Spinoza, Nietzsche and Living in a Material World

Charlie Huenemann, a philosophy professor at Utah State, was interviewed in April by Richard Marshall for Marshall’s “End Times” series. It’s a good interview, and I especially liked the way Huenemann compared the philosophies of Spinoza and Nietzsche.


    Baruch and Friedrich

[CH] I think of Spinoza as a radical religious reformer. I think he was trying to say this: “There is a single entity whose nature determines the structure and existence of the universe, and that entity is the thing that people have been calling “God” for many centuries. But they got the metaphysics (or theology) very wrong, and now we’re in a position to figure out what this divine thing really is, and to see how the writers of scriptures managed to get the basic moral of the story right, while getting all the metaphysical stuff wrong. And by the way, if you understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that there’s no harm in allowing philosophers to write about such things.”

It’s surprising how explicit Spinoza is about all this in his Theological-Political Treatise. He basically says just what I said, though with greater care, and elegant Latin. And saying that was hugely radical for his day. The hypothesis that it was somehow a cloak meant to disguise a view that was even more unthinkable seems to me very unlikely. If that’s what he was up to, then he was an idiot, or at least completely out of touch with his audience. The book he wrote was seen immediately as about the most heretical thing a person could write. So it’s implausible to suspect that he was pulling any punches.

[RM] You say you pit a Spinoza naturalism against a Nietzsche naturalism. Can you sketch for us the salient elements that form this contrast and what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards naturalism . . . ?

[CH] I should say at the outset that I myself don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight. I suspect the naturalism I would describe as Nietzschean is probably true, and that it’s sort of disappointing, and Spinoza’s naturalism is far groovier, but implausible. . . I can’t blame someone for going in with Spinoza: it’s profoundly moving to see the whole of nature as divine. On the other hand, if someone throws in with Nietzsche, they should be fully aware of all they are repudiating. In distinguishing the two kinds of naturalism, I mainly want to direct readers’ attention to the “meaning of life” consequences of these ways of being a naturalist.

Anyway, on to the distinction. Spinoza sees the universe as divine in some important sense. There is an essence to it that lives and breathes in all of its parts. We can come to know that essence through rational demonstration, but he also leaves room for a more immediate and somewhat mystical access to that essence. In his naturalism, humans are part of nature in a way that might best be called “belonging”: we share an essence with all natural things, and in virtue of sharing that essence we can come to know our universal union with all things and attain a special kind of joy in contemplating it. It’s in that sense that I’d call Spinoza’s nature a sanctuary. It’s a sanctuary from despair, alienation, and disconnection – which, incidentally, must have been significant forces in Spinoza’s own life. To be a Spinozist is to see all things, including oneself, as an expression of divinity.

But Nietzsche’s naturalism is quite different. Here I need to be careful, because I think Nietzsche isn’t perfectly consistent over his writings, and sometimes (especially when Zarathustra is speaking) nature is every bit as holy and mystical as anything found in Spinoza. But in other moods, Nietzsche seeks to establish a naturalism that is more like our modern-day naturalism, which is fundamentally a denial of any special features of the universe that might make us feel more at home. The universe itself is a product of chance; that life evolves in some parts of it is entirely accidental; humans are pushed and pulled by all sorts of blind, non-teleological [i.e. non-purposeful] forces. Nothing is inherently significant, and that certainly includes us. Clearly Spinoza agrees with some elements of this (such as denying teleology and any special human significance), but somehow Spinoza manages, at least by the end of the Ethics, to restore a sense of natural divinity and belonging.

In the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy that might be called “nay-sayings”, any sense of belonging is obliterated as merely wishful thinking. We stand at the edge of an uncaring abyss, which is oblivion, death, and meaninglessness. This is followed by Nietzsche’s “yea-saying” part, in which we take it upon ourselves to create meaning, etc. But that challenging, never-ending project of “becoming who you are” makes sense only against a backdrop of an utterly uncaring natural world. To put the distinction into a tidy formula, Spinoza thinks we need to sync ourselves with nature, while Nietzsche thinks we need to weaponize it in the war we wage against meaninglessness. (That strikes me immediately as too tidy, but on the other hand I kind of like how it sounds, so I’ll stick with it!)

Because of their similarities, Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Spinoza early on, but I think he eventually saw Spinoza as illegitimately allowing himself a refuge under the banner of “reason”. If Spinoza had sought true authenticity, he would have torn that banner down and faced down the irrational, chaotic indifference Nietzsche saw in the natural order. (This indifference of the world was an important element in Nietzsche’s own life, too.) It’s the will to power we are dealing with, according to Nietzsche, not the reason for all being.

So, if we want to be naturalists, we might ask ourselves just what it means to be purely natural beings. Is it to be inconsequential by-products of an meaningless process of generation and destruction? Or do we somehow attain an important kind of peace (or even salvation, in some sense) by coming to understand our place in nature? The people who popularize science tend to suggest something uplifting like the second view: human glory consists in coming to understand the vast cosmos, etc. Few people allow the first view any air time, except maybe dystopian sci-fi authors. I realize it’s no fun to mope about in existential despair, and it’s pointless to be pointless. Still, the real character of Nietzschean naturalism . . . needs to be seen clearly for what it is, and we’re guilty of false consciousness when we pretend that anything of alleged intrinsic value survives it.

[LF] With all this in mind, is there any doubt that Spinoza, Nietzsche, Huenemann and Marshall would agree that the current American president is a disaster and we should vote him and every other Republican out of office in November?

No, there isn’t any doubt. If you’re willing and able to support Democratic candidates in addition to voting for them, please consider doing so.

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

This is an entry in a series called The Oxford History of Philosophy, written by an expert on the philosophical school known as “pragmatism”. Here’s how Oxford University Press describes the book:

Cheryl Misak presents a history of the great American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, from its inception in the Metaphysical Club of the 1870s to the present day. She identifies two dominant lines of thought in the tradition: the first begins with Charles S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright and continues through to Lewis, Quine, and Sellars; the other begins with William James and continues through to Dewey and Rorty. This ambitious new account identifies the connections between traditional American pragmatism and twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy, and links pragmatism to major positions in the recent history of philosophy, such as logical empiricism. Misak argues that the most defensible version of pragmatism must be seen and recovered as an important part of the analytic tradition.

According to Professor Misak, “the most defensible version of pragmatism” is the version initiated by C. S. Peirce and Chauncey Wright in the 19th century and carried forward by C. I. Lewis, W. V. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars in the 20th. She argues that it is more defensible because it considers truth to be less subjective. In the caricature or simplification of pragmatism as set forth by William James and criticized by G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, true statements are those that “work for us”. If religious beliefs make your life better, for example, they’re true. By contrast, the tradition that began with Peirce treats truth more objectively. Statements may “work for us” even though they’re false. The Peircean pragmatists see a stronger relationship between truth and how the world is, regardless of human goals or interests.

It isn’t easy to briefly explain what pragmatism is, but Prof. Misak gives it a try in the Preface:

Pragmatists are empiricists in that they require beliefs to be linked to experience. They want their explanations and ontology down-to-earth (natural as opposed to supernatural) and they require philosophical theories to arise out of our practices. As Peirce put the pragmatic maxim, we must look to the upshot of our concepts in order to understand them….

[But] pragmatists reject the part of empiricism that says that all of our beliefs originate in experience and that our beliefs can be linked in an atomistic way to discrete experiences…. They reject any naturalism that gives ontological priority to matter or physicality — they want to consider whether value, generality, chance, etc. might be part of the natural world. They are holists, taking their view to encompass all of science, logic, mathematics, art, religion, ethics and politics. Unlike most of their empiricist predecessors, they fence off no realm of inquiry from the principles they set out.

In the Conclusion, she adds:

The core pragmatist thought is about the human predicament. We must try to explain our practices and concepts, including our epistemic norms and standards, using those very practices, concepts, norms and standards. This is the pragmatist’s task and we have found that, within the pragmatist tradition, there are different ways of trying to fulfill it.

I’ll finish with a brief example of pragmatist thinking. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume is sometimes viewed as a skeptic (e.g. he believed there is no rational basis for ever thinking that one event causes another). The pragmatist John Dewey, however, saw Hume as a predecessor:

While in his study, Hume finds skepticism compelling, but as soon as he leaves that secluded place of theoretical philosophizing, skepticism loses any force it might have had. The skeptic’s doubts, as Peirce would put it, are paper doubts [107].

According to the pragmatists, what matters, even from a philosophical perspective, is how our ideas connect with our lives outside the philosophy class.

Update (January 2020): Without realizing I’d already read it, I read it again. More here.

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

According to The Great Agnostic, there were two great opponents of religion and proponents of naturalism in American history: Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll. Strangely, hardly anyone today has heard of Ingersoll. (For that matter, few Americans today know that Tom Paine had anything to say about religion.)

Robert Ingersoll was a world-famous lawyer and lecturer who lived from 1833 to 1899. He was considered perhaps the greatest orator of his day. He had an extremely successful career traveling all across the country, lecturing to large, appreciative crowds, among whom were many ordinary, religious Americans. He was a member of the social and political establishment, but his public statements opposing religion insured that he never held political office.

In Susan Jacoby’s words, Ingersoll “explained the true meaning and value of science … in a more understandable fashion than any scientist, even the brilliant popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley … Second, Ingersoll made the connection between repressive religion and everyday burdens and injustices as no one had before him.” 

Among the targets of Ingersoll’s scorn were slavery, capital punishment, the subjugation of women, debtor’s prisons, the mistreatment of animal and Social Darwinism. He believed that “there were no social injustices in which religion did not play a major role” — for example, in the belief that the existence of the poor was God’s will, and the idea that men should exert authority over women. 

Jacoby suggests that Ingersoll’s primary purpose was to remind his countrymen that the United States was founded by men who rejected the idea of theocracy: “the glory of the founding generation was that it did not establish a Christian nation”. Ingersoll rejected all supernatural explanations for human behavior and the world around us, while hoping that science and reason would eventually lead us to a world of peace, justice and prosperity. Quoting him: “Man through his intelligence must protect himself. He gets no help from any other world…. Let the ghosts go. We will worship them no more”.

Ingersoll came to be known as the “Great Agnostic”, even though he saw no significant difference between agnosticism and atheism. It isn’t clear why his fame diminished over the years. Although his collected works comprise 12 volumes, perhaps his written words weren’t as powerful as his oratory. Maybe if he had written a good summary of his views, he would be as famous today as Thomas Paine is for writing “The Age of Reason” (which, unfortunately, isn’t very famous at all).

One of the virtues of The Great Agnostic is how it shows that our current cultural battles over religion are hardly new. The 19th century featured the same kinds of conflict, on topics like evolution, birth control and government support for religious education. We haven’t made as much progress as we should have. If there had been someone with Ingersoll’s convictions and abilities speaking out during the 20th century, and now in the 21st, we might be a better country today.