Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Two Thesis on the Limits of Philosophy: Marx and Spinoza


I once contemplated getting my favorite Spinoza proposition 
as a Vanity Plate 

In the past few months, longer even, but before the recent wave of student occupations (more on that later), I have found myself in the grips of a kind of depression that stems in part from what can only be described as a gap between theory and practice. How this works is like this, all day, or at least part of it, I read books, and get into discussions understanding how the world works, and what could be done to change it and yet the world goes on unchanged, or, more to the point, it just seems to get worse and worse. (I will let the reader fill this in with whatever ecological, political, or economic calamity that comes to mind) The disconnect between the classroom and the world creates not just division but despair.

This has brought me to think about the limitations of philosophy. Perhaps the most famous statement about the limitations of philosophy comes from Karl Marx. The eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach states, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Philosophy, philosophical interpretation, and action, change are positioned on either sides of a great divide. Many have read Marx's own work across this divide, placing the early texts, 1844 Manuscripts, The German Ideology, etc., on one side, as interpretations, and The Communist Manifesto and Capital on the other, as attempts to change the world. The result of this is that Marx is not really Marx when he is philosophical, if you except the standard reading that Marx's early work is heavily influenced by Feuerbach and Hegel, and when he is Marx, he is no longer writing philosophy, but I digress. More to the point, Marx's formulation articulates a division between interpretation and action that is pervasive, shared by many who have never read Marx or care to. It is the divide between theory and practice, thinking and doing. 

At the same time Marx's formulation is easily critiqued, the very opposition it erects is unstable and seems to almost unravel itself. Is it not also an interpretation, of philosophy, the world, and what it means to transform something? Where does Marx's own formulation fall on the divide it erects between interpretation and transformation Moreover, can transformation take place without interpretation? As André Tosel writes, "It is not enough to transform the world. We still need to understand this transformation to prevent it from following its course blindly. A transformation of the world and of oneself without understanding this transformation is blind. An understanding of the world and of oneself without transformation is empty." Tosel corrects Marx by invoking, or parodying Kant (which explains but does not justify his use of the terms "blind"), it is not a matter of interpreting or changing, but of informing one by the other.

Tosel's correction is framed in light of another element of Marx's thought, one more often associated with the second side of the divide, the historical or practical side. It is in Marx's writing on the history of capitalism that he puts forward the important idea that under capitalism not changing, staying the same, is not an option. Whereas previous societies, previous modes of production sought to stay the same, to reproduce themselves, capitalism is in the paradoxical position of reproducing itself while constantly revolutionizing everything else. I am referring of course to Marx's formulation that capitalism is defined by ruthless transformation of everything, as Marx puts it famously in the Manifesto

"Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Tosel has a lot to say about this formulation both in terms of its claim as theory, of the idea of capital as a transformation of social meaning, but also what this means for thinking about capitalism in practice, what this ruthless modernization has done to society. With respect to the latter, he often uses the term, from Gramsci, "passive revolution" to describe the way in which capital has remade the world, reduced every value to exchange value, and every relation to market relations. Capitalism is very much a "blind transformation" to use Tosel's formulation. 

This is something that Alain Badiou puts well in his little book The Century. The twentieth century was in part marked by grand utopian projects, by the idea of creating a "new man," these projects announced themselves as transformations that were also interpretations. In their wake we now have transformations without interpretations. To use Badiou's example, genetic engineering offers a massive change on what it means to be human but one that is without any utopian promise. As Badiou writes, 

"This is because such a change does not correspond to any kind of project. We learn of its possibility from newspapers; that we could have five limbs, or be immortal...In short, we are living through the revenge of what is most blind and objective in the economic appropriation of technics over what is most subjective and voluntary in politics."

I am reading Badiou more for the polemic than the ontology here, and would argue that what he and Tosel offer to Marx's famous formulation is that the task of changing the world has to be understood in relation not to some static and fixed reality, but an ongoing transformation that is all the more pernicious in that it takes place without a plan or project.

Seems like an appropriate clip: Dr. Malcolm as Badiou

This brings us to my second formulation of the limits of philosophy, one of my favorite propositions from the Ethics, IVP1. 

"Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true."

What this means can be clarified (as is often the case) by the Scholium that follows. Spinoza begins by talking about the longstanding image of enlightenment and understanding, the sun, 

"For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it to be about two hundred feet away from us. In this we are deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true distance; but when its distance is known, the error is
removed, not the imagination, that is, the idea of the sun, which explains its nature only so far as the body is affected by it. And so, although we come to know the true distance, we shall nevertheless imagine it as near us. For as we said in IIP35S, we do not imagine the sun to be so near because we are ignorant of its true distance, but because the mind conceives the sun's size insofar as the body is affected by the sun. Thus, when the rays of the sun, falling on the surface of the water, are reflected to our eyes, we imagine it as if it were in the water, even if we know its true place."

It always seems strange to me that Spinoza does not mention another more important division between the sun as an object of knowledge and as an object of the imagination, namely the idea that the sun orbits the Earth, appearing to rise and set. This was not only the contested object of Spinoza's lifetime (shaping Descartes thought), but perhaps the best example of the persistence of an imagination past the knowledge that would dispell it. To this day we still talk about sunrise and sunset. (which is maybe why flat Earthers never went away. They are simply asserting what the imagination, the effect of the sun on the body tells them.) As Spinoza goes onto clarify: 

"And so it is with the other imaginations by which the mind is deceived, whether they indicate the natural constitution of the body, or that its power of acting is increased or diminished: they are not contrary to the true, and do not disappear on its presence. It happens, of course, when we wrongly fear some evil, that the fear disappears on our hearing news of the truth. But on the other hand, it also happens, when we fear an evil which is certain to come, that the fear vanishes on our hearing false news. So imaginations do not disappear through the presence of the true insofar as it is true, but because there occur others, stronger than them, which exclude the present existence of the things we imagine, as we showed in lIP 17."

That imaginatry images and representations persist long after they have been intellectually unmasked is in some sense the central ethical problem of the Ethics, it is why "we see the better but do the worse." What we know or think is often not as powerful as what we imagine. The political problem of Spinoza could be understood as the question as to how do we make the true not just an object of contemplation, something we think but do not do, but make it as something actually lived, an ideal which is embodied in our practices and our institutions.  

Spinoza's idea of the limited efficacy of the true, or the need for an idea to become something not just thought but lived, is not without its corollary in Marx. As Marx writes in the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right, "The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses." This is a different understanding of the role and limitation of philosophy, less a stark divide between interpreting and changing than the beginning of a question of how do ideas become material, become effective.

Our society does not much believe in ideas, let alone ideals. The modern university is in some sense an education in the ineffectivity of ideas. There is plenty of exposure to ideas, but the unwritten subtext of this exposure and education, is "do not take any of this seriously." Any teacher of philosophy is asked how will these ideas apply to real world, and every student in philosophy is asked what are you going to do with that? These questions are framed against a world in which what really matters, what really governs, is the ceaseless and unthinking transformation of capital, a transformation that takes place without ideas, or with only one, with the idea that anything makes a profit is good. All ideas that deviate from this are at best distractions and at worse harmful.

Which brings me to perhaps the only thing to break me from this despair of the ineffectivity of thinking, the recent wave of actions and occupations in protest of the bombing and extermination of Palestinians in Gaza. Before the crackdowns on protests at Columbia, Emory, UT Austin, and elsewhere, there was USC's decision to cancel the graduate speech of Valedictorian Asna Tabassum. I remember learning that she minored in resistance to genocide. It seems absurd to expect students to study genocide and not speak out in the face of genocide. I wonder how many students at the occupations all over the nation are in some sense seeking the same thing, to translate what they have come to think into an action that is consistent with it, refusing the university's imperative "to argue, but obey the dictates of the endowment, donors, and corporate interests," an imperative that reduces all arguments and debates to bullshit because they are disconnected from any realization. Such an interpretation probably gives too much credit to the right's position that universities are dominated by critical race theory, Marxism, and other intellectual bogeymen. All those students at the occupations are probably not minoring in genocide studies. More importantly it overlooks an important aspect of occupations, a thread connection 2010 and 2011 to the current wave of occupations, the occupation library and teach in. The occupations are not just sites of practice, attempts to put theory into practice, but also attempts to understand the world, and most importantly to wrestle with ideas and histories excluded from the curriculum. I wonder how many people at the occupation are trying to just make sense of the images they have seen on various screens, namely, the destruction and death in Gaza that has gone on for months now, not just unhindered but aided by most of the world. It seems to me that the occupations are not some disruption of the university's normal function, but an attempt to fulfill what should be the mission of university: to think and live critically. At this moment in time, they are the university. 

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