Sell Descartes, buy Spinoza

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Niccolo and Donkey
Sell Descartes, buy Spinoza

Prospect Magazine

Rebecca Goldstein

May 25, 2011

Thinking of buying shares in a great philosopher? The first question you need to ask is whether you’re interested in long or short-term investment. If you are looking long-term, then prepare yourself for serious scholarship. Alternatively, short-term investment could merely involve comparing the battle over women’s hemlines on catwalks in Milan and New York to Wittgenstein’s language-games. Investors must also keep in mind a philosopher’s obscurity, as this allows room for interpretation. Counter-intuitive shock appeal is also a plus.

These ruminations were sparked by the broadcaster Alan Saunders’s comment that, were he dealing in philosophical shares, he would be selling off Descartes and buying Spinoza. I was surprised Saunders retained any substantial Descartes, which for decades have been rated as junk bonds. But he’s onto something in picking Spinoza as a hot stock.

The 17th-century rationalist, who made every claim for reason that has ever been made, was for many years considered too insignificant to refute (unlike Descartes). Obscure, yes. Counter-intuitive, yes. But there wasn’t fast bidding for a philosopher who argues that there is only one substance, which can be viewed alternatively as God or nature, and from whose essence each and every finite thing, or modification, follows. (As being unmarried follows from being a bachelor.) Those of us in Anglo-American philosophy looked askance at system-builders like Spinoza, setting our sights on more feasible problems (such as showing why, precisely, being unmarried follows from being a bachelor).

But Spinoza’s stock has risen, his symbol emerging in varied markets. Take the movement which calls itself “deep ecology,” distinguishing itself from that “shallow ecology” which seeks to redress pollution and other practices deleterious to humans. Deep ecology rejects this privileging of the human perspective, arguing that all living things, including the biosphere, have equal moral rights. Arne Næss, a founding thinker, embraced Spinoza. Some might argue (I’d be one) that deep ecology misinterprets Spinoza’s deucedly abstract conception of “nature,” which has more in common with a physicist’s theory of everything than with deep ecology’s biosphere, much less with the Norwegian waterfall to which Næss once chained himself to block the building of a hydroelectric dam.

Spinoza did say that, when pondering the problem of evil, we err by judging the universe from the point of view of humans. Unfortunately for the brand of Green Spinoza, he also said that “the rational quest of what is useful to us” (in which he was entirely in favour) “teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own.” So it’s dubious that Spinoza would be chained beside Næss and his waterfall. Still, the movement’s use of him does point to his rising stock.

Today, we value any early modern who sides against Descartes’ dualism between mind and body. Spinoza not only rejected such dualism, but also denied the dualism between cognition and emotion. In Looking for Spinoza , neuroscientist Antonio Damasio expresses his amazement that Spinoza reasoned his way to the integration between thinking and feeling, which Damasio has now verified in his laboratory. There’s nothing like the imprimatur of science to increase a philosopher’s price-to-earnings ratio.

Another scientist who was passionately Spinozist (going so far as to write him a gushing poem) was Albert Einstein. In Spinoza’s conception of nature, he recognised intuitions matching his own, concerning the elusive unified field theory. Einstein also relied on Spinoza to get him out of trouble when queried by a rabbi as to whether or not he believed in God, averring that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”

This introduces yet another reason to consider shares in Spinoza: the heightened public interest in the raucous debates between science and religion. Spinoza’s identification of God with nature, though as subtle as that Lord whom Einstein once invoked, makes an invaluable contribution to this issue—precisely because it’s subtle. As does his attempt to establish morality on the purely secular grounds of the scientific study of human nature.

Any other tips? The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.
Beefy Rep

Its all the worthless philosophy PhDs that departments have been graduating that are gonna have to worry about a bear market. To continue this banal metaphor: there's lots of students with IPOs starting at a penny and dropping already dropping into fractions of a cent.

And the debt! My God the debt.