Investors, take note: this Dutch rationalist is a hot stockby Rebecca Goldstein / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Thinking of buying shares in a great philosopher? The first question you need to ask is whether you’re interested in long or short-term investment. If you are looking long-term, then prepare yourself for serious scholarship. Alternatively, short-term investment could merely involve comparing the battle over women’s hemlines on catwalks in Milan and New York to Wittgenstein’s language-games. Investors must also keep in mind a philosopher’s obscurity, as this allows room for interpretation. Counter-intuitive shock appeal is also a plus.
These ruminations were sparked by the broadcaster Alan Saunders’s comment that, were he dealing in philosophical shares, he would be selling off Descartes and buying Spinoza. I was surprised Saunders retained any substantial Descartes, which for decades have been rated as junk bonds. But he’s onto something in picking Spinoza as a hot stock.
The 17th-century rationalist, who made every claim for reason that has ever been made, was for many years considered too insignificant to refute (unlike Descartes). Obscure, yes. Counter-intuitive, yes. But there wasn’t fast bidding for a philosopher who argues that there is only one substance, which can be viewed alternatively as God or nature, and from whose essence each and every finite thing, or modification, follows. (As being unmarried follows from being a bachelor.) Those of us in Anglo-American philosophy looked askance at system-builders like Spinoza, setting our sights on more feasible problems (such as showing why, precisely, being unmarried follows from being a bachelor).
But Spinoza’s stock has risen, his symbol emerging in varied markets. Take the movement which calls itself “deep ecology,” distinguishing itself from that “shallow ecology” which seeks to redress pollution and other practices deleterious to humans. Deep ecology rejects this privileging of the human perspective, arguing that all living things, including the biosphere, have equal moral rights. Arne Næss, a founding thinker, embraced Spinoza. Some might argue (I’d be one) that deep ecology misinterprets Spinoza’s deucedly abstract conception of “nature,” which has more in common with a physicist’s theory of everything than with deep ecology’s biosphere, much less with the Norwegian waterfall to which Næss once chained himself to block the building of a hydroelectric dam.
Spinoza did say that, when pondering the problem of evil, we err by judging the universe from the point of view of humans. Unfortunately for the brand of Green Spinoza, he also said that “the rational quest of what is useful to us” (in which he…