Spinoza et la pensée partagée

Hasana Sharp

            Dossier « Spinoza de cœur et d’esprit »

In his Political Treatise, Spinoza claims that both virtue and vice ought to be attributed, not to the character of individuals, but to the constitution of the Commonwealth of which they are members. He suggests that one will find patterns such that virtue is more prevalent in some places and vice more common in others. In his words, 

[T]he natural affects of men are the same everywhere. If wickedness is more prevalent in one commonwealth than in another, and more sins are committed there, this surely comes from the fact that the Commonwealth hasn’t provided adequately for harmony, hasn’t set up its laws wisely enough, and so hasn’t obtained the absolute Right of a Commonwealth… But just as the subjects’ vices, and their excessive license and stubbornness, are to be imputed to the Commonwealth, so, on the other hand, their virtue and constant observance of the laws are to be attributed to the virtue of the Commonwealth and its absolute Right. (TP 5/3)

This passage points to how deeply our power and our vulnerability are shaped by our social and political circumstances. Our characteristic abilities and fragilities are owed significantly to the organization of our social world, to how institutions, laws, and norms enable and constrain us. This is the case because we are finite beings, necessarily bound to one another in a community of cause and effect, such that we cannot help being affected by others or affecting them with our actions and passions. It is also the case because it belongs to our nature to desire to think with others. We are constrained to think, feel, and be with others, and thus our power and fate necessarily lies outside of us. At the same time, we are the kinds of beings who desire to think in common with others, to join our powers of mind into a coordinated unity, and thus to be led, as it were, by one mind. We are the kinds of beings who cannot avoid thinking among and by virtue of others. And we are the kinds of beings who desire to share thought. 

Before I say more about why this idea speaks to my heart and mind, I will share a little bit of my autobiography.

            As a University-aged student, I was excited about any number of what to me were radical ideas. The first philosophy book I read was Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation. Soon afterward, I read Monique Wittig’s A Straight Mind. Both short books had a manifesto-like quality. They pointed to the depth and systematicity of our collective subordination to capitalism and to gender categories, respectively, while also promising a path to liberation. I found them revelatory. I was also young and impatient: I was frustrated that merely reading them was not sufficient to think and feel in radically new ways. I could identify how my intellectual and affective reflexes were captured by systematic forces hostile to me, but I could not transform those reflexes. We may think of Ecclesiastes: “He who increases wisdom increases sorrow.” In other words, I longed for an account of why my mental life seemed to be so far outside of my own power. (Now that I am older, it seems rather funny that as a young person I was frustrated that I could not somehow decide what to think and believe.) 

            Fortune brought me to a course on “Philosophy and Literature,” taught by Professor Warren Montag. Warren introduced me to Althusser, Foucault, and Spinoza. I was enthralled, captivated, hooked. These words in English commonly describe a powerful, pleasant experience, but a “thrall” is a serf, bondsman, or slave – a captive. The words convey the sensibility that we should be wary of being overtaken by another person or by attractive ideas. But, as Spinoza writes in a letter, of those things outside our power, what could be better than finding friends among lovers of truth? There was something in discussing and reading these texts, especially those of Althusser and Spinoza, that delivered me from the feeling that there was something blameworthy in feeling unable to exorcise harmful ideas that populated my mind, to be shaped so deeply by oppressive ideologies. 

I think I will always be guided by a perspective that avows, with Spinoza and Marx, that  “I am in Ideology.” I think, live, and interpret the world not despite but by virtue of ideology. Ideology functions to reproduce social relations, to guide us, as it were, by one Mind. Of course, these social relations are not to the advantage of many, and the ideas that reproduce them need to be opposed. Although we cannot hope to escape Ideology, we can hope to appropriate it differently, to take up the materials at hand, and re-order them as part of a collective project. My core question for a long time was how do we think, feel, and live otherwise? Even though I was working within a framework of immanence, it was still, for me, a question of escape, albeit refigured as transformation. This is perhaps an unavoidable perspective when we are oriented by questions of domination and freedom. Today I am thinking less about how we escape ruling ideas and more about how we might realize this fundamental striving to think to share thought.

Again, the Political Treatise is my guide. At the beginning of chapter 6, Spinoza declares that from a common affect “a multitude naturally agrees, and wishes to be led, as if by one mind.” Also, “all men fear solitude” and thus “by nature desire a civil order” (TP 6.1). In the Ethics, it is not passion but reason that is the motor of this desire. As Spinoza famously writes, “Man… can wish for nothing more useful to the preservation of his being that all should so agree in all things that the Minds and Bodies of all would compose, as it were, one Mind and one Body.” From reason, we desire everyone to share in the same goods, to enjoy the same love of God and Nature, and to strive for the common advantage (E IVp18s). 

Forms of common thinking can yield domination and oppression. They can attach us to ways us life that are contrary to our natures. They can ruthlessly subordinate and exclude some social groups. Domination also consists in foreclosing what Spinoza takes to be a fundamental desire to expose and join our thoughts to others. Therefore, the struggle for finite beings like us is not only that we inevitably think as others do, that we cannot avoid absorbing the prejudices of our milieux, the superstitions that attach us to our own subordination. That is what Descartes, and Enlightenment thinkers generally aim to fight. Let us free ourselves of those infantile attachments, uncritical assumptions, and irrational prejudices. Let us raze it all to the ground and start fresh. “Dare to know! Have the courage to use your own intelligence,” Kant admonishes us. Spinoza does not think we can remove our early experience with a bulldozer or be saved by the right method of reasoning alone. But I think he is more than an immanent critic who charts another path toward intellectual independence. The problem, for Spinoza as I read him today, is that there are many obstacles to thinking in concert, to bringing our minds together. 

Consider the famous chapter XX of the TTP. There he asks, “What greater evil can be imagined for a Republic than that honest men should be exiled as wicked because they hold different opinions and don’t know how to pretend to be what they are not?” Consider how often domination requires its subjects to pretend? How often do the rituals of subordination demand that we conceal our thoughts, desires, and reactions? Of course, Spinoza, as a young man, was told that continued membership in the Amsterdam Talmud Torah community required that he pretend to be what he was not. If he were to remain he could not share his thoughts, reactions, or desires honestly; he would be required to conceal his mind. He might live among the Jewish community if he could respect their rules and norms by masking his sincere thoughts and feelings, but he could not hope to form a community of thought with those closest to him. Importantly, as the ban makes clear, excommunication prevented anyone from being taught by Spinoza. Teaching is a means of bringing minds together; it is the formation, communication, and sharing of ideas. Chapter XX declares, therefore, that those governments are most violent that, in addition to punishing nonconformity of thought and speech, prevent the teaching of our thoughts, whatever they may be. Spinoza calls that government “most violent” which suppresses our desire to join other minds to our own, to act from our power of generosity, to educate. Violent rule opposes the desire to form concordia, animorum unione.

Think also of the Movement for Black Lives. One of the patterns it has brought to light is how police punish Black people disproportionately for communicating their resentment of domination. Those who see police brutality as appropriate when subjects resist or voice objection to completely arbitrary interference ask people to pretend, to conceal their reactions. They call upon people to suppress their indignation when they are stopped, frisked, questioned at gunpoint, insulted, treated like a perpetrator when seeking help, or even when their homes are invaded. If those who encounter police show their anger at being racially profiled, or if they do not show whatever fear and respect an officer expects, they can be subject to violent abuse, deprivation, or death. 

Of course, this is violence against bodies. Threatening and interfering with people because they appear Black or Arab, or because they appear to be an immigrant from a poor country, involves targeting and seeking to control bodies and peoples. Spinoza helps us to see how such domination often involves requiring certain gestures of obedience and rituals of submission that acknowledge state (or some other) authority. Moreover, when someone is questioned by police, military, or border guards, the interrogation is predicated upon the idea that the subject is not freely disclosing their thoughts. Those questioned are expected and required to perform gestures of deferential obedience, even though such gestures are not expected or required to be sincere. When a military officer approaches someone in an intimidating way, armed with an automatic rifle, that officer expects fearful, anxious compliance. Interrogations assume the subject is motivated to speak a prescribed script rather than disclose their minds: “yes sir,” “no sir,” “to visit my mother, sir,” “to go to work, sir.” In this scenario, domination is designed to divide minds. There are very narrow parameters according to which it is safe to disclose your thoughts and feelings to an armed agent of the repressive state. But, even if you sincerely declare the facts requested of you, your words are suspect. The police officer or border guard assumes you may be lying, since your reason to lie is strapped to their hip or pointed in your face. 

Beyond these clear situations in which a community or state exercises its power to exclude or deprive, there are many contexts in which strategic and other considerations urge us to pretend, hide, and mask our minds. This is intolerable, according to Spinoza. “Not even the wisest know how to keep quiet, not to mention ordinary people” (TTP XX). Thus we disclose ourselves to each other involuntarily. We express our judgments, our joy and our indignation, even at great cost. And, although the structure of power is such that those subject to state violence may not be able to bring an officer to share their thoughts, social movements address the rest of us. They aim to bring minds together, to communicate and teach, and, perhaps above all, to fight the solitude and deprivation that domination produces. In the shared thinking that necessarily defines human existence, we find not only the dominant ideas that reproduce the current social relations. We also find hope, fear, and desires to avenge common harms. We find also reason’s impulse to transform hostility into friendship, and to overwhelm those forces that treat honesty as criminal. For a free mind is one that is joined to others, unafraid, able to be, like Spinoza’s free republic, contrary and harmonious at once.            


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