spinozaFor the last two semesters I have been teaching, after previous failed attempts, Part 1 and Part 3 of Spinoza’s Ethics in my Intro to Philosophy courses. Much to my surprise compared to previous experience, it has been a pleasure to teach this text this time around. In the past, I think, the failure of my attempts to teach it was due to starting at the very beginning. Jumping straight into the Ethics from page 1 is very likely doomed to failure as Spinoza gives no overarching account as to what he’s attempting to do, but rather simply assaults his reader with a series of definitions and propositions without explaining why he’s beginning where he’s beginning or what he wishes to demonstrate. The trick is to instead begin with the appendix to Part 1. On the one hand, the first sentence of Part 1 summarizes what he believes he has demonstrated about the nature of God, while the remainder of the appendix– a beautiful critique of superstition –outlines the consequences that follow from this understanding of God and God’s relationship to its creatures. In this way the reader is given something like a thesis, helping to guide him through the text.

This semester, rather than teaching Spinoza at the end of the semester, I chose to begin with the Ethics. In part I chose to do this because Spinoza– even where he fails –give such a gorgeous model of deductive argument coupled with careful explanation. One of the things I find about my students is that they simply don’t know what an argument is. Beginning with Spinoza would therefore give me the opportunity to discuss the nature of argument, the distinction between inductive and deductive arguments, the relationship between premises and conclusions, what it means to make inferences, and so on. Spinoza’s thought is particularly suited to this end not only stylistically (his famous “geometric method” where the relationship between premises and conclusions is clearly laid out), but also in the sheer integrity of his thought. By “integrity” I am here referring to something like “deductive fidelity”, where one sides not with intuition or “common sense”, but with what is deductively entailed by the premises of ones arguments. Take the example of Spinoza’s infamous parallelism. Clearly parallelism or the idea that the order and connection among thought is the same as the order and connection among objects is a deeply counter-intuitive view. However, Spinoza is led to this position by claims he has already demonstrated in Part 1, namely the lack of anything in common between different attributes. Rather than hedging and claiming that thought can affect bodies and bodies can affect thought, Spinoza squarely accepts the implications of his claims about attributes and develops its implications (I do not, of course, endorse Spinoza’s parallelism, but nonetheless admire his deductive fidelity).

read on!

187772-15-turbulence-a-birds-eye-viewAnother reason I have chosen Spinoza’s Ethics is that it is such an exotic metaphysics. Spinoza makes a number of highly counter-intuitive claims about the nature of God and the world. From a pedagogical perspective this is extremely valuable in an Intro course. The aim of an Intro course, I think, should not be to convince the student of a particular philosophical position– though I think it’s important to present each philosopher as strongly as possible –but rather to introduce a sort of void into the thought of the student. Here I am deeply influenced by Feyerabend’s discussions of the value of alternative worlds in science. When the scientist creates an imaginary or fictional world where everything happens differently (objects fall up, things blip in and out of existence, objects are not temporally continuous but are events that exist only for an infinitesimal instant, etc) the value of this is absurd exercise is two-fold: 1) First, it brings into relief the scientist’s own assumptions about the nature of the world, and 2) it creates a quest for grounds (“why do things happen this way rather than the way they happen in my imaginary world?). In short, the commonplace becomes problematized, such that it requires explanation. A philosophy such as that we find in Spinoza or Leibniz is so strange and exotic with respect to our commonplace understanding of the world that it comes to serve a heuristic function by calling that world into question and leading the student to both make their own positions explicit and seek grounds for that position in response to the strange world of the philosopher. Rather that being patients of unconscious assumptions, the student becomes [hopefully] an agent of their own claims. Recently I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a beloved student from four or five years ago to whom precisely this had happened. He had begun my course as a very religious man, deeply involved with his church. This did not change over the course of the semester, nor should it be the aim of a philosophy class. However, this student was so shaken by the challenges of the course that he went on to pursue advanced degrees in philosophy of religion, developing arguments so that he might better defend his positions. This, I think, is success. The issue here wasn’t whether the student came to advocate my positions or the positions of the philosopher’s we studied, but rather that of how the student came to discover his own positions, to become an agent of those positions, engaging in the activity of seeking grounds for his claims and being transformed by the grounds that he discovers. Something like this, I think, is the highest achievement that can be hoped for in the philosophy classroom… Not interpellating other individuals, but rather opening a space where other individuals might get a little further along in developing their own thought.

milkywayAt any rate, after four weeks of class, we have just now arrived at proposition 1 of the Ethics (the first week was devoted to basic technical concepts of philosophy, two weeks to the appendix with an ice day mixed in, and the last week to the definitions and axioms). One of the things I’ve found most amusing in my interactions with Graham and in observing Graham interacting with others– especially Kevin –is just how viscerally he reacts to Spinoza. When a philosopher reacts this strongly to the positions of another philosopher it’s a fair bet that the stakes are high and fundamental. And indeed, in the case of Graham’s ontology, this would certainly be true, for if Spinoza is such a prime target, then this is because, in many respects, Spinoza is the anti-thesis of Graham’s object-oriented philosophy. Where Graham asserts the independence of objects almost to the point of madness (philosophical madness being a sign of deductive fidelity in my book), Spinoza is the great thinker of the One, where objects are not independent but are rather affections of the One substance. What we have here, then, is a sort of fault-line in philosophy between the One-All and the radical independence of objects. In the spirit of the Clark/Leibniz debate over motion, we could call this particularly fault-line the Spinoza/Leibniz debate. Here the debate centers on whether there is one substance (Spinoza) or an infinity of substances (Leibniz). Graham, of course, would be the neo-Leibnizian, which is not to say he adopts Leibniz’s particular metaphysics, but rather that his ontological commitment is to that of a radical pluralism of substance. It is worth noting that philosophers, above all, need their rivals. These rival positions function as a fertile soil from which concepts, arguments, and positions are developed, introducing a fundamental instability into ones thought that perpetually haunts it, spurring it on to develop further. There are few things worse for a philosopher than the loss of a sophisticated and serious rival (as opposed to trollish defenders of commonplaces against a philosophy as in the case of those critics of idealism that invited idealists to jump off a building).

image241Paradoxically, the strength of Spinoza’s thought is also its great weakness. Because of the deductive structure of Spinoza’s thought and the interdependence among the propositions where propositions demonstrated earlier in the Ethics function as premises for later arguments, Spinoza is particularly prone to defeat at the early stages of his arguments. On the one hand, if something is amiss with the definitions and axioms of Part 1 of the Ethics, it is difficult for the remainder of his argument to get off the ground as these definitions and axioms are the ultimate premises of his argument. On the other hand, Spinoza’s metaphysics is particularly prone in propositions 1 through 5 in Part 1, for it is here that the entire groundwork for all his subsequent claims is accomplished. In particular, if one concedes Spinoza’s argument for proposition 5– “there cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute” –the entire game is up. After establishing this claim Spinoza will beat the reader over the head with it again and again, demonstrating, among other things, that one substance cannot produce another substance (because things that have nothing in common cannot cause one another), that one substance cannot limit another substance (because they would have to share the same attribute and would therefore be the same substance), that substance must, therefore, necessarily be infinite, that substance must be eternal or self-caused, that nothing can compel substance to act beyond itself (as this would require another substance with the same attribute), and so on. Proposition 5 is, at the end of the day, the germinal seed from which Spinoza’s entire metaphysics unfolds. After demonstrating 5 it’s simply a matter of working through the implications or entailments that follow from this proposition.

However, rather than tackling Spinoza at proposition 5– if one is so inclined –perhaps it is better to start a bit earlier. In proposition 1p1 Spinoza makes the modest and rather obvious claim that “substance is, by nature, prior to its affections.” It is noteworthy that Spinoza has not yet here made any claims as to how many substances exists. He simply alludes to a necessary– in his view –feature of any substance should substances exist regardless of whether there are one or many substances. Traditionally (Spinoza will take the concept in a very different direction), of course, when we speak of substance we are not speaking of matter, but rather of any independent individual thing. Under this rather loose, problematic, and ill defined concept of substance, a substance would just be any individual thing. God would be a substance, you would be a substance, rocks would be substances, souls would be substances, angels would be substances. More rigorously, Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and exists through itself; that is, the existence of which does not require the existence of another thing to be formed” (1d3, modified). Here, I think, Spinoza stacks the deck in his favor with his definition of substance. That is, by defining substance as what exists in and through itself, it is clear that only one thing can fit this definition: the universe taken as a totality. But I’ll set that point aside. It could be that he is simply taking the established definition of substance to its logical conclusion.

When Spinoza speaks of “affections”, he is referring to modes, or “that which exists in and through another; or that which is an affection [modification] of a substance” (1d5). In short, affections or modes refer to qualities, properties, or predicates of substances. When Spinoza claims that substance is, by nature, prior to its affections, he is not making a claim about time. In other words, the relationship between substances and affections asserted in this proposition is not a temporal relationship of succession wherein first substance exists and then modes or affections come along. Rather, Spinoza is making a claim about logical dependence. The point here is that in order for something to count as an affection or quality, it must be an affection or quality of something. Brown (an affection) cannot just float about on its own, but rather must be in something else: hair, a table, tree bark, etc. All affections, then, are properties of substance. And this claim, Spinoza, follows directly from definitions 3 (substance) and definition 5 (mode).

If Spinoza finds it important to begin the Ethics with this proposition, then this is because ultimately he will show that there is only one substance. Proposition 1 implies that there are only two ways of existing: Something is either a substance or a mode. Alternatively, something either exists in and through itself or it exists in and through another. Consequently, if it is demonstrated that there is only one and exactly one substance in all of being, it would follow that all other things must be affections or modes of this one substance, rather than substances in their own right. Consequently, proposition 1 foreshadows Spinoza’s monism.

Now, there are, no doubt, well founded intuitions behind Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between substance and affections. When, taking the concept of substance in its traditional sense as any individual that exists in its own right, we notice that affections of any object or individual change, while the object is still the same object, we are led to the conclusion that there must be something about objects that is in excess to their qualities. That is, if the qualities of an object can change while the object remains the same object, it follows that the object cannot be reduced to its affections (or seems to follow). I am the same Levi as I was at the age of three despite the fact that I have undergone radical changes at the level of my qualities– my shape has changed, my hair has become curly and a little gray, I have more hair and in odd places, cognitively I am very different, etc. If, then, I am a substance (and Spinoza will conclude I’m not), there must be something about my being as a substance that cannot be found among my qualities, modes, or affections.

However, as we reflect on Spinoza’s notion of substance as presented in proposition 1, we find that some rather odd consequences follow from this relation between substance and affections. In particular, in claiming that substance is, by nature, prior to its affections, Spinoza seems to imply that substance can be what it is without any affections whatsoever. What else would it mean to say that substance remains the same while its affections change? This point seems confirmed in proposition 1p5 where Spinoza claims that there cannot exist two substances with the same attribute; for in the demonstration of this all important proposition, Spinoza excludes the possibility of individuating or distinguishing substance from another substance through the modes or affections of that substance. In short, Spinoza seems necessarily committed to the view that affectionless substances are possible. Admittedly he here has some wiggle room, for while it might be possible to conceive a substance that is completely independent of its affections, substances are, nonetheless, defined by their attributes. Yet here again we seem to encounter the same problem. For we can ask ourselves just what it would mean to think an attribute without any affections. Put otherwise, we run afoul of the whole problem of a bare substratum.

nude_no2Now it is clear that how things shake out with respect to substance is going to be of crucial importance to any object-oriented ontology. Spinoza is not an object-oriented philosopher not because he isn’t a realist– he is –but because he doesn’t affirm the independence of objects, but treats them as affections of substance. In order to qualify as an object-oriented ontology (and it could turn out that object-oriented ontologies are just wrong and horribly confused), it is necessary to affirm a pluralism of substances or that there are many independent substances. Likewise, Kant’s thought cannot qualify as an object-oriented ontologist because for him substance is not things, but is rather a category imposed by mind upon things like Badiou’s operations of the count-as-one. You could then have conservative and radical Kantians. The former would claim that substances may exist independently of mind but that we cannot know whether this is the case, while the latter would claim that while something besides mind exists in its own right it certainly cannot be substances as substance is merely a category imposed by mind on a manifold of intuition somehow produced through this radical alterity affecting our minds. Graham argues that substances exist in their own right and are absolutely independent, but only as infinitely withdrawn, leading one to wonder (or leading me to wonder, anyway) whether these vacuum packed substances are not bare substrata without any internal differences of their own. Latour, by contrast, individuates entities or substances as temporal instants or events, each of which is a unique and singular individual independent of all the others. I think there are a number of assumptions about the nature of time or duration here that are problematic. Finally, I am inclined to argue that substances are nothing but their affections related together as a sort of time-space worm in irreversible time. In other words, I am inclined to reject Spinoza’s definition of substance from the get-go, along with his conception of the relationship between substance and affections, instead seeing substance as an unfolding process in which each succeeding moment is related to its prior moment. This, of course, requires me to give an account of how objects or substances achieve closure or some degree of autonomy or independence from other objects, as well as the principles presiding over relations among affections (I presume these principles will differ depending on the sort of object or substance being considered).