Neither mock it nor lament it

spinoza1aEmily sent me a postcard from Germany with a quote from Baruch de Spinoza: “Man soll die Welt nicht belachen nicht beweinen sondern begreifen,” which could be translated as “one should neither laugh at nor lament the world, but only understand it.” I like the sentiment, which reminds us to avoid the tendency to categorize and judge other people or ideas. Instead, it calls for an openness to learning, akin to what Jane Addams calls “affectionate interpretation” in A modern Lear.

I’ve admired Spinoza since being introduced to him by Radoslav Tsanoff, a professor at Rice. Spinoza also inspired Marx, Wittgenstein, Einstein, and many others. His rejection of dogma and insistence on reason set the stage for the Enlightenment. Thinking about the quote sent me off to learn a bit more.

The quote (originally in Latin) is from his Tractatus theologico-politicus, but the general idea recurs throughout his Ethics. It’s actually not so much a “should” as it is Spinoza’s attempt to describe his own method–what he’s endeavored to do through his philosophy.

Friedrich Nietzsche picks up on Spinoza’s method in The joyful wisdom (La gaya scienza). He emphasizes that the issue is not to replace emotions with reason, but actually to build reason upon the emotions:

What does Knowing Mean? Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere! says Spinoza, so simply and sublimely, as is his wont. Nevertheless, what else is this intelligere ultimately, but just the form in which the three other things become perceptible to us all at once? A result of the diverging and opposite impulses of desiring to deride, lament and execrate? Before knowledge is possible each of these impulses must first have brought forward its one-sided view of the object or event.

This is consistent with Spinoza’s own rejection of the mind-body dualism of René Descartes. Much later, John Dewey proposes a related notion, that inquiry is reconstructive experience: The experiences, and our emotional responses, come first, but knowing is the reflection and articulation of those experiences, which leads away from simple judging.

This post necessarily glosses over the sublteties in the “sed intelligere” idea. But even so, I think it’s a useful phrase to remember, particularly as we encounter unfamiliar people or ideas.