(Note to readers: This is sort of esoteric. If you like Spinoza and like philosophy generally, it might be interesting. Otherwise, it’s probably best skipped as just another of my exercises of writing out my thoughts so that I might actually be forced to think them through and understand them.)
The New York Times philosopher’s blog, The Stone, ran an article by Firmin DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art, that tried to use the absence of free will, as posited by Freud and Spinoza (there are a great many others who have also concluded that man has no free will) to disparage the idea of rugged individualism (the title of the article was “Deluded Individualism”). Once DeBrabander, sufficiently to his mind, dispensed with the idea that humans have individual volition and will, he zeroed in on Spinoza’s metaphysics to claim that the interconnectedness of all things and people means it is natural and proper that we have a robust social safety net. The crux of his argument is that a) we have no free will so we can’t lay any claim to individual accomplishments, and b) that since we are metaphysically like some enormous blob of only illusory differentiation, there should be no objection to the state moving some of the undifferentiated pieces around to some of the non-determinative individuals because, you know, we’re all a part of this blob together.
I regularly excoriate Paul Krugman for using his economic genius for the sole purpose of rationalizing and justifying his political impulses. Mr. DeBrabander here has done worse. He shows not the slightest hint of philosophical genius and has twisted and contorted the ideas of men who were thinking last of politics, if at all, when their ideas were formed, in order to illogically apply them to the current political debate over the relative virtues of collectivism and individualism. He’s trying to dress up his political impulses in a pretty philosophical bow, but fails miserably at the task. He only succeeds in creating a very nearly incomprehensible, illogical argument that profanes the thoughts of Freud, and especially, Spinoza. Maybe guys like DeBrabander are why philosophy, at one time the queen of the academy, hardly garners any attention anymore. Right out of the gate, he cites an inapt metaphor from Freud:
There is a curious passage early in Freud’s “Ego and the Id” where he remarks that the id behaves “as if” it were unconscious. The phrase is puzzling, but the meaning is clear: the id is the secret driver of our desires, the desires that animate our conscious life, but the ego does not recognize it as such. The ego — what we take to be our conscious, autonomous self — is ignorant to the agency of the id, and sees itself in the driver seat instead. Freud offers the following metaphor: the ego is like a man on horseback, struggling to contain the powerful beast beneath; to the extent that the ego succeeds in guiding this beast, it’s only by “transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.”
Philosophy is only useful as a synthesizer of information and knowledge if it has correct information and knowledge. We now know much more than Freud could ever have imagined about how the human brain processes sensory inputs to develop the images and thoughts that form our conscious view of reality.
It turns out that there is something like an id at work in our subconscious, sometimes described as the limbic system. It operates deep within the core of our subconscious, but it is hardly like a stupid horse, unconnected to a rider (consciousness) except by saddle, spurs and reins. The limbic subconscious is vastly more knowledgeable than our conscious minds. It accumulates and stores sensory and extra-sensory information about the external environment and the inner workings of the body and presents to the consciousness only those tidbits it thinks are necessary to achieve its ultimate purpose, which are always and forever to enhance, in the premises, the survival and propagation prospects of the body it inhabits. After the subconscious creates a picture of reality for consciousness, conscious reasoning offers feedback about the viability of available strategies for achieving its goals. Finally, a path is determined which has taken account of as much information as was available and which could be processed by the time of the decision point, whether the question is what to eat for lunch, or which finger with which to scratch one’s nose, or which woman’s hand to ask in marriage.
Freud’s metaphor would be more apt if the horse were riding the man. The subconscious needs the intellectual horsepower of reasoning consciousness to determine the best course for achieving its aims, but the subconscious, like the rider of the horse directs its movements, provides the purpose for which the reasoning conscious gallops. But the best metaphor I’ve seen of how the brain operates to create reality for our conscious minds is that of a newsroom (from Incognito, David Eagleman’s brilliant book on how the mind works), where the subconscious operates like a polemical editorial staff, only telling the conscious mind what it needs to know to accomplish its ultimate purposes. Important matters (he’s got a gun!) get blaring headlines in
ten seventy-two point bureau grotesque type (hat-tip eno) on the front page, unimportant matters (oops, missed a belt loop) get published, if at all, several pages back in small type, buried in the clutter of ads and competing stories (those socks need to be thrown out after this time wearing them; I need to clip my fingernails). In any event, the idea of the id/subconscious as a horse and the ego/consciousness its rider simply does not work, not even for this essay, (whose premise, flawed as it is, depends upon mankind having no free will), unless it is assumed that riders only go where the horse decides to take them.
And even if mankind is assumed to be simply riding along a horse of his subconscious impulses, going wherever the horse wishes to take him, what then directs the horse? Just because free will might not operate at the level of conscious thought does not prove the idea that men aren’t free to choose. The subconscious is as much a part of man as are his conscious thoughts. To prove the lack of free will among men in a manner that disposes of individual accomplishments would require proving that some agent completely outside of man compels him to action. Otherwise, individual actions and accomplishments can still be attributable to individual men, if not to their conscious reasoning processes.
Having made a pitiable argument that human beings haven’t any individual freedom to decide upon their own course, DeBrabander absurdly tries to link government largesse with this lack of autonomy, bemoaning people who refuse to acknowledge they are beholden to the state for their sustenance:
I was reminded of Freud’s paradox by a poignant article in The Times a few months back, which described a Republican leaning district in Minnesota, and its constituents’ conflicted desire to be self-reliant (“Even Critics of the Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” Feb. 11). The article cited a study from Dartmouth political science professor Dean Lacy, which revealed that, though Republicans call for deep cuts to the safety net, their districts rely more on government support than their Democratic counterparts.
These people, like many across the nation, rely on government assistance, but pretend they don’t. They even resent the government for their reliance. If they looked closely though, they’d see that we are all thoroughly saturated with government assistance in this country: farm subsidies that lower food prices for us all, mortgage interest deductions that disproportionately favor the rich, federal mortgage guarantees that keep interest rates low, a bloated Department of Defense that sustains entire sectors of the economy and puts hundreds of thousands of people to work. We can hardly fathom the depth of our dependence on government, and pretend we are bold individualists instead.
As we are in an election year, the persistence of this delusion has manifested itself politically, particularly as a foundation in the Republican Party ideology — from Ron Paul’s insistence during the primaries that the government shouldn’t intervene to help the uninsured even when they are deathly ill, to Rick Santorum’s maligning of public schools, to Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate. There is no doubt that radical individualism will remain a central selling point of their campaign. Ryan’s signature work, his proposal for the federal budget, calls for drastic cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Pell grants and job training programs, among others. To no surprise, as The New Yorker revealed in a recent profile of Ryan, the home district that supports him is boosted by considerable government largesse.
Wouldn’t pretending that we are bold individuals, instead of acknowledging our utter lack of autonomy, seem to indicate some measure of it? And what, exactly, does a lack of free will have to do with depending or not on the government? Could a person possessed of free will also be dependent on government largesse for their sustenance? What if the individual’s subconscious concludes that government largess holds the greatest promise for the survival and propagation of the body it inhabits? Further, could that same individual hold the apparently conflicting idea that government largesse was not such a good thing collectively? What superficially seems illogical might simply be the individual’s subconscious mind deciding that professing belief in such a contradictory manner would enhance its own survival and propagation imperatives. Logic and consistency have never formed the life of political ideals and beliefs, elsewise, Republicans who claim that government is best that governs least would leave personal matters (like abortion or drugs) to individuals, and Democrats, who claim that we are, as DeBrabander later puts it, “all in this together” would not be so concerned with protecting individual liberties.
But how did we leap from attempting to discern whether individuals have the conscious capacity for autonomous decisions to asking whether or not they should embrace the idea that they are not socially autonomous and self-reliant? It is one thing to say the ego/consciousness is dependent on the id/subconscious for what it thinks and does. It is quite another to say that this idea of dependency, this lack of self-autonomy on the part of the ego, between two aspects of one organism, should be extended to the society of several.
And these inherent contradictions in DeBrabander’s argument don’t even reach the core contradiction—that if men are simple automatons, devoid of any individual capacity for action, then how does anything at all ever get done? And why even be bothered with these piddling disputes over individualism v. collectivism? Without individual capacity for action, these disputes, nay all of political discourse, are just the reaping of a whirlwind; they all are utterly pointless.
But the following is where DeBrabander really goes off the rails, and frankly, pisses me off. He brings in Spinoza, my favorite of all philosophers, to support his collectivist ideology and implicit defense of Obama’s assertion that “You didn’t build that”:
Spinoza greatly influenced Freud, and he adds a compelling insight we would do well to reckon with. Spinoza also questioned the human pretense to autonomy. Men believe themselves free, he said, merely because they are conscious of their volitions and appetites, but they are wholly determined. In fact, Spinoza claimed — to the horror of his contemporaries —that we are all just modes of one substance, “God or Nature” he called it, which is really the same thing. Individual actions are no such thing at all; they are expressions of another entity altogether, which acts through us unwittingly. To be human, according to Spinoza, is to be party to a confounding existential illusion — that human individuals are independent agents — which exacts a heavy emotional and political toll on us. It is the source of anxiety, envy, anger — all the passions that torment our psyche — and the violence that ensues. If we should come to see our nature as it truly is, if we should see that no “individuals” properly speaking exist at all, Spinoza maintained, it would greatly benefit humankind.
DeBrabander is correct that Spinoza did not believe in free will. But his disbelief must be understood in proper context. When Spinoza was compiling his philosophical magnum opus, Ethics, the main theme of which is that every effect has a cause founded in nature (which he called Substance or God), no matter whether the cause is practically ascertainable or not, a part of what he hoped to accomplish was dispelling belief in the supernatural. Spinoza’s philosophy spoke to the pre-Enlightenment view gaining purchase at the time that maybe Aristotle’s Schoolmen, and the priests and bishops whose supernatural explanations of inexplicable phenomenon they helped validate, were wrong.
Specifically, so far as man’s will was concerned, Spinoza was answering Descartes, who, though believing the bodies of men and animals to be machines, i.e., lacking free will, afforded men a soul, an incorporeal entity residing in the pineal gland, where it was able to contact men’s vital spirits, and through this contact, interact with the body. Descartes, not willing to abandon spirituality completely for scientific materialism, created a part of man that was not simply a machine, but was an independent agent. Men had bodies but they also had eternal souls, which gave them free will and the prospect of eternal life, and conveniently also made them liable for their sins. Descartes was unwilling to destroy the edifice of spirituality in the same manner as was Spinoza. It was this Cartesian duality which Spinoza was attempting to eliminate when he provided that men have no free will, that a chain of causal relations coalesces to form ideas and actions; that there is no soul existing independent of the body. Spinoza had to throw out the baby of free will in order to dispense with the bath water of an incorporeal and eternal soul.
But Spinoza never, in his sparse writings on politics, assumed that men had no individual identity or that they were incapable of acting independently. In fact, the ethic of Ethics, so far as there is one, is that individuals have a responsibility to seek blessedness by knowing God, both in the manner with which God is alive in them, and in how God animates all the world.
Take as an example of Spinoza’s political views what said about freedom of speech, from Chapter 20 of the Theological-Political Treatise:
If minds could be as easily controlled as tongues, every government would be secure in its rule, and need not to resort to force; for every man would conduct himself as his rulers wished, and his views as to what is true or false, good or bad, fair or unfair, would be governed by their decision alone. But we have already explained at the beginning of Chapter 17 that it is impossible for the mind to be completely under another’s control; for no one is able to transfer to another his natural right or faculty to reason freely and to form his own judgment on any matter whatsoever, nor can he be compelled to do so.
And In Proposition 22, Part IV, of Ethics, Spinoza proposes, “No virtue can be conceived as prior to this one, namely the conatus to preserve oneself. “ In Proposition 25 he states, “Nobody endeavors to preserve his being for the sake of some other thing.”
Are these the pronouncements of a political collectivist who believe men to be incapable of autonomous action?
And finally, the conclusion from Mr. DeBrabander:
There is no such thing as a discrete individual, Spinoza points out. This is a fiction. The boundaries of ‘me’ are fluid and blurred. We are all profoundly linked in countless ways we can hardly perceive. My decisions, choices, actions are inspired and motivated by others to no small extent. The passions, Spinoza argued, derive from seeing people as autonomous individuals responsible for all the objectionable actions that issue from them. Understanding the interrelated nature of everyone and everything is the key to diminishing the passions and the havoc they wreak.
In this, Spinoza and President Obama seem to concur: we’re all in this together. We are not the sole authors of our destiny, each of us; our destinies are entangled — messily, unpredictably. Our cultural demands of individualism are too extreme. They are constitutionally irrational, Spinoza and Freud tell us, and their potential consequences are disastrous. Thanks to our safety net, we live in a society that affirms the dependence and interdependence of all. To that extent, it affirms a basic truth of our nature. We forsake it at our own peril.
Though Spinoza may have annihilated the individual through his metaphysical view that all of the world is one (incidentally, Buddhists would have some difficulty distinguishing his views of creation from their own), the individual, the special mode of God that is a human being, remained paramount in his consideration. After connecting the dots of creation in Parts I and II of Ethics, he spent the remaining 3/5ths of the book explaining what creation means for the individual, and how the individual might thereby live ethically. After Part I and II, “Concerning God” and “Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind”, respectively, there follows Part III, “Concerning the Origin and Nature of Emotions; Part IV, “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions”, and Part V, “Of the Power of the Intellect, or of Human Freedom”. There was nothing collectivist in his philosophy. It was a humble and individualistic ethic that explained how individuals could achieve blessedness through a closer understanding of God, which is to say a closer understanding of themselves and their emotional impulses and of the world in which they exist. Human freedom, which offers the greatest and highest happiness man can hope to experience, is achieved through understanding and thereby controlling the emotions with the intellect. It is the essence of blessedness. Quite ironic it is then, that a man who is claimed by DeBrabander to have believed autonomous individuals to be a delusion, placed freedom at the pinnacle of virtues to which one should aspire.
Exactly how any of this bears on whether or not the state should corral its power in order to take property from one individual to give to another (i.e., the social safety net) is utterly beyond me. Spinoza was very close in his view of interpersonal relationships, of man in society, to Christ. I think Spinoza would have counseled that men have a duty to help each other, but would not have imagined the state to have been a proper vehicle through which the duty might be performed. Like Christ, Spinoza lived in a time when the bare existence of government had to be formally justified in the minds of its subjects. Here’s some of what he said along those lines, again from the Theological-Political Treatise (1670), which relates ideas quite similar to those of John Locke (the English philosopher and Spinoza contemporary, though it’s not clear whether they ever corresponded with each other), upon whose ideas Jefferson modeled the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
However, there cannot be any doubt as to how much more it is to men’s advantage to live in accordance with the laws and sure dictates of our reason, which, as we have said, aim only at the true good of men. Furthermore, there is nobody who does not desire to live in safety free from fear, as far as is possible. But this cannot come about as long as every individual is permitted to do just as he pleases, and reason can claim no more right than hatred and anger. For there is no one whose life is free from anxiety in the midst of feuds, hatred, anger and deceit, and who will not therefore try to avoid these as far as in him lies. And if we also reflect that the life of men without mutual assistance must necessarily be most wretched and must lack the cultivation of reason…it will become quite clear to us that, in order to achieve a secure and good life, men had necessarily to unite in one body. They therefore arranged that the unrestricted right naturally possessed by each individual should be put into common ownership, and that this right should no longer be determined by the strength and appetite of the individual, but by the power and will of all together. Yet in this they would have failed, had appetite been their only guide (for by the laws of appetite all men are drawn in different directions), and so they had to bind themselves by the most stringent pledges to be guided in all matters only by the dictates of reason (which nobody ventures to openly oppose, lest he should appear to be without the capacity to reason) and to keep appetite in check insofar as it tends to another’s hurt, to do to no one what they would not want done to themselves, and to uphold another’s right as they would their own.
These aren’t the words of a man who thinks, as a practical political matter, that men have no ability for autonomous action. Locke is the champion of liberty and libertarians—people who believe in minimalist government–everywhere. Had Spinoza published more than just this treatise during his lifetime, he might also have been.
In any case, claiming that Spinoza’s metaphysics, or his ethics, compel the existence of the social welfare state is absurd. Likewise is the claim that Freud and Spinoza’s views support the idea that individuals, because they lack free will, can’t accomplish anything individually. DeBrabander should be ashamed at his attempt to twist and contort Spinoza’s views to suit his political ends, and embarrassed for his utter failure to successfully do so.