Once you’ve read a certain amount of material in the same vein or genre, it becomes harder and harder for that type of writing to surprise you, to shock you, to grab you by the neck and reorganize every idea in your head. There’s nothing wrong with that - it’s just how the mind works. This is equally true whether the material you’re reading is an endless series of romance or detective novels, or an endless series of academic essays in queer theory. You learn to appreciate craftsmanship; you might enjoy a particularly well-turned phrase; certain ideas stick with you. But that shock, that jolt that can happen when you first discover something - that tends to fade.
Given this inevitable consequences of habit on the workings of the mind, Eve Sedgwick’s work holds a special place in my heart for two reasons. The first and, frankly, more banal reason is that I read Between Men and The Epistemology of the Closet in quick succession right before I went off to university, and each of those books separately and together changed my thinking permanently.
Between Men introduced me to the idea - surprising to me at the time - that homophobia and violence against homosexuals is closely linked with and related to misogyny and violence against women. This was the first time I’d encountered the idea that the political investments of feminists and gay men might align in important ways; it was also the first time I’d encountered the idea of Foucauldian power - the notion that different oppressions and different identities might be organized in different ways by the same kind of structures or the same kind of socio-political pressure. Between Men, in other words, teaches its reader the danger in distinguishing unilaterally between closely-related phenomena.
The Epistemology of the Closet, meanwhile, worked in some ways to undo the lessons of Between Men; by generating a set of conceptual and critical tools for what she called anti-homophobic inquiry, Sedgwick not only played a key role in teaching me the value of strategic alliance but also the important of careful and rigorous distinction, the ways in which the presumption of identity and alliance can hide crucial linkages between forms of power, discourse, and oppression. The Epistemology of the Closet, in other words, teaches its reader the danger in unifying without reflection closely-related but fundamentally distinct phenomena.
That these two books complement rather than contradict each other is a testament to the brilliant refinement of Sedgwick’s mind, her concepts, and her intellectual project. Each of Sedgwick’s books takes risks, goes in unexpected directions, creates infinite possibilities at every turn. She was never afraid to change, to dare, to revise, and to me, that bravery - that self-reflexivity - is the most important mark of a true and committed critical thinker. There are many smart and insightful critics; there are far fewer brave critics, and in this regard, Sedgwick stood head and shoulders above the vast majority of her contemporaries.
But for me, the most incredible aspect of Sedgwick’s work as I sit and write about it today isn’t how brave it was in its day - that part is impressive, but boldness isn’t necessarily a testament for the ages. What’s incredible about these books, today, is that they haven’t lost a single iota of their ability to jolt, to excite, to inspire, and to challenge me. Gender Trouble, Of Grammatology, Ecrits…so many of the books that used to shock and awe me as an undergraduate have largely lost their effect. Many of them I’ve had to reject entirely. But Sedgwick never gets old, or dull, or predictable. Even the essays I’ve read 5-6 times still have the power to surprise and illuminate.
A key part of Sedgwick’s enduring appeal, to me, is how prescient she was; like most truly great thinkers, Sedgwick was light years ahead of the curve. Where so much ’90s queer theory is rapidly become quaint and even naive, the full implications of Sedgwick’s ideas are just beginning to unfold. So yes, yes to this article. We need Sedgwick’s insights and wisdom. We need them now more than ever. If you’re interested in the topics I write about, in the way I approach them, or in the kind of concepts I generate, you need to go read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work.
Adventures in Pedagogy Now That The Semester Is Over…
You will rarely see me criticize my students on my blog, mostly because I think that it’s more important to focus on the ways the systems that educate them produce them as a certain kind of student.
That said, I noted on Twitter a day or two ago that I consider the “class” as a unit of instruction to represent a kind of social contract. A limited one, with fixed but fairly permeable parameters, and a 12-16 week term limit.
The “syllabus,” in that sense, represents the letter of the contract. A good syllabus isn’t just a reading list, it’s a plan of action: “Here’s what we’re going to be doing. Are you in?” A good syllabus lists both my commitment to you as your teacher (This is what I will be teaching you) and your commitment to me as a student (This is what you will need to do in order to learn).
The commitment, as I understand it, is mutual. What that means is that you don’t get to unilaterally define the terms of the contract. You’re welcome to send me an e-mail to renegotiate: “These extenuating circumstances made it impossible for me to do X. Is that OK? Can I do Y instead?”
Think of it this way: Would it be OK with you if I arbitrarily decided which papers I was going to grade and which I wasn’t? Likewise, if I had to cancel class one morning, you’d expect me to have a serious excuse, right? Most importantly, what if I walked in and told you that I couldn’t prepare for class because I didn’t feel like it, but we were going to just shoot the shit, instead? You might be relieved not to think hard, but you probably wouldn’t think I was a very good teacher. By the same measure, trust me, buddy - I’d much rather sit here for 50 minutes, spout some opinions about a book I barely read, and collect a paycheck. But I DON’T do that, because teaching properly is the commitment I’ve made both to you and to the institution that employs me. Just like you, by sitting in my class and deciding not to drop it or transfer have committed to performing the assignments that have been laid out for you, whatever you might think about them.
This leads, finally, to a minor but crucial point - if an extenuating circumstance made it impossible for you to read the text or to prepare for class, sit quietly and make an effort to learn, rather than to talk. I don’t think you should skip class if you haven’t prepared; many students make that assumption, and it’s a very counter-productive one - you won’t learn more by not reading the material and not hearing me explain it. Come to class, definitely. And I don’t even mind if you ask questions. But if you waste my valuable class time offering opinion after opinion about a text you haven’t read, I will grow wroth.
The Histories of Philosophy, Vol. III: The Enlightenment Ch. I We ‘Other’ Spinozans
For a long time, the story goes, we supported a Cartesian regime, and we continue to be dominated by it even today. Thus the image of the Catholic dualist is emblazoned on our restrained, mute, and hypocritical philosophy.
At the beginning of the 16th century a certain frankness was still common, it would seem. Intellectual debates had little need of secrecy; words were said without undue reticence, and things were done without too much concealment; one had a tolerant familiarity with the illicit. Codes regulating the coarse, the obscene, and the indecent were quite lax compared to those of the 18th century. It was a time of direct conversations, shameless discourse, and open disputations, when theologies were shown and intermingled at will, and knowing children hung about amid the laughter of adults: it was a period when philosophies ‘made a display of themselves.’
But twilight soon fell upon this bright day, followed by the monotonous nights of the Cartesian bourgeoisie. Spinozism was carefully confined; the Ethics were placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The Republic of Letters took custody of it and absorbed it into the serious function of Hegelianism. On the subject of Spinoza, silence became the rule. The legitimate and dialectical philosophers laid down the law. The cogito imposed itself as model, enforced the norm, safeguarded the truth, and reserved the right to speak while retaining the principle of secrecy. A single locus of Spinozism was acknowledge in the phenomenological tradition as well as in every history of philosophy course, but it was a utilitarian and reductive one: Spinoza’s substantial dualism. The rest had only to remain vague; proper demeanor avoided contact with other aspects of Spinoza’s system, and verbal decency sanitized one’s speech. And Spinozan behavior carried the taint of atheism; if it insisted on making itself too visible, it would be designated accordingly and would have to pay the penalty.
A reader asked me on Twitter recently whether Hume was a closet Spinozan. And the answer is yes.
Before I continue, have you read Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment? Go read it and then come back.
Israel’s amazing study, which was really crucial to my understanding of that phase of philosophical history, shows, among many other crucial points, the same thing I parodically suggest above: that though Spinoza and all of his works were vigorously banned and persecuted, the sheer distribution of manuscripts of the Ethics and the Tractatus, and the references to them in so many works of the later, more moderate Enlightenment make it clear that Spinoza was also widely read.
In fact, Spinoza was so widely read that virtually every major philosopher of the time went out of his way to critique, refute, or simply castigate Spinoza, often in what is considered a major work (Israel details this vigorous work of cultural criticism carefully). The denunciation of Spinoza became an almost obligatory shibboleth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but, as Foucauldianally suggested above, only certain parts of Spinoza’s philosophy could be discussed.
Spinoza came after Descartes and was influenced by him, and thus falls well within the parameter of what we might cal “early modern philosophy.” But the fascinating thing about the Enlightenment’s treatment of Spinoza is that the Republic of Letters, though nominally freed from the censorious diligence of Catholic dogma, actually reproduced in its textual relationship to Spinoza the logic of heresy, pure and simply: Spinozism was considered infectious, and dangerous not only as an idea but as a text. The difficult task of the Enlightenment philosopher was not unlike that of a Medieval disputation, in other words - how do we refute heresy in such a way as to demonstrate conceptual mastery of it, but without addressing its particulars to a contagious extent?
The answer, for the history of philosophy, was substantial unity, Spinoza’s supposed “monism.” Spinoza’s Ethics starts from a discussion of substance. And the first part of the Ethics, while hardly the simplest, is, from a theological and ‘moral’ perspective, the safest: it asserts the existence of God, and does not, as the thorny later parts do, discuss the relationship between God’s perfection and man’s will, for example. More importantly, substantial unity corresponded, for the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophers, to a dogmatic assertion that had already been made, disputed, and rejected inside the Catholic Church - univocity, or Scotism, as it is sometimes called: the philosophy of the great Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus, whose doctrines had held great influence for a time but ultimately succumbed to the refutations of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas. These Thomistic refutations of the unity of substance were widely available; moreover, they were approved by the Church; and, best of all, they were compatible both which empiricism and with rationalism, at least in so far as both empiricists and rationalists were equally able to borrow Thomistic arguments and then dismiss Aquinas himself as a Scholastic arcanist.
I would suggest, in short, that the conceptual familiarity and the moral stability of the concept of substance is the reason virtually all critiques and refutations of Spinoza in the 18th and 19th century focus on the first part of the Ethics. This is true as late as Schopenhauer and Hegel, both of whom devote a surprising amount of attention to Spinoza.
To return to the question: is Hume a closet Spinozist? My answer is yes, and I arrive at that answer by a comparative assessment. The first question I ask myself is, does Hume’s refutation of Spinoza resemble those found in some many texts by his contemporaries? And the answer is yes, yes it does. That’s the basic parameter around which I try to map the specificities of Hume’s texts.
First of all - and a crucial detail as far as I’m concerned - Hume doesn’t understand Spinoza as a Jewish scholar. This is not simply a case of paranoid anti-anti-Semitism: it’s endemic to the argument. Most respondents to Spinoza’s metaphysics, including Schopenhauer and Hegel, say something along the lines of, “This is a Jewish mumbo-jumbo mystical version of the properly organized Catholic concept of substantial unity, which we’ve already refuted. Henry More, like Schopenhauer and Hegel, used Spinoza’s “Jewishness” as a general code for all the ways that Spinoza’s metaphysics didn’t quite resemble the Catholic versions of the same ideas; this generalized anti-Semitism spares them the trouble of reading the text too deeply and being contaminated by it. That Hume avoids this gesture is significant. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Hume has read Spinoza’s Ethics deeply and carefully.
Future blog posts will need to explore this claim more thoroughly, but I would argue that Spinoza’s conceptual influence on Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature is profound. I would suggest that both its complexity and its arguments owe a deep debt to the geometric structure of the Ethics, and that the simpler, shorter revisions of the THN that comprise Hume’s later philosophical output are an effort, in part, to scrub the traces of geometric Spinozism from his writing.
The fascinating thing about Hume’s refutation of Spinoza is that of all the philosophical concepts Hume goes out of his way to refute, Spinoza is the only philosopher Hume critiques personally, by name. Look at the table of contents for Book I, Part IV of the THN, ‘Of sceptical and other systems of philosophy:
Of scepticism with regard to reason
Of scepticism with regard to the senses
Of the antient philosophy
Of the modern philosophy
Of the immateriality of the soul
Of personal identity
Conclusion of this book
No individual philosophers are named. Spinoza appears, interestingly, in the section on the immateriality of the soul, conforming, yet, again, to the Christian habit of responding exclusively to Spinoza’s arguments about substance. Hume, like More, locates Spinoza’s atheism in the same place as his substantial unity - interestingly, More ties both back to the geometric order of the Ethics. But Hume critiques the ‘sceptics,’ the ‘scholars,’ the ‘peripatetics,’ and the ‘Cartesians,’ always in the plural. There is only one philosopher he attacks in the singular: Spinoza, the most radical and dangerous, around whom no school has formed.
The attention Hume pays to Spinoza entirely belies the dismissive tone in which he discusses his ideas. The same is true of Hegel, who devotes more pages to Spinoza in the Lectures on the History of Philosophy than he does to an other thinker except Kant (more than he devotes to Descartes, incidentally). But unlike Hegel, who, as usual, is talking out of his ass, Hume has clearly read Spinoza deeply and carefully. Spinoza’s influence is felt everywhere in the Enlightenment and after, but Hume enjoys Spinoza just a little too much. So yes, I think Hume’s critique of Spinoza, itself incorrect, originates in an impulse to wrestle with his ideas without publicly embracing them.
What is Kant’s problem with Hume, anyway? Kant is either very verbose or very precise, depending on your relationship to idealist metaphysics and German philosophy in general. So Kant is also notoriously difficult to boil down or summarize - this is what makes Deleuze’s Kant’s Critical Philosophy all the more astounding. It’s one of Deleuze’s most difficult books, but it’s incredible in its ability to summarize Kant.
To return, though, to the question: what’s Kant’s problem with Hume? Well, to the extent that Kant’s problems, like the problems of metaphysics, can be summarized at all, we might note that Kant said of Hume that “He demonstrated irrefutably that it was entirely impossible for reason to think a priori and by means of concepts such a combination as involves necessity.”
What does this mean?
For Hume, necessity is a purely speculative relationship as far as pure reason goes. We can’t ever know for sure that two things have to be related. We can only associate them. I’ve written extensively on how Hume’s concept of association works; dig through the archives (#Hume).
Why is Hume’s concept of association such a big problem for Kant that he actually thinks it destroys the possibility of metaphysics?
The problem Kant raises is the problem of consistency in association. Association is able to function, Kant points out, because however much we can “atomize” elements of experiential perceptions in our minds, in the given as given particular elements have to occur together with a regular degree of consistency. The idea of “red” couldn’t serve as the link between the idea of “blood” and the idea of “apple” if blood and apple weren’t understood by me (rightly or wrongly, truly or falsely) as being already consistently associated, that is, if blood or the apple were a different color every time I saw it.
This is relatively unproblematic in considering the imagination – movement between ideas within the mind depends on the constancy of associative principles, which enable imagination. So far so good. But what happens in the perception of new objects, in the sensation of new experiences? For metaphysical certainty as Kant understands it, experience must claim identity with a cognitively available form of rational evidence, or “proof” or “certainty.” But Hume, as Kant shows, takes it for granted that new objects are able to be perceived only on the basis of existing associations. I see an absolutely new object that I’ve never encountered before: I can only process that object to the extent that my senses are able to produce associative linkages for it; its texture reminds me of this, its color reminds me of that, its smell reminds me of a third thing, and, depending on my range of knowledge and the complexity of the object, I may or may not be able to successfully or adequately identify the new thing.
But here’s the problem with this, for Kant: it means that all new knowledge depends on the network of associative linkages already being in place. Empiricism, in this formulation, is placed in a difficult position: either associationism becomes a form of circular logic, an infinite regress without origin or cause (new objects are understood on the basis of old associations which were made on the basis of new objects which were understood on the basis of old associations which were made on the basis of new objects…), or else empiricism must contradict its own definition by recognizing, as Kant would insist, an a priori principle of synthesis which makes associations possible in the first place. In other words, the problem that empiricism can’t answer, according to Kant, is, how does knowledge start?
This is where Kant seems to locate his “victory” over Hume. Kant things that Hume wants to find the place where knowledge starts, and is unable to. As is so frequently the case with Kant’s criticism, this is both a sharp and insightful critique and a complete misunderstanding of what’s at stake in Hume’s empiricism. In fact, Kant makes the same mistake that Hegel and Lacan will later inherit from him, and that he inherited from Descartes: the false belief that knowledge “begins” at some point, closely linked to Lacan’s spurious idea of an “entry into language” of a given subject. What Kant assumes but Hume does not, in other words, is that knowledge needs to start at some point. And Kant is right in showing that Hume can’t prove where knowledge starts. But what Kant misses is that Hume doesn’t give a crap where knowledge starts. Why? Because it’s already started.
For Hume, it is entirely self-evident that there is never a point in life where we encounter an “object” for the first time, just as there is no point in life at which we encounter language for the first time. In essence, Kant misunderstands the question Hume is investigating. In Kant’s elaborately skewed reading, Hume’s question is, “How do the given relations of association in the mind determine the reception of new perceptions?” In fact, this is not at all what Hume is concerned with. Hume’s question is rather “How does the reception of new perceptions modify the given relations of association in the mind?” Kant’s insistence on the a priori principle of synthesis in the mind is rooted in the basic Cartesian error which considers consciousness a thing and not a process; as with all the great errors in the history of philosophy, becoming is misunderstood as being.
Kant thinks Hume’s question is this: how is the possibility of perception limited by the finitude of the human mind? And this is, in fact, an impossible question to answer, because it requires a negative proof (the mind is not infinite, therefore perception must be limited). So Kant is right, that particular question can’t be answered. But Hume’s question is this: given a finite mind, how does each new perception affect the way the finite mind perceives? This latter question is what opens Hume’s epistemology onto the domain of pure immanence, and makes his thought so attractive to Deleuze.
In short, Kant was right in his critique of Hume, except for the parts where he talks about Hume.
Origen is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of Christianity. In addition to castrating himself, he also basically invented the concept of “facing-page translation” and/or “variorum edition” with his Hexapla. He is also the only “heretic” whose texts have historically been included in the writings of the Church Fathers. Origen was also, along with Plotinus, a student of Ammonias Saccas, the man whose (very odd) synthesis of Plato and Aristotle marked the beginning of Neoplatonism.