Monday, July 19, 2021

What Does it Mean to be a Materialist: Thoughts After Spinoza after Marx

 


Of all of the zoom events, conferences, and presentations that I have attended (zoomed?) this year the one dedicated to Spinoza after Marx was the most engaging, the one most capable of breaking through the zoom screen that makes everything feel further away even as it is so close, inches away even. This is in part because of the participants, but it was also due to the work of the organizers who, in an interesting variation on organizing around a common theme, presented a common set of theses that were discussed and debated over the course of the three days. Of course as great as this was as an online event it is hard not to think about how those conversations would have continued over dinner, at bars, and coffee shops. The event did create a collective act of thought, of thinking in common, but as Spinoza and Marx both know there is no thinking together, thinking in common, without acting and feeling in common.

This idea of bodies affecting minds, or, put simply "materialism" turned out to be one of the debated points of the conference. Materialism was not named directly in the circulated set of theses, although there were a few that touched on it, remarking on Marx and Spinoza's commitment to immanence and the primacy of practice to consciousness. (With respect to later that is partly what I talked about in my keynote, my paper has subsequently been published at Crisis and Critique, along with other stuff by Jaquet, Macherey, Morifino, Montag, Sharp, etc.) The question of materialism was raised by Gil Morejon. I believe that video of his presentation is available for patreon supporters of What's Left of Philosophy? (and you should be one) or you can listen to the recent episode on Spinoza.  

I am not going to respond to his remarks directly here, but will get to one of the most important questions he raises at the end of the post. Instead I would like to begin with Pascal Sévérac's answer to the question in a short book titled Qu'y a-t-il de matérialiste chez Spinoza?  Sévérac is the author of one of the most influential books on Spinoza in recent years, Le Devenir Actif Chez Spinoza, as well as the author and editor of other books dedicated to Spinoza. However this recent book is part of HDiffusion's Permanent University series, a series dedicated to popular education aimed a political action and social transformation. That Spinoza appears in such a series along with Lenin and a book on French Revolution (to name a few of the only titles that have appeared so far) shows to what extent the radical Spinoza has taken hold in at least certain sectors of French intellectual life. 


Sévérac begins with the question, that many in the Anglo-American philosophical world would dismiss out of hand: is Spinoza a materialist? It is difficult to simply answer this question in the affirmative to reconcile a philosophy that starts from contemplating god sub specie aeternitas with the idea of materialism as it is generally conceived. Sévérac responds to this difficulty by changing the question asking what does Spinoza’s philosophy offer in terms of a reconsideration of materialism, or, how does it break with what has generally been considered materialism in order to redefine it? 

Sévérac answers this question by looking at three senses in which Spinoza’s thought could be considered materialist: empirical, ontological, and methodological. In answering the first Sévérac turns to Spinoza’s own account of his experience of coming to philosopohy in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. In that text Spinoza famously opens with the assertion that “After experience had taught me that all the things which regularly occur in ordinary life are empty and futile…” Philosophy emerges from experience, it is a search for a “greatest good…capable of communicating itself" brought about by the failures of the goods conventionally given. Sévérac argues that this search makes it clear that philosophy is not only grounded on experience, on a search for truth that is also grounded in desire, but that it is ultimately a process of individual and collective transformation. As Sévérac writes, “It is necessary to understand that for Spinoza the individual is a being collectively constituted, both organically and social, the affective and cognitive point of view—and these two dimensions, affective and cognitive are indissociable.”Sévérac does not see the turn away from such goods as pleasure, money, and status and towards philosophy as a turn away from the worldly material things, but rather a transformation of material life, of desire itself. Philosophy is not an attempt to get outside of the world, but a different way of living in the world. 

This empirical materialism is followed by a ontological materialism grounded on the refusal of any such division between this world and its beyond. Deus sive Natura as Spinoza writes, there is only one reality, a reality that we comprehend in terms of ideas and things. As Sévérac writes, “Nature is not therefore entirely material, but could only be apprehended in part through its material dimension.” It is at this point where Spinoza most definitely breaks with a reduction of the ideal to the material, in which there are only bodies, or, to take on a different materialism, only material conditions, ideas are also another, ultimately different way of grasping this reality. However, our ideas, our primarily formed through our bodily encounters and relations. There is no possible understanding of thought, of the activity of the mind without understanding the imagination and the affects, which is to say the encounters of the body. 

 As Sévérac writes, “If Spinoza is not therefore a reductive materialist in the sense that he reduces thought to an emenation of matter, and the mind to a function of the body, he nevertheless proposes a consistent materialism in the sense that for him one must always take consideration of bodies and its powers in order to know what the mind is capable of, to grasp the cognitive and affective capabilities.” This consistency can be found in the third aspect of materialism that Sévérac identifies, that of method, Spinoza refuses to treat, ideas, or the mental life, as anything other than another thing, with its own causal relations in the world. As Sévérac argues “Spinoza’s grand idea is that psychic interiority does not any less than material exteriority the necessity of precise laws understood as causal relations.”  

Does this make Spinoza a materialist? or more to the point how does this transform materialism? Here it might be useful to return to EIIP7, which in its own dialectical manner is both the strongest testament of Spinoza's materialism and its internal limitation. It is materialist in that it asserts the identity of things and ideas, as two different ways of grasping the same thing, as well as the same order and connection, the same causality, but it is in some sense anti-materialist in the assertion that only and idea can determine and idea and a body a body. Thus, to refer back to the discussion at the conference, the often asserted idea that material conditions shape and determine ideas, that "life determines consciousness," an idea that is central to materialism of a Marxist variety, would be seem to be an impossibility for Spinoza. The emphasis would have to be on seem since Spinoza's entire ethical project is in part dependent on the premise that there must be some way that minds and bodies act on, or at least influence each other. As Spinoza asserts, "we have the power of ordering and connecting the affections of the body according to the order of the intellect."(EVP10). However, Spinoza tends to consider this "logic of alternation" (to use Jaquet's term, see the first link in this paragraph) working primarily in one direction, it is primarily a matter of organizing our thoughts in such a way to reorganize our affects, which is what makes it an ethical materialism to use Tosel's term. To the extent that Spinoza thinks the other direction, bodies, affects, and so on shaping ideas and influencing ideas, it is primarily in his political writings, must notably in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, where he discusses how habits and rituals shape thought to the point that for "men so habituated to it obedience must have appeared no longer as bondage, but freedom."

One could restore the primacy of matter, of bodies, of material conditions through such a way, but that seems to overlook Spinoza's peculiar materialism. It is one in which we are determined not just as a body, not just in terms of material conditions, but also as mind, as a spiritual automaton. Or, maybe, materialism is not the right word. Perhaps it is more a matter of naturalism or even determinism. With respect to the former I am influenced by Fischbach's La Production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza, where he writes: 

What exactly does this affirmation of man as a being of nature, as a part of nature, mean for Marx, because, after all, he could or could not give these formulations a literal spinozist sense. It means first of all that man is “an objective being, natural, sensible” that is to say a finite mode amongst an infinity of other such modes. The determination of humanity as a objective being would be reconsidered by Marx up to Capital, where he writes that, “the human being itself, considered as a pure existence of labor power, is a natural object, a thing, certainly living and conscious of itself, but a thing—and work properly speaking is a reification of this force.” Adopting the point of view according to which the human being is first of all a being in nature, a thing in the world, is exactly to adopt the spinozist point of view according to which humans must first be grasped as a finite mode: to start, as does Spinoza, from the double fact, to know that on one hand that “man thinks” and, on the other, that “we feel that a certain body is affected in many ways,” it being understood that these two traits are at the same level and of equal importance, the fact that we find ourselves to be thinking our thoughts accompanies the fact that we are aware of our body being affected by other things since “ the object of the idea constituting a human mind is body, nothing can happen in that body which is not perceived by the mind.” In the same way that the affection of the body, thought is a fact of nature, it is part of the natural being of humanity:thought does not found the exceptional character of humanity in the sense of being something outside of nature. 

(If that seems like a really long passage to translate for a blogpost it is because it is--it is a draft from the translation I am preparing of Fischbach's book)

In other words, and this is something that Hasana Sharp does a great idea of developing, as finite beings that are both minds and bodies, feeling and thinking, we are doubly determined, inserted in relation to practices, bodies, and relations, but also ideas, concepts, and imagination. I am not sure if we could call this materialism, at least in the conventional sense, but I am sure that it is not idealism. In fact it is further from conventional idealism than classical idealism. The idea that ideas have causes, are determined, that thought is not the free faculty, is more offensive to idealism than the assertion of the priority of bodies. The latter can always be reincorporated into idealism, no pun intended, through the primacy of representation. This is in part the hidden idealism that Marx wrote about in the Theses of Feuerbach. Or, more to the point, the idea that we are determined by both material conditions and the conditions of thought, by the order and connection of ideas and bodies, might be a Spinoza that is closer to Marx, to Marx's own "materialism without matter," as Balibar put it in The Philosophy of Marx, than any putative materialism that is restricted to bodies and material conditions. In the end, and to conclude, perhaps the relation between Marx and Spinoza is not a matter of their shared materialism, but of their intersecting challenges to materialism--the way they expand materialism to go beyond the thing, the body, to encompass ideas and social relations. 

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