spinozaFor the last week I have been in the midst of a terrible cold and grading, both of which have conspired to make me exceedingly grumpy and do little more than sleep. In these conditions there is, as Spinoza recognized, a tendency of the mind to lash out against things unrelated to the efficient cause of the illness. As Spinoza puts it in proposition 13 of part III of the Ethics, “When the mind thinks of those things that diminish or check the body’s power of activity, it endeavors, as far as it can, to call to mind those things that exclude the existence of the former.” In and of itself, this wouldn’t be a problem if it led to things such as resting, taking vitamins, and taking medicine.

However, as Spinoza points out in the first two postulates of part III of the Ethics, 1) “The human body can be affected in many ways by which its power of activity is increased or diminished; and also in many other ways, which neither increase nor diminish its power of activity” and 2) “The human body can undergo many changes and nevertheless retain impressions or traces of objects and consequently the same images of things.” It is the phenomena described by the second postulate that gives rise to problems where our relation to the world is concerned. Spinoza contends that,

…our approach to the understanding of the nature of things of every kind should likewise be one and the same; namely, through the universal laws and rules of Nature. Therefore the emotions of hatred, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow the same necessity and force of Nature as all other particular things. So these emotions are assignable to definite causes through which they can be understood, and have definite properties, equally deserving of our investigation as the properties of any other thing, whose mere contemplation affords us pleasure. (Preface, Part III)

While it is indeed the case that, as Spinoza argues, the mind and emotions are not something outside of nature and independent of nature, following no laws of nature, the traces or impressions left on the body through its various encounters with objects introduces an additional level of causal complication to the functioning of mind (as Freud noted so well in his early Project essay and “Notes on a Mystic Writing Pad”), preventing us from positing a one to one cause and effect relation between objects and how a body reacts to objects. Rather, the interaction between the body and object passes through the network of traces left in the body, complicating the response to the encounter with the object. This, in part, would account for why we so often are ignorant of the efficient cause of our passions. No doubt this explains, in part, why Deleuze was so profoundly interested in Bergson’s theory of memory and the psychoanalytic conception of the unconscious, where the latter is composed of “writing” or traces.

hitchcock_vertigo_2Roughly speaking, the problem then arises from the fact that objects can resemble one another while having very different causal properties in relation to the body. Thus, on the one hand, Spinoza remarks that “the mind, as far as it can, endeavors to think of those things that increase or assist the body’s power of activity” (Prop 12, Part III). In a state of sickness we can hypothesize that the mind strives to conceive of those things that would increase or enhance the body’s power of acting. However, because the sickness resides in the body, the mind casts about for some way to externalize this sickness. Thus, as Spinoza puts it a bit later, “from the mere fact that we imagine a thing to have something similar to an object that is wont to affect the mind with pleasure or pain, we shall love it or hate it, although the point if similarity is not the efficient cause of these emotions” (Prop. 16, Part III). Here, then, we would have an account of why the ill are often led to lash out at those about them. What takes place is that those about them are treated as the efficient cause of their sad passions, such that the mind endeavors to destroy this mistaken cause so as to return to health. If this externalization of the cause takes place, then this is in a vain attempt to gain some mastery or control over that which causes the pain in the sickness. Such is an elaborate rationalization for grumpiness when in a state of sickness. It is odd how everything in the world begins to look menacing and like an assault when the mind is in a fog and the body aches (here, perhaps, it would be appropriate to look at Heidegger’s account of affects and how they color the world).

All of this aside, I was pleasantly surprised as I read over the final quizzes of my students this morning. The theme of my intro courses this semester was God, the infinite, and religion. Over the course of the semester we read Lucretius, Leibniz, and Spinoza. Now, living outside of Dallas, Texas I am in the heart of the apocalyptic Christian fundamentalist movement, so I had some worries about teaching Lucretius and Spinoza. At the end of the semester I always give my students a few questions that pertain to their experience of the readings. On the one hand, I ask them which philosopher they found most interesting and why. On the other hand, I ask them to name at least one idea, argument, or concept that challenged their beliefs in some way without necessarily leading them to endorse the particular position in question. Much to my surprise the students were nearly unanimous in claiming that they found Spinoza to be the most interesting of the philosophers we studied. Again and again they remarked that they had never entertained the thought of God and nature being one and the same thing, that God creates all that God can create by virtue of his infinity and nature as absolute affirmation (unlike Leibniz’s God that chooses among worlds), and that God does not act according to purposes or goals.

While most of the students did not come to endorse Spinoza’s position (which is not the aim of the course, anyway), most of the students remarked that the course readings had led them to significantly revise their religious beliefs, and a number of the students remarked that they would never again be able to think of natural disasters as punishments from God or think of prayer as a way of gaining favor from God. One very devout student put it nicely, remarking that where before he thought of the aim of prayer as gaining benefit from prayer, he now saw the value of prayer as pertaining to the person himself, engaged in prayer (e.g., prayer leads one to meditate on the ways in which they are fortunate, to resolve internal conflicts, to meditate on solutions to their various problems, etc). In addition to this, a number of the students remarked that they no longer saw the study of nature and their religion as being in conflict to one another. However, what pleased me most as how many students expressed admiration for the rigor and clarity of Spinoza’s argumentation. Having struggled over questions of the way in which reason gets imbricated with the passions for years, this, above all, shocked me given the cultural context in which I teach.

Back to grading.