Spinoza, Nietzsche and Sloterdijk


Interview by Richard Marshall


'I think of Spinoza as a radical religious reformer. I think he was trying to say this: “There is a single entity whose nature determines the structure and existence of the universe, and that entity is the thing that people have been calling “God” for many centuries. But they got the metaphysics (or theology) very wrong, and now we’re in a position to figure out what this divine thing really is, and to see how the writers of scriptures managed to get the basic moral of the story right, while getting all the metaphysical stuff wrong. And by the way, if you understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that there’s no harm in allowing philosophers to write about such things.”''

'... the x-phi gang? Good on them, I say, for looking seriously into whether what many philosophers call obvious or intuitive really is so for a wider population of human beings. As good empiricists, they are discovering that many allegedly invariant truths are local distortions of one stripe or another.'

'I do think Nietzsche’s biography is key to understanding his philosophy. Maybe that’s true for every philosopher, but it’s certainly and inescapably true for Nietzsche. As I say in my goofy little book, his philosophy was his way of coming to terms with the conditions of his life. He was burdened by illness from a very young age (a brain tumor, I’m pretty sure); he was lonely; and hardly anyone bought his books. So there’s death, loneliness, and oblivion. His lifelong challenge was to somehow transform these threats into something positive and meaningful.'

'I think Dennett and Sloterdijk represent two very different responses to this Weberian either/or. Dennett’s work represents the “so much the worse for magical thinking!” response, and Sloterdijk represents the “so much the worse for scientistic hegemony!” response.'

Charlie Huenemann is interested in Early Modern Philosophy, Kant and his Successors, Philosophy of Mind and Body and Epistemology. Here he discusses Spinoza and religion, contrasting Spinoza's naturalism with Nietzsche's, Spinoza's atheism, the relationship between natural science and religion, Spinoza's psychology and God, Spinoza and stoicism, the early rationalists, Nietzsche and biography, the reevaluation of all values, Nietzsche and illness, Peter Sloterdijk and his Globes project, and Sloterdijk and Dennett's response to Weber's disenchantment thesis.

3:16:   What made you become a philosopher?

Charlie Huenemann: In high school I had a brilliant “Humanities” teacher named Jim Holt who brought in all kinds of interesting people to talk to us. One day he brought in Zane Pautz, who was a philosophy professor at a nearby college. At the time I didn’t know philosophers existed anymore; I thought they had existed only in ancient times. The more Pautz raised philosophical questions, the more excited I became, because they were questions I had always been asking, and I didn’t know they had occurred to other people. So I decided to study philosophy, and pretty much never veered from this path. 

The whole Zane Pautz experience had a few delightful surprises connected with it, which I wrote about here.


3:16:    You’ve written about Spinoza and religion. I thought he was anti-religious but you see him as a religious reformer and read him as a radical theologian. So was everything grounded in God for Spinoza and not a sly atheistic metaphysics dressed in borrowed theism?

CH: Yes. I’m not sure atheism, as we now know it, was generally available as an option for 17th-century thinkers. By “atheism” I mean a total rejection of any sort of divine being. There may have been a few real radicals who proclaimed such a belief, but encountering them in those days must have been like meeting someone today who denies the existence of electrons. Some sort of divinity metaphysics was woven into the very fabric of metaphysics back then - maybe the biblical God, maybe a less specific divine person, maybe an impersonal divine force, maybe something falling between these notions. But to think that there wasn’t some sort of special being ushering into existence the world with its laws of nature must have seemed like a non-starter. Even Hume, in the next century, couldn’t shake the idea that there probably was some sort of Big Designer, if we take the conclusion of his dialogues to represent his view. It’s not until the 19th century, with the postulation of deep time, that atheism in our sense becomes really thinkable. In Spinoza’s day, defining atheism a total rejection of any sort of divine being was not useful, since almost no one would count as an atheist in that sense. So atheism was understood more narrowly as the rejection of a personal, judging God, and a soul that could survive bodily death and be judged. Plenty of people were atheists in that more narrow sense, and Spinoza was one.

So, yes, I think of Spinoza as a radical religious reformer. I think he was trying to say this: “There is a single entity whose nature determines the structure and existence of the universe, and that entity is the thing that people have been calling “God” for many centuries. But they got the metaphysics (or theology) very wrong, and now we’re in a position to figure out what this divine thing really is, and to see how the writers of scriptures managed to get the basic moral of the story right, while getting all the metaphysical stuff wrong. And by the way, if you understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that there’s no harm in allowing philosophers to write about such things.” 

It’s surprising how explicit Spinoza is about all this in his Theological-Political Treatise. He basically says just what I said, though with greater care, and elegant Latin. And saying that was hugely radical for his day. The hypothesis that it was somehow a cloak meant to disguise a view that was even more unthinkable seems to me very unlikely. If that’s what he was up to, then he was an idiot, or at least completely out of touch with his audience. The book he wrote was seen immediately as about the most heretical thing a person could write. So it’s implausible to suspect that he was pulling any punches.

3:16:   You say you pit a Spinoza naturalism against a Nietzsche naturalism. Can you sketch for us the salient elements that form this contrast and what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards naturalism – in particular in terms of asking whether naturalism’s an arbitrary lodging or a kind of sanctuary?

CH: I should say at the outset that I myself don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight. I suspect the naturalism I would describe as Nietzschean is probably true, and that it’s sort of disappointing, and Spinoza’s naturalism is far groovier, but implausible. As a policy I try not to commit myself to great big narratives, and never to groovy ones: my own Party-Pooper Principle suggests that any claim you find yourself really wanting to believe is probably false. I can’t blame someone for going in with Spinoza: it’s profoundly moving to see the whole of nature as divine. On the other hand, if someone throws in with Nietzsche, they should be fully aware of all they are repudiating. In distinguishing the two kinds of naturalism, I mainly want to direct readers’ attention to the “meaning of life” consequences of these ways of being a naturalist.

Anyway, on to the distinction. Spinoza sees the universe as divine in some important sense. There is an essence to it that lives and breathes in all of its parts. We can come to know that essence through rational demonstration, but he also leaves room for a more immediate and somewhat mystical access to that essence. In his naturalism, humans are part of nature in a way that might best be called “belonging”: we share an essence with all natural things, and in virtue of sharing that essence we can come to know our universal union with all things and attain a special kind of joy in contemplating it. It’s in that sense that I’d call Spinoza’s nature a sanctuary. It’s a sanctuary from despair, alienation, and disconnection - which, incidentally, must have been significant forces in Spinoza’s own life. To be a Spinozist is to see all things, including oneself, as an expression of divinity.

But Nietzsche’s naturalism is quite different. Here I need to be careful, because I think Nietzsche isn’t perfectly consistent over his writings, and sometimes (especially when Zarathustra is speaking) nature is every bit as holy and mystical as anything found in Spinoza. But in other moods, Nietzsche seeks to establish a naturalism that is more like our modern-day naturalism, which is fundamentally a denial of any special features of the universe that might make us feel more at home. The universe itself is a product of chance; that life evolves in some parts of it is entirely accidental; humans are pushed and pulled by all sorts of blind, non-teleological forces. Nothing is inherently significant, and that certainly includes us. Clearly Spinoza agrees with some elements of this (such as denying teleology and any special human significance), but somehow Spinoza manages, at least by the end of the Ethics, to restore a sense of natural divinity and belonging. In the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy that might be called “nay-sayings”, any sense of belonging is obliterated as merely wishful thinking. We stand at the edge of an uncaring abyss, which is oblivion, death, and meaninglessness. This is followed by Nietzsche’s “yea-saying” part, in which we take it upon ourselves to create meaning, etc. But that challenging, never-ending project of “becoming who you are” makes sense only against a backdrop of an utterly uncaring natural world. To put the distinction into a tidy formula, Spinoza thinks we need to sync ourselves with nature, while Nietzsche thinks we need to weaponize it in the war we wage against meaninglessness. (That strikes me immediately as too tidy, but on the other hand I kind of like how it sounds, so I’ll stick with it!)

Because of their similarities, Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Spinoza early on, but I think he eventually saw Spinoza as illegitimately allowing himself a refuge under the banner of “reason”. If Spinoza had sought true authenticity, he would have torn that banner down and faced down the irrational, chaotic indifference Nietzsche saw in the natural order. (This indifference of the world was an important element in Nietzsche’s own life, too.) It's the will to power we are dealing with, according to Nietzsche, not the reason for all being.

So, if we want to be naturalists, we might ask ourselves just what it means to be purely natural beings. Is it to be inconsequential by-products of an meaningless process of generation and destruction? Or do we somehow attain an important kind of peace (or even salvation, in some sense) by coming to understand our place in nature? The people who popularize science tend to suggest something uplifting like the second view: human glory consists in coming to understand the vast cosmos, etc. Few people allow the first view any air time, except maybe dystopian sci-fi authors. I realize it’s no fun to mope about in existential despair, and it’s pointless to be pointless. Still, the real character of Nietzschean naturalism (“Natzschuralism”, I’ve called it) needs to be seen clearly for what it is, and we’re guilty of false consciousness when we pretend that anything of alleged intrinsic value survives it. 


3:16:    If Spinoza is a radical theologian why does he write that ‘ the word of God is erroneous, mutilated, corrupt and inconsistent , [and] we have only fragments of it’ ? It sounds like a classic atheist assault on at least a Biblical God of the Judaic tradition?

CH: Yes, he makes that bold claim explicitly (which is the reason again to think he’s not pulling punches). But he also thinks that the prophets of the Bible managed to articulate a good moral code, or a way of living that makes a good deal of sense. The trick is that, as a reader, you have to distinguish the junk in the old text that is the result of silly traditions, superstition, or local concerns, from the good stuff that allows for a productive and harmonious human society. The prophets happened upon the good stuff through overactive imaginations and accidental correlations, but we (in the 17th century) are now in a better position to know with greater clarity just why the good stuff is good. So the Bible isn’t all wrong, according to Spinoza, even if it is subject to all the corrupting forces any old text is subject to. One can even stretch the words a bit and call it “divinely inspired”, so long as all we mean by that is that it’s a product of natural (sivedivine) psychological forces. (And again, he’s pretty explicit about that, too!)

3:16:    How does he square the circle of natural science and theology without compromising one side or the other?

CH: This is a really great question, and in my mind captures the central challenge of 17th-century philosophy: how do you construct a worldview that makes both science and theology (and maybe even some form of civil order) possible? Everybody had a distinctive answer to this, and this is why I find 17th-century European philosophy so rich: it is a Cambrian explosion of species of philosophical systems. Spinoza’s own integration of science and theology requires huge concessions from traditional theology, in the ways I’ve explained. It also helps a bit that Spinoza’s view of science was not quite as mechanistic as Descartes’s was. Spinoza, I think, allows for holistic forces that govern motion and causality, and this fits perfectly into his view of nature as a kind of divine organism. There’s a great deal more to say about this topic (books without number!), but I’ll hold back, as it requires getting a lot deeper into the weeds.

3:16:    Do his views on psychology also ground themselves on God?

CH: Absolutely. But that’s just because God’s nature governs all natural things. So the question is the same as asking whether he thinks psychology is natural. Everything is natural (or grounded in God), for Spinoza! But this also means that his psychology is not rooted in theology in a way that should make it irrelevant to agnostics or atheists. His psychology is still compelling today, in many parts. I also think a large part of the credit for his psychological insights should go to Hobbes, as I think Spinoza learned a great deal from Hobbes. 

3:16: Don’t his ideas about politics and ethics work without a theological base?

CH: Yes, I think so, if by “theological base” you mean some sort of organizing mythological principles as we find in existing religions. It’s just barely possible, in Spinoza’s view, to have a pure community of philosophers who need no myths. But he was cynical enough (or realistic enough) to believe that such a community is not likely. So second best is a community founded upon a noble lie, as that is the most effective strategy for getting people who don’t do philosophy to stay in line, or behave with civic responsibility. He is an elitist in this way, and he articulates a “universal faith” that is basically an over-the-counter religion for people who won’t understand his Ethics. (I call him an “elitist”; but who would deny that his Ethics is hard for anyone to understand, elite or not? Or maybe I’m one of the simpletons who should be assigned his universal religion?)

3:16:  Do you think Spinoza was right?

CH: No, I don’t think so, but it’s a bit like trying to figure out whether I think angels have mass. I guess I say “no”, since I don’t believe in angels, but that’s such a boring reason to say “no”! I don’t think Spinoza’s entire metaphysical enterprise makes sense, meaning I really don’t believe in substances, attributes, modes, or necessitation; or if I did, I wouldn’t think the best way to know about them would be just to think really hard. I can play “let’s pretend” and figure out, from mere curiosity, what Spinoza should say about X, or why he believes that Z, but I’m leagues away from agreeing with him. He’s a bit like a zoo animal to me in that he’s not someone I could even imagine being, at least in terms of his philosophical beliefs.

That pretty naturally raises the question of why on earth I have spent so much of my life thinking through his philosophy. Good question. I’m not sure I know. At first it was just a matter of writing a dissertation, getting a job, getting tenure, and so on, and Spinoza was appealing because it was the right sort of puzzle challenge for my meagre abilities and professional circumstances. As I’ve grown older (and tenured), I’ve grown away from philosophy as a puzzle-solving, and have become more interested in honest-to-goodness history (the kind historians do), and thinking through philosophical questions that are more alive to me. To some extent these grown-up interests keep me working on Spinoza in one respect or another, as the earlier discussion of naturalism perhaps indicates, as well as my nerdy fascination for the history of 17th-century Europe. But I see Spinoza as an important player in a larger historical drama, and not as one who “nailed it”, in the parlance of our times.

3:16: And is it wrong to see his free man as a stoic?

CH: I think it would not be obviously wrong to think of Spinoza as advocating a kind of stoicism, and that the free man is similar to a stoic sage, especially the function as a moral exemplar. Stoicism is a theme with many variations, and maybe Spinozism is one of them. But more recently I have come to think of him more properly as a philosopher of the Dutch Golden Age, and so as something more of an Epicurean. The Dutch were embarrassed by the tremendous riches they acquired over the 17th century (to invoke Simon Schama’s book title), and many Dutch authors tried to find ways to exhibit upright (usually Calvinist) virtue while being surrounded by tulips, exotic spices, and luxurious oil paintings. I think a lot of the Ethics is bound up with this question - how do I enjoy sensuous pleasures without being consumed by them? When we read Spinoza with that question in mind, I think he ends up sounding far less stoic, and more like an Epicurean trying to practice hedonism under the guidance of reason. The advice he gives is not wholly unlike the little emblem books that were popular at the time, which were entertaining picture books with moral messages and apothegms. But, unfortunately, his book was a lot thicker and more complicated - and no pictures!


3:16: Spinoza is one of the big three rationalists of early modernity – alongside Descartes and Leibniz. How would you have us understand rationalism and why is it misleading to contrast it with empiricism and its big three players (Hume, Berkeley and Locke) as is often done? Is it rather about a dedication to doing philosophy from the armchairs Josh Knobe and his x-phi gang like to burn whenever they can, and innate ideas?

CH: Big question, so here comes a long answer. I do think that rationalists and empiricists approach experience in very different ways, though unfortunately there is a history of oversimplifying those differences. It’s hard for me to describe the difference in a way that’s both right and instructive, but here goes. Rationalists are interested first and foremost at what is invariant in any sort of experience. Typically, the invariant stuff is logical and mathematical and metaphysical: the core idea is that no matter where you come from, if you are a thinking being, you are capable of coming to the same conclusions about (for example) identity being reflexive and transitive, about the value of pi, and that substance is prior to its properties. These invariant conclusions will play an important role as the rationalist constructs a system of the world, because the invariant truth is somehow more fundamental than any truth about any variable thing.

Empiricists, on the other hand, are skeptical of these invariant conclusions, and see them as ghostly abstractions that loosely summarize our experiences of many varying things. Human beings may all have the same cognitive system that takes in data and spits out beliefs, and there may be some beliefs we all share because of the work of that system, but one should be very careful before concluding that these beliefs are shared because they reflect something about the world. So it’s important to understand psychology, but mainly as a caution against identifying what seemswithwhat is. To get at what is, one has to study the great variety of experience, temper one’s conclusions with caution, factor in possible psychological distortions, and draw tentative conclusions.

One neat way to capture this difference is to point out that rationalists distinguish the intellect from the imagination, and empiricists don’t. The intellect, for the rationalist, is the faculty that can attain insights into the most fundamental invariant truths. The imagination (including sensation generally) only produces a lot of noise for us to sort through. Rationalists sort through it with the tools provided by the intellect. The empiricists have only the imagination and its noise to work with, which is why they are so tentative in their conclusions.

Now, all that being said, any given individual can be empirical on some matters, rationalist on others, empirical on Tuesday, rationalist on Friday, and so on. So it’s messy. Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz were all excited about experimental results; Hobbes loved the absolute certainty of geometrical proofs; Locke thought morality was capable of analytic demonstration; Hume thought math is founded on invariant relations among ideas. All these seeming “violations” of their more general tendencies are interesting and worthy of greater study, of course. But I still think there is use in identifying these different, more global approaches to knowledge. Even today, as one reads various intellectuals, one can detect obvious rationalist strains and empiricist strains. Daniel Dennett is very empiricist. Sean Carroll is very rationalist. Their beliefs overlap a lot; but what they focus on, and how they explain things, are very different. One question I would like to ask them both, which I suspect would bring out this difference, is how they account for the truths of mathematics. 

OK, what about the x-phi gang? Good on them, I say, for looking seriously into whether what many philosophers call obvious or intuitive really is so for a wider population of human beings. As good empiricists, they are discovering that many allegedly invariant truths are local distortions of one stripe or another. Still, they rely on the universal validity of logic and math when they crunch their numbers. It’s not obvious to me that an empiricist can have a better account of that sort of knowledge than a rationalist can.

3:16: .Nietzsche is another of the philosophers you’re fascinated with. You see his philosophy as a way of facing down pessimism, a pessimism that belongs to all humans. Can you say how Nietzsche saw the problem and why he thought philosophy could help? You relate various moments in his rather tragic and terrible life to his work don’t you – why do that – and why say his genius is one of the heart?

CH: I do think Nietzsche’s biography is key to understanding his philosophy. Maybe that’s true for every philosopher, but it’s certainly and inescapably true for Nietzsche. As I say in my goofy little book, his philosophy was his way of coming to terms with the conditions of his life. He was burdened by illness from a very young age (a brain tumor, I’m pretty sure); he was lonely; and hardly anyone bought his books. So there’s death, loneliness, and oblivion. His lifelong challenge was to somehow transform these threats into something positive and meaningful. Facing debilitating illness, he pushed the “That which does not kill me makes me stronger” line. Facing death (which he consistently believed to be imminent), he dared himself to accept the eternal recurrence, which meant welcoming his life exactly as it was, no changes, with no other consideration being used to justify that life: so, in short, his life was to be embraced for its own sake. Facing loneliness, he created Zarathustra, as one who lived in solitude, but felt nothing lacking in his own sunny richness.  Facing oblivion, he manufactured for himself a tribe of imaginary friends - free spirits, übermenschen, philosophers of the future, argonauts of the ideal, what have you - as his audience. He had a pretty rotten, wretched life. His philosophy kept him from ending it with a revolver.

I used the term “genius of the heart” as an epithet for his philosophy because that passage from Beyond Good and Evil(section 295) so beautifully and powerfully presents his deepest hope, or what he wanted himself to be. A reading of his philosophy that doesn’t try to sympathize with his desperate circumstances, and to feel the existential hope in this passage, misses the most important thing in his philosophy, in my opinion. 

3:16:  What did he mean when he sloganised: ‘ more Achilles, less Jesus’? Is this reevaluation of all values the core of his philosophy?

CH: Yes, I think it’s a great, pithy slogan for his reevaluation. Achilles represents unalloyed strength, vitality, consummate pride, and yea-saying attitude. Jesus represents timidity, escapism of a certain kind, and fearfulness of life’s sharp edges. Christianity is the institutionalization of Jesus’s own escapism, which means it’s a complicated beast: as an organized religion, it mandates that its believers turn their strength against their own natural desires and drives, so that the result is a crowd of life-denying hypocrites that make healthy achievement impossible. One thing that an Achilles wannabe can learn from Christianity is the tangled complexity of drives and psychological forces that can animate a mind. If Achilles in this way learns his psychology from someone like Paul, but is able to maintain the integrity of his own life-affirming drives, he then becomes an übermensch- “the Caesar with the soul of Christ”. 

In this way, Nietzsche presents a powerful critique of Christianity, one which I think demands deep changes in the theology of anyone who reads Nietzsche and still, for whatever reason, wants to remain Christian. I’m far from an expert in this area, but I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few theologians who recognized the depth of Nietzsche’s critique and tried to respond to it. His Cost of Discipleshipis an excellent pairing with Nietzsche’s Antichrist

3:16:  What do you think made Nietzsche ill, and what is the relationship between health and Christian pathology for him?

CH: There still seems to be a shared view that Nietzsche went insane and died from syphilis. This just can’t be true. No one with tertiary syphilis survives more than three years; Nietzsche was insane for ten. Doctors at the time used “syphilis” as a generic diagnosis for a wide variety of unknown conditions. If you examine the range of his symptoms, it’s far more likely that he had a brain tumor. I have a long say about this in the Oxford Handbook, and won’t reproduce all of that here. But I will say that in working it all out, I benefited enormously by talking with Thomas Schenkenberg in the Department of Neurology at the University of Utah. He generously took on the project and discussed it with colleagues, and it was exciting for me to gain a glimpse of how brain doctors go about diagnosing things. Tom is a smart and funny guy.

Nietzsche’s tumor started to have effects on him probably when he was 11 years old. His father and little brother had died of brain maladies in horrific ways. So health was a major preoccupation for him. He experimented with diet, with various altitudes and temperatures and air pressures, and with exercise all in an effort to make his illness manageable. So it makes sense why his chief moral distinction would be between health and sickness. He saw Christianity as a tremendous sickness, since it aims at suppressing all life-affirming drives: its iconic symbol is suffering and death. He thought of himself as the philosopher of a new health, which brings with it a reevaluation of all of the values Christianity had established.


3:16:  So do you think Nietzsche was right?

CH: I think Nietzsche was absolutely right - for Nietzsche. What I mean is that he faced the problem of reconciling himself to the tragedies of his own life. The fact that he seems to have achieved that reconciliation, and didn’t kill himself, counts as an extraordinary victory. I’m nothing like Nietzsche, of course, and my life is pretty damned fortunate. So if I were to try to follow his prescriptions, I would look completely ridiculous. Indeed, imagine anyone in your neighborhood deciding to be “more Achilles and less Jesus”, or weaponizing psychology in an attempt to free oneself from the corrupting mythologies of tradition. Imagine these argonauts of the ideal at the car wash, or participating on the school board, or serving pancakes at a Lions’ Club breakfast. Good grief.

But if I were to try to read Nietzsche in a more standard fashion - as a philosopher arguing for truths about the world, and setting aside all biographical considerations - I suppose I would give him a “yes” and “no”. Yes with regard to his employment of psychology, and the attempt to understand many philosophical and religious attitudes as expressions of psychological needs and drives. Yes with regard to his attitude of constant critique and suspicion. But No with regard to the claim that, as Philippa Foot once put it, the dangers in the world come from there being “too much pity and too little egoism”. And a loud No with regard to the nasty things he says (at least apparently) about all sorts of people - women, Germans, the English, Christians, Jews, etc.

3:16: You’ve also written about the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his Globes trilogy. Can you sketch for us an overview of Sloterdijk’s Hegelian project and why you think it is of value? He's not always got a good press has he?

CH: Yes, I’m quite a fan of Sloterdijk’s work. About the press he’s received, or whatever controversies he’s been in, I shall be silent, because frankly I don’t understand the political terrain in Germany well enough to have any opinion worth hearing. 

But his books are absolutely marvelous. Offering a sketch is daunting. But, once again, here goes. In his Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), Sloterdijk argued that we face a problem of deep cynicism. By “cynicism” he means “enlightened false consciousness”, which basically means we know enough about ourselves to know that we are faking our way through most of modern life, but our basic condition does not allow any better route to follow, so we end up with little to do but make ironic jokes of ourselves and our hapless circumstance. It seems impossible to reason our way out of this condition, because we know very well how reasoning gets co-opted by all sorts of untrustworthy projects of self-justification (thanks, Nietzsche). The only way out, he thinks, is through an act of hope combined with love.

The magisterial Spheres trilogy (1998-2004) then follows up with a more detailed story. A sphere encloses a space and offers that space both unity and protection. Sphericality and circularity are tremendously important shapes for human beings: much of Spheres is devoted to showing the astonishingly many ways in which that shape has meaning for us. Think of the sun and moon, the wheel of life, halos, huts and igloos, domes, pregnant bellies, mandalas, and on and on and on. A sphere can represent the possibility of a genuine and meaningful community. To a great extent, the Enlightenment was an experiment to replace smaller, enclosed spheres with limitless expanses, as with empires and the universe and the linear nature of time. These sorts of structures simply aren’t friendly to what we recognize as human community. They are reflections of the forces that have resulted in our bitter cynicism. So our task is to resurrect the shape of the sphere, but in some way that we hope will be free of tribalism and hurtful exclusion - which we also recognize as failures of human community.

In trying to sketch this out in under 300 words I have left out everything that makes Sloterdijk’s works so incredibly nuanced, inventive, brutal, funny, and moving. He is a broadly learned fellow with an exceptionally creative mind, addressing the most fundamental human concerns. Working through his books has been the most excitement I’ve had as a philosopher. 

[Peter Sloterdijk]

3:16:  You’ve written about Sloterdijk and Dan Dennett in terms of their relationship to Max Weber’s disenchantment thesis. What is that relationship and why do you think it is of significance for contemporary philosophy?

CH: Weber argued in his 1919 “Science As Vocation” lecture and essay that science is essentially an effort at disenchantment, or purging any sort of magical thinking from our worldview. But “magic” here includes anything that is judged by existing science to be the sort of thing that doesn’t fit with the program - so ESP and faith healing, of course, but also all human phenomena that aren’t in some way explicable through psychology or sociology. Religion, many forms of moral realism and metaphysics, and various ideologies about human significance all get thrown under the bus of pure scientism. It’s the price-tag of any thorough-going naturalism (this connects with my earlier comments about Nietzsche and Spinoza). Weber’s point to the students he is addressing is that they should know what they are getting into, and they should recognize that to the extent they put our magic values into a protected shelter, they are compromising their integrity as scientists. So pick one: science or magic. (I don’t think Weber was at all happy about this conclusion, but rather resigned to it. It’s a very tragic essay.)

Now I think Dennett and Sloterdijk represent two very different responses to this Weberian either/or. Dennett’s work represents the “so much the worse for magical thinking!” response, and Sloterdijk represents the “so much the worse for scientistic hegemony!” response. William James would have called Dennett “hard-headed” and Sloterdijk “soft-headed”. I have great sympathy with both of these responses (which just means I’m muddle-headed). I agree with Dennett that both science and philosophy are essentially refusals to give in to magical thinking, and to think clearly and accept the best evidence and arguments, whatever the consequences. I agree with Sloterdijk that humans need meaning and inspiration like fish need water, and sometimes it falls to the philosophers to give them to us. On Dennett’s team are Democritus, Hume, and Quine. On Sloterdijk’s team are Plato, Hegel, and Rawls. Many philosophers perhaps play on both teams: Spinoza, Kant, and Nietzsche (taking in both his naturalism and his Zarathustra). It is interesting to ask, as you read any philosopher, whether they are engaged in the process of sharpening our critical faculties and disabusing our minds of fantasy, or inspiring us to new visions of truth and meaningfulness. I wouldn’t want to see philosophy, as a whole, lose either of these purposes, and I find the ongoing dialectic between these endeavors both vital and inescapable. 

Cutting across the distinction between these twin endeavors is Leszek Kołakowski’s distinction between the system builders of philosophy, whom he called “Diggers”, and those who restore us to our own limited abilities as humans, whom he called “Healers”. One could create an ”personality type” scheme for philosophers in terms of what sort of project they are up to: naturalizing vs. inspiring, building vs. healing. Plato was an IB, Dennett is a NB, Hume was a NH, Sloterdijk is an IH, and so on. I suggest this mainly as a fun exercise, but I also think it is important to think about the broad space of possibilities available to a philosopher.

3:16:  And finally, for the curious readers here at 3:16, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?

CH: Here are five books and authors that I haven’t mentioned yet.

1. Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness was hugely important to me when I first read it, as she has such an extraordinary ability to keep big pictures and significant details in focus at the same time. Nussbaum always writes about what really matters, with a sharply critical mind and a sensitive heart. Her work represents for me a philosophical ideal. 

2. Justin E. H. Smith’s The Philosopher is a provocative exploration of the various projects philosophers can embark upon, along with the sorts of dangers and limits and blinders that come with those projects. It also raises important and troubling questions about philosophy’s borders (what counts as philosophy, or as a philosopher). Smith is always trying to keep things real and lively, even as he pursues delightful historical arcana. 

3. James Turner’s Philology is not a philosophy book, but a book about the history of humanistic disciplines, and how they emerged out of philology. I recommend this book to anyone who would like a clearer understanding of what humanistic disciplines are and how their natures have evolved through historical accidents. 

4. Any novel by José Saramago, though The Cave is my favorite. Saramago writes with deep tenderness and humor, and addresses philosophical questions through his enchanting characters in their strange circumstances. 

5. The last book I’d mention is Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. I expect some readers will cringe at this, as Harari is frequently dissed by academic humanists. But I think Harari is doing exactly what more academics should be doing: raising big questions and problems for us all, discussing them in thoughtful ways, and provoking further discussion. The more that humanists write books like this, the less we’ll hear those annoying questions about the value of the humanities. Just make them valuable to more people, and no one will have cause to ask.


 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is biding his time.

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