Over the past couple of years, I’ve been building myself a tidy little transdisciplinary specialty that I like to call Critical Theory of Knowledge. The essays I’ve presented and published through the Book Conferences in 2010 in Switzerland and 2009 in Edinburgh are my major public efforts in this so far. But a kindly old professor once told me that it’s always good for a philosopher’s career if you can put something to do with knowledge and/or epistemology somewhere prominent on your CV. This suits me pretty well.
My main thrust is, at heart, to take knowledge and rationality off its high horse, without falling into the traps of post-modernism that would keep me from being read by people who still venerate rationality. Preaching to the choir might be an easy way to sell books, but I never took the easy way out. In my two published essays, I examine how peer review works in academic journals, and how attitudes of arrogance on the part of professors, editors, and article reviewers can stifle creative, unorthodox ideas, and render a field of study moribund and stagnant. My critique goes something like this: If someone has worked hard enough, and become widely recognized as an expert in their field, then they tend to take their own ideas as gospel. They’re the expert, after all, so their perspective on their field is the same as the truth. When someone disputes that perspective, the first response of a typical expert, working under this premise, is that the disputer is wrong. I wrote about this last week, so you can just scroll down to 3 December for a more detailed treatment of the argument.
Attitude is far more important to disseminating and taking seriously novel creative approaches to a field than most people generally realize. With this focus on attitude in mind, I remembered a curious commonality in my academic life. Keep in mind that this is entirely anecdotal, but what’s most important to take away from this story is not a certain truth, but an intriguing idea, a particular point of view, a conceptual nudge to the ribs.
Some of the most arrogant, curmudgeonly professors that I’ve ever met, the quickest and most vicious attackers of ideas that didn’t fit with their own established conclusions, were all devotees of Benedict de Spinoza.
A confession: I haven’t read an entire book by Spinoza in its entirety until this past week. Actually, I was emphatically turned off Spinoza’s philosophy by the egotistical and pretentious way it was presented to me in a class I took when I was 19. Spinoza wasn’t even on the class curriculum, but the professor would go on and on about “the divine beauty of Spinoza” in a way that communicated none of the important ideas, and just delayed us from covering the actual course material. With my current doctoral project using many ideas from the ontology of Gilles Deleuze, important background reading has turned out to be Spinoza. Deleuze’s big book on Spinoza, Expressionism, was the first presentation of his philosophy that made me feel good about it. This week, I’ve barrelled through Spinoza’s Ethics. And I’ve found something very intriguing.
Spinoza’s book Ethics is a philosophical guide to living. It’s written as a series of geometry-style proofs about the nature of God, existence, thought, emotion, and reason whose ultimate goal is to indicate how one can live through the guidance of reason, and so live a life of joy and exultation in existence itself. Pretentious? Maybe more than a little. Uplifting? Inspiring? Definitely! How could such a book, written with such sincerity by such a generous, magnanimous, and admirable personality inspire such arrogance among some of its devotees? The picture assembled itself slowly, but I’m convinced that I’ve worked out how it happens.
Spinoza has little time for people who live according to their emotions alone. They’re passive before the fluctuating situations of life, living as slaves to forces beyond their control. Part four of five, on how emotions can wreck someone’s thinking and personality, is actually titled “Of Human Bondage.” And he’s a master of the subtle burn. Reading the Ethics, I find myself laughing at a book laid out like a mathematical proof, because of the cunning ways he inserts light-hearted jabs about people who let their emotions carry them away, or who generally don’t think and live “guided by reason.”
And then it hit me. It was a sudden realization, which one should generally mistrust, but as I thought about it, the idea just made so much sense. Part four (Of Human Bondage), proposition 73, in the elaboration paragraphs labelled Scholium, Spinoza describes how the strong person is a person who lives guided by reason, a person who “hates nobody, is angry with nobody, envies nobody, is indignant with nobody, despises nobody, and is in no way prone to pride.” Yet when my Spinozist professors spoke to any students, colleagues, or even higher-ranked professors who expressed an idea hesitantly, or lacking detail, or fuzzily, or even just experimentally, the self-declard Spinozist would respond with anger, indignation, and spite. Anyone who articulated an idea with any less than the perfect precision with which Spinoza himself wrote and argued, was dismissed and insulted with great condescension and arrogance.
But sometimes, an idea needs to be given a chance to percolate in one’s thoughts, to drift around conversations, displaying roughness, but also promise. A lack of clarity may obscure a bounty of potential. These self-declared Spinozists of my anecdotes attack and dismiss an idea for lacking that perfect clarity of expression that it may not yet have had time to achieve. Spinoza’s burns and jokes are written with no cruelty, but a pleasant wit. His barbs come with the extended hand of friendship, never the spitefully dismissive spirit that I have heard from the self-declared Spinozists who ruthlessly attack all ideas in progress, unfinished, incomplete. But the same words Spinoza wrote, when delivered with a tone of anger, are words of hatred, rage, and dismissal.
In Switzerland, I spoke about humility as the most difficult, but most important task of a thinker. Humility is the ability to wonder sometimes, whether you are on the right track: The expert must sometimes question his own expertise to avoid destroying the vibrancy of the field to which he’s committed his life. Sometimes, if you dedicate yourself to Spinoza, patron saint of a life lived guided by reason, you can say to yourself, “I’m a follower of Spinoza, so I must be guided by reason. If I’m guided by reason, I must be right, and it’s my duty to stop those who are still in bondage to their lesser instincts, who are not yet guided by reason as I am!”
I hope you see the parallel structure of that thought, and my thought at the start of this post. The first sign that you’re no longer guided by reason is that you no longer think it’s required that you check to see if you’re guided by reason. Spinoza wrote that he who is guided by reason lives free from error, strife, or mistake. But the first and easiest mistake to make is to believe yourself incapable of mistake. That mistake is called pride.