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.