The emergence of Neo Spinozism

Apparently not having learned his lesson from trying but failing to find an ally in Lessing, Jacobi sent a copy of his account of the conversation to his friend and fellow critic of pure reason, Herder. In Herder's response, God: Some Conversations (1787), we find the turning point in the reception of Spinoza in Germany. For Herder (and, later, for the early Romantics), Spinoza represented an alternative to atheism and theism. First, however, Spinoza's philosophy had to be brought up to date. Herder thought that Spinoza did not need vindication so much as he needed to be translated, since the reason Spinoza had been so misunderstood had to do not with the content of his philosophy but with its rationalistic form. So Herder systematically set about translating Spinoza into the philosophical language of late eighteenth-century Germany, the language informed by recent developments in biology and chemistry. A paradigm shift in philosophy and theology therefore followed a paradigm shift in science. Previously, astronomy and mathematics had provided the scientific model of the universe and, as a result, if we take Jacobi as an example, the transcendence of the living God stood over against the inert matter and mechanistic causality of nature. When chemistry and biology suggested a new model of the universe, livingness became the essential principle of all reality, and, as a result, the transcendence of the living God no longer needed to be explained spatially - as outside, above, or beyond. "Substance" thus became "substantial force"; the divine "attributes" became "organic forces." Having thus rejected Jacobi's premise that Spinoza's philosophy of immanence was inescapably a form of materialism, Herder could then proceed to disarm Jacobi's accusation of fatalism and atheism.

Herder transposed Spinoza's philosophy of immanence into a worldview according to which there is no inert matter or vacuous space, only a system of living, active, interrelated forces. He developed, in other words, an organic monism, what he called a world-nexus. Once reality is viewed in this way, the trace of Cartesian dualism that remained in Spinoza - the causal chasm between thought and extension - is dissolved, since mind and body are both understood as forces, as just two of an infinite number of forces, all of which interact with one another. Consequently, the great divide between efficient causality and final causality also dissolves, since the former are no longer understood as blind, mechanistic causes, nor is the latter to be understood in terms of external, intelligent causes. Causality is one and the same and has to do with the coalescence of forces, all of which "work in every point of creation, in accordance with the most perfect wisdom and goodness."15 The dual threat of fatalism and atheism is thus obviated, since every force and every combination of forces act harmoniously together, according to the eternal laws that are given in the very structure and nature of the whole, and since those laws are determined by none other than a benevolent deity, who is best understood as the infinite, substantial force (Urkraft) that underlies all finite, organic forces.

"We swim," Herder wrote, "in an ocean of omnipotence."16 More than simply defend Spinoza against Jacobi's charges of atheism, he attacked Jacobi's notion of a personal, extra-mundane God: "God is not the world, and the world is not God, so much is certain. But it seems to me that with the 'extra' and the 'supra,' not much good is done. When one speaks of God one must forget all idols of space and time."17 In other words, Jacobi, in attempting to protect the notion of God's transcendence, only subjected God to other finite categories. His insistence on God having "personality" - which, Herder argued, is a limiting concept - is only a case in point. In contrast, borrowing from Anthony Ashley Cooper (Third Earl of) Shaftesbury (1671-1713) and his adaptation of Cambridge Platonism, Herder explained the divine transcendence in terms of the ever-active divine benevolence that manifests itself "in an infinite number of forces in an infinite number of ways."18 Using Spinoza, Herder forged what he thought was a middle way between theism and atheism.

In 1793-1794, a young university student, Friedrich Schleiermacher, as yet unknown to the philosophical and theological world, would immerse himself in the debates over Spinoza. In two essays on Spinoza, he formed basic commitments that he would carry through into later, and much more theologically significant, works. His argument was very similar to Herder's except that, whereas Herder, a onetime student of Kant, had never accepted Kant's critical philosophy, Schleiermacher had, and enthusiastically so. He developed a post-Kantian Spinozism characterized by four themes: an organic monism (influenced by Herder), an ethical determinism, a post-critical realism (influenced by Jacobi), and a non-anthropomorphic view of God.19 Just a few years later, these same themes would be recast in a Romantic mold.

In summary, in the decade before the formation of the Romantic circle in Jena there was a revival of Spinoza in Germany. What has been called the "pantheism" of the Romantics cannot be understood apart from this particular context. It was closely tied to the person of Spinoza, and conceptually it was deeply influenced by Neo-Spinozism. The Romantics' religious view of the universe, the fullest account of which is given in Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), was not some ahistorical pantheism that simply identified God and nature. On the contrary, it was an attempt to prove Jacobi wrong by developing a "third way" between traditional theism and atheism.

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