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Monday, September 23, 2019

This is a response to a post by Maxime Rovere, to which Martin Lenz called my attention (via Facebook).

The plot of Rovere’s post[1]The post is a summary of a talk he gave to open the Collegium Spinozanum III. The talk is available here, but I have not watched it. So, as usual, I am ill-informed. concerns a series of games that can be played with Spinoza’s text. The series starts with a “plain game,” which he calls “reading the Ethics.” The further members of the series are presented as powers of this plain game (reading the Ethics2, reading the Ethics3, etc.), suggesting that they involve repeated applications of the same method to itself, or perhaps to its own result. It is not so clear, from the descriptions of the individual games, that the series actually is generated in that way. For example: the second game is described as “playing with the rules,” meaning: with the rules of the first game, whereas the third game is “playing with the players,” meaning again, apparently: with players of the first game (so that it is not obvious how the third game involves the second at all). But I can’t see that anything depends on this.

I have something fairly critical to say about this structure (I’m sure this will come as no surprise to those who know me). But I should therefore begin by saying that I sympathize with what I take to be the motivations behind it, and sense that Rovere and I might agree about many things. In describing his fifth level game, he calls for reflection on “how and why we practice philosophy, refer to authors, respect certain protocols of exchange and certain norms of writing and on why we should certainly invent and experiment new ones, if we are to survive in an over professionalized and specialized philosophical world.” This call I wholeheartedly endorse.

Nevertheless. The first thing to say is that, although philosophy is a subject which admits of being played,[2]Played as a game, I mean, although something similar might be said about the idea of playing it as theater (an issue sometimes raised by Cavell and everywhere raised by Plato, maybe also by Shakespeare), or playing it in the sense in which Thoreau says that, for better or worse, children and poor students “play life.” it cannot so be disposed of. And this is because, to use terminology lately introduced by Thi Nguyen: wisdom, the end of philosophy, is never disposable.

For the same reason, moreover, it must be impossible to sort our relation to Spinoza, as Rovere proposes, into separate levels (or, as Nguyen might say: to sort our total agency qua readers into separate, sealed-off “layers of agency”). To explain, let me venture to say that this purported series of levels is the same, mutatis mutandis, as the series of scientific methodologies proposed by Lakatos: the scientific method (picked out by a criterion of demarcation), the metamethod (picked out by a metacriterion), and so forth. I say, too, that it is the same as the series that would begin if someone wanted to explain my consciousness — explain, let’s say, why I know some objects and not others — by the existence in me of a certain inventory of special entities, sometimes called “ideas” (and sometimes called Erlebnisse). A new inventory of ideas-of-ideas will apparently be needed to explain why just these ideas and not others are “in me,” i.e., belong to my consciousness (for surely: even if these ideas are spatiotemporally located, their location — say, inside my brain — will not be sufficient to account for this). And so on. This latter series should be familiar to any reader of Spinoza, since it is the series that Spinoza tries to render harmless at E2p21 (albeit the aim is achieved only via the Scholium to the previous proposition, which in turn refers us back to the very difficult Scholium to 2p7). And I even say: it is the same as the series Philo tries to saddle Cleanthes with:

If it requires a cause in both, what do we gain by your system, in tracing the universe of objects into a similar universe of ideas? The first step which we make leads us on for ever. It were, therefore, wise in us to limit all our inquiries to the present world, without looking further. (Dialogues Part IV)

According to Philo, in other words, Cleanthes’ anthropomorphism must involve him in an infinite Gnosticism: the agency of the creator God (the demiurge) will be only the last in an infinite series of gameified agencies, in which the true, absolute agency of the Heavenly Sophia is infinitely far submerged. And then how could the call of the Paraclete — the call of Angst, or, as Nguyen says, of “anxious double consciousness” — ever reach us over such an expanse of schlechte Unendlichkeit?

But I need not insist even on the first of the above identifications; regard them as mere analogies, if you like. The important thing is to understand Popper’s response:

Professor Lakatos’s own attempts to solve the question of the criticizability of a methodology I will not discuss in detail. For I do not think that his “quasi-empirical approach” has any advantages; indeed, it involves solving difficult (and perhaps insoluble) problems such as “Who are the scientific elite?”. Professor Lakatos himself does not accept his own original suggestion (see the text between his nn. 33 and 34); and in the end, after many pages of discussion, he himself admits, of his improved criterion (see the text to his n. 63): “I … can easily answer the question when I would give up my criterion of demarcation: when another one is proposed which is better on my metacriterion. (I have not yet answered the question under what circumstances I shall give up my metacriterion; but one must always stop somewhere.)” My own criterion of demarcation, however, is not threatened by an infinite regress. (The Philosophy of Karl Popper, ed. Schilpp, n. 81, p. 1187–88)

For Popper, the difference between science (what he calls the “game” of science) and methodology (Logik der Forschung) is the difference between theory and practice (so Popper’s game of science is not a game in Nguyen’s sense, or at least not an example of “Suitsian play”: it does not have its own ends; the ends all belong to methodology). To be faced with a practical question is to be morally responsible. I may not pass off this responsibility down the hall to the department of “metapractice.” The problem situation, therefore, is always the same, always on the same level: how shall we proceed when, lost as we are in the forest of this world, certainty is impossible? And Popper’s answer is therefore always the same (the same as Descartes’s answer, and in fact — if we remember the role of rational faith — the same as Kant’s): we must guess.[3]See e.g., elsewhere in Popper’s replies to his critics: “As always, science is conjecture. You have to conjecture when to stop defending a favourite theory, and when to try a new one” (p. 984); “If we do make auxiliary assumptions, then of course we cannot be certain whether one of them, rather than the theory under test, is responsible for any refutation. So we have to guess” (p. 998); “Why, it might be asked, does rational criticism make use of the best tested although highly unreliable theories? The answer, however, is exactly the same as before. Deciding to criticize a practical proposal from the standpoint of modern medicine (rather than, say, in phrenological terms) is itself a kind of ‘practical’ decision (anyway it may have practical consequences). Thus the rational decision is always: adopt critical methods that have themselves withstood severe criticism” (p. 1026).

Without saying whether I agree with Popper’s Methodenlehre in every detail,[4]I do not. I can say that I do agree with him about the “metamethod”: I agree, that is, that there is and can be no such thing, not in science nor, a fortiori, in philosophy. Philosophy cannot be so disposed of. The anxious double consciousness cannot be sealed out. If we attempt to sort our reading of Spinoza into an infinite hierarchy of levels, we will fail.

Nor are examples of the failure difficult to find. Apparently Rovere’s audience came close to pointing one out: among those who commented after the talk, he says, “some have recognized the influence of certain authors (Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Foucault) in the way the reading games were articulated.” But to that list of influences we must add Spinoza. This should be obvious enough, if only from the fact that none of the three thinkers mentioned (least of all Wittgenstein!) can be properly understood without inquiring into Spinoza’s influence on them. As we try to play the plain game of reading Spinoza (at least, if we do not forget that this means reading, not only the Ethics, but also the Tractatus theologico-politicus), then the text we are trying to understand is the very text in which our practice of reading is, in many respects, first laid out. As Rovere describes his fourth level game, it “involves looking back at one’s prejudices to understand how our own conceptions transform the text and torment it (as we perfectly may be doing) in order to answer our own questions, and then look at what effect in return our playing actually has on us.” But when we embark on this fourth level of play, we find, so to speak, that Spinoza is one of the players. Hence the plain game, which we thought we were now considering only at several removes, needs at this very moment to be played most directly and most in earnest. We cannot play our fourth level game correctly without knowing what moves he, Spinoza, has already made.

And more than that. If the fifth level game is to “consider the academic rules involved in the previous level, as they imply not only the speaker, but the non-speaking players (the so called audience …),” then, since we are Spinoza’s audience, we must consider the possibility that our relation to him is not at all what we thought. Is “reading Spinoza” really a game that we play, using his texts as the board and pieces? Is it not rather: a game Spinoza plays using us? When that question has arisen for us, then we have reached a new level in our reading of Spinoza. For there are (finitely many) levels to the reading Spinoza, certainly. But that sorting into levels is governed, not by our ends, but by his.

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