Joy and Sadness

“By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion that leads the Mind to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which the Mind passes to a lesser perfection” (Spinoza, Ethics, book III, proposition 11, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 500-501).

This was always one of my favorite parts. Spinoza was the first writer I know of to explicitly give a positive ethical value in its own right to a joyful attitude (or any kind of passion). But this actually makes a lot of sense. When we are joyful we are more likely to be kind and generous, confident, and strong.

The sadness that he speaks of as leading to a lesser perfection has to do not so much with the bittersweet of mourning a loved one, as with unnecessarily negative attitudes in life. Emotionally negative attitudes lead to pettiness and spite, and make us into lesser beings. Intellectual criticism and questioning, of course, need not involve any emotional negativity.

Spinoza on Human Confusion

Spinoza strikes a rather Platonic note in suggesting that insofar as we live by perception and imagination we are reactive, confused, and unfree, but insofar as we have genuine ideas or concepts, we are active and free. This last part depends on his rather unusual take on what ideas are.

“I say expressly that the Mind has, not an adequate, but only a confused… knowledge, of itself, of its own Body, and of external bodies, so long as it perceives things from the common order of nature, i.e., so long as it is determined externally, from fortuitous encounters with things, to regard this or that, and not so long as it is determined internally, from the fact that it regards a number of things at once, to understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions. For so often as it is disposed internally, in this or another way, then it regards things clearly and distinctly, as I shall show below” (Spinoza, Ethics, book II, proposition 29, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 471, brackets in original).

The actual nature of “Mind” for Spinoza has yet to be made clear. So far it seems straightforwardly individual; there is nothing here like the Aristotelian and Hegelian notion of Reason as a socially and linguistically grounded ethos. On the other hand, we soon will turn out to be very far indeed from a standard modern or early modern notion of mind. I am almost reminded of the non-private interiority that connects us to God in Augustine. But either way, the practical result is that we get to an antidote for confusion, thanks to participation in a Reason that is takes us beyond what is merely subjective or self-seeking.

Again like Plato, he emphasizes that ideas are different both from images and from words, implicitly taking both of the latter as examples of mere representation. To regard a number of things at once and understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions is to ground one’s perspective in relations of Reason rather than in mere representations of singular things.

“I begin, therefore, by warning my Readers, first, to distinguish accurately between an idea, or concept, of the Mind, and the images of things that we imagine. And then it is necessary to distinguish between ideas and the words by which we signify things. For because many people either confuse these three — ideas, images, and words — or do not distinguish them accurately enough, or carefully enough, they have been completely ignorant of this doctrine concerning the will. But it is quite necessary to know it, both for the sake of speculation and in order to arrange one’s life wisely.”

“Indeed, those who think that ideas consist in images which are formed in us from encounters with… bodies, are convinced that those ideas of things… of which we can form no similar image… are not ideas, but only fictions which we feign from a free choice of the will. They look on ideas, therefore, as mute pictures on a panel, and preoccupied with this prejudice, do not see that an idea, insofar as it is an idea, involves an affirmation or negation.”

“And then, those who confuse words with the idea, or with the very affirmation that the idea involves, think that they can will something contrary to what they are aware of, when they only affirm or deny with words something contrary to what they are aware of. But these prejudices can be easily put aside by anyone who attends to the nature of thought, which does not at all involve the concept of extension. He will then understand clearly that an idea (since it is a mode of thinking) consists neither in the image of anything, nor in words. For the essence of words and of images is constituted only by corporeal motions, which do not at all involve the concept of thought” (book II, proposition 49, scholium 2, pp. 485-486).

To stress the separateness of thought from extension is yet again to direct us away from mere representation of things, and from taking the represented things for granted.

When he says that an idea involves an affirmation or negation, he means that unlike an isolated word, an idea in his particular sense is something we can assert or deny (it has propositional content). If it’s actually not a representation, an idea must be an inferential meaning, and that would be something we can affirm or deny.

He had just argued that “In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea” (proposition 49, p. 485). He goes on to strictly identify “the Mind” with its “ideas”, i.e., with what it affirms, and contrariwise with what it rejects. This is what I meant earlier in suggesting that what he means by “Mind” turns out to be quite different from standard modern notions.

In effect he identifies “us” not with our consciousness as Locke does, but rather by what we affirm and what we reject. On this point at least, he comes out close to both Aristotle and Hegel.

I do think Aristotle and Hegel are a little more explicit than Spinoza that what is most authoritative with respect to what we really affirm or deny is what we actually do, as witnessable by others.

Enlightenment, Faith

It is easy to denounce superstition. Such denunciations were a common trope of the 18th century Enlightenment. Hegel took a more radical approach, defining what is commonly translated as “revealed” religion in terms of an openness and availability to all, in contrast to supposedly esoteric content available only to a few. In a later section Harris says “It is a mistake to call this final phase of Religion ‘revealed’ (as the English translators both do). It is not geoffenbart but offenbar — not ‘revealed’ but ‘out in the open’ or ‘manifest'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 649).

Hegel effectively separated this openness and availability from any proto-fundamentalist claims of unconditional supernatural givenness. Nonetheless, he was deeply convinced of the importance of spiritual values and the recognition of something greater than our individual selves. He was sharply critical of those who would reduce all religion to superstition, and of D’Holbach’s talk of a conspiracy of priests and kings against the rest of us.

The Faith to which Hegel gives a positive sense really has nothing to do with belief in certain assertions as historical fact. (One might even argue that to put revelation on the plane of historical fact is to mistakenly give it a worldly rather than spiritual interpretation.) As Harris puts it in his commentary, “The ‘world’ of Faith is a world not of things, but of conscious interpretive processes” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 349). Faith has to do with how we actively respond to situations.

What Hegel would call the “truth” of Enlightenment is a vindication of the positive value of life in this actual world, as against its denial in favor of an otherworldly Beyond. Everything about what is greater than us should be interpreted in terms of how we ought to act here in this actual world.

Hegelian Finitude

Hegel has usually been considered to be anything but a thinker of finitude. However, the two previous philosophers to whom he devoted the most pages — Aristotle and Kant — are in their own very different ways perhaps the two most emblematic philosophers of finitude. If we start with Hegel’s ethics rather than his supposed metaphysics of Geist as a sort of divine immanence and his supposed doctrine of “absolute knowledge”, a deep resonance between his thought and Aristotle and Kant’s themes of finitude becomes evident.

Hegel is in fact extremely concerned to point out that we are not masters in life, and that error is inevitable. Further, more so than Kant — and arguably even more than Aristotle — he puts an overtly positive, optimistic face on this finite condition.

In his logical works, Hegel distinguished between a “good” and a “bad” infinity. Similarly, it could be said that he implicitly makes a very sharp distinction between “good” and “bad” finitude. Bad finitude is associated with what he called the Unhappy Consciousness. With the advent of monotheism in the West, one common extreme view held that before the infinity of God, we and all finite beings are as nothing. In this view, finite being is a mainly a burden to be overcome in the hereafter, and has no intrinsic value of its own.

“Good” finitude is what emerges from Hegel’s own view. As completely as Nietzsche but in a more balanced way, Hegel rejected the idea of finitude as a burden. For Hegel, finitude is an opportunity, not a curse. Error is an invitation to learning, and non-mastery is the path to reality. (See also Brandom on Postmodernity; Back to Ethical Being; Infinity, Finitude; Respect for All Beings; Affirmation; Truth, Beauty; Secondary Causes).

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Ricoeur on History

Having just treated Ricoeur’s views on historiography at a semi-technical level, and having just received a copy of his collection of essays History and Truth (French ed. 1955), I think this less technical earlier work, roughly contemporary with Freedom and Nature, merits a digression. It gives broad expression to his desire to mediate and reconcile, as well as more specific voice to his personal views on religion and politics.

At this stage, history for Ricoeur particularly meant two special kinds of history — the history of philosophy, and the historical dimension of Christian revelation.

The kind of history of philosophy he wanted to practice would not involve treating views of philosophers as instantiations of generic types of views, but rather treating each philosopher as a singularity. He argues that good history in general is largely concerned with singulars. I would agree on both points. There is a precursor to his later argument about the mediating role of singular causal imputation, and one of the essays begins with the wonderful quote from Spinoza that to better know singulars is to better know God.

In contrast to adherents of philosophical “systems” who would reduce the history of philosophy to moments in a monolithic “philosophy of history” subordinated to a system, he poses the idea of a simultaneously sympathetic and critical account of irreducibly multiple, integral philosophies. Philosophical “problems”, he says, do not eternally have the same meaning.

I find this very admirable, even though Ricoeur at this stage sounds like he uncritically accepted a Kierkegaardian view of Hegel as the bad “systematic” philosopher of history par excellence, whereas I follow more recent readings of Hegel as a leading critic of that sort of thing. On the other hand, he very correctly points out how Hegel reduced away Spinoza’s genuine concern for subjectivity.

Somewhat circumspectly, he suggests that a Christian notion of revelatory events in history creates something like a surplus of meaning that acts as a safeguard against totalizing views of history. I’m generally very nervous about claims of revelation, as revelation is often regarded as an unchallengeable knowledge with self-evident interpretation. Arrogant humans too often claim to just know the will of God, and want to impose their certainty on others. This has nothing to do with piety, and certainly does not reflect any humility or respect for mystery. The idea of a surplus of meaning on the other hand is precisely not a claim to “just know” that meaning.

Ricoeur’s idea of an inexhaustible “surplus” of meaning exceeding any interpretation has been criticized as implying that the meaning then must be predetermined on some virtual level, but that objection seems artificial to me, because Ricoeur’s idea is an acknowledgement of lack of knowledge rather than a knowledge claim. The inexhaustible surplus seems to me to be a less “metaphysical” analogue of the neoplatonic notion that ultimate principles are “supra-essential” and therefore beyond the grasp of rigorous knowledge but only hinted at in symbols, which I think actually reflected a kind of epistemic modesty. This seems to me no more objectionable than Kant’s notion of things in themselves as exceeding our knowledge.

As in the later discussion in Time and Narrative, he ambivalently develops a notion of historical objectivity and truth. On the one hand, he finds the quest for this both necessary and admirable, but on the other he worries that the truth of the historian abolishes both history as grounded in subjective consciousness, and the eschatology associated with revelation. Ricoeur wants to make room for personal faith, without compromising the autonomy of philosophy by asserting its subordination to revealed theology. He advocates for historical objectivity, but remains wary of any objectifying reduction of human or spiritual realities. The antidote to objectification is Marcelian mystery, and a recognition of ambiguity that he associates with faith. Ultimately, he wants to promote hope.

The later, even more nuanced discussion in Time and Narrative carefully weakens this work’s apparent claims on behalf of subjective consciousness, but here too, there is considerable subtlety.

In contrast to Sartre’s identification of freedom with negativity and nothingness, he wants to emphasize the primacy of affirmation. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, he says he wants to emphasize the primacy of a phenomenology of signification and meaning like that developed in Husserl’s early Logical Investigations. Ricoeur already thinks it is an error to treat human perception as if it could be separated from our involvement in language.

One essay is a tribute to Emmanuel Mounier, to whose journal Esprit he was a frequent contributor. Mounier’s “personalist” movement aimed at a new pedagogy to combat modern alienation, combining Christianity and a concern for the individual with a sort of democratic socialism. Another piece deals with nonviolence, and another contrasts Christian Agape with the “punitive violence of the magistrate” (p. 240).

Political power, Ricoeur says, is eminently prone to evil. Utopian belief in the future withering away of the state allowed many to justify a disregard for terrible abuses in the present, while the “false truth” of fascism was morally far worse. Clerical power is as dangerous as political power. “[T]he religious totality and the political totality are genuine totalities of our existence. This is why they are the two greatest temptations for the spirit of falsehood, the lapse from the total to the totalitarian” (p. 189). Ricoeur says that “the Christian has everything to learn from the critique of power elaborated by classical ‘liberal’ thought from Locke to Montesquieu, by the ‘anarchist’ thought of Bakunin, by those who supported the [Paris Commune of 1870], and by the non-Stalinist Marxists” (p. 117).

Meant Realities

In speaking of meant realities, my purpose is to suggest a contrast both with a view that meaning pertains to mental representations, and with anything purely formal in the modern syntactic sense, though meant realities may be understood as a sort of pure forms in an Aristotelian sense (see Mutation of Meaning).

I am not thinking of direct reference or correspondence. Reference and correspondence do come into play, but only circuitously. In the first instance, meant realities emerge with relative robustness from the cross-referencing, cross-checking, and mutual involvement — or preconscious Kantian synthesis — of many meanings, affirmations, and values.

The expression of meant realities in ordinary language forms the subject matter of material inference.

Common sense, ordinary language use, and the unconscious all jump over processes of synthesis to a taking of meant realities as they currently appear in context. Such practically necessary but always implicitly provisional shortcuts can be deconstructed again through interpretation and dialogue. (See also Reality; Substance; Beings; Reference, Representation.)

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.