culture, empathy, Enlightenment, freedom, innocence, intelligence, nature, self-possession, teleology, time
The reason for the seventeenth and eighteenth century efforts at Enlightenment was to unseat the entrenched top-down human-on-human parasites plaguing Old Regime society. Those parasites were disguising themselves as avatars (monarchy, aristocracy, and Church hierarchies) of a fictitious Supreme Parent (projections of the universally imprinted parent), and in that guise systematically curtailing the liberty, initiative, individuality, and material prosperity of the great mass of the population, with the intent to channel disproportionate wealth and privilege to themselves. The purpose of the Enlightenment movement was to improve the conditions of human life generally by dismantling the effects, material, cultural, and psychological, of top-down human-on-human parasites.
Orientation from Strict Rationality or Intelligence
In the work of Spinoza, one of the founding visionaries of the Enlightenment, there is a quite Stoic identification of philosophical thinking with strict rationality, such that a person is thinking philosophically to the extent that their thinking goes entirely beyond the influence of traditions, habits, imitations, the talk going around, commonly accepted assumptions, fads and fashions, the declarations of authorities, or any other cultural givens and influences, not to mention personal guesses and fantasies possibly expressing wishes and fears, and instead proceeds entirely on the basis of clear evidence and mathematical (geometrical-logical) rationality. On that view, l’esprit philosophique is a dedication to thinking rationally and to building a general orientation by a consistent practice of thinking rationally.
In his lecture series about Pre-Platonic philosophers*, Nietzsche focused on the novel kinds of persona constructed and projected by individual philosophers in their philosophical presentations. Spinoza’s strictly rational philosophical person belongs in that line of thinking. To take that line to a conclusion, it can be said that when any sort of person thinks philosophically about issues, they do so entirely as an intelligence. If a person presents claims from thinking as a representative of a particular race, gender, body type, social stratum, ethnicity, religion, profession, or even age, then those claims are limited, culturally biased, parochial, and special, in a way that philosophy needn’t be and shouldn’t be. To think philosophically is to act strictly as an intelligence, but philosophy as such is not the only way to express personal existence as intelligence. Acting creatively from any personal creative process also qualifies. So, to think philosophically in the tradition of Spinoza is to think from a self-identification as pre-cultural (innocent) intelligence.
*The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, written by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translated from German and edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Greg Whitlock, Published by: Urbana, University of Illinois Press. (2001), ISBN: 0252025598. See page 58.
In present circumstances, just as in the Old Regime era, the intent in developing a philosophical consciousness, a practical identification of personal subjectivity as innocent intelligence, is to re-model ordinary culture-influenced consciousness to remove the internal “receptors” that give human parasites the opportunities they need to trigger subordination and the whole system of false values that goes with it, and so to gradually dislodge the current collective of top-down human-on-human parasites, and eventually discredit the culture of parasitic will-to-power masculinity permanently. Getting beyond every vestige of the imprinted parent, probably the most important trigger of subordination, is an aspect of recognizing both personal freedom and the fundamental equality of intelligences.
This is not a move in an endless cultural evolution from one form to another, not a change of fashion resulting from some fundamental instability, dialectic, or taste for novelty in nature or human nature. There is a destination, an end point of this process, which might be described as the popular and widespread achievement of a philosophical consciousness, beyond all vestiges of the imprinted parent and the cultural tags of subordination.
Time is the Form of Freedom
Notwithstanding the spectacular advances of science and technological engineering, the enduring relevance of philosophy derives from its specific orientation to the questioning in any human gaze, and especially to freedom in that individual gaze. Without the question, there is no gaze, no perception, no knowledge. The freedom in that questioning is inseparable from teleology, from futurity, the construction of time. Time is not a substance, nor substantial in any way. No theory of substance, not even the single substance of Parmenides or Spinoza, will help with understanding time or teleology, because teleology is a construct of what does not exist. Time is interior to each individual questioning gaze, and in fact, time is nothing but the question in the gaze. Time is not a dimension of objects (or of nature) except insofar as objects are identified by an intelligence in its building a life.
Empiricism, a strong feature of Spinoza’s vision, depicts an impossibly passive intelligence, and does its best to diminish and marginalize the questioning in the individual gaze, attempting to construe knowledge as if it were entirely a product of sensations. Empiricist knowledge, on that view, is merely an effect of non-intelligent givens, of natural causes. However, contrary to strict empiricism, before an intelligence reacts to its surroundings, or even receives effects, it questions, reaches, searches, selects, and makes some kind of sense of what it finds. There is always an indispensable contribution to what is perceived made by the perceiver. Some conceptual form or sense must be applied to givens, and such conceptual form is a creation of intelligence and is not a sensory given. (That is a version of Kantian idealism, an interpretation of rationalism.)
Nature Excludes Teleology (Freedom)
It would be difficult for anyone to disagree that there are events in the world, such as one’s own deliberate actions, which can be understood properly only as teleological, the results of purpose, aspiration, intent, or the prior conception of future goals in the context of building a life. Yet it is also evident that not all events are teleological. Nature is indeed a completely non-teleological realm. There is no teleology in strictly natural processes, in the playing out of natural laws in the cosmos as a whole or at a local level. However, since we began by recognizing teleological events, that we create them, it is difficult to avoid envisioning a system of two different but interacting sets of events, one of which consists of the deliberate actions of humans or generally intelligent beings. There is nature and additionally a complex category of teleological non-nature. Teleology is temporality, futurity. Orientation toward a future constructed of intelligently conceived but strictly non-actual possibilities, negations, and estimated probabilities is the framework of freedom. The category of non-nature includes both the population of individual (embodied) intelligences about whom it makes sense to talk about teleological freedom, and the cultures which that population has created. Culture is the creation of the population of individual embodied intelligences engaging with one another exterior to exterior, making use of nature to do so. However, the longstanding success of certain factions of humans at being parasites on other humans, and in that effort constructing culture as a mechanism of inequality in power and control, makes culture inextricably coercive, which is to say, political.
Culture as a Parasitic Weapon of Mass Disempowerment
It is not difficult to see how religion, managed by a faction with large-scale parasitic intent, works as mass disempowerment. An organization or person can play on the pre-existing mass conditioning to, and expectation of, some parental-type authority and the superstitious expression of that conditioning in beliefs about all-powerful free-floating parental-type spirits such as a father-god in the sky. Such an organization or person only has to pull off a convincingly theatrical assertion of receiving divine revelations to establish themselves as the chosen prophet, the messenger, the instrument of the invisible Supreme Parent, and suddenly the mass of believers is at their mercy. The Old Regime parasite factions had succeeded in contaminating western culture with superstitious myths of omnipotent disembodied avatars of the Supreme Parent, an ideology which allowed them to carry on brutal parasitism with nearly complete impunity. It is crucial that they based their legitimacy on metaphysics, the metaphysical claim of an omnipotent disembodied super-intelligence, because it turned out that a more plausible metaphysics (and only that) could reveal the falseness of their claim to legitimacy. That was and still is a stunningly surprising vulnerability in the operating of human parasites. Human parasites always appeal to metaphysics, such as cosmic intelligences or materialist determinism, to proclaim the ultimate necessity of human subordination and hierarchy, the institutionalization of parent-child type inequality; and so metaphysics is the first and crucial place they must and can be discredited. That is the enduring relevance of metaphysics. Only a philosophical consciousness (l’esprit philosophique as it was named in the eighteenth century) as distinct from a consciousness projecting and accepting Great Parent avatars of the internally imprinted parent, can think beyond the myths of power entrenched within prevailing culture. A philosophical consciousness implies bottom-up rather than top-down access to reality in the power of critical and creative thinking inherent universally in individual teleology.
So consider, what metaphysics would illuminate the conditions for general human happiness and well being? What is the metaphysics of universal human rights, democratic equality, and individual freedom of thought and expression? In other words, what metaphysics would discredit and remove from the great mass of humanity the burden of top-down human-on-human parasites? The Enlightenment idea of a philosophical consciousness was indistinguishable from the emerging scientific consciousness in which disembodied teleology and parent-type omnipotent teleology were removed completely. Spinoza’s materialism was understood to discredit the pretensions of reigning violent families to be legitimized by divine determination of human affairs because with materialism there could be no divinity distinct from determinate nature to intervene in human affairs. In the vacuum left by the destruction of that traditional authority, the importance of every person as a rational being, and the general will of the collective of all people, emerged as the only plausible foundation of authority. The power of individual rationality was combined with the consequences of materialism for myths of the great unthinkable parent. That was l’esprit philosophique emerging in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The same pre-existing mass conditioning to, and expectation of, parental-type authority still exists in mostly unidentified obscurity. The old father god is still widely taken for granted and, even without that superstition, the idea of parental-type sovereignty of the state is still largely unquestioned, as is hierarchical subordination generally, structured by competitions for recognition, rewards, and upward advancement for those proven most pleasing in the calculating gaze of some great parent avatar. The competition to reach the top in business organizations or professions has a semi-unconscious, unstated, informal, agenda. Just below the surface, the competition is about projecting a sustained impression of masculinity, a culturally stipulated masculinity as the systematic invulnerability to empathy. To be chosen for top positions, females would have to be the most masculine candidate in the competitions, but not many women can do that.
The condition of adult orientation in which no vestige remains of an imprinted parent would be a philosophical consciousness, recognizing bottom-up access to reality, since individual intelligence is what remains when authority vanishes. It was already clear to Enlightenment activists that the crucial means by which to get beyond the universally imprinted parent at a broad cultural scale was to identify, clarify, and distribute l’esprit philosophique as individual empowerment. A philosophical consciousness that would be relevant now should include awareness of the fundamental importance of l’esprit philosophique in the Enlightenment effort for universal equality and human rights, the unique historical precedent of accomplishing a large-scale cultural movement to get beyond the effects (inequality and subordination) of the universally imprinted parent which has been fundamental to entrenchment of human-on-human parasites.
The Question of Enlightenment Individualism
One of the limitations of Enlightenment materialism with its shift of sovereignty from divine Providence (as expressed through Churches, aristocracy, and monarchy) to the general will was a certain lack of attention to human individuality. The principle of the universality of human rationality did serve as a grounding for universal human rights and individual freedom and dignity, but the tendency of strict rationality is generic, and the more creative aspects of human individuality and freedom were not clearly founded in Spinoza’s monism. A philosophical consciousness that would be relevant now must include awareness of the real foundation of universal human rights and equality, which is to say, awareness of individual intelligence-as-such, innocent teleology, the fundamental humanity which eliminates all the culturally determined tags of subordination, alienation, and de-humanization which work as barriers to universal empathy. It should also include awareness of the cultural mechanisms and techniques of the parasite faction to present and preserve inequality as a positive value, and that the crucial challenge of philosophy in the twenty-first century is to repudiate the claim of parasite factions to be justified and legitimized by nature as represented by science.
The Will to Power vs Empathy
The idea that a “will to power” is the core of all vital force, all vitality, an idea from Schopenhauer (The World as Will and Representation) as interpreted by Nietzsche, is just another expression of the persistent culture of alpha-trophy-looting masculinity, and as such narrowly biased. Another philosophical expression of the same culture can be seen in the idea Hobbes had of the state of nature, a war of all against all, quite accurate within the dominant culture of masculinity. Hobbes, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche were all childless males with few profound attachments beyond a small cohort of male peers. The theory of the will to power is properly appreciated as a revelation of their culture of masculinity, what could be called will-to-power masculinity. The overwhelming predominance of males in academic professions, all immersed in that culture, still enables the theory of human nature as will-to-power to be pervasive and persistent, for example in contemporary deconstructionist theory. It dovetails with the legacy of Augustinian Christianity, declaring human nature universally to be the unalterable source of injustice. Such a bias obscures the very possibility of progress (illustrated by Foucault, for example) and also blocks identification of the culture of will-to-power masculinity itself as the historical, and very alterable, source of injustice. Culture is mutable even if nature isn’t.
The parasitic culture of alpha-trophy-looting masculinity, cowboy masculinity, works by exploiting opportunities presented by the universally imprinted parent to disable universal empathy. It is difficult to imagine eradicating that whole poisoning culture, but what it comes down to is whether or not it controls you personally, and there are ways for innocent teleology to cultivate its self-possession. Beyond the imprinted parent lies a truly empathic philosophical consciousness. Only when you strip away from personal definition everything except bedrock innocent intelligence (and you can) do you escape the prejudicial tags used within cultures to mark out constructs of superiority and inferiority, tags such as race, gender, ethnicity, abled-ness, body-shape, size, strength, wealth, extroversion, and so on. Those tags are cultivated by the culture of will-to-power masculinity specifically to obstruct any straightforward empathy with other intelligences (people) universally, but when the cultural tags are discredited and ignored what remains is innocent teleology which is discernible, although individual, in all individual eruptions into nature of intelligent animation. Nothing but a philosophical consciousness, which is just self-consciousness as creative teleological freedom, innocent intelligence, can disempower the controlling effects of culture poisoned by the ethos of human-on-human parasites. This all points to a metaphysics that can reboot the Enlightenment movement to dismantle the material, cultural, and psychological effects of top-down human-on-human parasites, and that metaphysics is not any form of deterministic monism.
Beyond the influence of myths and projections of a universally imprinted parent (a dominating super-intelligence or institution of subordination) dawns the recognition of a large number of individual intelligences, each with its own elaborate interiority of time and teleology out of which emerges from each its empathic recognition of other teleological individuals. (Self-consciousness as intelligence includes awareness of both inertial nature and human culture as external to personal innocence.) The same empathy that empowers individuals to sense teleological behaviour, intelligence, outside ourselves also empowers us to sense the effects that inter-intelligence parasitism has on its victims, and so reveals such parasitism as categorically immoral, ugly, vicious, and repulsive.
This is Not Theory
Personal cultivation of that kind of philosophical consciousness (self identification as teleological freedom, without parental-type authorities) is distinct from ideological sophistication, religious faith, speculation, or theories of anything. We don’t need revelations, faith, ideology, or theories, because we can know personal teleology or intelligence by immediate acquaintance, achieved in a process of letting go of cultural influences. Transcendence (freedom) is thinkable and clearly defined without appeal to occult or obscure forces or powers, hidden principles, aliens, or magic. However, there certainly is a contribution to be made by self-directed education in support of sophistication about history, culture, and ideas.
Metaphysics of Freedom
The most important challenge and purpose of philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was disputing the metaphysical claim asserted by operators of systematic Old Regime lethal power (Churches, aristocracy, monarchies) to be justified by divine intervention, by Providence, in their violently coercive social supervision. However, the crucial program facing philosophers of every era is to understand individual human freedom (the questioning in the gaze) in the face of so many clearly controlling and determining forces. The roots of a metaphysics of individual freedom go deep in the history of philosophy. The discovery by Martin Luther (1483-1546) of an interior power of teleology to take a creative leap (of faith for him personally) was the breakthrough in modern thinking about individual freedom. Luther drew on ancient Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Skepticism which he encountered in his humanist education. The Stoic version of individual freedom was much more limited. Stated strictly, it was just a freedom to assent to the universal Logos in every detail of reality or else to dispute or resist it internally. The personal interiority from which that Stoic freedom emerged included deliberate rationality interacting with emotionally charged appetites and competitive impulses, for example, and the power or freedom of rational deliberation was considerable in that interior context. Luther’s identification of the creative leap was an interpretation of that Stoic interiority, but also a crucial creative leap beyond it.
Luther, Kant, and Freedom
A form of Luther’s idea of the individual leap of faith became fundamental to Kant’s self-legislating ethics, and in fact to his whole kind of idealism as sketched above. Peel away Kant’s technical terminology and the fundamental insight underneath is the personal creative leap that Luther made famous. Fichte’s self-positing ego is yet another expression of the same basic insight. It is no great surprise to find such a Lutheran grounding, since the religious upbringing of both Kant and Fichte was Lutheran. Kant’s contribution was to recognize the broad personal freedom implicit in the power of an intelligence to take creative leaps, that if an intelligence could take a leap of faith then it could take a multitude of different kinds of leap, and so Kant de-coupled Luther’s insight from the conceptual universe of Christendom and Abrahamic monotheism generally. In Kant’s work the leap became an individually created rule or conceptual pattern for structuring personal orientation within phenomena. Still another step is required to de-couple that basic interior creative freedom from the conceptual universe of sovereignty and sovereign rules in which Kant was still immersed.
Kant did not specifically relate his rationalist account of freedom with his recognition that time is contributed to experience by the experiencing intelligence, but he should have. Both the subjectivity of time and the individuality of freedom become clearer in that combination. Time, teleology, is the form of freedom.
The tradition of metaphysics recognizing a plurality of embodied teleologies with individual creative freedom is the philosophical legacy to draw upon to support human rights and freedoms far better than materialist monism or any other kind of fatalist determinism. The Lutheran line of freedom philosophy provides the matrix of an understanding of teleological freedom and the transcendence of intelligence.
The rationalist philosophy of the Enlightenment attempted to replace a Christian ideology sanctifying arbitrary oppressions exercised by institutions of monarchy, aristocracy, and Churches with ideas supporting democracy and the global equality of all people as individuals, requiring the abolition of slavery, torture, serfdom, and the oppression of women. However, the weight of opinion within the politically engaged public was always skeptical about the competence of individual rationality and generally supported traditional religions and institutions of wealth and subordination, probably out of fear of the unknown, of unpredictable social change. Consequently, strong democracy and global human equality have still not been accomplished, but they are ideals still inspiring many people and having unpredictable political consequences. The forces of top-down human-on-human parasitism have always been winning, most recently since the suppression of the anti-war and counterculture movements of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s which blossomed around the early cultural impact of television. (The only intensively televised war, the most realistically communicated and the most popularly questioned and hated by spectators, was the American war in Vietnam 1965-75.) Here in 2014 the top-down forces are winning spectacularly, although there is also surprising new resistance.
The Enlightenment is not yet a story from history with beginning, middle, and end. We and our times in culture and politics are still very much part of the ongoing struggle of ideas and social arrangements at the core of the Enlightenment movement. The cultural and social transformations effected by rationalist philosophy, especially as presented by Spinoza and his eighteenth century French materialist interpreters, notably Denis Diderot (1713-84) and (Baron) Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723-89), who worked to define and communicate l’esprit philosophique, defining the categorical criminality of torture and slavery, for example, unquestionably earn the radically bottom-up political philosophy of the Enlightenment a central place in modern philosophy. It is remarkable that the mainstream work of contemporary philosophy shows so little vestige of that legacy.
The reflections here on Enlightenment history, Spinoza, and in particular l’esprit philosophique, have been informed and inspired by:
Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790, written by Jonathan I. Israel, published by Oxford University Press (2011), ISBN 978-0-19-954820-0.
Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.