Today, my last day in Amsterdam, I finally made it to the monument unveiled last year honoring Baruch de Spinoza. Since the talk I gave at the ISSRNC conference here was on immanence (specifically, Charles Taylor’s concept of the ‘immanent frame’ and William Connolly’s and others’ immanent naturalism), there was no way around visiting the eminent philosopher of immanence himself.
The bronze monument stands in front of the city hall and at the entrance to the old Jewish Quarter in which Spinoza grew up (he was born in Amsterdam to a family of Sephardic Jewish refugees from Spain). Spinoza’s back is to one the tree-lined canals floating to the Amstel, and a few feet away from him is an icosahedron, a 20-faced geometric form that refers to the geometrical method that informed his philosophy. The coat he is wearing features several birds — rose-ringed parakeets and sparrows, the former being bright green birds that are exotic to Amsterdam and that first settled in the nearby Vondelpark, the latter a diminishing native breed — and roses, which apparently symbolize Spinoza, whose name means “thorn” in Portuguese, but which to my mind also represent the love that infused his philosophical writings. A thorn in the side of authoritarians (the text on the base of the statue is a rather optimistic quote from Spinoza, “The purpose of the State is freedom”), Spinoza preached democracy, tolerance, freedom of thought and expression, a monism which he opposed to Cartesian mind-body dualism, and an immanent naturalism that equated nature with God, for which he was excommunicated from his synagogue and his books banned by the Catholic church. The Spinoza Monument Publication quotes his words in its dedication of the statue: “Gratitude or thankfulness is love’s desire or endeavor to do good to someone who has done us a service out of an equal love affect.”
Earlier this year, local artists along with the Amsterdam Spinoza Circle put on a series of events in his honor, including performances, installations, discussions, a series of posters exhibited around the city, and more, under the title My Name is Spinoza. I can’t think of a more appropriate place to do that than friendly, liberal, multicultural Amsterdam, which no matter how thoroughly humanized its nature may be, is a place that, with its famous tolerance for the virtues and vices of human nature, well reflects Spinoza’s sentiment that you can’t hate nature. That said, incidents of intolerance have marred the city’s and country’s reputation recently, but they seem, from my brief visit and the reading I’ve done while here, like exceptions to a general rule of getting along, parakeets and sparrows and all, infused by a love of knowledge and of life.
Spinoza has been rediscovered repeatedly, more recently by post-Marxist political theorists like Althusser, Deleuze, and Negri in the 1960s and 1870s, but also, as I’ve discussed here, by deep ecology founder Arne Naess and, a little later, by anti-Cartesian neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. While the world has caught up with him, to some degree, in its political liberalism, his non-Cartesianism represents, to many, the philosophical path not taken — until now, perhaps, as mind-body dualism winds its way down and is replaced by a more subtle understanding of how thinking, feeling, and bodily affects interact to produce the relations that constitute us.