Thursday, September 29, 2011

Interpreting Imaginary Slips of Paper

H. A. Wolfson made the following claim about Spinoza's work: "if we could cut up all the philosophic literature available to him into slips of paper, toss them up into the air, and let them fall back to the ground, then out of these scattered slips of paper we could reconstruct his Ethics." He did proceed to reconstruct Spinoza's Ethics in this way, but found in the process it was more like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces, with pieces that do not fit together and had to be "reshaped," and with "many necessary pieces ... missing" and having to supplied by "ourselves." But he claims to have a guide or outline of the picture in the form of the Ethics "as it was originally formed in the mind of Spinoza."[1]

It appears to me that this is a good description of how not to interpret an author—at the very least how not to interpret an author of Spinoza's stature. The first problem is that Wolfson (or anyone else, for that matter) has no access to the picture of the book "as it was originally formed in the mind" of any author. Secondly, the idea that you could reconstruct a work like Spinoza's from the source he used or consulted, diminishes it considerably from the outset. Missing and reshaped "imaginary pieces" make the interpretation even more arbitrary.

I am all for the "reduction in order to build complexity" (Luhmann) and I do use imaginary slips of papers (ConnectedText topics) in my research, but this stuff is just that: "stuff." The arguments and story lines based on some of this stuff do not result from the mere addition, subtraction and shaping of preconfigured pieces.

This observation is infinitely more appropriate in Spinoza's case. Wolfson's approach has a definite tendency to reduce him to the lowest common denominator, that is, I am tempted to say, Wolfson's own imagination.[2]

[1] H. A. Wolfson, "Behind the Geometrical Method," Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Marjorie Grene. Garden City/New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1973), p. 3.

2. Wolfson has a further means to reduce Spinoza to his imagination. He asserts: "Statements are not significant for what they actually affirm but for the denials which they imply" (p. 17). The complement of a term (or, perhaps better, of "what a statement affirms") is infinite. So there is much to choose from!

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