Friday, June 17, 2011

Goldstein, Rebecca. "Sell Descartes, Buy Spinoza ." PROSPECT MAGAZINE May 25, 2011.

Thinking of buying shares in a great philosopher? The first question you need to ask is whether you’re interested in long or short-term investment. If you are looking long-term, then prepare yourself for serious scholarship. Alternatively, short-term investment could merely involve comparing the battle over women’s hemlines on catwalks in Milan and New York to Wittgenstein’s language-games. Investors must also keep in mind a philosopher’s obscurity, as this allows room for interpretation. Counter-intuitive shock appeal is also a plus.

These ruminations were sparked by the broadcaster Alan Saunders’s comment that, were he dealing in philosophical shares, he would be selling off Descartes and buying Spinoza. I was surprised Saunders retained any substantial Descartes, which for decades have been rated as junk bonds. But he’s onto something in picking Spinoza as a hot stock.

The 17th-century rationalist, who made every claim for reason that has ever been made, was for many years considered too insignificant to refute (unlike Descartes). Obscure, yes. Counter-intuitive, yes. But there wasn’t fast bidding for a philosopher who argues that there is only one substance, which can be viewed alternatively as God or nature, and from whose essence each and every finite thing, or modification, follows. (As being unmarried follows from being a bachelor.) Those of us in Anglo-American philosophy looked askance at system-builders like Spinoza, setting our sights on more feasible problems (such as showing why, precisely, being unmarried follows from being a bachelor).

But Spinoza’s stock has risen, his symbol emerging in varied markets. Take the movement which calls itself “deep ecology,” distinguishing itself from that “shallow ecology” which seeks to redress pollution and other practices deleterious to humans. . . .

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