The Spinoza Solution

Spinoza; drawing by David Levine

In his recently published memoir The Making of a Philosopher,* Colin McGinn makes a provocative suggestion. It may be found, he writes, that human beings will never be able adequately to explain to themselves the relation of their minds to their bodies and brains; that relation may remain a philosophical mystery forever. For him, reality at this point, in Kant’s famous phrase, is “not adapted to our powers of cognition.” McGinn tells us that Noam Chomsky inspired this despair. This reminded me of a conversation I had with Chomsky many years ago, on American radio, in which we discussed whether physicists, rather than trying to go further in physical science itself, might finally choose to investigate the intellectual and physical limits on our capacity to add to our physics.

But any such pessimistic thesis about the limits of theory is a challenge to philosophy itself and also to the history of philosophy. Do we really think that contemporary analytical philosophers, standing tall on the shoulders of their predecessors, are in a position to predict the future of thought? Surely analytical philosophy as it now flourishes in Britain, the US, Australia, and a little elsewhere, is a transient episode in a complicated and endless story of philosophy, with many ups and downs in the past, and many more to be expected. We are not moving toward a final enlightenment and there is no assured teleology. There is a recurring pattern of sporadic discoveries or inventions by a truly original thinker, followed by some reaction against the discovery.

Compare the history of philosophy with the history of painting. A great painter appears, Giotto or Caravaggio or Cézanne, and nothing is ever the same again; his followers exploit the new opportunities opened up for them, and consequently we enter a new room in the museum. So also in the progress of philosophy, which draws upon the rare thinker of genius. Human beings are perpetually puzzled about, and made uneasy by, their dubious status in the natural order, and the history of religions and of philosophy are their best efforts to do something about it. It would be a deadly, but not uncommon, provincialism to take the brightest epigones of our own period as the most advanced, and therefore as the most enlightened, philosophers of all time.

One might plausibly think that the best philosophers, the most coherent and the most powerful with arguments, are now all dead, and that we must wait for an uncertain future to encounter their equals, or possibly even their superior. The future prospects of philosophy, and therefore the evaluation of contemporary developments, are shrouded in total uncertainty. We cannot know which of the now most prized insights of the last fifty years will survive for another fifty years into a changed environment of science and of social needs.

When writing about Spinoza in 1950 in the heyday of a kind of…

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