The species of whale hunted by Ahab, in other words, lives and moves in the elements of humanity’s deepest thoughts, in its material and social life, and in its connections to the planet. Ahab’s defiance of the whale and everything it stands for, then, emerges as a terrifying rage against the necessity of his own existence as a being who thinks. Over the course of the novel, it becomes increasingly clear that Ahab’s rage depends precisely on what it seeks to destroy. As his first mate Starbuck eventually warns him: “let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.”4Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Third Norton Critical Edition, edited by Hershel Parker (New York and London: WW Norton & Co, 2017), p.347 (chapter 109). Ahab’s effort to use all his mind and strength to kill the whale and its idea turns him into his own adversary and endangers the crew. The more he rages, the more he demonstrates the supremacy of the whale’s existence and how it will always elude capture.
Ahab’s rage is what Spinoza in his Ethics calls an “inadequate idea”: the rage against thinking is, despite itself, a demonstration of the necessity of thinking. An inadequate idea is a privation of—a disavowal or negation of, an opposition to—the very existential and conceptual relations upon which it depends for its intelligibility and reality.5Spinoza, “Ethics”, Book II, Proposition 35. Each of us has a fascist little Ahab within us that lurks in our frustrations, but we cannot help but try to overcome those frustrations as best we can—and with the help of comrades—by being more like a whale swimming freely in relation to all things and whose misty spouts push rainbows into the sky.6Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, ch. 85.
Spinoza’s “ontological argument” demonstrates that any act of thinking therapeutically softens the fixations that block the intelligibility of our relations to ourselves, each other and the world. Thinking persists in relation to all things, and it persists even in the friction of its own inadequate ideas.
This brings me to my second addition to Frim and Fluss’s list of claims:
9. Monism requires the subordination of philosophy to the needs of social struggles.
If not just having an idea, but thinking itself is necessary, then meaning is always open, developing, and never stuck or stalled on any particular expression or piece of jargon. Identities are relational, social and transitional. Efforts can be combined, discourses and languages can be translated into each other and can amplify each other. This means that if philosophers (or other specialists, academics, authorities, and so on) seek in some way to impose their jargon and concerns as dogmatic monologues onto others, they slip into the “close-coiled woe” of a captain Ahab who works a crew that is willing to support his inadequate ideas and their frustrations.7Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, p. 388 (ch. 132). See also ch. 41. Efforts to reduce thought to specific discourses and representations, even those regarding “monism” itself, are thus oppressive and self-defeating because people cannot help but continue thinking and rethinking .
Spinoza points out the above in many ways and places, one of which is in his Theological-Political Treatise, where he develops his ground-breaking approach to reading the Bible historically.8Baruch Spinoza, Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Edited by Jonathan Israel. Translated by Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2007). See especially chapter 13. He observes that since the Bible is written by diverse authors working across a wide range of historical times and places, and since the Bible is addressed not to learned experts (philosophers or theologians) but to common people, divine revelation in the Bible can have meaning only if it is about the necessity of free thought and interpretation, and thus about the necessity of the critique of moralistic, authoritarian power.
The simple, universally accessible divine revelation expressed in the Bible, in Spinoza’s view, is the action of loving the neighbour as oneself by practicing justice and charity. Spinoza reasons that full and adequate knowledge of, and obedience to, God—or to the highest thought philosophers can comprehend or intuit—is indistinguishable from ethical action, the practice of justice and charity. From a Spinozan perspective, the Bible is a collection of diverse voices from different contexts that try to argue for, think through, imaginatively inspire, study and strengthen action that resists the Ahabs in our world and in ourselves.9Hermann Melville, Moby-Dick, ch. 128, tells of Ahab’s encounter on the seas with Captain Gardiner of the Rachel whale ship who begged Ahab to help him find find his 12 year old boy who was feared lost at sea:
Meantime, now the stranger was still beseeching his poor boon of Ahab, and Ahab still stood like an anvil, receiving every shock, but without the least quivering of his own. “I will not go,” said the stranger, “till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do to you in the like case. For you too have a boy … Yes, yes, you relent; I see it—run, run, men, now, and stand by to square in the yards. “Avast,” cried Ahab—”touch not a rope-yarn;” then in a voice that prolongingly moulded every word—”Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good bye.” (p.382).
This implies that our discourses, including those of philosophy and religion, must be—indeed cannot but be—subordinate to the demands of ethical action. It also means that ethical action is never subordinate to or necessarily dependent upon this or that preferred or authoritative discourse. This is an ontological claim, meaning that if we can think anything at all, ethics necessarily comes before our preferred discourse on the intelligibility of our ideas or knowledge.
Such ethics are a critique of the subordination of experience and desires to dogmatic and abstract ideas. Even when people feed the Ahab inside themselves and others by clinging to certain ideas and reifying them in a desire for closed and fixed relationships, they cannot explain those ideas adequately without breaking them down, clarifying them, rewording them, unpacking them, demystifying them, socializing them, and thus presupposing and positing the very relationships they resist. Ideas cannot adequately be thought without their living conceptual content overcoming the dead shell of abstraction and reification.