Spinoza and ‘no platforming’ – from The Conversation

Spinoza and ‘no platforming’: Enlightenment thinker would have seen it as motivated by ambition rather than fear

Baruch Spinoza, one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy.
Unknown artist via Wikimedia Commons

Beth Lord, University of Aberdeen and Alexander Douglas, University of St Andrews

The recent “no-platforming” of social historian Selina Todd and former Conservative MP Amber Rudd has reignited the debate about protecting free speech in universities. Both had their invited lectures cancelled at the last minute on the grounds of previous public statements with which the organisers disagreed.

Many people have interpreted these acts as hostile behaviour aimed at silencing certain views. But is this primarily about free speech?

The debate about no-platforming and “cancel culture” has largely revolved around free speech and the question of whether it is ever right to deny it. The suggestion is that those who cancel such events want to deny the freedom of speech of individuals who they take to be objectionable.

Most of us surely agree that freedom of speech should sometimes be secondary to considerations of the harm caused by certain forms of speech – so the question is about what kinds of harm offer a legitimate reason to deny someone a public platform. Since people perceive harm in many different ways, this question is particularly difficult to resolve.

But perhaps the organisers who cancelled these events were not motivated by the desire to deny freedom of speech at all. Todd and Rudd are prominent people in positions of authority – so cancelling their events, while causing a public splash, is unlikely to dent their freedom to speak on these or other issues at other times and in different forums.




Read more:
Two arguments to help decide whether to ‘cancel’ someone and their work


But these acts have a significant effect on others, who may feel unable to speak on certain issues from fear of similar treatment. Perhaps the no-platformers cancelled Todd and Rudd, not because they wanted to deny them their freedom to speak, but because they didn’t want to listen to them. Perhaps they were motivated not by a rational consideration of potential harm, but by an emotion: the desire not to listen to something with which they disagree.

Ambitious mind

The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza has a name for this emotion: ambition. Nowadays we think of ambition as the desire to succeed in one’s career. But in the 17th century, ambition was recognised to be a far more pernicious – and far more political – emotion. As Spinoza wrote in his Ethics (1677), ambition is the desire that everyone should feel the way I do:

Each of us strives, so far as he can, that everyone should love what he loves, and hate what he hates… Each of us, by his nature, wants the others to live according to his temperament; when all alike want this, they are alike an obstacle to one another.

Spinoza sees the emotions, or “passions”, as naturally arising from our interactions with one another and the world. We strive to do things that make us feel joy – an increase in our power to exist and flourish – and we strive to avoid things that make us feel sad or cause a decrease in our power.

Handwritten manuscript of ‘Ethica’ by Baruch de Spinoza.
Biblioteca Vaticana

We naturally desire and love what we believe others desire and love. It is therefore natural that we want others to love what we do and think what we think. For if others admire and approve of our actions and feelings, then we will feel a greater pleasure – with a concomitant increase of power – in ourselves.

Ambition is not simply wanting to feel esteemed – it is wanting others to love and hate exactly what we love and hate. It is the desire to cause others to think and feel exactly as we do. It is the desire to “avert from ourselves” those who cannot be convinced to do so – for those dissenters diminish our sense of self-worth.

Disagreement a threat

Spinoza would have recognised the desire not to listen to dissenting views as a species of ambition. Disagreement is perceived not as a reasoned difference of views, but as a threat: something that causes sadness and a diminishing of one’s power – something to be avoided at all costs.

Somebody who feels differently threatens our sense of the worthiness of our own feelings, causing a type of sadness. Spinoza stresses that we strive to “destroy” whatever we imagine will lead to sadness. Thus ambition leads to a desire to change people’s views, often through hostile, exclusionary, destructive behaviours.

Not only that, but someone in the grip of ambition is likely to be immune to rational argument. Spinoza argues that passions are obstructive to good thinking: reason – on its own – has little power to shift a passion that has a strong hold on us.

Most of us have had negative experiences on social media with people who disagree with us on politically charged questions. Instead of engaging with our arguments, they point out that we are immoral or unfeeling for holding a different view. Really, what our opponents find intolerable is our failure to feel the same about the issue as they do.

Refusing to hear an argument and seeking to silence it is a mild form of no-platforming, motivated not by the desire to quash free speech, but by ambition. Our failure to share in the political feelings of others leads them to experience a loss of power, and they respond by attacking the cause of the loss. Ambition makes rational debate impossible, even when our freedom to speak remains perfectly intact.The Conversation

Beth Lord, Professor of Philosophy, University of Aberdeen and Alexander Douglas, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St Andrews

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Martin Lenz at the London Spinoza Circle, 6 Feb 2020

On Thursday 6th February 2020, 3 – 5pm the London Spinoza Circle will host Martin Lenz  (University of Groningen) who will speak on:

Biased Beliefs: Spinoza on the Interaction of Ideas


Location
: Birkbeck, University of London, Dreyfus Room, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ

All welcome and no registration is required.

Abstract:

Spinoza famously holds that we standardly believe whatever it is that is perceived or goes through our mind, unless we hold stronger beliefs to the contrary. So if you see a winged horse on your lawn, you will also believe that there is a winged horse on the lawn, unless you have strong beliefs excluding the existence of winged horses. Couched in the terminology of the 17th century, Spinoza holds that we cannot merely contemplate ideas, but that every idea involves at least an affirmation. Spinoza’s principle has been well acknowledged in the literature. However, it is rarely considered how this principle is coupled with what could be called the principle of exclusion: we believe something unless a certain thought is excluded by beliefs we already hold. But if we tend to embrace what coheres with previous beliefs, we don’t just believe anything. Rather we might say that our minds are governed by what could be called a constant confirmation bias, i.e. a tendency to confirm existing beliefs. This raises the question of what governs this bias. Why don’t we believe in winged horses? In other words, what is the foundation of including certain beliefs and excluding others?

The exclusion principle, I submit, cannot be understood so long as we merely look at individual minds. Rather, the exclusion principle should be seen as rooted in the assumption that things (and thus also minds) are of a contrary nature. Accordingly, I shall argue that Spinoza’s holds an interactive account of ideas in that their affirmative force is explained in virtue of contrariety. Only when considering opposing ideas (and minds) can we understand why ideas exclude one another in their contrary striving (conatus).

Analysing contrary interactions requires us to focus on the question of what it means for ideas to have a conatus. What does it mean to say that the ideas themselves strive to persevere, rather than the cognitive agents who have ideas? After assessing some individualist answers in the literature (section 1), I will show that it is not any single conatus but the interaction of ideas, set off by contrariety, that governs the striving and determines which beliefs are held. We shall see that the exclusion principle that founds our biases is not a merely logical notion but rooted in the contrary nature of things (section 2). Understanding interaction in terms of contrariety, however, will give rise to a number of objections, the discussion of which will shed some light on the common understanding of the conatus doctrine (section 3). Finally, I will try to situate the emerging account in with a view to current philosophical approaches and show how the exclusion principle lends itself to an understanding of ideas in terms of confirmation bias (section 4).

Schedule of events 2019-20 at the London Spinoza Circle

 

CFA: 7th Finnish-Hungarian Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy

Call for Abstracts

The Seventh Finnish-Hungarian Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy

CEU, Budapest Campus

18–19 May 2020

Submission deadline: March 2

In a joint effort by philosophers in Finland and Hungary, the Seminar was founded to promote international cooperation among scholars of seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy. The previous meeting was held in 2019 in Helsinki. This will be the seventh meeting in a continuing series of seminars; for more information, please see the website https://fhsemp.wordpress.com/

We invite prospective participants to send an anonymized abstract of about 500 words in .pdf format on any topic in early modern philosophy to fhsemp2020@gmail.com no later than the 2nd of March. Please, indicate your name, university affiliation, and the title of your paper in the body of your email message.

Completed papers should aim at a reading time of 40 minutes or less. Please note that FHSEMP cannot provide funding for travel or accommodation.

For further information, please contact Mike Griffin at fhsemp2020@gmail.com

Organizing and program committee:

Mike Griffin (CEU), Vili Lähteenmäki (Helsinki), Judit Szalai (ELTE), and Valtteri Viljanen (Turku)

 

 

Valtteri Viljanen at the London Spinoza Circle on Thursday 23rd January 2020

valtteri2013At the next meeting of the London Spinoza Circle on Thursday 23rd January 2020, 3 – 5pm, Valtteri Viljanen (University of Turku) will speak on

Spinoza on Scepticism, Truth, and Method

Location: Birkbeck, University of London, Dreyfus Room, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ

 

Abstract:

In this talk, I offer a new interpretation of Spinoza’s method of distinguishing the true ideas from the false, which shows that his answer to the sceptic is not a failure. This method, as presented in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, combines analysis and synthesis as follows: if we can say of the object of an idea (a) which simple things underlie it, (b) how it can be constructed out of simple elements, and (c) what properties it has after it has been produced, doubt concerning the object simply makes no sense. I also discuss the distinction between the intrinsic and the extrinsic denomination of an idea and suggest a way in which the methodology of the Treatise connects to the ontology of the Ethics.

All welcome and no registration is required

Alexandre Matheron

Alexandre Matheron died on January 7, 2020.

His two great books, Individu et communauté chez Spinoza (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969) and Le Christ et le salut des ignorants chez Spinoza (Paris: Éditions Aubier-Montaigne, 1971), plus his many articles, recently gathered in Études sur Spinoza et les philosophies à l’âge classique (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2011), earned him a reputation as a master of seventeenth-century studies in France and internationally. He was, after Martial Gueroult, one of the best representatives of the structural method in the history of philosophy. His seminars gathered both French and foreign undergraduate and graduate students desiring to learn this method. Through his teaching at the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay/Saint-Cloud he formed, directly and indirectly, a great number of Spinozists. He always encouraged young researchers and was always ready to listen to suggestions different from his own.

In 1977, he was among the founders of the Association des Amis de Spinoza of which he became the chair after the death of Jean-Toussaint Desanti. These last years, illness kept him away from active participation, but he always continued to support, through his reading and comments, the forthcoming new edition of the complete works of Spinoza.

  • Pierre-François Moreau, via Mogens Laerke

London Spinoza Circle: Spring and Summer Terms 2020

The London Spinoza Circle have organised four meetings for the coming spring and summer terms. All meetings will take place from 3pm to 5pm.

 

Spring Term

Thursday 23rd January      

Valtteri Viljanen (University of Turku)

 

Thursday 6th February

Martin Lenz (University of Groningen)

 

Thursday 19th March   – CANCELLED  

This meeting will be rearranged for later in the year.

Pina Totaro (Università di Roma Sapienza)

The three meetings above will take place in the Dreyfus Room, Birkbeck, University of London, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ.

 

Summer Term

Thursday 25th June       

Kristin Primus (UC Berkeley)

Room location to be confirmed

 

The titles of the presentations will be announced closer to the date.

 

CFP: Scottish Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy XI

7-8 May 2020, French Institute/Institut Français, Edinburgh.

 

Keynote speakers:

Alix Cohen (University of Edinburgh)

Philip​pe Hamou (University of Paris X-Nanterre)

 

SSEMP XI is the eleventh edition of a yearly international workshop that brings together established scholars, young researchers and advanced graduate students working in the field of Early Modern Philosophy. SSEMP welcomes papers on any topic in early modern philosophy (broadly defined to mean pre-Kantian philosophy ranging from late Renaissance philosophy to the early Enlightenment). We encourage proposals which consider early modern philosophy in relation to related disciplines, such as theology, the history of literature, intellectual history and the history of science. Since the 2020 edition of the SSEMP takes place at the Institut Français at St. Giles, this year we welcome in particular contributions concerned with relations between Scottish and French philosophy. The SSEMP makes an effort to ensure a reasonable gender balance.

Submissions for the regular program should include a 300-word abstract + contact information gathered in A SINGLE PDF-FILE named: “your-surname.your-brief-title.abstract.pdf” (e.g. “smith.spinoza-and-essences.abstract.pdf’). Do not blind submissions. Graduate students submitting to the regular program should include contact information for one referee (typically the supervisor.) NB: BLINDED OR INCORRECTLY NAMED SUBMISSIONS WILL NOT BE REGISTERED. Deadline for submission of abstracts is 15 January 2020. They should be sent by email to Mogens Lærke on mogenslaerke@hotmail.com. Due to very high numbers of submissions we cannot undertake to provide individual answers to all of them. Applicants who have not been contacted by 15 February should consider their submission declined.

The SSEMP awards a Graduate Student Essay Prize which this year, as in previous years, is funded by The British Society for the History of Philosophy (BSHP). The prize includes an invitation to present the essay at the SSEMP and a bursary of £300 toward travel and accommodation. The bursary cannot be used for any other purpose. Submissions to the essay competition should include: (1) Name, affiliation, name and email of supervisor, and personal contact information; (2) the complete essay (max. 6000 words, including notes). Everything, including contact information should be gathered in a single pdf-file entitled as follows: “your-surname.your-brief-title.essay.pdf” (e.g “jones.hume-on-habit.essay.pdf”). Do not blind submissions. NB: BLINDED OR INCORRECTLY NAMED SUBMISSIONS WILL NOT BE REGISTERED. Deadline for submissions is 15 January 2020. They should be sent by email to Mogens Lærke on mogenslaerke@hotmail.com. Those who wish to submit a proposal both as a complete text for the essay competition and as a short abstract for the regular program are free to do so.

Please note that the SSEMP cannot provide funding for travel or accommodation for speakers. We do, however, hope to be able to offer sandwich lunches and a conference dinner. Participants should expect two full conference days on 7-8 May.

 

Organisers:

Jonathan Cottrell (University of Edinburgh): j.cottrell@ed.ac.uk

Mogens Lærke (Maison Française d’Oxford): mogenslaerke@hotmail.com

 

Sponsors:

Institut Français, Edinburgh

Philosophy Department, Edinburgh University

Maison Française d’Oxford (MFO)

Scottish Philosophical Association (SPA)

British Society for the History of Philosophy (BSHP)

 

London Spinoza Circle Graduate Workshop on 21st November 2019

The London Spinoza Circle Graduate Workshop takes place on Thursday 21st November 2019 from 9:45am to 5:00pm at Birkbeck College, University of London, Dreyfus Room, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ.

Programme

9.45 – 10.00:      Welcome

10.00 – 10.30:    Weak Individuals: A Spinozist Perspective – Emanuele Costa, (Birkbeck College and Johns Hopkins University):

10.30 – 11.00   Discussion

 

11.00 – 11.30:     The Second Kind of Knowledge and the Activity of the Ethics – Andrea Ray (University of Chicago)

11.30 – 12.00     Discussion

 

12.00 – 12.30      ‘The Whole Earth is Full of His Glory’: Amor Dei Intellectualis

as Gloria in Ethics V – John Heyderman – (Birkbeck College)

12.30 – 1.00       Discussion

 

1.00 – 2.00          LUNCH BREAK

 

2.00 – 2.30           Hegel and Spinoza on Freedom – Jason Yonover (Johns Hopkins University)

2.30 – 3.00           Discussion

 

3.00 – 3.30           On Laws, Human Nature and Beings of Reason in Spinoza – Kasper Kristensen, Uppsala University

3.30 – 4.00           Discussion

 

4.00 – 4.30           Identity, Agreement and ‘Othering’: Spinoza’s Politics of Recognition –  Steph Marston (Birkbeck College)

4.30 – 5.00       Discussion

 

The full programme including abstracts can be found on the London Spinoza Circle site here.

All are welcome and no registration is required.

Barnaby Hutchins and Ursula Renz at the London Spinoza Circle on 10th October 2019

hutchenss200_ursula.renz

At our meeting on Thursday 10th October 2019, 3.00 – 5.00pm, we are very pleased to have Barnaby Hutchins (Ghent University) and Ursula Renz, (University of Klagenfurt) who will speak on

Spinoza on Human Subjectivity and the Notion of God’s Intellect
Birkbeck, University of London, Dreyfus Room, 26 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DQ

 

Abstract:

Spinoza’s Ethics is frequently interpreted, especially in recent scholarship, as maintaining that everything, including human subjects, is grounded in God or substance – that substance is the sole fundamental feature of reality. At the same time, the perspective of finite minds seems to play a non-trivial role in the constitution of reality. How can this (seeming) tension between these two positions be reconciled? In our paper, we argue for three claims: (1) both positions are necessary for Spinoza’s metaphysics, but neither is reducible to the other; (2) to account for both of them, given their mutual irreducibility, subjectivity itself must be comprehended as a function of finite beings; (3) the notion of infinite intellect plays a transcendental-philosophical role, and is not a metaphysical description of the nature of God. Through the elaboration of these three claims, we propose a new picture of Spinoza’s metaphysics, according to which human subjectivity is an integral, irreducible, and ineliminable – and thereby fundamental – feature of reality.

All welcome and no registration required.