Not information nor explanation, but understanding

Given the comments I have been making over the past week or so it seemed important to flag up an insight of the American philosopher Paul Wienpahl who wrote The Radical Spinoza (New York University Press, New York 1979) about Spinoza's great work, The Ethics. This is in case anyone thinks I am abandoning old Spinoza - something I don't think need happen at all if you can learn to read him in a particular way.

Wienpahl suggests that we should not read the Ethics as a deductive system but as helping us to an insight into the notion of unity:

The Ethic may be regarded as follows: The scholia unfold the demonstrations, the demonstrations the propositions, and the propositions the definitions. [. . .] There is, then, no question of anything's being proved in the Ethic. There is only the matter of understanding the definitions. On the whole this is the matter of getting clear about the notion about unity (p. 64).

Now this seems to me to be a vital point. We are enable to see that Spinoza's propositions are not really to be thought of as propositions at all but descriptions of what is the case. He is simply "arranging what we have always known." As Wittgenstein observes in the Philosophical Investigations (I, 109):

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically 'that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such-and-such' - whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather by looking into the workings of our language , and in such a way as to make us recognise those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by reporting new experience, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe).

As Anthony Kenny sums it up in the introduction to his revised edition of Wittgenstein (Blackwell, Oxford 2006): "Philosophy seeks not information nor explanation, but understanding" (p. xiii).

We may now return to Wienpahl who, at the end of his book says:

With some understanding of unity our view of what is changes drastically. Instead of seeing the world as made up of discrete things existing independently of each other, we see unity. In the language BdS provided, it is a unity of modes of being. There is Being and modes of being. A tree is an arboreal mode of being. You and I are modes of being, or, more simply human beings. What we have taken to be the real distinctions between things dissolve, and with them conceptual distinctions between "thing", properties, and actions. Loving, for example, which we commonly take to be an action that some one or thing performs can be seen as a mode of being. - That is easy to say, but with time potent in effect (Radical Spinoza p. 155).

Wienpahl then goes on to list fourteen further important practical effects: there is identity; there is a kind of knowing that is loving; the so-called inanimate is no longer inanimate, except for certain purposes; consequently, all are capable of Affections (such as joy); it involves understanding God (God ceases to be an object and becomes an experience); moral responsibility looks different (moral commandments are seen as truths when they are understood); there is not good and ill; it overturns the possibility of dualistic thinking; it alerts us to the ecological problem; it enables Eastern and Western thinking to come together; it helps us understand some of the developments in art and science; it reveals that each individual has to strive for the realisation of non-dualism, for insight into unity; it reveals that thinking is not some incorporeal thing but the activity of becoming conscious and living consciously.

Why do I write this? Well, as liberals we have an intellectual heritage which means that we are finding it increasingly hard to commit to a (any) particular faith tradition without first having to hand an excess of information and explanation about its quasi-scientific truth value. This religious/philosophical modus operandi has to stop and we have to find effective ways back to living with understanding. Do realise that this doesn't actually mean giving up on information and explanation in its proper place - that is to say in the natural sciences.

You may, of course, argue that this blog is just such an example of this liberal desire for information and explanation. Perhaps, but if it is then I am only playing a kind of game with you which is to show that everything I am saying here - in so far as you understand it as theological or philosophical information and explanation (which I don't think it is) - is nonsense. In so far as it helps you to understanding how better to live as a confident liberal then . . . well, I'll leave you to decide that. This is no more than a doodle in the sand (John 8:2-11).


For those interested here are a couple of links (which I have given before) to articles by Wienphal.


Jonathan said…
"With some understanding of unity our view of what is changes drastically. Instead of seeing the world as made up of discrete things existing independently of each other, we see unity. In the language BdS provided, it is a unity of modes of being. There is Being and modes of being. A tree is an arboreal mode of being. You and I are modes of being, or, more simply human beings."

This is a valuable passage. It reminds me of the web of interdependence that is so central to Buddhist thought and now, more recently, to ecological thought. But it also reminds me of Plato's idealism - an important strand in liberal religion. The key is to understand each mode of being as an Idea. We take a further step toward our roots when we recognize the source of these ideas as God.

Before I came to Unitarian Universalism (I live in the U.S.), I made a careful study of Buddhism. In Buddhist teaching, the path to nirvana - what ecumenical Buddhists might translate as resurrection in Christ - includes among its components "right view," "right action," and "right speech."

These three factors are related like the layers of a pyramid-shaped iceberg. Right view is below the water. Right action is the first level above the water. Right speech is the very tip of the iceberg.

The point I want to emphasize with this metaphor is that every act of speech - whether hand-written, blogged, or spoken - is an action that reflects an underlying view. A view is said to be "right" in the Buddhist tradition when the behavioral consequences that flow from that view are consistent with the exemplary life of a Buddha (a model of human excellence in speech and character).

A religious leader presents an oral teaching that is the capstone of a model of daily life that is in turn the embodied expression of a religious worldview.

What model of daily life does a liberal religious leader uphold, in this day and age, for his fellow world citizens?

If we apply our critical faculties to this question in relation to each and every aspect of our daily lives I think we will solidify a sane global constitution while avoiding the trap of excessive attachment to abstract, insubstantial, dogmatic orthodoxy.

Your dream is a sane global constitution, is it not?
Thanks Jonathan. Yes my dream does include "a sane global constitution." A very good way of putting it.

Given your interest in Buddhism you may be interested to know that Wienpahl wrote two books on Zen Buddhism "The Matter of Zen" and "Zen Diary." His book on Spinoza, not incidentally, shows that there are some profound connects with a certain kind of Buddhism. Jon Wetlesen's book on Spinoza "The Sage and the Way" is another that looks even more explicitly at the connections.

Amongst other reasons I like these writers because they show how one can remain within a broadly speaking Judaeo-Christian framework (i.e. Spinoza) and yet commingle with Buddhist and Taoist outlooks without getting into a rather shallow pick-and-mix kind of religion.
Jonathan said…
Perhaps that explains it. Do you know if Wienpahl's Zen studies preceded the passage cited here, or did he intellectually anticipate his Zen practice?

Shallow integration is indeed a problem - within as well as across frameworks. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that liberal religion demands a cross-framework approach.

I often wonder if, as liberal religious thinker, I am defending the gospel and example of Jesus, or if I am defending the best of 2000+ years of western civilization, of which not only the example of Jesus, but also the examples of Plato and our entire literary canon (secular and religious), are part? I start with Plato because I wonder to what extent we can separate Greek philosophy, science, ethics, and politics from our presentation of the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Let me put it this way: as a liberal religious minister, can you teach Jesus without also teaching Spinoza? And can you teach Spinoza without also teaching Plato?

I say this because I think we are striving not only for a sane global constitution, but also the recreation of the Academy, in the garden-school atmosphere of Epicurus, with the compassion and active ministry of Jesus. None of which is to name-drop or sound pedantic. I'm just looking for other people who may share a similar motivation and intellectual history.
Wienpahl's Spinoza book came after his Zen studies. If you go to one of links at the end of the original blog his "Unorthodox Lecture" signals his move into Zen after considerable dissatisfaction with academic philosophy. He went into a monastery for a while in Japan and then came back and resumed his work. I only know this through his three books and this brief obituary:

If you read his "Unorthodox Lecture" you will see, I'm sure, that his philosophical studies prepared him in some way for his move into Zen practice.

Your question about what you are trying to 'defend' resonates very strongly with me. In my case I suspect it is the 2000+ years of western civilization that I am defending rather than Jesus per se. I often explore this thought with people via a story told by Wendell Berry in "Life is a Miracle" (2000, Washington DC, Counterpoint Press pp. 151-152)

"My grandson, who is four years old, is now following his father and me over some of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his education had begun. And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along behind his father across the fields, we are part of a long procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of generations lost to memory, going back, for all I now, across previous landscapes and the whole history of farming. Who knows the meaning, the cultural significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should he be so blessed. I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight. If my son, after thirty more years have passed, has the good pleasure of seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he will know something like what I now know. This living procession through time and place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge."

So one of my recurring concerns - in addition to the creation of a sane global constitution - is the maintenance of the western philosophical tradition with, of course, the hope that it can also reach out to and speak with other traditions. By western philosophical tradition I mean not academic philosophy but the kind of philosophy that helps one lead a life (Epicurus would be a perfect example of this - but more of him in a moment).

This thought helps me answer your question about whether I can teach Jesus without teaching Spinoza and Spinoza without Plato. No, I don't think I can but I think it is not so much about teaching folk about individual philosophers (though I do do that) but instead rather helping people to access, over a whole life, a general culture - to help them understand that they are part of this procession. Indeed it is the only thing that enables them to engage with the world, themselves and others.

I was particularly struck by your comment that "we are striving not only for a sane global constitution, but also the recreation of the Academy, in the garden-school atmosphere of Epicurus, with the compassion and active ministry of Jesus." Amen! It has often seemed to me that the recreation of garden-schools as the liberal alternative to church-type structures is the way we should - in fact probably must - go. I think Lucretius' "De Rerum Natura" is a key text for this project - worth a look if you don't know it.
Jonathan said…
Excellent! I will read the links you have shared and keep in touch with your blog.
Jonathan said…
Hi Andrew,

I've had a chance to read all of the follow-up links you recommended and thought I would drop in again with some comments.

Wienpahl's "Unorthodox Lecture" suggests elements of a Zen approach, but it seems to show an even stronger imprint of Krishnamurti's thought. Krishnamurti had been active for some time in southern California before Wienpahl wrote this lecture and it would have been difficult for Wienpahl not to have been aware of, and exposed to, Krishnamurti's thought. Are you aware of any linkage to this effect?

The second piece by Wienpahl - "Spiritual Values in a Scientific Age" - seems to me correct in its conclusion (i.e., "the main resistance to being spiritual lies in ourselves. It is we who do not make the effort. Science, knowledge, does not prevent us.")

However, I disagree with Wienpahl's arguments that 1) metaphysical inquiry does not lead to empirically verifiable control over future events and 2) that scientific and metaphysical inquiry are distinct enterprises that lead to different modes or levels of understanding.

Plato addressed the same issue from many perspectives and I think his arguments must first be rebutted or defended if we are to keep the rest of our intellectual framework in alignment with the foundation of the western liberal tradition. This is not to emphasize one particular philosopher as much as to say that Plato's Dialogues are to western philosophy what the New Testament is to Christianity. Hadot's "What is Ancient Philosophy," Evangeliou's somewhat polemic but otherwise excellent "The Hellenic Philosophy," and McEvilley's incredible "The Shape of Ancient Thought" all seem to provide necessary context for a fair reading of Plato, although none of these authors accord Plato the supremacy of position that I do here.

I first encountered Wendell Berry's writing in 1992 while studying Zen, Krishnamurti, and organic horticulture in Ojai, California. His is one of America's best authors and the passage you cited is a good example of why.

The cultivation of what we might call "procession-consciousness" in the western liberal tradition is a central question. On the one hand, an outside-in approach based on a scientific reading of the canon is essential. On the other hand, an inside-out approach based on the radical empiricism of contemplative insight is also essential.

The inside-out approach follows the same general formula across the ancient civilized world: 1) virtue practice; 2) imperturbability practice; and 3) critical inquiry eventually lead to 4) direct insights into the nature of reality. These insights in turn lead to improved ethical practice, meditation, and inquiry, in a spiral of upward growth.

Academic philosophy is a misguided enterprise and source of great confusion to the extent it overlooks the inside-out empiricism of the above formula.

I came to Epicurus via Hibler's "Happiness Through Tranquillity" while researching connections between Greek and Buddhist philosophy as an undergraduate. At that time (1993-94), I was struggling with a conflict between continued academic study and monastic practice in Zen. Ironically Hibler, an academic, reinforced my inclination me to interrupt college studies for a few years. (Sidebar: Hibler drew more on Diogenes Laertius than Lucretius.)

Here's a recent link to a review of Stanford Professor Robert Pogue Harrison's new book, "Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition," in which he shares a vision of the American university as Epicurean garden-school. Unfortunately, the book appears rather more theoretical than practical and I don't think Harrison is correct that the existing American university system is in some way based on a garden-school model. Indeed, I fear the garden-school ideal, and even the ideal of Academy, is not at all replicable within the American university system as presently organized.

Do you see evidence in Europe that garden-schools as "liberal alternatives to church-type structures" (as you so well put it) are developing within the universities, or do you see a need for religious learning communities situated entirely outside the university system, perhaps incorporating residential and cooperative economic features on a local level and Web-based community-building on a global level?
Thanks for your comments. They were more helpful than you might have imagined as, intellectually speaking, I had rather ground to a halt over the past week as the very hot weather has suddenly come to the south of France - 38 degrees. Being used to rather more temperate British climes this has come to me as a bit of a shock. I went out for about three hours on the bike over to les Dentelles-de-Montmirail (photo on the right) on Friday and came back, if not quite worse for wear, then more than a little tired. Anyway . . .

Re: The Krishnurmurti connection with Wienpahl. I don't know of any - that doesn't mean, of course, that there were none. I confess to not knowing a huge amount about Krishnurmutrti (only a cursory read of a book of conversations with the physicist Bohm) so I'm interested to hear this. I'll follow this connection up.

You then note that you disagree with Wienpahl because he suggests: "1) metaphysical inquiry does not lead to empirically verifiable control over future events and 2) that scientific and metaphysical inquiry are distinct enterprises that lead to different modes or levels of understanding."

I think I would broadly agree with your concerns here but I'm not sure Wienpahl's essay, taken as a whole, actually ends up saying these things. Primarily I say this because he begins to draw the essay to a close (p. 4) by noting that "this world" includes all that is often called by much traditional religion as the "other world." When Wienpahl flags up a differnece between "the timeless realm of being" and "the relative world of becoming" and, in so doing, also states that knowledge of the relative world "is obtained by science" and, therefore, also implies that metaphysics is concerned to understand the timeless realm of being, he is, I think, making the very Spinozian point that reality (Deus sive Nature) has two aspects to it: Natura naturans (nature naturing) and Natura naturata (Nature natured). Ultimately there can be no difference between them; indeed he states quite clearly that the key step is to realise that "these two worlds are one."

As I think both of us are aware making that step is, and has always been, very difficult. It also is seems to me to be crucial for more and more of us to be taking it - a step which garden-academies could help people to take.

I like your (?) coinage of "procession-conciousness." As to its need you will by now realise that I quite agree with you. As I do with your point about "outside-in" and "inside-out" approaches. Again your point about academic philosophy is well-made. I nearly took a Master's Degree course in philosophy via the Lambeth degree (on the work of Josiah Royce). Various things interevened and stopped this coming about. In fact this story made the "Sunday Times" and the "Times Higher Education" back in 2001 and you might be amused or horrified to follow this link which explains some of it:

Anyway, I eventually took my MA in the rather more practical field of Jewish-Christian relations and feel that I had a lucky escape! Getting involved in a philosophically inclined religious community - though not without real problems - at least opens up to me the possibilitiy of creating something like the garden-academy in the modern context.

You ask whether I "see evidence in Europe that garden-schools as liberal alternatives to church-type structures are developing within the universities" and whether I "see a need for religious learning communities situated entirely outside the university system, perhaps incorporating residential and cooperative economic features on a local level and Web-based community-building on a global level?"

It is most surely the latter. The university system here is increasingly becoming geared to the making of money and it is not a pretty sight to behold. Take a quick look at the following link to a BBC news item from last week:

My own teaching experience confirms this sad general trend. As a counter to that I always teach my bass students something about Socrates and Plato during their three years with me. I have on my mantelpiece a smallish bust of Socrates and early on in their first year I hand it to them with a cup of tea and try to explain that to be a true musician is to engage in the examined life. They're puzzled at first but I think most of them understand what I'm on about in the end.

Along with a friend of mine I am just beginning to explore how the local religious community might begin to incorporate residential, co-operative economic, and web-based community-building into its own outlook. It is a long-term project because all kinds of old attitudes need to be turned around and old habits transformed (these include, or course, my own old attitudes and habits - I'm not just pointing to other people's need to reform). Lots of the necessary elements are in place - so, for instance, quite a few people within the church are already involved in co-operatives and I and a few others are also members of the Co-Operative Party - but how to put them together into a contemporary garden-academy is another question entirely. In fact this sabbatical is born out of my need to figure the next step out.

So, to conclude, your comments are very helpful in this process. Thanks again for taking the trouble to write. Thanks, too, for the other book references. I will follow them up. I have already ordered the book by Robert Pogue Harrison and will almost certainly get hold of McEvilley's.
Jonathan said…
First, my apologies for the long delay.

Your response to my Wienpahl critique is superb. After a reread of his essay it does seem possible that I overstated his argument somewhat. My resistance to his opinion may be primarily on semantic grounds. This is probably because I have been finding it very useful lately to translate "science" into "natural philosophy" in my own thinking. Nor have I been able to draw a distinct line between an object of sense perception and an object of intellectual contemplation; both of these objects are, to my understanding, empirical phenomenon. So the distinction between science and metaphysics on epistemological or ontological grounds is hard for me to grasp.

There is, as I see it, also a sticky problem that arises from Wienpahl's assocation of science with control. Perhaps the only problem here is that Wienpahl left unsaid the application of his formula to the "control" side of the equation: if science does not lead to real cosmological understanding, but only to a one-sided grasp of reality, than the "control" that science appears to produce must also be merely one-sided (and so not really "control"). I suspect that our "mastery" of nuclear technology, for example, is an illusion of environmental control. It's relatively easy to take things apart, burn them, kill them, or blow them up. But is this what we mean by control? Show me an organic garden and I will show you a sane measure of something we might reasonably call environmental control.

I myself am comfortable placing environmental control only in the hands of those who pursue and know the good, and not in any other hands. Everyone else I assume to be a bungler or an impostor (two roles that I know very well myself from the inside out!)

I may have coined "procession-consciousness" but I doubt it. There comes a time when we have read so widely and so poorly that we can't tell what is original in our thinking from that which is second-hand. It's even harder, emotionally, to explore the possibility that all knowledge is second-hand ("there's nothing new under the sun"), but I seem to be doing a better job of coping with that one lately.

The links you provided to the Times Higher Education and BBC articles certainly struck a chord on this end. In the U.S., students are spending ever greater amounts of money (and incurring ever greater amounts of debt) simply to obtain access to favorable positions in the labor market via various mechanisms of credentialing and licensure. There is very little liberal education here, though much that goes by that name. It is a terribly dangerous situation for a liberal democracy.

It does indeed sound like your local congregation has many of the pieces in place to move closer to the garden academy ideal. But I also appreciate your balanced self-assessment in relation to this process. I would peg myself in very much the same category - I'm moving in the right direction, but there is a lot of work to do on my own habits first. The starting point appears to be a profound transformation of the nuts and bolts of daily life within the context of my marriage. I was just talking this over with my wife the other day and we agreed that we are already a garden academy cooperative! We figure that when our little cell is far enough along on the path, join-up with other like-minded cells will follow naturally, or perhaps we will become a nucleus of sorts around which others may gather. I think a key is to allow the center to emerge organically, like a plant. We provide the inputs (our contemplative lifestyle in fellowship with friends and family) and the plant just grows.

But more on all of this in the future.