Reflections on music and politics, man and animals, body and mind:
Spinoza redux 19 March 2009
“A man who is guided by reason is more free in a society, where he lives according a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself.” (Spinoza, Ethics IV P. 73)
Tolerance towards animals: up to what point?
Ariel Suhamy (Philosopher; Sorbonne – Paris, France)
The parliament of The Netherlands has a party dedicated to the rights of animals. I wonder what Spinoza would have thought of this. At first sight, in his system, man is not far from animals: one of his most famous statements is the denial of man’s free will. Man is not “an empire in an empire” (Ethics III, preface), he is a part of Nature, and he is submitted, like any other being, to absolute necessity, and determined by the laws of Nature. “I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature. (…) You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity” (Letter 58). This statement scandalized many of his contemporaries, who protested that if it were so, there would be no difference between man and animals.
Not at all, Spinoza answers. There is a large difference between a man and, for instance, a rat, a pigeon or a bee. Far from reducing man to animal, he claims that imitating them is what perpetually threatens humanity. For instance, this is how he explains Adam’s sin: Adam believed animals to be like him, and began to imitate their affects, instead of imitating man’s (or woman’s) affects, and keeping safe his freedom. And tyrants of all kinds always want to transform their subjects into animal or automatons, and renew Adam’s sin. But since the nature of animals is deeply different from man’s, a man cannot try to imitate them without losing his nature, that is, his freedom. Therefore, to believe that they have the same rights as we have, would be quite contrary to reason and most perilous to freedom.
Spinoza’s use of animals is therefore pretty ambiguous. On the one hand he uses them as examples to make us understand that man, exactly like them, is a part of Nature, and that free will is just an illusion. We are not more free than a bee or a donkey. But on the other hand he claims that they are not like us (their nature is different), and for that reason cannot be used as models; such a belief is quite dangerous to freedom, particularly to political freedom. We know that Spinoza was one of the great defenders of tolerance. The question I would like to examine is then: is a party dedicated to the rights of animals adverse to tolerance and a threat to human freedom?
Spinoza and the Sex Pistols – the politics of music-making.
Alison Isadora (Composer and musician; Amsterdam)
Art in general is not an area devoid of any power struggles, unlike many people think. Music is characterised by several forms of power relations. If we take a look at the way how music is produced we can observe several relationships like the relationship between producer (as in composer) and re-producer (as in performer) and of course also the relation to the audience. These all can be analysed in political terms. However, we should acknowledge that different sorts of music-making assume different kinds of relationships (power structures). What might be the
connections with actual political situations? One could examine various genres – punk, romantic orchestral music, free jazz, the New York school (Cage and co.) with regards to their internal power structures and the specific historical socio-political climates in which they emerged. There is of course also the matter of how these musics are regarded by the public – which is not always contiguous with the musicians own understanding – and how that changes in time. I have been very influenced by the idea of music mirroring or embodying a political ideal and have written many pieces which deal with power issues on both a musical and meta-musical level. Apart from offering reflections I will present and discuss some examples of my own work.
Coming to terms with complexity. Neuroscience, free will, society and a Spinozan take on conceptual unity.
Machiel Keestra (Philosopher, University of Amsterdam)
Human culture is driven by dynamics and power struggles of different kinds. Easily overlooked, though, is the role played by the introduction of concepts. Such concepts can open up a new perspective on reality and offer new ways of dealing with it. The ‘bitter-sweet’ love in Sappho heralded emotional ambiguity, while scientist and philosopher Aristotle introduced concepts that enabled us to grasp development and change. Since understanding and action are tightly connected, coming to terms with these phenomena has many consequences.
In modernity, the influence of a dualism of sorts is rampant. Best known is of course the body-mind dualism attributed to Descartes. Other dualisms are between man and nature, between individual and society, between freedom and necessity. Although influenced by Descartes, Spinoza’s thoughts take a completely different starting point, avoiding thus a whole set of problems. Not wanting to deny differences, he still assumes an original unity between those domains.
Such unity is aspired too in neuroscience, most clearly in research on free will. How to reconcile neurophysiology with freedom is the question. Less problematic appears to be the explanation of our social nature, due to research on so-called mirror neurons and empathy: humans appear to be attuned to emotional exchanges.
However, this will end by discussing the limits of empathy and imitation for ethics: the sameness that imitation presupposes & confirms may easily overshadow the differences between persons, for instance. Instead of simply embracing a simple neuro-ethics we may need to draw on diverse sources of morality in order to seek unity and accept diversity – a necessary task in our present multi-crisis global society.
Ariel Suhamy studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and at the Sorbonne University. He is agrégé and doctor, and taught philosophy for a few years before turning to journalism and writing. He is also in charge of a Seminar on Spinoza at the Sorbonne.
He is currently chief assistant at the internet site and review La vie des idées (Books and Ideas in english) at the Collège de France in Paris.
His last book on Spinoza: Spinoza par les bêtes, with illustrations by Alia Daval, was published by Ollendorff & Dessein in 2008.
Alison Isadora was born in Aotearoa/New Zealand. She studied political philosophy and music at the Victoria University of Wellington before moving to the Netherlands in 1986 primarily to study violin with Vera Beths and thereafter to study composition with Gilius van Bergeijk and Theo Loevendie at The Hague Conservatorium (1994, with distinction.) She has been a performing composer or a composing performer within numerous groups in the Netherlands including Hex, Gending, the Maarten Altena Ensemble, and her own group The Electric Aardvark. Her works have been performed in the Pacific, Europe and North America. In the last years she has become increasingly interested in the possibilities of connecting music to other disciplines, and in the ways realtime electronics can assist this process. Her first foray into this arena in 1995 was the music-theatre work Hoofdwas, for midi-controlled washing-machine, live electronics and mezzo-soprano which she created together with Jan-Bas Bollen (with whom she forms the duo SYNC). Many of Isadora’s recent works deal with cultural identity and the use of biographical material. In 2003 she graduated from DasArts (an institute for post-graduate theatre studies) with Speaking Rites, an installation and audio walk in which interviews with Dutch citizens from various cultural extraction were presented in an interactive environment. The work was premiered during the Gaudeamus Music Week. In 2005 as part of her Wild Creation residency she created an installation in which the situation of Chinese goldminers in 19th Century NZ was juxtaposed with current-day Chinese villagers dealing with e-waste sent by the west.
Machiel Keestra studied philosophy and psychology in Amsterdam and Heidelberg (Germany). Formerly a staff member of the International School of Philosophy in Leusden (NL) and the Studium Generale of the University of Amsterdam, he is currently assistant professor at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of the University of Amsterdam. He taught and organised many courses and seminars on philosophical, scientific and cultural subjects. He published edited volumes on the history of philosophy, breakthroughs in physics and a cultural history of mathematics. The topics of his articles range from philosophers like Aristotle and Hegel to the philosophy of language and tragedy. His current research is on the philosophy of neuroscience, in which he confronts concepts of action and understanding from philosophers like Aristotle, Ricoeur, Bratman and Frankfurt with recent evidence from cognitive neuroscience. Read more..
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This evening is realised in co-operation with Maison Descartes