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Spinozism as a game: Meta-readings of the Ethics

Date:02 September 2019
Author:Maxime Rovere
Maxime Rovere The Games of Philosophy
Maxime Rovere The Games of Philosophy

There are many ways to read Spinoza, actually many ways to practice philosophy. Some discuss the conceptual organization within Spinoza’s system, others study Spinoza’s sources, others can say a lot about the historical context. How do we conceive of the unity of these different perspectives ? My opening presentation at the Collegium Spinozanum III suggested a general theory in order to articulate these points of views, by considering philosophy as a game. Here is an extremely short abstract, written for those who might like to refer to it. (The talk can be found here: Maxime Rovere: Spinozism as a game )

Structural analysis of Spinoza’s text can be called the plain game (“reading the Ethics”). As one admits the definitions and axioms proposed in the book, she or he can actively play with Spinoza’s specific vocabulary and syntax. The object of the game is then to circulate in a coherent system of concepts, and consider its consistency. This implies to make explicit those links that are not obvious and to shed light on problems in the reasoning.

The square game (reading the Ethics2), mainly intertextual and comparative studies, considers Spinoza’s philosophy as a work in progress. It is a meta-game, where direct or indirect contributions by other authors to Spinoza’s thinking, as well as Spinoza's own evolution from a work to another, become central. The aim of the square game is not the consistency of the internal deductive system, but the progressive synthesis or harmonization of many ideas from diverse disciplines that participated in the development of what will become the system. We no longer play with the pieces, but with the rules. Spinoza is no longer the referee, the "butone" of the players!

The cube game (reading the Ethics3) considers the general or the particular grounds in which the actual actors of Spinoza’s intellectual life were evolving – including sociological and historical approaches to his networks, or to events such as wars, marriages, diseases, heritages, etc. We’re now playing with the players. The logics of the game when cubed is neither consistency nor compatibility, but interdependance. You can’t deduce anything from it, except the meaning of certain positions. Authors from movements such as the “New Historicism” or the “Cambridge School” strongly defend this conception of signification; their main statement is that the relevance of philosophical ideas depends on their embeddedment in non-philosophical situations.

So far, the games did not let the main player appear. A game played power to the fourth (reading the Ethics4) is reflexive. It involves looking back at one’s prejudices to understand how our own conceptions transform the text and torment it (as we perfectly may be doing) in order to answer our own questions, and then look at what effect in return our playing actually has on us. The fundamental logics of the game power to the four is to seek an ethical and political coherence which is no longer supposed to be found between concepts considered all other things equal, but between these concepts and the actual contemporary life. It could be said that it aims at reducing our cognitive dissonances.

A game played power to the fifth (reading the Ethics5) would then consider the academic rules involved in the previous level, as they imply not only the speaker, but the non-speaking players (the so called audience, and even the part of the society excluded from the audience by the rules). It includes a methodological reflexion on how and why we practice philosophy, refer to authors, respect certain protocols of exchange and certain norms of writing – and on why we should certainly invent and experiment new ones, if we are to survive in an over professionalized and specialized philosophical world. The purpose of this game is not to produce a clear exposition of one’s brilliant thoughts, but to make sure that what we say actually makes people think, so that philosophical thinking ceases to be a personal performance and circulates as a collective effort towards the better.

This theory accounts for the relation between different perspectives that seem to have nothing in common.  History of philosophy is indeed practiced at several levels – either with the pieces, the rules, the players, the reflexive self, or the so-called audience. One can’t say these approaches complement one another  they are the meta-game of one another. This theory also gives light to a general criteria of quality : the most interesting scholars are not the best players, but the ones who accept to let themselves be played by their game (or accept retroactions). Eventually, this theory admits that any researcher, beginner student or seasoned scholar, can choose her or his level of complexity in complete freedom, because the relevance of one’s work depends on what one is driven by. Philosophy and its history are science in the sense of truth seeking activities, but they have to remain a path. And it’s not because we are walking together that we should walk at the same pace.

After the presentation, some have argued that this theory articulates the “eternity” and “historicity” of philosophical thinking in an interesting way; some have recognized the influence of certain authors (Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Foucault) in the way the reading games were articulated. Three questions received thorough answers. One challenged the notion of complexity: “isn’t it more complex to play the plain game (with the “pieces”, i.e. abstract concepts) than the games 'power to the fourth' or 'power to the fifth', in which political statements may be involved ?” The answer was given in the form of a sketch which helped visualize the increasing complexity of the first three levels: relations between concepts, relations between relations, and relations between "the relations between relations". Complexity is not about how hard it is to conceive of something, but about the relational structure explicitly involved in your thinking. Two other questions expressed a concern about unity: how can one formulate a global interpretation (reading of the Ethics1,2,3,4,5), and how to articulate several levels of complexity in the same work ? Twice, the answer was : you can’t. The very idea of a unified interpretation is based on the ideal of a personal and definitive synthesis; but if philosophy is to be collective, this synthesis doesn’t matter anymore. And then, if we experience that at the different levels one is often excluding the others, this is the consequence of the format of our articles (hardly more than 10.000 words) and of our interventions (hardly more than 20mn). It might be time to change such formats. With one full week of work, joining more than 50 researchers, Collegium Spinozanum III exemplified one of the experiments we need.

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