Potestas Clavium \ III \ What is Truth?


     And yet in a certain sense Hering is right in calling his essay Sub specie aeternitatis. He is even right in appealing to the Scriptures. There is a certain connection between phenomenology and the wisdom which it rejects. Somewhere, at the last end, phenomenology loses belief in itself and its self-evident truths and seeks help and blessing from wisdom. In Husserl's works themselves this relationship was not perceptible, but the moment his pupils take up the word it becomes evident at once. Why do the pupils deviate from their master and deny him? Why did the master speak of "limitlessness of reason" while the disciples only wished to be modest specialists and to hide in the shadow of sub specie aeternitatis?

     I think that here we have reached the fundamental question, and that insofar as we succeed in throwing light upon it, we shall also find an answer to all the objections brought forward by Hering. Sub specie aeternitatis is, of course, the basic theme of Spinoza's philosophy. De natura rationis est res sub quadam aeternitatis specie percipere [it is in the essence of reason to perceive things from the aspect of eternity] (Ethics, II, xliv, cor. 2). Further: Quisquid mens, ducente ratione, concipit, id omne sub eadem aeternitatis seu necessitatis specie concipit [whatever the mind, guided by the reason, perceives, it perceives from the same aspect of eternity or necessity]. In other passages, too, of this and his other works he has much to say on this point. The close of the fifth part of the Ethics is simply a symphony on the theme sub specie aeternitatis: Mens nostra, quatenus se et corpus sub aeternitatis specie cognoscit, eatenus Dei cognitionem necessario habet, scitque se in Deo esse et per Deum concipi [Insofar as our understanding cognizes itself and the body from the aspect of eternity it necessarily has cognition of God and knows that it is in God and is conceived through God] (Ethics, V, Prop. XXX).

     But at the same time Spinoza says in his Letter LXXVI, in which he is answering Burgh: Ego non praesumo, me optimam invenisse philosophiam, sed veram me intelligere scio. Quomodo autem id sciam, si roges, respondebo: eodem modo ac tu scis tres angulos trianguli aequales esse duobus rectis; et hoc sufficere negabit nemo, cui sanum est cerebrum. [I do not assume that I have found the best philosophy, but I know that I have the true one. And if you ask how I know this, I reply: just as you know that the sum of the three angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles; and no one of sound understanding will deny that this suffices.]

     At first sight these sentences seem to agree completely with one another and with the whole tendency of Spinoza's philosophy. In reality, however, they are so dissimilar that they must be considered as mutually exclusive. In his letter Spinoza maintains that his philosophy is by no means the best, but only the true. And he knows that it is the true for the same reason by which his correspondent knows that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. According to this, the task of philosophy is to seek not the "best," but the "true." And philosophical truth shall be sought precisely where we seek the answer to the question of to what the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal. Any number of passages could be quoted from Spinoza's works in which the same thought is expressed with equal sharpness and clarity. He rejects with the utmost scorn any attempt to see in man and his claims anything greater than one among many natural phenomena: imo hominem in Natura veluti imperium in imperio concipere videntur [they seem to treat man in nature as a state within the state] (Part III, Beginning). He speaks of the praejudicia de bono et malo, merito et peccato, laude et vituperio, ordine et confusione, pulchritudine et deformitate et de aliis hujus generis [prejudices concerning good and evil, merit and sin, praise and blame, order and confusion, beauty and ugliness, and other suchlike things] (Part I, Appendix). He also say that these prejudices would have necessarily hidden truth from man for all eternity, nisi mathesis, quae non circa fines, sed tamen circa figurarum essentias et proprietates versatur, aliam venitatis normam hominibus ostendisset [had not mathematics, which deals not with ends, but with the nature and properties of figures, shown to man another norm of truth]. And he assures us that de affectuum natura et viribus, ac mentis in eosdem potentia, eadem methodo agam, qua in praecendentibus de Deo et mente egi, et humanas actiones atque appetitus considerabo perinde, ac si questio de lineis, planis aut de corporibus esset [I shall treat of the nature and forces of the affections, and of the power of the spirit over them, using the same methods as I employed in the previous part of my work, when I treated of God and the soul, and shall treat of human actions and appetites as though dealing with lines, planes, and bodies].

     How, now, is Spinoza's idea that the science of mathematics must serve philosophy as model to be harmonized with his passionate hymns to the theme sub specie aeternitatis? I will answer frankly: it cannot be harmonized at all. This is the basic and, if you will, the intentional and premeditated contradiction of Spinoza's system. When he speaks of his methods of investigation he assures us that living man with his ambitions, fears, and hopes does not concern him. But when he tries to show his ultimate truth, he forgets his mathematics, forgets his solemn vows, non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari. He wants to know an aliquid daretur, quo invento et acquisito continua ac summa in aeterno fruerer laetitia [whether there is anything, the discovery and acquisition of which would give man lasting and supreme joy through all eternity]. Mathematics has, of course, nothing to do with human joys, whether eternal and sublime or transitory and debased. Similarly, the following words are meaningless for a mathematician: sed amor erga rem aeternam et infinitam sola laetitia pascit animum, ipsaque omnis tristitiae est expers; quod valde est desiderandum, totisque viribus quaerendum [but the love of the eternal and endless feeds the soul with pure joy, and is itself free from all sorrow; which is greatly to be desired and to be sought after with all our force] (De Intellectus Emendatione). The mathematician recognizes that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles, or that the relation between the circumference and the diameter is a constant; that is the end of it. And if Spinoza has found a something which enables him to lift himself into those spheres in which there is no mourning and no wailing but only joys without ceasing, this is certainly not because he found the norma veritatis in mathematics. And finally - and this is the main point - there is absolutely no doubt that a philosophy which affords man pure joy and frees him from sorrow is simply not able to say of itself that it is only vera philosophia; it is, in the most exact sense of the phrase, optima philosophia. It brings the summum bonum, quod est valde desiderandum totisque viribus quaerendum.

     But here arises the difficult and even fatal question which philosophy cannot possibly evade. What is the relationship between verum and optimum? Has the verum to adapt itself to the optimum, or vice versa? And it is not one question that confronts us here, but a whole series. We must answer the following: (1) What is "truth"? (2) What is the "best"? (3) To whom is power given to determine the relationship between the "best" and the "true"?

     Spinoza assures us that mathematics must be the model of philosophic thought, and gives us the norma veritatis: he who finds that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles has the answer to all questions that could stir in the breast of man. But is an assurance enough? It is clear that an assertion is not enough, in spite of the fact that it is neither necessary nor possible to interpret his words to Burgh as though he thought the methods of investigation applied by mathematicians to be the only correct ones and eternally applicable. When he says that success and failure fall equally to the just and the unjust, or that the good things for which the crowd yearns - divitiae, honores, libidines - are unstable and deceptive, he knows very well that to establish his assertions he need make no subtractions or multiplications, need draw no circles nor triangles. But when he says nevertheless that mathematics must give us the norma veritatis, this only means that there is no place in philosophy for free choice and arbitrariness, and that the truths of philosophy are as compelling and beyond repeal as those of mathematics. Thus the "best" has to adapt itself to the "true." But the "true" belongs exclusively to the domain of reason. In this respect the so-called empirical truths differ in no wise from the a priori truths. They, too, are imposed upon man with inexorable compulsion. Our knowledge is, of course, still at the lowest stage of evolution, and the cognitio intuitiva, tertium genus cognitionis (intuitive cognition, the third kind of cognition) is so far only the ideal of human achievement. But this does not in the least diminish or reduce the sovereign rights of scientific cognition. "In its ideal perfection it would be reason itself, which can have no other authority by its side or over it." These words are from Husserl, but are an almost word for word translation of the passage quoted by me from Spinoza's Letter LXXVI. And does this not mean that the "best" is entirely subjected to the rule and disposition of the "true"?

     Hering does not observe this. He asks, and obviously quite sincerely: "Then why not quietly admit that under certain circumstances even the scientific philosopher can find his necessary spiritual food in religious revelation, experience and tradition?" Why not admit that? Simply because it would mean evading a fundamental question. And I repeat once again that Husserl, the creater of phenomenology founded on self-evidence, will never agree to the compromise which Hering proposes; this would be for him tantamount to giving up the task which he had set himself. Not to make an unsupported statement, I will give another quotation from Husserl: "Self-evidence is not in fact a sort of index of consciousness attached to a judgment, calling to us, like a mystic voice from another world, 'here is the truth!', as though such a voice had something to say to us free spirits, and had not to prove its title." This is how Husserl answers any attempt at interference with judgments, with the verdict of reason. And if tradition, whether that of the church or another, personal "experience," or what is called revealed truth, tried to raise their voices, would he not ask from them what he calls their "titles" - what the Roman jurists called justus titulus? And is it not then quite clear that the cause of revelation must be regarded as hopelessly lost at the forum of reason? Perhaps it is rather less clear, but it is equally indubitable that Husserl's task, like Spinoza's, lies precisely in eradicating from human consciousness all remnants and remains of the belief that there could be any lawful sources of cognition at all outside reason. In this he sees the necessary presupposition of free inquiry ("for us free spirits"). This conviction is certainly not new. It was not Husserl who evolved it, and not Spinoza. Perhaps it has existed as long as there has been a philosophy, for philosophy has always wanted to be a rational philosophy, and rational inquiry has always passed for free inquiry. Revelation must justify itself before reason, otherwise no one would ever trouble about it. Even God Himself, insofar as He claims the predicate of existence, must apply to reason in respect, precisely, of that predicate. And reason may give it Him, or it may - and this is more likely - refuse.

Orphus system

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