On Spinoza, Walter Kaufmann, and God

Here’s an interesting little quote from Spinoza’s Ethics (Samuel Shirley translation), in the scholium to proposition 47 of part II:

That men do not have as clear a knowledge of God as they do of common notions arises from the fact that they are unable to imagine God as they do bodies, and that they have connected the word “God” with the images of things which they commonly see […]. Indeed, most errors result solely from the incorrect application of words to things.

Now, one might note the similarity here between the ‘linguistic turn’ of analytic philosophy in the 20th century, which is itself fascinating, and a testament to Spinoza’s philosophy being well-ahead of its time, with plenty of valuable insights even for present day philosophers to note (Spinoza scholarship is very lively, mind you!).

But I want to note the similarity here between Spinoza and something my philosophical hero, Walter Kaufmann, notes in his ‘Critique of Religion and Philosophy’ (Princeton University Press, 1978 edition):

In sum, terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean. Those who say God exists do not really mean that he “exists” in the same sense in which anything else exists. Those who say that God is being-itself, or a spirit, or love, do not mean those terms in any ordinary sense. But if terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean, if they have a unique meaning when applied to God, then all such talk about God is conducted in a peculiar language with rules of its own. (section 50, p. 179)

Ahh, interesting. Especially since Spinoza himself means many of these terms in rather unique ways: his God is certainly not the traditional sort of God from either Christian or Jewish theology. Further we have a distinction of discourses in the plural. Kaufmann may be thinking of something like Wittgenstein’s concept of language games here, wherein certain rules, proscriptions, and so on, are the context within which general communication is even possible; and only by generally following these rules, can we be sure what we call ‘meanings’ are adequately communicated to our compatriots.

But Kaufmann has more to say as well:

In chess, “king” and “bishop” do not mean what they usually mean, but every term has a precise meaning, and the game would not be changed if we substituted “fool” for “bishop,” as the French do, or “devil” for “king.” But assertions about God depend entirely on their ambiguity: it is their apparent meaning, their surface sense, that counts 99 per cent of the time, and it is only under questioning that this is modified, and only under persistent attack is it withdrawn to the point where frequently no sense at all remains. (section 50, p. 179)

There is a point in favor of Spinoza, as Kaufmann sees it: the Ethics is a rigorously logical book. Starting from some few axioms and definitions, Spinoza is able to work out an entire system of metaphysics deductively, covering the entirety of God, or Nature… Or what we might think of all the universe, or everything that exists.

But the Bible mostly lacks this sort of rigour, which obviously isn’t a dig at the Bible. Far from it. The Bible isn’t a work of analytic philosophy, after all. Why ought we expect it to be amenable to that sort of analysis? The Bible almost certainly was not mean to be read (or listened to) with philosophy in mind, especially the sort of systematized, scholarly conception of philosophy as a discipline that we know and love/hate today. Hence, what Kaufmann describes as the genesis of theology:

To understand such peculiarities of theology, one must remember that theology, and indeed any systematic discussion of God, was born as a defensive maneuver. It is the product of a distinctive historic situation. Claims of a less sophisticated age have been exposed to rationalistic attack when theology appears to salvage the tradition. (section 50, p. 180)

Theology as an essentially defensive maneuver strikes me as not-inaccurate. Obviously, that’s not the only way of conceiving theology, but it certainly seems to be at least one reasonable way of characterizing theology. I don’t know if theology really began, or came out of, an intellectual defense mechanism, but I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. As with anything else, when claims one makes are questioned, one possible response is to come up with convincing reasons for why they are, in fact, true. Kaufmann then succinctly summarizes his point for us:

Seeing that “God” is so far from being a univocal term and that the terms applied to him by theologians are admittedly not intended to mean what they generally mean, it is no exaggeration if we conclude that most statements about God are essentially ambiguous [emphasis in original]. They cannot be called true or false. Interpretations of them which are true are usually ingenious or trivial or heretical—and often all three. The propositions themselves defy translation. (section 50, p. 181)

Here is where we find a significant break between Spinoza and the picture Kaufmann paints of theology (or, if you will, as theology really is…?). Spinoza’s conception of the universe, as well as God, thought, matter, mind, etc., are univocal. The attributes express conceptual differences, or perspectives from which to perceive, in one or another thing. We perceive each other as, simultaneously, extended bodies and as thinking subjects. But, rather unlike Descartes, Spinoza’s universe is emphatically non-dualistic. The extended body and the thinking subject are one and the same thing conceived now this way, and now that way. There’s no difference in substances, no difference in the order or kind of causation between states of my mind and states of my body. For Spinoza, can be no other sort of God except for a univocal God. To equivocate beyond noting that the attributes give us varying conceptual perspectives would be to introduce a break in reality that simply could not be justified without also jettisoning the sort of naturalistic order of reality that his metaphysical system exemplifies.

Spinoza simply cannot conceive that there could be a fundamental distinction between the extended and the non-extended mind (or soul), for the distinction would require a totally different order in reality, and Spinoza’s conception of reality is one that is singularly understandable. An understandable, or explicable, reality that has a single explanatory framework, a single causal order, and a single universal notion of what causation is. A reality where universal laws of nature pertain to all interactions, to all parts of every existent thing. To claim otherwise would be to violate naturalism as well as introducing a much less explainable or understandable conception of reality. The principle of sufficient reason forces us to conclude that there is a cause, or reason for every effect; every event can be explained, reasons given for why things occurred as they did as well as for why they did not occur in a different fashion. Occam’s Razor cautions us against introducing unnecessary entities, properties, or, in this case, explanations, into our understandings. Combined, they make a powerful argument to Spinoza for a naturalistic substance monism.

But to return to theology and Kaufmann, what is being pointed out here is that the Christian conception of God needs univocity, insofar as univocity would provide the most powerful defense of God in terms of predicates and properties that we are already familiar with, in the same way in which we are familiar with them. But when theology attempts to make use of predication or property that normally applies to the kind of reality humans inhabit on a day-to-day basis, there are huge philosophical problems lurking just beneath the surface. Once questions begin to be asked, theology is slowly forced back, eventually ceding the very ground that it requires to make the most powerful arguments for the very God theology clings to.

The Problem with “If X, then please delete me/please block me”

“Feel free to block me if you want to.”

“If you feel that way, please delete me.”

There are other ways to phrase it, but you get the idea. And anyone who says it has a serious problem. There’s something really sinister to this. It’s usually meant as a sorry, but I’m not sorry thing; ‘do what you have to do, but I won’t do anything’.

In saying this, the onus of action is placed on something external. The statement is a tactic rejection of agency, and the individual making the statement demands a reaction to them rather than an action by them, a fulfillment of their desire. It is passivity raised to the form of an argument: I will not act, though I desire you to; a polemical expression of infantilization: I cannot act, though I demand you do.

When I say this to you, it places you in a position of reaction. No longer is your agency unencumbered, but rather it becomes inextricably linked to my desire; my agency becomes your choice; my responsibility is illegitimately thrust upon you. No longer can you act, but merely react, that low, base form, beholden to the outside, necessarily oriented to some extrinsic object or affect. Paradoxically, I have rejected my agency and simultaneously co-opted yours (so I hope, at any rate) for my own ends.

What does one wish to happen, in saying this?

By blocking or deleting me, you simply fulfill my desire to feel, even be, oppressed further. You validate my perception of being oppressed by you, my perception of being burdened by your disagreement. Rather than coming to terms with dissent, with discomfort, I reject all discomfort and affirm comfort as my value par excellence. The Other, not a person, but an Idea, becomes opposed to the essence of my existence, and thus I must be removed from it, though not remove myself. That would not validate or reify my ressentiment. For that, I require you, your agency, the relation of my desire and your agency.

If you do not, then you seem to owe me an apology for failing to actualize my desire to be oppressed or negated, to return to me to the mode of agent, to appease my discomfort (which is, obviously, still a form of infantilization). This is tantamount to an admittance that dissent was improper, that not only was your point wrong, but it was so wrong that even voicing it did violence to my person.

Of course, it doesn’t matter: either way, I have shown my hand, so to speak; I have opened the curtains to my essence, and shown you my ressentiment, my complete rejection of that which does not agree with me or conform to me, and my absolute need to negate it, a need that surpasses all other desires.

On Judith Shulevitz, Infantilization, and the University

Judith Shulevitz recently published an excellent article in the New York Times. Here is a short excerpt to set the stage for a couple of comments.

“I was feeling bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against my dearly and closely held beliefs,” Ms. [Emma] Hall said.

Ms. Hall, reportedly a junior undergrad student as well as a rape survivor was referring to public debate held at Brown University about campus sexual assault. Hall, along with several others, decided to make a “safe space” on campus, away from the debate, where students who felt “triggered” or found the debate “troubling” could find solace or relief. An admirable goal, to be sure.

On the other hand, consider this description of the safe space in question, also from the Shulevitz article:

The room was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.

To be blunt, this is describing a child’s play room.

After reading this description of the room, as well as reading Ms. Hall’s reaction to the debate, what should we think of this 20-something (presumably) student? After being “bombarded” by things that challenge or question things she believes, she found it necessary to return to the safe space. A safe space that could also be described as a child’s play room. This is pure  infantilization of the 21st century university student.

Hearing viewpoints, opinions, or arguments that cut to the very core of one’s “dearly and closely held beliefs” is part and parcel of the college experience. If a student, such as Ms. Hall, doesn’t wish to attend some campus event, that’s entirely her prerogative. But to attend, willingly, and then criticize the debate for challenging things she believes? What else is an education supposed to accomplish (besides the now-common insistence that it provide merely a job and a means to a living, which devalues education proper, but that’s a topic for another post).

Characterizing her reaction to the debate in this way, the implication to draw is that the debate was an ‘unsafe space'; further, one might reasonably draw the conclusion that any space that is NOT a safe space is, by that very fact therefore, unsafe. Taking this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, it seems as though the vast majority of places are unsafe, and therefore dangerous to students. And, among these places, is the university proper. Why else, in short, would students at Columbia University pass out flyers in the dormitories, asking residents to post the flyer (which contained the headline “I want this space to be a safer space”) in their windows? The dorms are, at minimum, not as safe as they could, even should, be. The same follows for many, many other places, both in the world at large and on a given university campus.

What are we to make of this? Certainly the issue is not, as some have unfortunately held, that the bogeyman of ‘political correctness’ is making a return, and in a big way. Far from it. Those characterizing this sort of criticism of university life as a reaction to political correctness completely miss the point, and the vital disservice that Shulevitz and others want to point out. No, the issue is that of students mistaking or conflating the concepts of safety and comfort. Shulevitz describes “safe space[s]” as being the “live-action version of the better-known trigger warning”, and I think that characterization couldn’t be more apt.

Trigger warnings are, indeed, not intrinsically wrong, or bad, or even stifling. The same is true of the concept of safe spaces. Indeed, there is a significant function that so-designated places will play for groups that tend to be victimized, such as minority groups, LGBT students, and so on. But the proliferation of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and the culture that demands them is not particularly concerned with mental health, or warning those students who may have adverse reactions to materials of a certain nature (e.g. depictions of rape, violence, etc.), or even ensuring that these students have spaces available when and if they need them. The proliferation of the mindset behind these demands is what needs to be focused on.

There is a serious danger when one conflates ‘safety’ with ‘comfort’, to return to something I noted earlier. Ms. Hall was not, in any sense of the word, unsafe. She was, however, uncomfortable. And we know exactly what it was that made her uncomfortable: being exposed to serious academic debate and challenges to her worldview and beliefs.

Ms. Hall’s words describe exactly the problem with this worldview. Safe spaces and trigger warnings originated as useful tools to provide a real modicum of actual safety while simultaneously avoiding discomfort. When non-mainstream sexualities were, even moreso than today, the objects of derision, violence, and so on, there was a specific need for safe spaces: places where bisexual, homosexual, trans*, and people of other genders and sexualities could express themselves without fear of judgment, physical violence, and so on—a struggle that, for especially trans* individuals, is not yet over and likely won’t be for the foreseeable future. Trigger warnings are valuable, for military veterans who may not be aware of loud noises or graphic depictions of warfare; for rape victims who may not wish to see graphic depictions of sexual violence; and so on.

But, now, these once- and still-useful tools have been appropriated, from n-th hand sources, watered-down, distorted, and misunderstood. As a result, they’ve been misapplied. Rather than understanding the distinction between safety and comfort, and realizing that discomfort can often be quite a good thing while being genuinely unsafe is likely rarely so, safety and comfort have been conflated to mean the same thing. Not only are the actual veterans and rape victims with PTSD the ones in need of safe spaces and trigger warnings, but, as evidenced by Ms. Hall, any student who simply can’t bear to leave the warm, comforting blanket of being in an epistemically, intellectually isolated community could be ‘triggered’.

Pro-life students holding up signs? Triggered. A debate, as at Brown University, over questions related to sexual violence and rape culture? Students are unsafe.

What’s next?

Students forced to leave their dorm for class? Uncomfortable and, therefore, unsafe. Reading Ovid and the more than a few mentions of rape and war and violence? Troubling and unsafe.

What the mindset of Ms. Hall requires is absolute safety, absolute comfort, and absolute intellectual isolation. There can be no challenging of the received dogmas, nor dissent, nor questions. Any challenge or disagreement simultaneously undermines the safety and the comfort (though, for those of this mindset, those are really the same thing) of the student; and not only some students, but the student body, that amorphous, abstract entity itself is now fearful, unsafe, and uncomfortable.

The result? The infantilization, complete and total, of what was formerly understood to be an adult, or very nearly so. What else can we call this, when a ‘safe space’ is akin to a child’s playroom? I noted before that by declaring only select areas ‘safe’, the implication is that the vast majority of other areas, including most parts of university campuses, are unsafe. Given the infantilization of students, the corollary of this is that it is adult spaces that are unsafe. The logical conclusion, then, is that to remain safe (i.e. comfortable), one must remain in perpetual childhood: soft gloves, not too rough, be careful, everybody gets a trophy, no feelings hurt, and, worst of all, no challenges, intellectual or otherwise.

The final section of Shulevitz’s article is the most damning of all. A guest speaker at the University of Chicago, Zineb El Rhazoui spoke in the presence of armed guards, a precaution necessary due to El Rhazoui’s being the object of death threats, almost certainly resulting from her work as a journalist with Charlie Hebdo. During the question and answer section, a Muslim student spoke of her dislike for the magazine/paper as well as condeming El Rhazoui’s use of the ‘I am Charlie’ solidarity slogan. El Rhazoui responded that “Being Charlie Hebdo means to die because of a drawing.” Some days later, a student-authored editorial condemned El Rhazoui for not ensuring an atmosphere amicable to dissent, due to the relatively powerful position El Rhazoui stood in compared to the student, who Shulevitz notes stated during the talk that “she felt threatened, too.” Threatened? By what? Threatened by the lack of threats in your life, compared to a woman forced to contend with having armed bodyguards to protect her from the very real possibility of being assaulted and murdered? This is a woman who, in the words of the president and vice president of the U of C French Club, “…is an immigrant, a woman, Arab, a human-rights activist who has known exile, and a journalist living in very real fear of death. She was invited to speak precisely because her right to do so is, quite literally, under threat.”

Is it even possible that someone could take this student, or this mindset seriously, after reading all this? Is there even any way out of this absurd position? I wonder… Since challenging this mindset will only make them feel ‘unsafe’ (i.e. uncomfortable), something that Hall and Co. greatly do not want, it stands to reason that they will therefore reject challenges here as well, and take them as merely evidence that there is some kind of toxic culture in the world, intent on ignoring their issues, their mental health, and their needs as people. Perhaps paradoxically will only make them even more likely to be challenged (since, it seems to me, the more ridiculous something is, the more often it gets challenged, and especially so when it is a controversial, high-profile political disagreement), to say nothing of making them the objects or ridicule and derision. And that will only feed back into the loop, confirming their disaffected status as victims of a cruel, cruel world, university, and culture.

Not unlike fundamentalist religious sects that must eradicate any and all dissent, any and all challenges, any and all semblance of intellectualism or free inquiry, the mindset of Ms. Hall and her ilk will only turn further inward, further towards safety—which really means comfort—further away from adulthood, further away from the real world. Even moreso than many students already, this mindset will leave students woefully unprepared to encounter the grey areas, nuances, and complexities of the world beyond the protective veil of being utterly unaware and completely inexperienced with being uncomfortable. That’s not only a recipe for a civil disaster (see what happens when politics turns inwards and purges itself of any and all dissent, e.g. the tea party), but it’s a recipe for social disaster and mental health disaster (or, rather, if one doesn’t already exist, it will soon).