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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Joy and Sorrow: Emotions?...Affects?...None of the Above?

Our second salon to spin off Spinoza kicked off 2013 for wine women and philosophy members this past Thursday, and a joyful experience it was too. This was fortuitous, given that half of the evening was devoted to the topic of joy...The other half revolving around joy's more sober relation, sorrow, which impacted our understanding of joy if not our communal mood. It was good to get the old wheels turning again with our valued 'veteran' members. It was good to welcome new members into our midst and benefit from their energy and insight. It was good, in short, to be back in the salon saddle.

We began the evening with one of those questions we return to every so often..."What is philosophy for you today?" The responses always inspire us, enabling us to build upon our ongoing conception of what philosophy is and how it can enhance our lives. They also affirm for us that the way we engage with philosophy at wwp is helping to break philosophy out of the elitist and exclusive packaging that all too often surrounds it. That philosophy is seen by our members as a creative and experimental activity - as an exciting route into both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences that make us and the events we live through what they are - is reassuring news indeed.

Then it was time to draw on some of those experiences: opening our discussion of joy and sorrow with moments of one or the other that had come over us during the holiday season - a time that often triggers these contrasting states on the emotional spectrum. Having established that though frequently seen as opposites, the line between joy and sorrow can be thin, we looked into whether the word 'emotion' should even be applied to joy and sorrow: exploring first, through the 'Emotions Game,' just how easy a wide range of emotions are to recognize in others; examining next, through Aaron Ben Ze'ev's tautology of a 'typical' emotion, whether joy and sorrow actually qualify. Happily, the jury was out on the matter - confirming that good philosophy is more about dissensus than consensus. Our lack of agreement over joy's and sorrow's respective statuses as emotions also provided an excellent segue into Spinoza's contribution to the evening's procedings: both in terms of his celebration of thinking as an action designed to free us from conformity of thought, and in his positing of joy and sorrow not as emotions but as affects - that is, as energy-charged passages between greater or lesser states of being rather than as states in and of themselves.

For Spinoza, our movement towards joy and our movement away from sorrow are key to living pleasurably and freely, without pain and without fetters. For Spinoza, everything hinges on how we 'manage' these two affects: for manage them we can, using good clear thinking ('adequate' ideas) to bring us closer to who we truly are, and by extension, to joy; rejecting the kind of 'sad' same-old-same-old thinking that stunts our ability to grow and thrive, and by extension, drowns us in sorrow. Within this equation - and an equation it certainly was, Spinoza's whole Ethics emerging out of a mathematical approach to working things out reminiscent of Euclidean Geometry - our ability to act increases with joy, decreases with sorrow. And to act, for Spinoza, is paramount to living well: acting (or thinking) our way to greater perfection - to being more 'real,' more true to our nature - falling within the affective realm of joy; failure to act (or think) leading to a state of lesser perfection, and with it, a tumble in the affective realm of sorrow. Naturally, this being the reasoning of the greatest Rationalist philosopher of them all, it is better to strive for active joy - that is, joy that you actively think yourself into, and hence is of yourself - than passive joy, which is dependant on an object beyond yourself, and hence might better be understood as a passion. Given that freedom of mind and spirit for as many people as possible is the ultimate good for Spinoza, it is easy to see how the joy you make for yourself is a better bet by his reckoning than the joy that depends on some other thing or self.

Thinking joy and sorrow through a Spinozian lens led us to re-think the link between joy and sorrow - pulling out the old construction paper, coloured pens and cellotape in true back-to-school fashion and creating joy/sorrow connections in the form of flip-side bracelets, edge-defying Mobius Strips, and experiments with the fold. If these latter jettisoned us out of Spinoza's monist universe (everything is an expression of one single Substance) and three centuries on in time into post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze's 'Origami Cosmos' - more on this next time! - it also served as a bridge between these two philosophers. For Deleuze saw Spinoza as a "Prince" among philosophers, and was hugely influenced by his emphasis on active, affecting bodies when it came to evolving his own version of a 'doing' philosophy. Incidentally, Einstein too was a fan of Spinoza...A point that was not lost on us as the evening drew to an end and with it, considerable confusion over which boots belonged to whom. An indication of Einstein's brilliance, it has been said, lay in his inability to tie his own shoes. An indication of our members' brilliance, it follows, must lie in them going home in each others' boots.

It was an evening of intense and joyful thinking. It was an evening of which Spinoza would have no doubt approved. Thank you to all who participated. We look forward to seeing you again on February 21, when we take a flying leap into Spinoza's provocative conception of desire and appetite.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza into the Realm of Joy and Sorrow

This Thursday - January 10 - will see wwp salon members coming together to consider those oft-twinned states of being, joy and sorrow. One aspect of our communal task on this first salon evening of 2013 is to grapple with a number of different ways that joy and sorrow have been philosophically positioned - as personal feelings, as unruly passions, as passages between greater and lesser states of perfection, as impersonal affects...to name just several of those ways! Another is to examine why joy and sorrow are so readily twinned - probing not only the relationship between joy and sorrow, but the nature of the connection and its relevance to our own lives. Yet another task is to continue our exploration of Baruch Spinoza -  a 17th Century philosopher whose unconventional approach to ethics hinged on joy and sorrow, and around whom this year's salon series revolves.

At our December salon we embarked on our journey of getting to know Spinoza...For those of you who attended, this quick recap can serve as a post-holiday season refresher. For those of you who weren't able to make it out to our introductory session, let's hope it whets your whistle!

Born in the relatively tolerant city of Amsterdam in 1632 to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in Portugal, Baruch Spinoza was a solemn and thoughtful if unusually questioning student - quietly challenging his teachers at the Hebrew school he attended when ideas presented as 'written in stone' struck him as illogical or inconsistent; leaving formal education at the age of 16 to pursue private studies with some 'free thinkers' of the time when his views about God and the Torah began to conflict too radically with the 'Truth' as presented by those responsible for his education. Accused of betraying Judaism and labelled a heretic, he was ex-communicated in his early twenties for basically, believing in nothing - notably waiting until after the death of his father (his mother had died when he was six) before going public with his reasoned deduction that "God is nothing but nature" and that "there is no world-to-come after death" so as to spare his parents the shame and humiliation that his stance, not to mention his ex-communication, would provoke. As philosophers go, Spinoza was unconventional in that philosophy was his pastime - his job as a lens-grinder providing him with his income as well as precipitating his early death from TB at the age of 44. Given the scandal that bubbled around him in life and the blacklisting of his small body of work that dogged him for centuries after his death, it is incongruous that his motto was 'caution' and his general countenance private and unassuming.

These details of Spinoza's life and the background against which it unfolded - a Europe caught between a Papist reign of terror that saw tens of thousands of Jews either killed or forced to convert to Catholicism and a dawning of the Enlightenment era characterized by rapid scientific advances and the rise of rationalist thought - were unpacked through a lively Q&A session. Bridging the life of the man with the ideas that made Spinoza what Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in her fabulously insightful and highly readable Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006), terms "the first modern Jew," we grappled with one of the tasks Goldstein sets for herself in her book: reconciling Spinoza's extraordinarily rationalist and impersonal philosophy with our personal interest in him!

Moving on, then, to the philosophy itself, we picked up on Spinoza's central concept of conatus - that is, a thing's special commitment to itself, or more simply, each individual's drive for self-preservation - to begin our look at what constitutes a 'Self'. Some small group exercises enabled us to come up with our own lists of what it is to be a Self. We compared our lists to Spinoza's list, which eshews those traditional markers of identity such as religion and ethnicity (markers which Spinoza sees as mere "accidents" of identity assigned us by history, and thus nothing more than passive yet deeply divisive impediments to creating a world made up of truly ethical Selves) in favour of a Self defined by rigourous and logical thinking - by rational activity alone. We experimented with stepping outside of our selves in order to cultivate a Spinozian Self and with it, what Spinoza sees as our place of ultimate salvation - that is, a place with a "View from Nowhere."

Pictorial depictions of what we and other things look like from this 'place' - should it be understood as a utopia? a dystopia? an atopia? none of the above? - were attempted, and briefly discussed. We are holding on to these artistic representations and plan to return to them as our understanding of Spinoza expands over the coming months. In the meantime, our task over the holiday break was to make note of those moments where joy or sorrow crept up upon us or completely overtook us or never even made an appearance...Stay tuned as we Spin off Spinoza for a second time.