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Spinoza’s meditations and why today’s philosophers don’t meditate anymore

Date:29 March 2019
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
Meditazione, Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Rome
Meditazione, Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, Rome
[Basso continuo:] “Vous me parlez de bien des choses sur lesquelles je dois m’instruire plus à fond, et méditer plus particulièrement que je n’ai fait jusqu’ici. Ce n’est pas pour moi un petit projet. Dans les embarras et les distractions où je suis obligé de vivre, il ne m’est pas permis de penser toutes les fois que j’en aurais envie.” (De Mairan to Malebranche, 26 August 1714)

In summer 1666, Johannes Bouwmeester asked Spinoza to explain his account of the method of philosophizing. In response, Spinoza gave a short summary of some of the ideas he presented in his earlier and yet unpublished (perhaps unfinished) Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. In closing his letter, Spinoza writes:

 With these few words I think I have explained and demonstrated the true Method, and at the same time, shown the Way by which we may arrive at it. I should, however, still warn you that all these things require uninterrupted meditation [assiduam meditationem], and a constant mind and purpose [animum, propositumque constantissimum]. To acquire these it is necessary above all to decide upon a definite way and principle of living, and to prescribe a definite end for oneself. (Letter 37)

I’m familiar with this text since I started working on Spinoza in 2007. I also included this quote in a chapter of my (now forthcoming!) book on Spinoza. However, I only recently realized that in all this time I had been glossing over the reference to ‘meditation’. I mean, I always tended to interpret ‘meditation’ as a synonym for something like ‘verbalized thought, carefully pondered and hopefully expressed in a written text’. And yet, that ‘meditation’ is a synonym for ‘thinking carefully’ and that this in turn may have something to do with verbalized thought (i.e. thought expressed through language) is far from obvious. In fact, it requires so much mental stretching that now I’m puzzled by the easiness with which I made these assumptions and lived with them for the last twelve years. In this blogpost, I’ll reflect on how I could found so obvious what is actually far from obvious.

First, what does ‘meditation’ mean if not ‘verbalized thought etc.’? Spinoza doesn’t offer an explanation, arguably assuming that his friend did not need it. My suggestion is the following: he understands meditation as strong and steady contemplation of a given object of thought. This is somehow captured by the qualification Spinoza adds in his letter (animum, propositumque constantissimum): one needs to cultivate a particularly steady and stable mind and attitude. And it makes sense: the more you contemplate an object of thought, the clearer it gets and the more you understandit. I won’t explain how this works. I’ll just give you an example: take a piece of music, Bach’s D minor Chaconne, for instance; often it takes awhile to understand its subtleties. And yet…how do you understand? By listening again and again, and by listening carefully. This repeated action of careful attention allows the mind to familiarize itself with the piece and thus (somehow...) to understand it better. Isn’t this what ‘contemplation’ is all about? I’d say ‘yes’. So, my suggestion is that when Spinoza refers to ‘meditation’ what he has in mind is this exercise of steady and focused contemplation of a given object. Such an exercise is an integral part of Spinoza’s way of doing philosophy. In fact, it seems a requisite even for his readers (in this case Bouwmeester) in order to understand how Spinoza’s philosophy works.

Second, a more difficult point: how could I have overlooked the reference to ‘meditation’? Perhaps at fault is a circumstantial, superficial reason: I simply didn’t know anything about ‘meditation’ (ignorance bias) and the little I knew suggested that meditation was far removed from philosophy proper (exclusivist bias). I suspect that the ignorance bias and the exclusivist bias go together and are both problematic. Of course, seventeenth-century Western philosophers were familiar with meditation (see previous posts here and here).

Maybe, to go at a slightly deeper level of explanation, something happened much later in time, and suddenly this familiarity with meditation was broken. My initial understanding of ‘meditation’ as a synonym of ‘verbalized thought etc.’ was symptomatic. I tended to assume that philosophy is done via language. Perhaps one may even go further and say that thinking necessarily happens in language or in a linguistic form. Some hundred years ago there was a ‘linguistic turn’ (yes, I’m simplifying) in philosophy, right? Maybe I’m just the (unaware) heir of it.

Let’s go deeper. What’s the difference between thinking that thought is experienced in and through language and thinking that thought is experienced in and through meditation? Suggestion: language is something you can manipulate, while contemplation is the letting go of any attempt to manipulate anything. Language is most often a conventional construction, shapable and constantly reshaped. ‘You’ decide (or you think you decide...) what to say or what to write and how to do it (even if there are constrains on that). The very point of ‘writing a new paper’ is that you can take this public means of expression (some language), shape it into something you can be proud of owning, of being its ‘author’. This is not what happens in contemplation. The very idea of contemplating something entails that when you contemplate you let the object of contemplation fill your awareness, without ‘you’ trying to manipulate or alter it. There is a peculiar form of ‘objectivity’ (trustworthiness, reliability, even truth, whatever you want to call it) that belongs to meditation in virtue of its attempt to let the ‘subject’ fade and have the object affirming itself in the mind (I’m paraphrasing Spinoza’s Short Treatise, part 2, ch. 15).

Let’s go one step further. Here’s a working hypothesis. A society that seeks to change the world in a certain way (mostly to accomplish some wish or desire), to manipulate it, to steer it in a certain direction (mostly decided by somebody or something in a position of prominence and power), cannot tolerate meditation or find any value in it. Meditation is worthless for any desire-driven approach to the world. Language can be very helpful and resourceful, instead! In this environment, even philosophers will start paying more attention to language and perhaps, eventually, even think that thought happens in and through language only. The problem, of course, is not so much the emphasis on language but rather normalising the ‘language-model’ (so to say) of practicing philosophy at a certain point of time and in certain places (let’s say very large chunks of today’s Western world), when this normalisation is arguably not a natural, inevitable or obvious phenomenon at all.

Ok, but this is just language, isn’t it? I’ve just written down some thoughts here in this blog. I’m either disproving myself altogether or simply proving that there isn’t much you can learn by simply meditating...it seems inevitable that, somehow, you eventually end up talking about it! Maybe. But how do you know what you’re talking about if you don’t listen first? In the midst of the distractions in which I am obliged to live, I’m not allowed to listen all the times I’d like to.

About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo
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