Spinoza propounds what Gilles Deleuze calls a philosophy of immanence: all theological notions are eliminated in favour of the rigorous deductive chains of premises and consequences in parallel with the rigorous physical chains of cause and effect. The common view of Spinoza’s system places it under the auspices of scientism: the philosopher and the scientist know the true causes of things, whereas the common mortal in his or her ignorance replaces them with imagined sequences deriving from imaginary causes and fallacious premises, their cognition is illusory.
Is a pluralist reading of Spinoza possible? Paul Feyerabend criticises Spinoza not only for his scientism, but also for his epistemological and ontological arrogance in situating other human beings at a lower level of existence. For Spinoza, the scientist and the philosopher attain objective knowledge, whereas the common man and woman are limited to simple heuristic devices at best, and to mere chimeras in the normal state of things.
The very privileging of conceptual understanding and of causal cognition over the imagination, according to Feyerabend, conserves an element of transcendence in the form, despite its being denied in the content. Yet this is not a necessary consequence of Spinoza’s commitment to immanence.
For example, in his eyes the notion of God employed by Spinoza is a bloodless, de-vitalised abstraction, that Feyerabend compares unfavorably with Newton’s more personal, and much more fecund, conception of God. Even the rationalist Isaac Newton reserved some place for a more humanitarian vision than simple abstraction can accomodate:
“Newton rejected the God of Descartes and Spinoza. For him God was a person showing concern and demanding respect, not an abstract principle” (CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE, 236).
Admittedly, in Newton’s case, the place reserved for God in his natural philosophy is a tiny remnant of what was once an all pervasive component of our knowledge, but it does draw limits to the reign of abstraction:
“Newton … opposed intellectual notions of god (such as Descartes’s and of Spinoza’s) and emphasised personal relations between God and his creatures” (FAREWELL TO REASON, 146).
This opposition between intellectual notions and personal relations is another variant of the struggle between apodictic knowledge and heuristic conjectures, or between justification and participation, that has traversed our intellectual and existential history.
So we are led to pose the more general question: does a philosophy based on immanence necessarily lead to the scientistic reliance on a univocal knowledge of causes and effects and an over-valorisation of the intellectual at the expense of the affective and perceptive intensities? Or can the eliminative thrust of immanence (for example as applied to politics or religion) be turned against its own mythological self-entrapments (including those of “Nature” and of “Reason”)?
Scientism valorises a form of immanence that is confined within the limits of science. It typically it remains unaware of its own tacit reintroduction of transcendence by means of its scientistic presuppositions. The notion that our ordinary vision of the world does not contain apodictic knowledge of causes and effects but rather heuristic devices to cope in the absence of such knowledge, suggests a possible non-dogmatic way out.
The transition from the commands and prohibitions of the Despot and the Priest to the prescriptions and recommendations of the Expert need not be interpreted as a transition from superstion to knowledge, but rather as a movement inside the same dogmatic form, requiring obedience rather than speculative freedom.
The decisive change is to be found elsewhere, in the passage from the authoritative universality of dogmas and norms to be believed and to be obeyed to the democratic provisionality of hypotheses and advice relative to a given revisable state of knowledge, that can be diversely appreciated and enacted, and a historically contingent situation. The implication should not be that we must leave behind heuristic devices for knowledge, but that absolute authority and blind obedience is for many people today heuristically unsound. Immanence means that we are always in the realm of heuristics. Appeals to immanence cannot be reconciled with an epistemologically naïve submission to the authority of science.
Thus, the Spinozan elimination of transcendence, while a step in the right direction, does not go far enough: it contains dogmatic and authoritarian elements in its reliance on a monistic “knowledge of causes and effects”, which ultimately comes down to a naïve and inadequate view of science. I would like to push this further and say that “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science” are masks of transcendence too. This idea is a version of the Nietzschean move of eliminating “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science”as themselves being religious residues.
For me this idea resonates with Lyotard’s move of a complexifying reading relevant to the present:
“I read Kant [Note: we can equally read “Spinoza”] not just with Kant himself, but, simultaneously, with all that comes after Kant – and this in the hope of ameliorating my complexity or my differentiation” [we can keep this and add: in the hope of ameliorating my pluralism and my immanence].
The result of such non-dogmatic understanding by means of self-deconstructing concepts is perhaps best described as the attainment of the post-Spinozan felicity of ungrounded freedom. This task of ameliorating my complexity and differentiation is the guiding thread of my thinking.