The Postscript to Paul Wienpahl’s “The Radical Spinoza” (New York University Press, 1979)

Stained-glass window in the former Unitarian
Church in Exeter
 
What follows my introduction here is a transcription of the Postscript to Paul Wienpahl’s remarkable interpretation of Spinoza’s thought published in 1979 in The Radical Spinoza (New York University Press). I’ve just been re-reading it alongside Wienpahl’s 1955 Unorthodox Lecture which I first read in December 2007 and which introduced me to Wienpahl’s work. Since then I have been exploring deeply the implications of a philosophy of movement and new materialism and I have found that Wienpahl’s reading of Spinoza overlaps significantly with both of these trains of thought.

The Postscript is the last piece of work published by Wienpahl before his untimely death in 1980 and I reproduce it here for a number of reasons.

Firstly, because The Radical Spinoza is now long out of print and so most people reading this post are unlikely to be able to access a copy with any ease. Ideally, the whole book should be transcribed (or, even better, republished) but since that seems unlikely at the moment it strikes me as important to give you Wienpahl’s summary of what he thinks a careful reading of Spinoza gifts us so as to encourage you to make every effort to track down the book yourself. You may also find some encouragement by reading the excellent and perspicacious review of the book by Don Lusthaus found at this link.

Secondly, and related to the foregoing paragraph, being able to see what Wienpahl thinks we get from a careful reading of Spinoza, his Postscript may encourage some readers to tackle Spinoza directly — although I would earnestly encourage readers to do this only after having read Wienpahl’s book first of all because traditional translations and readings of Spinoza, to my mind, seriously (very seriously) misinterpret Spinoza’s basic intention.

Thirdly, the ideas, aspirations and hopes expressed in the Postscript significantly inform the Sunday Morning Service of Mindful Meditation which, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, has now become the main service of the Cambridge Unitarian Church where I am minister. Click here for more information about this service.

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The Postscript to Paul Wienpahl’s “The Radical Spinoza” (New York University Press, 1979)

Some studies of historical figures are significant mainly for the history of philosophy and for persons who want to know about philosophers. Occasionally, however, a study such as the present one, because of its subject, bears not only in these ways. It may also, and perhaps more importantly, have vital significance for our own times. This is the case with Spinoza. It will both assist with understanding him and accomplish the second purpose in writing this book (see the Preface) if I develop some of the implications of the thinking of BdS [i.e. Benedict de Spinoza] for our times. In doing so I shall be continuing with the reflections commenced in the Preface. 

1. With some understanding of unity our view of what is changes drastically. Instead of seeing our 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 are not, properly speaking, entities. 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 the 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 itself be seen as a mode of being.—This is easy to say, but with time potent in effect. Implications are as follows. 

2. There is identity. There is also identifying with. We can identify things or say what they are. We can also identify with another mode of being, when what it is is of no moment. 

3. There is a kind of knowing that is loving. It is not of universals. In it we know Individuals. There are, then, levels of awareness: imagination and understanding. Imagination is indirect awareness and always involves images or representations of things. It includes seeing, hearing, and ratiocinative thinking. Understanding is direct awareness. We can move from images of things to direct awareness, from universals to particulars. In thinking that knowledge is of universals we mistake means of knowing for the objects of knowledge. The objects of knowing or awareness are always particular modes of being; but at first we see them through the cloud of representations of them. 

4. The so-called inanimate is no longer inanimate, except for certain purposes. All modes of being are animate. Like us they are mental as well as physical; though, of course, each in its manner or mode: human, equine, lapidary. 

5. And so they are all capable of Affections. A sailboat, a navicular being can be joyful—more clearly, can be joyfully. 

6. There is a way of humanly being that is active instead of passive, or rather more active than passive. 

7. It involves understanding God. In easy parlance this is to see that every mode of being is divine. Thus, to be humanly we are diligent toward every thing, respect, love it. God ceases to be an object and becomes an experience. 

     God is not dead. The image of God is vanishing from some Minds. This is neither lamentable nor a reason for despair. On the contrary, it is preparatory for understanding. The same is true for the dismantling of metaphysics. To have an image of God is to see Being through a cloud. With understanding religion and philosophy are found to be not really distinct. 

8. Moral responsibility looks different. It has its being in the domain of the imaginative or immature. I want to say in the domain of children, but that obscures the childishness in adults. The moral commandments are seen as truths when they are understood. As truths they tell us what it is to be humanly. It is to live without killing one’s fellow beings, without lying, without covetousness. In positive terms it is to be an Individual who loves its fellow beings. The prejudice about killing animals is sentimental. Awakened we realize that being includes eating. 

9. There is not good and ill. There is only what we call good and ill—while we make comparisons in fulfilling our interests and desires. Considered in itself, without comparison with others, each mode of being simply is. 

     We hate or disparage ourselves only when we compare ourselves with others. A proper love or self can only become improper pride when we compare ourselves to others. Moral commandments, to repeat, have the form of commandments at a level of awareness when they are not understood. 

10. Over a hundred years ago Hegel defined “the Alienated Soul” in The Phenomenology of Mind. Later Nietzsche spoke of “the strange contrast between an inner life to which nothing outward corresponds and an outward existence unrelated to what is within.” 

     The philosophical basis for the problem of alienation is the dualistic thinking in which mind and body are not only thought of but taken to the separate entities. With this thinking there is not only the problem of how the mind and the body can interact; there is also the question of how minds can interact. The tremendous subjectivity with which this dualism infuses us is one of the most powerful sources of the fact and sense of alienation—not only in the individual but between peoples. 

11. This relates to another aspect of our present position in philosophy: the ecological problem. One of its sources is our attitude toward nature. The rise of modern science and technology and the related occurrence of the industrial revolution (all curiously dependent on dualistic thinking) have been accompanied by an attitude toward nature which is destructive of Nature. (Nature includes human beings and all their products, a fact which the distinction between the natural and the manmade has tended to obscure—an obscurity that causes contempt for the man-made.) 

     This attitude has deeper roots than those in the developments just mentioned. It has roots in the Middle Ages in the rise of Christian thought, when the body was disparaged and the natural world was seen to be merely the stage for the drama of salvation. It is the attitude in which there is combined a contempt for nature with a view that it is to be controlled or used. In other words, in the dualistic outlook there is not only the radical separation of mind and body. There is the separation of the human being and nature. 

     With non-dualism our attitude toward Nature changes. It becomes God’s understanding Love. All natural things, including the man-made, come to be respected, and, as I have said, we develop a sense of diligence toward them. The import of this for the ecological problem is clear. 

12. It is in non-dualistic thinking that the Minds of the East and the West will come together. The current dialogue between East and West is largely on the level of imagination. 

13. Non-dualism is the foundation for recent developments in art and science. In other dualistic terms we could say that it provides the metaphysics for these developments. It is better to say that with non-duality these developments are illuminated. 

     I have already alluded to the new physics (pp. 96-7). In painting there is the development of non-representational art from cubism on (see Section 3 above). In psychology we have first Freud who cracked the supposedly real distinction between mind and body with the notion of unconscious mental phenomena. Dualistically speaking, an “unconscious idea” is a contradiction in terms (think of our trouble with Sp’s [i.e. Spinoza’s] use of “idea”). A somewhat parallel development is the increasing, if still fumbling, attention to psychosomatic medicine (fumbling partly because we do not have a language for it, “mind” and “body” have great force). There is, next, the third-force psychology of Abraham Maslow and others. (Maslow might have borrowed from BdS for the title of his book: Toward a Psychology of Being.) And finally there is the movement into transpersonal psychology, the study of “transpersonal experiences, that is, ones occupied with other things than oneself . . . [ones in which] to a large extent the subject-object dichotomy is itself transcended.” (See Section 2, and the appendix of Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth.) 

14. Philosophy after reflecting on BdS seems to be a far more individual undertaking than it has been considered to be (see Sections 2, 3, 8, and 11 above). We have thought that individual philosophers provide us with our meanings or world views. We have also thought that they do this in universal terms that are applicable to all. Now it may be seen that these meanings and systems have been in the imagination. With BdS philosophizing becomes something that each Individual has to do for him or herself. Each Individual has to strive for the realization of non-dualism, for insight into unity. 

15. By the time of Descartes thinking had come to be regarded as entirely incorporeal. The original subtitle of the Meditations had been “On God’s Existence and the Soul’s Incorporeality,” not “immortality.” Still in our day Wittgenstein had to caution that we tend to think of thinking as a gaseous medium and Hannah Arendt writes that it is “nowhere.” 

     It is in fact one of the many activities human beings perform. It is no more invisible or incorporeal than feeling and hearing are. More generally, thinking is the activity of becoming conscious and living consciously. 

     As William James remarked, “thinking” is an equivocal word. “Penny for your thoughts,” we say. “Oh, I was just thinking what fun we had yesterday.” “Ah, I was thinking of that date tomorrow.” “Thinking” is used for a variety of activities: remembering, planning, problem-solving, dealing with the general as opposed to the particular, and, as we know from BdS, dealing with the particular. I suppose that we could call the activity of becoming conscious “philosophical thinking.” Arendt said that it is like “the sensation of being alive.” With BdS it seems that it is being alive. 

     In the Preface I reflected that philosophy, except as critical evaluation (pragmatism), conceptual analysis (logical positivism), engagement (existentialism), ordinary-language analysis (English philosophy), seemed finished. In none of these contemporary views of philosophy is there any word of wisdom. Hannah Arendt said: “The thread of tradition is broken and we shall not be able to renew it.” We seem also, I thought, to have broken with the tradition of the wise. With BdS a new step on the old way seems possible: the step to non-dualism, or to a new insight into wisdom. Not to greater wisdom or to a redefinition of wisdom, but to more wisdom individually. 

     Looking at the matter historically, and in these terms, we can see the development of Western philosophic thought since the time of Hume as a destructive criticism of philosophy, in so far as it was taken as an attempt to provide us with an overall rational view of the world, or a universal knowledge as Husserl called it, which would constitute wisdom. The critical examination of this attempt developed until it was finally proclaimed in the twentieth century that it had been simply a quest for certainty, or that it is meaningless or inevitably results in meaningless statements. In Hannah Arendt’s terms, it was seen that philosophy cannot provide us with the meaning of life. Let us, therefore, leave it and turn to practical matters. 

     This development, however, may be viewed constructively as well as negatively. What we have been doing in the past two hundred years is becoming aware of the nature and limits of rational thinking or the rational way of being consciously. Speaking, then, in terms of historical development and movements in philosophy, we have gradually moved on from Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cartesianism, or Materialism or Idealism toward mysticism or non-dualism. With BdS we can see that it is not that philosophy died in the twentieth century. Rather it is that it reached the point where a radical new step could be taken. in Sp’s terms this is the step from the preoccupation with the rational mode of awareness to an interest in the intuitive. The pragmatists, the positivists, and the existentialists took important steps; but there is, contrary to their belief, still another philosophic step to be taken, one for which their own work prepared. 

     The matter need not be viewed only in terms of history and movements or positions in philosophy: Let us go along with Hannah Arendt and think of philosophy as the activity of providing us with meanings rather than truths, the latter being considered as the results of science. Then we can see with BdS that we have come to realize that the way of imagination (see Sections 3, 7, 15 above) is not the way to attain meaning; “philosophical meaning” we might call it. The way comes with knowing intuitively and understanding. We can then see that philosophizing does not bring us into contact with universals or essences, however these be regarded, as we had thought. It brings us into contact with particular modes of being. 

     The revolution in our view of philosophy, however, goes deeper than this indicates. For with non-dualism or insight into unity “thinking” is not simply an affair in “the land of the intellect.” It is an affair of the whole person. The physicists have a version of non-dualism with Bohr’s idea of complementarity. They have abandoned the principle of identity or the notion that they can or even have to specify what light, say, is. But philosophical thinking requires more than this. It requires involvement of the total Individual and not simply the brains or intellect; not simply abandonment of the principle of identity, but of identity. 

     It requires, in a word, spiritual exercises. Philosophy will no longer be an affair simply of the schools or academies. It will be an affair of something like the monastery or temple. An affair of becoming wise. Not wise in the sense of having universal knowledge, but in the sense of understanding and being an actively loving person. We shall see individual “meaning,” not meaning. 

16. Under the influence of the dualistic or common way of thinking we are likely to believe that BdS has given us a new and the true way of looking at things as modes of being (see Section 1). However, to think that BdS found a new universal knowledge or metaphysic is to fail to take into account the other way of knowing than the rational: the intuitive (see Section 3 and then reflect that in Section 1 instead of saying “There are not, properly speaking, entities,” we should say “There are not, more properly speaking, entities.” Unqualified, the statement makes us think that with it we have the final truth.). It is to become a Spinozist instead of whatever you are. It is to remain locked in imagination—the ETHIC itself is a work of imagination. 

     There are times, for example, when it is appropriate and useful to regard modes of being as having identities, and others, when it is natural to identify with them. In cashing a check we rely on having an identity; in loving we abandon it. 

     The human Freedom of which BdS spoke includes being able to see things in an infinite variety of ways. It includes Freedom from any “ism,” any special general way of thinking of things. I can react to or be involved with any mode of being qua that particular mode of being. I can be with our dog Shasta as a dog, as a four-footed animal, as a hunter, as a guard, or simply Shasta—that mode of being which we chose to call “Shasta.” Here is a reason why mysticism has been said to be ineffable. When we are involved directly with a mode of being, there are no words we can use except proper names. That direct experiencing is lost as soon as we begin to describe it in terms like “dog,” “animal,” and even “mode of being.” With them we then perceive Shasta, say, as through a cloud. 

     To put it otherwise, when we have a true idea of unity, that is when we are unified (and it is important to note that it is a matter of degrees), we are detached from any particular mode of thinking, and such detachment is, of course, itself a mode of being. We are neither Aristotelian, a Spinozist, a Buddhist, a Christian, nor even one who sees a dog as a dog. We attain to no-mind. Truth, meaning, substance, identity, all the categories lose their hold on us and we can be with each mode of being simply as it is

     Except for its ending that last sentence might have a familiar ring. Hannah Arendt wrote: “I have clearly joined the ranks of those who have for some time been attempting to dismantle metaphysics, and philosophy with all its categories” (see Preface above). She went on, however, to say, “What you are left with, then, is still the past, but a fragmented past, which has lost its certainty of evaluation.” Nevertheless, she warns at the last, there are things there that are “‘rich and strange,’” “‘coral,’” and “‘pearls’” that are not to be destroyed (she has been quoting Shakespeare). And she concludes in Auden’s words: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” 

     The attempts of the dismantlers have loosened the hold of “philosophy with all its categories.” The dismantlers’ work, however, has not only left us with the pearls of the past stored in books. It has prepared the way for seeing the other way of thinking, knowing, and living than the rational. When I said that “all the categories lose their hold on us,” I cited philosophical categories (truth, etc.). But I also had in mind, as the illustration of Shasta showed, all the concepts, all the images or representations of things. It is not only that we should not think dualistically that BdS gave us a new metaphysics. It is also that we can be freed of the images of “dog,” “human being,” “in-animate,” and “animate.” We are thus left with the pearls of the past and the possibility of a new way of thinking and knowing. One of the pearls is “know thyself.” Another is “Love thy fellow beings.” It is a way of thinking and knowing that is not of the universal but of the particular. “If now the way, which I have shown conducts to this, seem extremely arduous, it can nevertheless be come upon.” The more so today, may be added to Sp’s observation at the end of the ETHIC. For more of us have broken with the tradition of representational thinking to become aware of the other. 

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