Benedict Spinoza and the Development of Cartesian Hermeneutics

Benedict de Spinoza followed Descartes’ geometrical approach to human knowledge, and applied it with great individualistic and rationalistic effect to biblical interpretation. Not concerned with questions of whether a passage was true, but only with its actual meaning, Spinoza deliberately chose the model of Euclid’s Elements as his way to flesh out Cartesian biblical hermeneutics:

Euclid, who only wrote of matters very simple and easily understood, can easily be comprehended by anyone in any language; we can follow his intention perfectly, and be certain of his true meaning, without having a thorough knowledge of the language in which he wrote….We need make no researches concerning the life, the pursuits, or the habits of the author; nor need we inquire in what language, nor when he wrote, nor the vicissitudes of his book, nor its various readings, nor how, nor by whose advice it has been received. [Tractatus Theologico-Philosophicus (1670), cited by Gerald L. Brun, “Scriptura sui ipsius interpres: Luther, Modernity, and the Foundations of Philosophical Hermeneutics,”Hermeneutics: Ancient and Modern (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pg. 149.]

If this wasn’t interesting enough as a piece of evidence of the rationalism that has deeply affected biblical exegesis in the Modern age, Brun’s summary of what this means is even more so:

It follows that the power and authority of interpretation rest with whoever can determine whether a statement answers to the claim of reason; in short, since the power of reason is equally distributed in all human beings, interpretive authority belongs to everyone–so long as he or she approaches the text “in a careful, impartial, and unfettered spirit, making no assumptions concerning it, and attributing to it no doctrines” except those which can be perceived clearly and distinctly in the light of natural reason…Call this Cartesian hermeneutics, or the allegory of suspicion, in which the text comes under the control of the reader as disengaged rational subject, unresponsive except to its own self-certitude. Spinoza, in effect, restores the hermeneutical condition of allegory in which one rationalizes the alien text or naturalizes it within a prevailing philosophical outlook. Only now it is hard to speak of an appropriation of the text because the point is to adopt an attitude of detached regard that preserves the distance and strangeness of what is written. The Scriptures are taken out of sacred history and recontextualized within a history of historical documents as fragments from a lost world impinging on the present only as so many museum pieces. The motive of Cartesian hermeneutics is to preserve alienation as a condition of freedom from the text (a motive aroused all the more when, as in the case of the Scriptures, the texts do “not teach philosophy but merely obedience” to religious authority…Not surprisingly, therefore, Spinoza concludes his treatise with an assertion of the freedom and autonomy of the rational subject (”That in a Free State every man may Think what he Likes and Say what he Thinks”… (ibid.).

It has been noted that rationalisms of the 17th-18th centuries simply cancelled each other out by reason of using the exact same method to reach exactly contradictory conclusions (as e.g., by contrasting Spinoza’s pantheism with Leibnitz’s theism). So, if we subtract Spinoza’s unbelieving conclusions from his rationalistic enterprise and insert believing conclusions instead, and one still has the Cartesian dynamic of using correct method to control external reality. In this case, the Scriptures are controlled by the “objective” hermeneutic that is applied to them by the “impartial” Rational Man, who sees only what is “clear and distinct” (to himself) in the text and concludes that it is the undeniable foundation upon which an entire rationally indubitable system may be built. And it is critical to realize that this entire mode of hermeneutics is fundamentally obsessed with the notion that one can methodologically disincarnate oneself and reach a world of pure thinking, pure knowledge, untainted by anything outside of the sterile, Universally Valid geometry-like axioms. In fact, stronger still, methodological disincarnation is the only way to achieve real knowledge. All else is the shifting sand of opinion.

This entry was posted in Cartesian Hermeneutics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>