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“Men believe that they are free, precisely because they are conscious of their volitions and desires; yet concerning the causes that have determined them to desire and will they have not the faintest idea…” Spinoza, Ethics, Appendix to Part One.

After writing the last post on Necessity and (Intellectual) Freedom, I realized how much that perspective had to do with Spinoza. I’m not Spinoza expert by any means, but I’ve been getting my head around his philosophy as I continue to work on understanding Antonio Negri’s Spinozan politics. I just wanted to make a few notes here regarding the potential intersection between Spinoza and a new conception of intellectual freedom more appropriate to the current moment.

Spinoza’s main antagonist, at least in the Ethics, was medieval Scholastic philosophy, especially as that was summed up in the philosophy of Descartes. The first part of the Ethics is an attempt to show - in contrast to Descartes’ dualism - that all of nature was a single, unified thing. Spinoza calls this unified substance God but he equates it with Nature (making them equivalent in the well-known formula Deus sive natura, “God or Nature”). Indeed, I think the whole first part of the Ethics is much easier to swallow if you mentally replace every mention of “God” with “Nature”. In doing so, we come up with a conception of the natural world as a single undifferentied whole of which human beings are a part. Gone is the Cartesian privileging of the human as something distinct and different from the rest of nature. For Spinoza, human beings are just as within and caused by the natural order as everything else.

Descartes’ dualism extended to the distinction between the mind and the body, in which the mind took moral priority and governed the passions of the body. For Spinoza, if there is no natural dualism of substance, then there is no fundamental difference between the mind and the body. In this way he overcame a major objection to Descartes’ model: if the mind and the body are fundamentally different, how could either one affect the other (i.e. how could the mind govern the body). For Spinoza, both mind and body constitute aspects of a single unified system. According to Spinoza’s metaphysics, both thought and spatial extension are aspects of God (= Nature), deriving from it, and only conceivable through it. But they are not distinct or fundamentally different, since they both emanate from the single unified substance of Nature. Thought and physicality appear different to us, but in fact thought and extension “are not the expressions of two radically different constituents in human nature… rather, there is one series of events or processes that can be described either as extended or as mental modes” (Feldman’s introduction, p. 13). In one of his letters, Spinoza uses the example of the patriarch Jacob/Israel who is referred to in the Bible under both names, each with its own set of connotations, but both referring back to the same person. In the same way, we can see both the body and the mind as simply two ways of understanding the movements, behaviours, choices, etc, of a single human being.

For Spinoza, there is just the human being, who can be conceived either as a mode of extension, a body, or as a mode of thought, a mind. In describing man under each of these attributes we commit ourselves to a distinct method of explanation and analysis that if consistently and correctly employed will yield adequate knowledge of man. Each explanatory model is autonomous and legitimate; both are needed to account for the richness of human nature. (p. 14)

Spinoza’s solution to the mind-body problem calls into question Descartes’ view of how the passions (associated with the body) are governed, since there is no longer a sovereign mind to govern them. Spinoza’s reframing of the whole problem leads him to a very different view of the problem itself. Rather than ascribing thought to the mind and emotion to the body, as Descartes did, Spinoza sees emotions and thoughts as different levels of the same process. The word passion does not mean - as it does in common usage - an overwhelming emotion, but rather something that happens to us, something we suffer: passion has the same root as passive (in the same way that action has the same root as active). For Spinoza, a stimulus can cause a passion (an emotional response) in us as long as we don’t fully understand it. Once we understand it, then the same emotion becomes an action, something we choose to do.

Thus, knowledge results in activity. An emotion not adequately understood is a passion, because in this situation we do not act but suffer, or in common parlance we are on the “receiving end.” Here we are not properly agents, but reagents, i.e. we react, not act. (p. 15)

The kind of knowledge that converts a passion into an action is both self-knowledge and knowledge of the reality of the way things are (i.e. knowledge of Nature, of the world). Once we have adequate knowledge of ourselves and of the world, only then are able to act. But, precisely since we are not separate from nature, but part of nature, part of the world, our range of action is limited: “Capable of only limited action according to his own nature, mman by virtue of his knowedge can become ‘relatively free’.” (p. 16).

To the extent that he acquires adequate ideas of himself and his place within nature, man acts, which is to say he responds creatively to his environment and acts upon it. To be free is then to be active, to cause things to happen according to our understanding of the way things are and ought to be. (p. 16).

As I remarked in the previous post, liberal political theory posits “freedom” as the binary opposite of “necessity” (rather than internally related, as Marx and Engels maintained). For Spinoza, “compelled” and not “necessary” is the opposite of “free”. In Definition 7, Spinoza writes:

That thing is said to be free which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. A thing is said to be necessary or rather, constrained, if it is determined by another thing to exist and to act in a definite and determinate way. (Def 7, Part 1, p. 31, emphasis added)

Spinoza sees human beings as determined by their place in the natural world (or, I would add, the social world), but as constantly seeking self-determination (understood as only relatively free within the determinism of necessity) within the constraints of nature and society. To me, this has radical consequences for a theory of intellectual freedom. Gone is the tabula rasa individualism which sees human beings as always-already fully self-determining (see Caudwell’s characterization of bourgeois freedom in the previous post), as subject to no intellectual structuring by the social relations into which they are born. Instead, it offers librarianship a justification for its educational role (which the maximalist view of intellectual freedom calls into question - one of the contradictions of such a view): it becomes the proper place of libraries to enable, to foster, the formation of adequate knowledge of the natural and social worlds in order to allow our constituents (users, patrons) to increase their self-determination through better knowledge. I realize this brings us perilously close to the patronizing “useful knowledge” program of libraries as institutions of social control, but I think the focus on the self-determination allows us to avoid that pitfall.

This Spinozan view of intellectual relative freedom also allows us to take explicit positions in social and political debates. Free of the bourgeois rationalism that underpins the dominant intellectual freedom position, we can argue that in so far as libraries claim some kind of power, we are not only free to, but required to, act acccording to our knowledge. Neutrality becomes a relict of an obsolete political commitment to reacting, to passivity; it is replaced by an active commitment according to our knowledge of the natural and social worlds, to make changes, to attempt to change the world into the way it ought to be.

It becomes the responsibility of libraries, librarians, and librarianship to cultivate the kind of knowledge that will turn our users from mere reagents, reacting to the kinds of passions enflamed by demagogues and populists, to actors, thinking for themselves, making their own choices, determining (up to a point) their own way in the world. The dominant conception of intellectual freedom takes no stand on passivity vs. action, believing as it does in the hermetically-sealed, fully-formed, individualistic intellect of the bourgeois subject. And yes, this commits us to an evaluation of truth, something which librarianship has shied away from in its commitment to the value-free neutrality and non-commitment of postmodernism.

Furthermore, lest we think that disallowing the use of library space to promote hate and intolerance is a form of compulsion (to silence, perhaps), we can refer to this educational commitment of libraries as applying not only to our patrons and users, but to those who would use our spaces in such a way. We can take the opportunity not simply to say no, but to challenge the views that we rightly find so heinous in order, hopefully, to provide a better understanding of the world to those who hold them. The Public Library CEOs would do much to support “intellectual freedom” if they were to argue, face to face with the TERFs, Neo-Nazis, and homophobes, exactly why their library is refusing a room-booking. Despite public libraries’ insistence that room-booking implies no legitimation of those views on the part of the library, our publics see things otherwise; and indeed, given the branding of some kind of public events by libraries, it is hard to see how they can have things both ways.

In any event, as I have said before, we live in an age of bandwidth abundance rather than scarcity: none of the speakers we might turn away from our meeting rooms will have any difficulty getting their message out. Neither will any of our patrons have any difficulty hearing that message if they want to. The age of bandwidth abundance - like information abundance - not only gives libraries the imperative of being more selective than we used to be when information and bandwidth were scarce, but - going back to Spinoza’s idea of a productive necessity - it gives us the luxury of being more selective, the luxury of perhaps at last living up to the values we espouse.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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