Re-working a dissertation project into a book results in some very interesting editing. Some chapters get total overhauls, some only minor edits. Chapter five, for the most part gets a minor edit. It has the most tortured history of any part of the dissertation. The original version was completely lost when the hard drive it was on crashed. It was the only dissertation chapter that didn’t have a backup yet. But it was for the best, because my newer version was better. It still needed a complete overhaul before it would fit coherently into the rest of the project, though. I was writing too much about my critiques in philosophy of mind, where the concept of autopoiesis I was using for my theory of subjectivity had its highest cachet. So by the end of the dissertation project, there were three chapter fives, only one of which saw the light of day, and the first of which no longer exists.
Now, there’s a fourth chapter five. It’s mostly the same as the third chapter five from the dissertation, but there are some edits. The most radical so far is entirely re-working a key paragraph. Its original form was very confused. I think my supervisor knew what I meant, but it wouldn’t fly in a book for public consumption. The current version is very clear about what I think the power of our self-conception is relative to whether we’re free.
I think the ability to change, whether or not those changes can be predicted mathematically, constitutes a radical freedom. Existence doesn’t tend toward stability or equilibrium, but dynamism and flux. Every moment is open to the radically novel. So every single body in the universe is, in this sense, free. But self-consciousness gives humans a very peculiar power: the power to enslave ourselves. If we conceive of ourselves as separate from the world, an island of stability in a dynamic universe, we achieve more than just alienation from nature. We also make ourselves passive because we have no sense of our relationships with the fluctuating fields of affects that connect us to the freedom of all bodies. Imagining ourselves as self-contained egos separate from nature’s dynamisms destroys our natural freedom. But when we conceive of ourselves as connected with these fluctuations, our natural freedom gains deeper dimensions, because our power of self-awareness lets us investigate and come to know the conditions of our freedom.
So yes, I’m a Spinozist. I de-emphasize the determinism of Spinoza’s philosophy, because determinism is just an ontological implication of the ability to predict motion with mathematics. Ultimately, it’s inconsequential — just because future developments of motion are knowable doesn’t make them any less free. Imagine a couple who’s been together so long and knows each other so well, that they can predict precisely what the other will do. This doesn’t make either partner less free; it just makes them known.
So about that Spinozism, then. I think of myself as updating several central insights of Spinoza’s philosophy into the era of contemporary science. I don’t consider myself a Spinozist in the sense that I think every word in The Ethics is an exactly correct description of the eternal nature of the world. But I consider myself as part of a tradition of thinking about freedom and knowledge of which Spinoza is a central figure. I once identified myself as something of a Spinozist in conversation with a professor emeritus at University of Toronto, who I consider the closest analogue Canadian philosophy has ever produced to Yoda. (Readers who know me well will understand what a profound compliment this is.) He then proceeded to probe whether I thought that everything that can be imagined has a material existence. It was very elfin of him, and I could tell he was only having me on.
But it shows exactly why I try to avoid identifying myself as an -ism: I have no idea what other people’s conception of that label is, and I end up painting myself into conversational corners where I’ll be accused of contradicting myself just because my own very specific and singular philosophical views are disparaged because they don’t conform precisely to another’s conception of a descriptive term. I often find conversations like this prevent people from discussing philosophy, and just devolve into counter-productive bickering more often than not. So I just try to talk about figures from the past who have influenced me. People can’t read as much into that.
That passage is pretty Spinozist, though.