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Friday, December 12, 2003

Spinoza’s God: The One, The Necessarily Existent
By Daniel Silliman
December 11, 2003
For Donald Turner
Modern Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy is always and everywhere centered around and grounded in his idea of God. He was described by contemporaries as “a man intoxicated by God” and as “drowning in God,” which are strange descriptions for a man who began his philosophical search by getting excommunicated from his Jewish community in Holland for being an atheist. Since one can hardly move in Spinoza’s philosophy without bumping into Spinoza’s God, let us consider that God in light of evidence for existence, the problem of the one and the many, and foundationalisnm.

Spinoza offers four arguments for the existence of God, his versions of Anselm’s Ontological argument, hinging on the nature of existence. We will consider here the first and fourth proof.

For Spinoza, either God doesn’t exist or God exists necessarily with a non-existence is inconceivable.
1) The essence of substance involves existence.
2) Anything whose essence involves existence cannot be conceived as nonexistent.
3) God is a substance.
4) Therefore God exists.
If we say God’s non-existence is conceivable, then we say that the idea of God involves existence and non-nonexistence, this being absurd, God cannot not exist. He reworks Anselm’s argument so that existence depends from the essence of substance: Anselm’s Platonic preference for existence – it is more perfect to exist than to not exist – sharpened and put up as the primary premise. Still, this seems to go astray at a few key points. P1 seems more susceptible to the sandwich counter than Anselm ever was. P1 seems overly susceptible to arguments like “everything that exists necessarily exists, since the essence of substance is existence and the things that exist must exist.” It doesn’t seem clear that P3 isn’t begging the question. God is a substance, which means by definition that God exists which means that we have defined God, in P3, as existing, which is what we wanted to prove. Why should I accept P3? It doesn’t seem to recommend itself to any but the convinced and the counter – God is not a substance – seems more intuitively inline with theism’s traditional separation of God and God’s creation.

Moving past internal problems, even the conclusions is weaker than we need it to be, since it doesn’t seem to say that God exist but for something to be God, that something would have to exist. There is no distinction here between a type of substance called God which in English is called sandwich and the type of God we were worried about in the first place. To back pedal from this, we’d want to bring in Anselmian language about a that-which-that-which-none-greater-can-be-conceived. Spinoza’s first proof is a nice accessory to Anselm’s ontological proof, but it doesn’t stand independent.
The second proof we will consider is move conscious of invoking infinity to establish God’s existence, the locus of this argument is Anselm’s “greater.”
1) Existence is a power.
2) The more reality a nature has, the more power it has.
3) Things of an absolutely infinite nature has infinite reality
4) Therefore, absolutely infinite things have infinite power of existing.
5) Therefore, absolutely infinite beings must exist.
The reason to except P2 and P3 is a Platonic one: It is the chain of being, the Platonic preference for existence. Thus what we end up with from Spinoza does not seem to be able to operate independently of Anselm’s proofs.

Curiously, the one of the main attacks on Anselm’s deducted God is exactly the distinction between Anselm and Spinoza. Anselm, who was declared a Saint by the Catholic Church and didn’t want to prove God so much as to show how the method worked, remained within Christian Orthodoxy and was accused of producing a God that was faceless and impersonal, a God who was finally unable to save us from the human problems but rather existed apart in a cold logical space doing nothing. Anselm could not accept this as a result, and separated his proved God from the God of the faith. Spinoza, not restrained by an orthodoxy, accepted the faceless and impersonal God as the only one logically possible.

We move here to our second route of considering Spinoza’s God, his declaration that God is One and the One is all. Spinoza is unique among his Modern contemporaries for rolling his argument back to the ancient question of the one and the many, concluding all is one, and explaining the world from there. This metaphysical problem considers the taxonomical quandary of the existence of a whole and or particulars. How can the whole be whole if it is divided? How can the particulars be particulars if they are whole? What is the relationship between the One and the Many? Most want there to be some way of answering the question so that we maintain both the whole and the parts, so that we have a single leaf but also have leaves. Most want to establish a relationship such that, to steal from the left field of Trinitarian philosophy, the One is Three and the Three are One. But this talk seems to many to be outside the bounds of logic, and they are forced to side with the whole-less many or the distinction-less whole.

Spinoza, starting with the proof of God’s existence depending from God’s absolute infinity, accepts the consequences of infinity in a Parmenides-style monism. For Spinoza there is only One and the One is all, is God. He doesn’t take this up lightly, but for two reasons:
First, if God is infinite, then there can be no limitations on him for a limited thing isn’t infinite.
Second, there can be no other things since God contains all attributes and two distinct things cannot share attributes. God is absolutely infinite and thus possesses every actual and possible attribute, which will not allow any substance other than God to exist.

As Spinoza’s proposition 14 of the Ethics states the monism: “Besides God, no substance can be granted or conceived.” For Spinoza, there is only One.
That-which-none-greater-than-which-can-be-conceived works out to that-which-than-which-none-other-can-be-conceived. Otherwise there would be something greater.

Some have attempted to pin Spinoza a pantheist, but that misses the point by talking about the All as Many. Spinoza is a monotheist who denies that anything other than his God exists. It is only then that he insists that every particular you point to is, indeed, God. But in doing this he denies their particularness. Attempting to explain the nature of the multitude of “things,” Spinoza gives us modes, that is, ways the One manifests itself in finite ways. There is only One, which exists through itself, and all attributes are attributes of the One. “Whatever is,” he writes, “is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” Finitude is modal where substance is infinite. The substance is greater than the sum of modes and is beyond the many finite modes. The substance, that is God, is infinite and has infinitely many attributes, and can be divided into the kinds of mind and body. We know thinking things and extended things, which are both one substance and the substance is God.

Still, this only moves our problems of wholes and particulars back. The question remains as to how these modes relate to the One. Indeed, some of the answers recreate the questions. For example, if the absolutely infinite manifests in finite modes, it is therefore interacting with those modes, relating to them, and therefore defined and limited by them. The One turns on itself, creating the Many within and spawning again the questions of limitations on the infinite and now inner taxonomical questions.

If we ask “Where is your God Spinoza?” the “heretic” “atheist” who is “intoxicated by God” will answer in these ways, telling us his God is the God who necessarily exists and his God is the Substance, the One that is all. If his God fails, his God fails here and can only fail here – fail to necessarily exist and fail to be one. This offers us new ways of getting into these philosophical issues and new ways to measure Gods and to look again at first methods.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Now now:
The present-ed post-politics of Foucault

By Daniel Silliman
December 9, 2003
For Dr. Peter Blum, Sociology of Knowledge

The question always comes – what good is it? One is reading Foucault, trying to corner his method and understand why he’s talking about ancient Greek sex or classic French madhouses and we have to know why, to know “what now?” to know what this tells us politically. And then Foucault turns away from that answer, saying that’s not what he’s doing at all, that he’s not giving us history, where history is the complete narrative with the present at the crux between the history we can learn from and the future.

“Yet surely we can learn something from it?” he is asked.

“I think there is no exemplary value in a period which is not our period,” he says.

We read Foucault, exploring the relationships of power, for example and what we want is a way out, something to oppose, something to escape, and something to work for.
Reading, say, George Orwell on power and totalitarianism – in his dystopian novels like 1984 or Animal Farm or in essays like The Politics of the English Language – we’re left with an aversion. The reader’s question of “what now” is answered, at every angle, with “oppose totalitarianism,” “escape totalitarianism,” and “work for truth in discourse.”

Reading Foucault on power we are given the past, permanently centered in the cycle of the present, denied a project for the future. Foucault doesn’t give the answer, doesn’t give the project for changing the future. He keeps telling stories but they have cycles instead of endings. Foucault avoids a politics and avoids eschatology. We want a political party, or at least a theory of action, but all we get is an invitation to a discourse.

“I have never tried,” Foucault writes, “to analyze anything whatsoever from the point of view of politics, but always to ask politics what it had to say about the problems with which it was confronted. I question it about the positions it takes and the reasons it gives for this; I don’t ask it to determine the theory of what I do. I am neither an adversary nor a partisan of Marxism; I question it about what it has to say about experiences that ask questions of it.”

Foucault isn’t working within a politics or towards a politics. Where and when he allows politics into the conversation it’s actually in a conversation and not as the end, not as the finalized theory in practice.

It’s easy, here, to out of hand reject Foucault as useless, to declare his work unfit since he can’t give us a vision to action, since he can’t give us a plan of movement. It’s easy to see Foucault as lacking a thesis 11 and to reject him since to accept him renders us unable to act or move. We bring questions of evil totalitarian governments or of rapists and Foucault’s just considering, and he’s not even distinguishing between Nazis and Democrats, between rape and marriage, so we move on to someone we can do something with, someone with a “practical” way of talking.

To frame this problem in a general way, how does one act without a meta-narrative? Yet this is too general, too Pomo 101 to seize the guts of our problem. Narrowing, how does one act without an overarching justification of an outlined history we learn from and a focused future we can work towards? How do we act when we only have the present?

Let us take a strange left turn here, into Christian eschatology. The vast bulk of eschatology is divided between talk of apocalypse and talk of utopia; the theme moving people to action is one of these two eschatological stories. The premillennial story is the story of a fast-approaching apocalypse – the coming apocalypse is the thing against which a premillennial moves, concerning which a premillennial justifies action and outlines why, where, and how he should act. It’s a story of avoidance and escape, a story of evil triumphing against all but the remnant. The postmillennial story is a story of successively remaking the world, working to utopia – the hope that stirs the postmillennial to action, that outlines the progress and the final triumph and dominion of right, that, again, outlines why, where, and how he should act. It’s a story of progress and success, a story of evil succumbing to right. The two stories see each other as polar, as opposites in direction and distinct in their call to action, divided in the way they see the world and they way they act towards and what they act for.

But to see these two eschatologies as two poles, as radically different in the way they each approach the world, is to overlook they way in which they’re identical. Apocalyptic and utopia visions aren’t polar; they mirror each other. The two systems operate in the same manner: establishing a history, foreseeing a future, instructing one to act now in such a way as to move from that history and to that future. Their themes vary, but their stories are the same.

With a strange third possibility, we have amillenialism with talk of cycles and an always-present eschatology. This a-eschatology eschews the overarching histories and the teleologies of eschatology and talks of apocalypse and utopia on in intensely localized and present-ed ways. Amillenialism gives us a history, but that history shows us the present, not the future. Amillennial is has a history that’s a history of another mold, a history that is only present, a history that is only about now. From the premillennial or postmillennial standpoint, it gives us a history that is worthless, never telling us where to go, never telling us how to escape or to conquer. Amillennial history shows us our world without allowing us to remake it and without allowing us to escape it. There is no rapture. There is no dominion. There is only now, only the cycle that is happening in the present.

Amillenialism is an eschatology of the present, in the present. With amillenialism we are perpetually present-ed, recentered on today. We don’t characterize the world around apocalypses or utopias but around the present. This is action but of an entirely different sort, action that is centered on now and on today, action that is localized.

Let us take another unexpected turn, and consider pop music. Pop music “draws no conclusions. It makes no comments. It proposes no solutions. It admits to neither past nor future, not even its own. This living in and for the present is what separates pop culture from traditional culture.” Other music thinks of itself as “doing something,” perhaps something socially oriented as Folk or musically like Jazz or culturally like Classic. Pop has no such prohibitions, and is nothing beyond a consideration of itself and its time. Where other music is conscience of its history and its future, pop is now.

Which isn’t to say it had no dealings with history, but rather to say that history as conceived by pop looks nothing like history as it is otherwise known to music. Early British pop looked towards history, but not as an overarching story to explain the present and advise us for the future, not as something definitive, but as something to be mined in interesting ways. Looking at the early pop tendencies towards taking history as fashion, George Melly in his book Revolt Into Style says pop is “treating history as a vast boutique,” where one shops for styles and where one picks up interesting tidbits. It’s easy to look at this as without serious merit, to dismiss it as rebellion without regards to anything, kids playing, but pop music alone in music is present-ing the listener. “What pop has so far achieved is the means of looking about us without deliberately locking up our cultural responses,” says Melly.

What pop achieved was a view of history that wasn’t progressive, a story of shaping and developing for the better future, or conservative, a story of golden pasts to be preferred and preserved. This is a view of history from now. This is a view where the present isn’t the preparation for something else or a losing of something else. The question, from serious music, is how pop can be music with only a view to the present, how it can be music if it doesn’t go somewhere. Pop may or may not stop from actually producing music to answer the charge of the serious, but if it did the answer is sure to run along the lines of “Music is my savior/and I was named by Rock and Roll,” or “Fuck art, let’s dance,” or “Never trust a revolutionary who can’t dance.” The pop world will shrug, “What do you mean this isn’t music?” and, “This isn’t important? Well, it’s important enough for us.” The need to answer such charges is, in fact, almost absent.

Going back to Foucault, let us reconsider the charges, knowing they are also leveled and answered by in eschatology by amillennialism and in music by pop. The brunt of the charge is that Foucault can’t answer the question “What now?” that he can’t outline or justify action since he refuses to take the present out of the center. Foucault, along with amillenialism and pop music, is charged with not saying anything important, with leaving us guilty of inaction, without any real answers.

What now? they ask. Now now, we say. For there is no escape, there is no conquering. Let us consider the problem of power in ancient Greece, but let us consider it for now. Let us consider the idea of prisons as it develops in history, but let us consider it for the present. Let us localize and present. We must move past the polemics and engage in discourse. We can lessen and restrict these dangers, but we cannot overcome them and we must not dismiss them.

Foucault isn’t working on a theory, but a conversation. He’s not planning a political movement but a discourse, a discourse that takes us through the past and meanders only to return us, re-set us, in the present. We want to deal with today, with the local, the present, the now. It’s a game of questions and a project of consideration. “Questions and answers depend on a game,” he writes, “a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.”

We have here a politics that is post-politics. Not a polemics, which is parasitic, but a discussion, not a meta-story but a present-ing. Foucault’s call to action isn’t a call to solve or end danger, but to mitigate it. What we have here isn’t, as charged, an inability to act, but the restriction of action to now, a move to act without visions of grandeur.

To consider an actual political movement that is post-political, let us look to New Urbanism. New Urbanism, the sibling of agrarianism, is remarkable as a political movement for a few reasons: 1) New Urbanism isn’t utopian. It doesn’t promise a golden future rid of human problems. 2) New Urbanism is local, focused on the street we live on and considering specifics about street design, or zoning laws. 3) New Urbanism doesn’t define itself by its enemies. There is no frightening story about the boogiemen, but talk about how we live and how it could be better. This is a post-political movement, a style of movement Foucault could work with – an always-present-ing consideration of the way we live. Here we recognize and face the dangers of urban living without a call for its wholesale destruction but considerations for mitigating, tweaking, the life to limit danger.

What now? Now now.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Linguistic Parallelism: A third way in the mind/brain problem
A proposal for a linguistic double aspect theory, and a draft for a longer project
By Daniel Silliman
December 3, 2003
For Dr. Jim Stephens, Contemporary Philosophy

The great mind/body debate hinges on a few minor questions that swing everything. For dualism, the question of over-causation, more than any other, serves as final judge for the theory. For materialism, the question of reduction is pivotal.

Dualism, of course, looks like this: MENTAL / PHYSICAL, and materialism wants to collapse the mental into the physical, saying that MENTAL --> PHYSICAL (or MENTAL / PHYSICAL) is the simple and more explainable picture. Altering these pictures a little, we see that both camps are dealing with a two-world theory of sorts. Dualism has a MENTAL WORLD / PHYSICAL WORLD division while materialism has a MENTAL WORLD --> PHYSICAL WORLD reduction. So our two problem issues, over-causation and reduction are right here, with dualism holding physical and mental causes for a single physical event and materialism holding the complete reduction of mental to physical. Normally answered separately, we should try to overcome both problems at once if we can.

Against the whole field of debate, I want to throw the crossbred child of Spinoza and Wittgenstein. From Spinoza, I want to take single aspect theory, with one world operating in different modes.
From Wittgenstein I want to take the charge that philosophical problems are linguistic confusions. Together, this will give us a way to dissolve the mind/body problem with a double aspect theory that works as a linguistic parallelism, shifting the over-causation to an under-description problem and simultaneously opposing a mind/body reduction.

Consider a Spinoza-style monism with Wittgenstein-style modes, looking like:
               —MENTAL LANGUAGE
               —PHYSICAL LANGUAGE

This is to propose a parallelism where the physical and the mental run parallel but rather than being two types of worlds they are two ways of describing one world. This is a parallelism where the distinction between the mental and the physical is a linguistic one, where the world is larger than our ways of talking about it.

The claim here is that the mind/body problem results from confusions about language. We have two languages neither of which describes the world fully, so we go back and forth between the ways of speaking which causes us to think we have two causal explanations for one event, or to think we need to explain mental things in physical terms.

Let’s look at how this works. A man screws a screw into a wall to hang up a picture. A close description of the man screwing could go two ways: 1) what was it like, phenomenologically, to screw; 2) what was it like, mathematically, to carry the screw.

The first will describe how it feels to screw, detailing the strain in his arms and the twist of his wrist, the way the man manifests himself against the wall, against the screw, the intention of hanging a picture, the way the entire action recedes into the background as an action, the way he doesn’t think about the math of the action but it’s there. The second will describe the mathematical description of the screw’s planes, the torque, the weight and resistance, etc.

There is a phenomenological way to talk about screws and screwing, but it will never be a total description since it doesn’t talk about the math. I can talk here about the way I know, bodily, that I’ve screwed past the sheet rock and am twisting into the wood, but not about the way that works mathematically. There is a mathematical description of a screw that describes a screw but can’t be said to give a total description since it can never capture the way a man feels screwing into wood. I can express planes and torque, but not the bite of metal into wood. The two descriptions aren’t reducible to each other, but keep pace running parallel.

Einstein, apocryphally, was once asked if a concert could be explained mathematically. He responded
that it could, but not fully since no explanation of pressure variation would capture the emotional aspect of the event.

Having two ways of talking about the world is confused as talking about two worlds by dualists who then have to explain the interaction of the mathematical description of a screw and the qualia of screwing, and frustratingly battered against by materialists who want to say there’s only one world and the equation-description is the real, if complicated, description of the phenomenological one.

The confusion enters because a given question about a particular event may receive a mathematical answer, while the next question will receive a phenomenological one. One asks for physical explanations of a screw and receives them. One asks for non-physical reasons and receives them. Perhaps, rather than siding with the over-causation of two reasons to one action, or with the reduction of non-physical into physical, we should consider the simplicity of linguistic double aspect theory, a linguistic parallelism where there is only one screw but two incomplete ways of talking about it.

To crunch all this, my argument runs thus:
1 There is one world.
2 There are two ways of describing the world, a phenomenological and a physical way.
3 Both descriptions are incomplete, thus can never fully be reduced into.
4 Therefore, descriptions of world may vary between phenomenological and empirical, depending on the question.
5 Therefore, apparent problems of over-causation are really questions of under-description, that is to say: If something appears to suffer from over-causation, that is because it can be partially described by one language and partially described by another.
If this works, over-causation and reduction are linguistic confusions and the field of mind/brain problems can move a long way to being dismissed, the mind/brain dichotomy a long way towards being overcome.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

The Fight for Language
George Orwell’s fusion of art and politics

By Daniel Silliman
For Tracy Simmons
December 3, 2003

George Orwell is the champion of clear words and the enemy of obfuscation. To him, this meant that he was for Democratic Socialism and against all forms of totalitarianism. For Orwell, the waters of art and politics flowed together. “All issues are political issues,” Orwell wrote, “and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
The revelation of Orwell is that politics shows itself in language. In his totalitarian future of 1984, people speak Newspeak, think Doublethink and proclaim the slogan that War is Peace. Totalitarianism is a crime and a terror, and the first place the horrific beast emerges is in the abuse of language. Thus the bond between art and politics is inseparable and must either be honest or insidious.

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism,” he wrote. This is true of his great novels, Animal Farm and 1984, the two novels he wrote before that, Homage to Catalonia and Coming Up for Air, and in his essays. As he gives advice on writing, he’s speaking about the standard that saves us from totalitarian devilry.

Reading Orwell’s advice on writing, one sees there is no dividing art and politics. For him, he “tried, with full consciousness…, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” That one whole was clarity and honesty.

He famous essay on writing identifies itself as a thing of politics in the very title: “The Politics of the English Language.” For Orwell, totalitarianism is heinous for creating ugly and inaccurate language, ugly and inaccurate language heinous for creating totalitarianism. As he writes in “The Politics of the English Language”,

"Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because out thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

The failure of Winston Smith in 1984 and of Boxer in Animal Farm is, ultimately, personal. Big Brother isn’t finally about politics in the sweeping sense of economic production and foreign wars, but about politics in the most private and personal sense possible. “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’,” Orwell wrote, because politics isn’t out there, it isn’t another law or a new plan of production or an army on the front, it’s about us in the most human ways possible. The fight against totalitarianism is a fight for language.
Winston Smith, at the height of 1984, tries in consternation to recall the words of an old nursery rhyme. A nursery rhyme – an innocent and childish collection ditty that is, really, the point of conflict between a propagandistic world-tyranny and honesty. The old man he meets in a bar can’t stop talking about how he misses pints. These are just the mutterings of the feeble-minded young and old, Big Brother says, but the real battle is over these measures of the world: the size of a drink and the rhyme of a child and the way we use our language.

“If you want a picture of the future,” he wrote in 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” Which is to say, imagine a world where dictionaries are propaganda and aphorisms are lies and your language has been corrupted in your mouth. This isn’t something one can pass over, something one can wait out and ignore. This battle is a battle every time you set your pen to paper, every time you speak.

Orwell was pessimistic about writing and about politics. But that’s too easy. It’s not that he didn’t have hope and it’s not that he didn’t believe that greatness could happen. He was pessimistic like an editor who never receives the great manuscript, like a revolutionary who never found a cause. He was pessimistic exactly because he believed.

Hemmingway, a man who also went through the Spanish Civil War and who made similar political moves, once said that his writing was an attempt to find true sentences and to write them down. This was the policy of Orwell, and it bleeds from every page he wrote.

Orwell fought the corruption the propaganda that eats men’s souls, destroying their world and devastating their language. One never comes across true sentences written down any more than when reading Orwell. He writes that “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats,” and he resists totalitarianism with a simple sentence, with clear English words that don’t bend to ugly or slink to blurring. They show instead of hid, because they are honest words and an honest politics, because Orwell was an honest man and an honest artist guided by the north star of clarity of language.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Damnation wrinkles around the eyes
Dear RJ,

In your lines I found the lines of my damnation
stacked stones tipping to falling stumbling
while you push

while I write flat lining.

I want your orange flower
your snow falling from a sugar packet
your red image on black and white.
But I labor
for a line
for a lie.

She sleeps passenger side
your girl
while I drive through MT hills and headlights.

I belong to the habit
& the memory of Metaphor Insomnia
        me with my second-born inheritance.

I’m standing ‘side
smoking another man’s cigarette, your cigarette
you’re the favored one
        beloved son
& I know you without you knowing me.
& I hide behind my
pretension imitations.

I was going to say your center doesn’t hold
then today I found the middle and with the middle, two ends
& your building danced

as I stood over Custer’s tomb on the highway side of chain smoking.

I can’t decide: Which of us do I hate?
I think this is a love letter.


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