But judging and thinking are a form of acting – especially when they concern material interests! Once again, as he always does, Spinoza solves the problem of the democratic state and conflict of interest by defining or assuming the conflict away, by restricting it to the sphere of opinion as against action! No regard whatsoever is had by Spinoza for how and to what extent thoughts and words and associations are to be safeguarded or tolerated against the interests of the republic. Nor does he pay any attention to the “economic” question – to the production and distribution of social wealth, to the conflict of material interests that invariably is accompanied by seemingly “ideological” debates. This is sheer theoretical and practical folly because the “scientific” operation of the economic base can never be isolated from the opinions, beliefs, customs and, of course, the “faith” that Spinoza wishes to protect with his freedom of thought and action as well as of religious observance! In short, what Spinoza leaves out is the whole question of tolerance. As Balibar puts it,

The difficulty - and the interest - of the political theory set out in the TTP lies in the tension it creates between notions which are apparently incompatible and which are still perceived as such even today. This tension at first appears to stem from the attempt to transcend the ambiguities inherent in the idea of "tolerance". (Spinoza and Politics, p.25.)

(Balibar, in his Spinoza and Politics, carries out a spirited exegesis and justification of the Dutch philosopher’s many contradictory political notions – with the notable merit of at least identifying them and dutifully and meticulously pointing them out!)

“Transcend the ambiguities inherent in the idea of ‘tolerance’” – indeed! Spinoza merely ignores them by defining them away, by (a) defining true faith as a practice with no political content, and (b) by confining reason to instrumental reason, which allows (i) for the freedom of bourgeois public opinion, and (ii) the freedom of bourgeois commercial and scientific experimentation. (As we showed in “Descartes’s World”, commercial and industrial capitalist enterprise are inseparable in the history of capitalism.) The problem with Spinoza’s entire theorization of the free republic is that, on one hand, he defines problems away; and on the other hand, when the problems keep cropping up in reality, he simply says that they are not problems in any case because conflict simply makes the free republic freer!

It is quite surprising that Spinoza, the foremost proponent of the mos geometricus – the syllogistic argumentation so ably adopted in his Ethics – should fall into so many palpable contradictions, vicious circles, non sequiturs and tautologies! It is true that Spinoza developed his political theory in a much more systematic and deductive form in the late Tractatus Politicus (minus the theology, that is). The strict determinism and immanentism of the late Tractatus Politicus brings him much closer to the materialist mechanicism of Hobbes. Importantly, however, Spinoza moves away from the jusnaturalistic (natural right) possessive individualistic premises of the earlier Tractatus to a more collectivist immanentist position (one that we shall develop presently).

Still, when it comes to truly syllogistic or even Euclidean argumentation, one can do no better than to prefer the sublime consistency of Thomas Hobbes’s political theory whose materialism was far more scientifically based than Spinoza’s immanentism. It was to avoid the contradictions of liberalism, and therefore in full awareness of them, that Hobbes founded his bourgeois political theory on illiberal principles! In fact, it is not surprising that Spinoza’s later Tractatus too moves in this illiberal direction, out of sheer consistency.

Thus, it is not possible to separate faith from reason because faith inevitably points to a real material content, to a specific course of action – which inevitably and invariably attracts the critique of reason for “kingdoms not of this world” (Weber) that yet seek to interfere with life in this world! And therefrom erupts the clash, the conflict between blind faith and skeptical reason. Hence, by way of conclusion, we must return to the Spinoza quotation we already cited above, which is the fatidic point where he finally confronts the true crux of the problem in defining a free republic – “la questione spinosa”, we may wittily call it (the spiny issue):

Thus, the purpose of the state [Respublica]… is freedom. … For since there is a considerable diversity in the free judgment of men, each believing that he alone knows best, and since it is impossible that all should think alike and speak with one voice, peaceful existence could not be achieved unless every man surrendered his right to act just as he thought fit. Thus, it was only the right to act as he thought fit that each man surrendered, and not his right to reason and judge. So while to act against the sovereign's decree is definitely an infringement of his right, this is not the case with thinking, judging, and consequently with speaking, too, provided one does no more than express or communicate one's opinion, defending it through rational conviction alone, not through deceit, anger, hatred, or the will to effect such changes in the state as he himself decides. (TTP, 293)


As we have established, contrary to what Spinoza contends, “thinking, judging, and consequently…speaking” are forms of political action! (Hannah Arendt spent her entire lifetime trying to prove this essential point – see The Human Condition, above all.) In other words, this is worth emphasizing – the essential ingredient of a free republic is that decisions are made democratically when alternatives are deliberated upon “through rational conviction alone”! The next question for us to tackle is this, then: given that faith and substantive Reason are inseparable or, as we stated earlier, are “jointly exhaustive” and not “mutually exclusive”, how can we reasonably build a republic founded on our faith in Reason and freedom? And further, what are the rational foundations of such a faith? And once we have established this, how far can we tolerate views, opinions, ideas, creeds, faiths that challenge the very legitimacy and stability of a free republic founded on faith in Reason?







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