Spinoza on Descartes

The mind has greater power over the emotions and is less subject thereto, in so far as it understands all things as necessary.

Spinoza, Ethics, V

It is thoroughly established that Baruch Spinoza drew on the work of his predecessor Rene Descartes when he assembled his philosophy. What is most often put in the centre of this assumption is the way Spinoza sought to reaffirm Descartes’ system through a geometrical — and therefore, as it was thought at the time, indefeasible — superstructure.

The full extent of Descartes’ influence on Spinoza becomes clear when we turn to the Ethics. Descartes held that there is a division between our biological nature — which is wholly subject to deterministic relations — and our spirit, which is exempted from such determinism. There is a logical insufficiency at work here: if it were so that our spirit is wholly outside the biological machinery, how are we to explain that the spirit cannot withdraw its body from the iron-laws of nature?


Baruch Spinoza

It is in response to such questions that Spinoza would mould his refinement of Descartes. To Spinoza it isn’t so much that the mind — which is what the spirit receives as its reformulation — is singular in its exemption from iron-cast determinism, but that we can become conscious of determinism, and that this raising to the level of consciousness is what enable us to withdraw from the biological machinations of nature.

Spinoza upends Descartes’ absolute division between nature and spirit: rather, it is the extent to which the mind apprehends its situation in a domain of necessity that indicates our ability to command our emotions. We are reminded of Schopenhauer’s’ later wisdom: “to obtain something we have desired is to find out that it is worthless; we are always living in expectation of better things.”

To desire is to be dissatisfied, and to be able to regard one’s desire as transitory is our only source of tranquillity.

New poem in translation

Snow can cover things up, bury people and objects, draw a blanket over the dead, turn darkness into whiteness, alter the light. Here’s a translation of a historical poem on a situation that was contemporary to the poet, Göran Sonnevi, and that would lead to mass upheavals and significant shifts in how we thought about our relations. We are compelled to ask about the legacy of recent armed interventions and what the future holds. Read the poem here: Poetry


Photo courtesy of Poetry Foundation.

Nietzsche’s rejection of happiness

Nietzsche makes no secret of that it is Schopenhauer — Europe’s great pessimist — that is his true and most magnificent teacher. It is from him that Nietzsche got his idea of the will as essential to man and his existence, and it is against Schopenhauer that Nietzsche can finally announce the end of all values, or, to put it more precisely, the zero-point of morality that has as its entailment the transvaluation of all hitherto acknowledges values.

Let’s begin from the beginning: the question of the will. To Kant the world as it appears to us had a dark and hidden underside, what he referred to as the noumenon. Behind the phenomena were this entity, shrouded in darkness and knowable only as negation. To speculate about the noumenon, Kant believed, was tantamount to delving in metaphysics, and this was something Kant would advice strongly against.

To Schopenhauer things were different. While he acknowledges the division between the world as it is experienced and some hidden core or essence to this world, the noumenon was not beyond speculation. In fact, the noumenon was renderable as will. Hidden behind everything we see — the representations of our world — is a world-governing will, and the will manifests itself in people, but also in animals, in organic matter — trees, grass, plants — and even in dead objects: planets moving through space is governed by will. There isn’t anything morally laudable or desirable in the will — it’s on the level of what later philosophers would refer to as an existential facticity.

It is only with Nietzsche that the will takes on the appearance of something that is in itself beneficial. In his Genealogy of Morals he critiques Schopenhauer for claiming to have found an essence to ethics: the pessimist held that our ability to experience compassion lay at the core of our morality. It is this claim that Nietzsche cannot endure. The will, Nietzsche held, doesn’t rely on any preconceived ethical core. Not even compassion or happiness can hold that position. Instead, the will is nourished by that which supports and strengthens the will itself.

Such considerations tend to turn curious travellers away from Nietzsche: should life have some ethical core or daimonic goal? Commentators have claimed that Nietzsche’s will to power has to do with the kind of self-preservation that was hailed by biologists and 19th Century social critics influenced by Darwin. Such readings of Nietzsche should be complemented with a fuller understanding of what it is that Nietzsche’s Superman — the Ubermench — is above or beyond. And the answer is not other people or some such, but values that have been received as essential without being subjected to the kind of trans-valuation prescribed by Nietzsche.

To Nietzsche the essence of life lay not in “self-preservation,” but in a self-transcending enhancement. Valuable are those moments that supports, furthers, and awakens the enhancement of life.

Gelassenheit and The Shining

The experience of releasement Martin Heidegger develops in the concept of Gelassenheit has a precise analogy in the film The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stephen King, released in 1980). What is curious is the way we are introduced to what is referred to as “the gift” of the child in the film and how it turns out to be the crucial divisor between survival and nothingness.

Already in the precursor to the famous scenes in the mountain hotel the child reveals his special talents when he in a conversation with his imaginary friend Tony is imparted visions of doom: blood flooding through hotel corridors, girls pale as corpses, and so on. He has some kind of seizure, and the physician who examines him suggests that it could have been caused by an imagination of the vivid kind. It is only when he arrives at the hotel and is left alone with the chef that he realises that he is not alone in having the visions and encounters that Tony has mediatised to him. The chef explains quite clearly how some people can see beyond the immediate coordinates of our spatio-temporal givenness and perceive events that have happened before or that have yet to happen.

Indeed, this is precisely what turns out to be the case. As his father works himself deeper into a state of obsessive compulsion, the horrid visions the child are realised, both as confirmations of past events and as actualisations of visions that can be perceived as nothing but premonitions on the side of the child. The temptation here is clearly to remain within the explanatory framework offered by the figures of the story, and, indeed, by the story itself. The boy is perceived as having the ability of recounting hidden events from the past and to foresee future events: thus is his gift.

Should we nevertheless not turn another page in Heidegger’s notion of

to find a more thorough and less speculative en-framing of the gift? There is no need to question the boy’s abilities as a kind of special skill. However, and this is the crucial point, the visions and perceptions that the boy have when he is in his particular state of reception are interpretations that are contingent on his transversal into a domain beyond the ordinary. We first get a clear sense if this kind of encounter the first time he meets the chef in the kitchen. While the chef is explaining to the boy’s mother the various components of the storage facilities, the boy is able to somehow take leave of the ordinary conversation and its literal references and enter into a state where he hears a more profound voice emanating from the chef, as if from the underside or beyond the immediate words. What the boy hears is the chef asking if he would like some ice-cream.

The situation is similar to the scene in the precursor in that the boy is able to access some level of experience that is not immediately available through a set of common references and literal readings. In the film this theme is developed further so that in the end the boy is able to use his skills to manipulate the perceptions of others, and, finally, bring to the rescue the chef from his vacation.

What the boy is able to do is to step into what Heidegger referred to as the clearing. It is a space where we move beyond our everyday literalnesses and can encounter some hidden truth that is revealed — however brief — before it is again covered over. The clearing is not a particular spatial location or domain that we can wilfully enter. Rather, to enter the clearing is to have the experience of releasement: it is as if we are unconstrained and let go into this domain of transversal on the condition that our perceptions there are subject to codification of a particularly enigmatic kind.

It is such experiences that lie behind the child’s pact with his imaginary friend Tony that whatever he is imparted while in this special state of transportation must remain hidden.

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

Recovering things

It has been much discussed how Heidegger had a penchant from the beginning — and by beginning we mean in this context Being and Time of 1927 — for uncovering things, i.e., objects, from their stale and habitual relations. For instance, Heidegger would talk about the shoes on van Gogh’s painting in a 1935 essay thus:

This equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.

This essence of the shoes — their shoe-ness — is what makes the shoes into shoes.


Heidegger’s approach is quite different from what we are used to from the world of non-natural — i.e., computer — languages. If we want to define a property in a programming language we give it attributes, and the property is by definition the totality of these attributive entitites.

Not so with Heidegger. With him the shoe — the equipment — is given its thingness through it place in the world. It belongs somewhere, it is cared for by someone, it has the potentiality to rest somewhere.

The Wittgenstein scholar — and, perchance, utilitarian — is eager to object that, surely, the meaning of the shoe lies in its use. An unused shoe isn’t much of a shoe, if even a shoe at all, is it? If the equipment hasn’t been used there is a sense — this scholar would add — in which is hasn’t been brought to existence as equipment.

This is the key to understand the difference between the utilitarian approach and Heidegger’s way: Heidegger was not alone in observing how we in our dislocation from tradition and historicity have come to disconnect from the things we surround ourselves with. Are the things revolting against or to us? Are they escaping our grip, avoiding our attempts to capture them in our instrumental gaze?

Heidegger would have it this way: we cannot rely simply on our received wisdom so as to know things. As John van Buren points out in Reading Heidegger from the Start, already in his theological studies of the 1910s, Heidegger was critically aware of the necessity to go back “to the things themselves.” Here we are situated in an anticipation of what Heidegger would later refer to as the clearing: when the young Heidegger would open Martin Luther’s biblical references he ventured into a domain in which the wisdom of the Greeks could be repositioned in relation to the “factic life experiences” of the early Christians.

These experiences — grace, power, glory — and the way they gave force to Heidegger’s attempt to question dogma in theology and philosophy was what provided the basis and foundation for the path-clearing Being and Time.

Heidegger on theology

In Being and Time Heidegger enumerates how a range of disciplines — sciences and humanist enquiry — have had their fields reconfigured as a result of deep-searching alterations in how their most basic objects have been grasped. The theory of relativity, the relation between tradition and historicity, and so on, have had such strong impacts on their respective fields of operation their their most fundamental beliefs have been altered. What is perhaps even more striking still today is Heidegger’s brief glimpse into the theological debate of his time.

Heidegger was thoroughly versed in contemporary theology: prior to writing Being and Time he had written papers on Luther, Calvin and others, and in the late 1910s he broke with his Catholic boyhood faith. It is in this light we should read his comments on the upheaval in theology, which, in Heidegger’s view, had been brought about by a renewed attention to Luther’s critique of a purely formal approach to belief. Heidegger comments that the crux of Luther’s argument was that the foundation of dogma at Luther’s time had not been consistent with attention to faith, and in certain respects would distort and falsify a relation to divinity that is faith based.

They key here is that to Heidegger the central concern of theology should be faith — how is man configured in his belief in divinity. Man and God, mortal and groundless ground, wesen and Being: these key concepts retain their sense in the context of faith and faith alone. Questions of dogma, tradition and denomination are secondary.

Where does such reflections place us in the most up-heaving debate concerning theology in our time: the claim that the core component of a world view — any world view — is faith? Theology today should embrace a notion of power that brings to the table precisely the question of belief: power is praised, upheld, cared for in so far as it is a power that is faithfully adhered to. And it is a view that has ample support in Scripture: in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read that

that which is sown in dishonour is raised in glory. That which is sown in weakness, is raised in power. That which is sown in a body of nature is raised in a body of spirit. [1 Corinthians 15: 43-44]

Glory, power, spirit: these are words that properly belong in the domain of theology, they are complex and challenging, and yet they provide us with key terms for investigations that truly situate us in the centre of what should inform our most critical debates today.

Ginsberg on Miłosz on Ginsberg

America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid, I’m not sorry.

Allen Ginsberg, America

Did I fulfill what I had to do, here, on earth?

Czesław Miłosz, One more contradiction

There’s a wonderful moment in Czesław Miłosz’ well-known tribute To Allen Ginsberg when the reader is given to wonder if all Miłosz retained from his engagement with Ginsberg’s poetry was a figure prone to psychiatry, illicit substances and rebel posturing.

It is not so.

What abscones Ginsberg is his refusal of the ironic gesture so prevalent in today’s conversation. It is the “demure smiles of ironists [that] are preserved in the museums, not as everlasting art.” We understand that Miłosz exempted Ginsberg from this fault: his was an art of belief.

Did Ginsberg comment on Miłosz? Read closely his most cherished poem America. In it you will find portrayals of events and movements that shaped the world of Miłosz, albeit from — as it were — the opposite direction. When Ginsberg gives voice to his sentimentality about members of the Industrial Workers of the World — the “Wobblies” — these were types that governed the land Miłosz had renounced.

Their perspective can be nothing but divergent: when Ginsberg find freedom in Carl Solomon’s Howl, Miłosz cannot but be reminded of the way psychiatry was a tool for political oppression in Eastern Europe. Where Miłosz longs for institutions that can buttress a tradition beyond the grasp of immediate political gains, Ginsberg seeks anarchy and spontaneity.

Where Miłosz’ conservatism becomes a call for civilization, Ginsberg prophesizes a freedom that can bear nothing old, nothing lasting.

There is nevertheless one thing they agree on: there is truth, and there is truth in art.