Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Spinoza's Commonwealth and the Anthropomorphic Illusion

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Spinoza's Commonwealth and the Anthropomorphic Illusion

Article excerpt

Just as in the state of nature the man who is guided by reason is the most powerful and the most his own master, so a Commonwealth will be most powerful and most its own master ifit is guided by reason. For the Right of a Commonwealth is determined by the power of a multitude which is led as if by one mind.

-Spinoza, Political Treatise

In Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Gilles Deleuze celebrates Spinoza's radical devaluation of consciousness through its exposure as the effect of a triple illusion. In the wake of René Descartes and the phenomenological tradition, human existence is typically understood to be defined most essentially by consciousness. We are those beings who are uniquely aware of ourselves, and whose self-awareness forms the basis of all knowledge and experience. Deleuze presents Spinoza's philosophy as a profound challenge to the (metaphysical and methodological) priority of consciousness. Spinoza reveals the fundamentally illusory structure of first-person experience.1 Rather than serving as an anchor of truth, the grasp of ourselves as, most fundamentally, creatures of consciousness expresses three modes of ignorance: "the illusion of final causes," "the illusion of free decrees" and "the theological illusion"2 Étienne Balibar interprets Spinoza as a thinker who exposes and examines yet another systematic illusion governing human experience: "the anthropomorphic illusion." Related to the illusions identified by Deleuze, the anthropomorphic illusion prompts us to imagine other beings-including God, nonhuman animals, and the State-on the model of a confused idea of "Man" This projection involves imagining individuality as such in terms of an inadequate idea of human individuality. The illusion is thus (at least) double: (i) by virtue of the triple illusion of consciousness, we imagine that humans exist and act in a particular way, and (ii) we project this confused and largely false image onto other beings. Metaphysics itself issues from a confused anthropology.

I would like to suggest that the anthropomorphic illusion is structured also by a negative moment. Positively, it involves a projection or a filter that represents all of reality in the image of man. We might also detect a negative tendency, according to which the anthropomorphic illusion withholds the extension of certain properties that it reserves exclusively for humans. That is, the anthropomorphic illusion involves more than an animistic projection of "personality" onto trees, beasts, mountains, or deities. At the same time, it encourages a misrecognition of how institutions and social forces can be sufficiently unified in their existence and action so as to constitute individuals (albeit Spinozist rather than substantial individuals). Because we do not typically perceive a commonwealth, multitude, or an army in the same terms as an anthropomorphic individual, we dismiss their coherence and power. More so today than in Spinoza's time, the anthropomorphic illusion operates to obscure the individuality of extrahuman phenomena. That is, it overlooks the material coherence and durability of, for example, institutional forces or an indignant multitude. Because we do not attribute to them conscious intentions, we mistakenly deny individuality to collective agencies. The anthropomorphic illusion with which Spinoza himself was most concerned was our tendency to project individuality, personality, and volition onto beings we imagine to be analogous to ourselves, such as God or beasts. He was likewise concerned to deny the presence of divine intention behind natural events, especially those painful events of fortune that result in grave losses or the rise of certain individuals to cultural or political power. He encouraged us to interpret consequential events as outcomes of natural patterns of determination rather than as reflections of divine judgment.3 Today, following a long history of methodological and ideological individualism, we find in the liberal individualist interpretations of Spinoza's political theory an expression of a wider tendency, made legible by Spinoza's philosophy, to disavow the power and coherence that collective bodies and minds have as a result of their non-resemblance to ourselves. …

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