Spinoza


As is so often the case during breaks, my brain has all but fallen out of my ear and I’ve been in a bit of a dark malaise. I’ve spent the last week reading Badiou’s Logics of Worlds, Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (I’m about halfway through at the part where Half-Cocked Jack and Eliza meet Leibniz), sleeping in, eating, and doing a whole lot of nothing. I really have to get myself in action this week and start getting things done.

DSC01129Malaise aside, I have been getting some nice gardening done. The other day I turned over all the soil so roots could grow better, and, in my ongoing battle with wabbits, I put in a ring of marigolds about the perimeter to drive them away. So far this strategy seems to be working as I haven’t seen any hanging out in my backyard since.DSC01130 In addition to keeping the wabbits out, I think they look terrific as well.

DSC01131My tomatoes are beginning to come in which is very exciting. In addition to that my four cucumber plants are beginning to flower like crazy, so there’s a good chance I’ll be inundated with cukes. The situation is much the same with my pepper plants. I planted about seven different varieties of peppers, using both seeds and pre-grown plants.

Much to my surprise between seventeen and twenty plants popped out of the ground, so with any luck I’ll be crushed under the weight of habaneros, jalapenos, poblanos, serranos, a couple varieties of bells, cherry peppers and who knows what else. Who knew that you could just put plants in the ground and they’d start producing stuff?DSC01132 If you look carefully– I know the pictures are fuzzy –you can see a couple of tomatoes on one of my plants.

DSC01133I even have a nice harvest of lettuce and herbs that are just about ready, and my very first pepper (a cherry pepper) has appeared (visible at the very bottom of the page)! I have no idea what non-pickled cherry peppers might taste like, but I’m keen to find out.DSC01134

Perhaps I should give up this philosophy and theory stuff altogether and just open a vegetable stand along the side of the road somewhere. After all, being the great fan I am of Epicurus and Lucretius it seems like a good idea to follow their advice of tending to ones garden. Of course, that’ll never happen.

If I find the time and motivation this week I’d like to write a post on the role that the concept of chaos plays in the history of philosophy and contemporary thought and another post on Badiou’s Logics of Worlds. Whether we are speaking of the creation myth in the Bible, the myth of the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus, or chaos in Deleuze, Badiou, and any number of phenomenologists, there seems to be a marked tendency of thought to conceive the materiality of matter as a sort of pure chaotic flux without any internal structuring– or as Graham has put it “formatting” –principle within it. Following an Aristotlean protocol– though a protocol already present in the thought of Plato and perhaps even Parmenides –it seems as if matter is ineluctably conceived only in its negative, as the absence of form. This generates the entire problem or question of how form is generated or how matter comes to be “form-atted”. And, of course, because matter has already been conceived as formlessness, as the un-form-atted, as that which is without in-form-ation, the principle of form must come from elsewhere or outside of matter.

Just as we have the Little Dipper and the Big Dipper in the domain of stellar phenomena, where the question of in-form-ation emerges, we inevitably get either the Big Demiurge or the Little Demiurge as the principle or source of form. In other words, this model of matter or the materiality of matter comes to require reference to a transcendence to account for the genesis of form. In the case of the Big Demiurge, this would, of course, be the theological conception of God imposing order on the pure chaotic materiality of being. In the case of the Little Demiurge, this source of in-form-ation would be a subject of some sort, whether of the Kantian variety, the Husserlian variety, the Sartrean variety or some other sort. Matter itself is treated as being without its own structuring principle or as being without its own ordering principle. As Gilbert Simondon observed, this way of thinking most likely arises as a consequence of technocratic thought where humans impose form on a matter that is thought or conceived of as a passive recipient of structuration.

However, it is not difficult to discern this move as already necessitated by the Parmenidean declaration. Here the whole problem emerges in relation to Parmenides’ declaration that being is and non-being is not. Now, if being is and non-being is not, we very quickly run into the problem of difference. For if to differ is to be what something is not, then it follows that differences are not for as we know being is. Yet if differences are not, then it follows as a consequence that entities are not, for to be an entity is to differ.

Perhaps it would be no exaggeration to say that an entire destiny of Western thought already lies within Parmenides’ fateful decision. Here the issue would lie not with the declaration that being is, but rather with the identification of difference with negativity. For in identifying difference with negativity, Parmenides insures that the principle by which being is form-atted requires an exteriority, another agency, another principle through which difference is introduced. We thereby get the interminable story of the Big and Little Demiurge imposing form on the world. However, in identifying difference with the power of negativity, has not Parminedes fallen into what Roy Bhaskar calls the “Epistemic Fallacy” or the conflation of the epistemic and the ontological? Between difference as it functions in representation, recognition, or the cognitive activity of identification and difference as it is ontologically, there is a massive chasm. I say “This is a cherry pepper”, thereby identifying the pepper and distinguishing it from other types of peppers and plants. But it would be a mistake to suggest that the pepper itself, in being a cherry pepper, proceeds by way of negation in establishing or acting its being. The differences that compose the ongoing adventure of the pepper are absolutely positive, affirmative, and without any sort of negation. What is required in overcoming the Parmenidean consequence is a purely positive conception of difference that is not based on negation or negativity.

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I have a brutal headache this evening due to lack of sleep and grading student papers and still have a pile of essays to get through this evening, so I won’t be writing too much. That aside, when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension– quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing. I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic– the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? –and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays– I think –but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

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eclipse-5exposuresContinuing my discussion of Spinoza, questions of individuation are at the heart of his metaphysics. Where one stands with respect to these questions of individuation will determine whether or not one follows Spinoza. The aim of my discussions here is the clarification of my own views pertaining to these issues through the use of Spinoza as a foil to bring into relief my positions.

Perhaps the key proposition of Part 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, the proposition from which all else follows, the most important link, is 1p5. There Spinoza asserts that:

There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute

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This seemingly innocent proposition will be the lynchpin of Spinoza’s most important ensuing claims, for on the basis of this proposition Spinoza will demonstrate that in the universe there is one and exactly one substance, that this substance is necessarily infinite, that all other things are therefore modes or affections of this one substance, and so on. If one concedes Spinoza’s arguments for the first five propositions of Part 1, then the rest follows as a matter of course.

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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).

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It is customary to see contemporary philosophy in terms of a set of responses to Kant. On the one hand, Anglo-American thought is seen in the lineage of Kant’s first Critique; while, on the other hand, Continental thought might be seen as a set of responses to Kant’s third Critique. But what if the relevant split were not between two different readings and reactions to Kant, nor a response to a geographical division across an ocean? What if, instead, the real split were to be located in those orientations that find their heritage in Descartes, and those orientations that find their orientations in Spinoza? On the one hand, we have those philosophies of the subject that obsess over the relationship of the subject to the object, asserting the transcendence of the object to the subject and endlessly raising questions as to how it might be possible for a subject to relate to the object. Here we would find the prodigious domain of all those monotonous inquiries into knowledge, all those various forms of skepticism such as linguistic idealism on both sides of the ocean, as well as those political philosophies that argue for the necessity of a subject free of all overdetermination from a social field as in the case of Badiou or Zizek, but even Ranciere and Laclau. On the other hand, there would be the Spinozist orientation, emphasizing not the subject, but assemblages, holism, fields, relations, and tendencies unfolding within these fields. Here there would be questions about freedom, about how everything is not already overdetermined by the organization of the field, and how the project of critique might be possible within a universe where individuation always implies a pre-personal field. Today we even have our Leibniz in Graham Harman who has resurrected occasional causality without God under the title of “vicarious causation”, defending the rights of the object against any subjectifying gaze, thereby trying to strike a middle way. Would situating critical thought in these terms function to shift debate at all, taking it out of the endless rut of variations of Kantian correlationism and attempts to move beyond this form of correlationism? Yet were we to take this route, how would we have to transform the questions of epistemology? Already in the case of Spinoza, it is clear that epistemological questions bleed on to ontological questions, such that we must think of the formation of bodies as they “grock” with the world.

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.

contagion1In Definition 3 of Part III of the Ethics Spinoza writes, “By emotion (affectus) I mean the modifications of the body, whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modifications. N.B. If we can be the adequate cause of any of these modifications, I then call the emotion an activity, otherwise I call it a passion, or state wherein the mind is passive.” This is an extraordinary and remarkable definition of emotion, that goes well beyond associations we might have between emotions and feelings.

From the outset it can be discerned that the definition has two parts. On the one hand, affectus refers to modifications of the body. Insofar as Spinoza references the active power of the body, we should not understand feelings, but rather the capacity of the body to act and be acted upon. bats1 Thus, for example, the affects of a bat consist, on the one hand, in its capacity to encounter the world in terms of sonar, but also in its ability to fly, grasp, tear with its teeth, etc. Likewise, my fingers pounding away on this keyboard constitute an affect or capacity of my body. Or rather, my body here enters into an assemblage of affects produced through the conjunction– the “and” –of my hands and the key board, the two acting upon one another and being acted upon by one another. Through this conjugation of affects the power of bodies, according to Spinoza, is either enhanced or diminished, checked or assisted.

For this reason, Spinoza will write, in a beautiful passage, that “…nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do…” (Prop 2, Scholium, Part III). It is notable that Spinoza here uses the indefinite article, indicating that bodies aren’t to be restricted to human or living bodies, but to all bodies. If, then, no one knows what a body can do, this is because the assemblages into which bodies can enter are limitless. alice_krige-borg_002 And in entering into an assemblage or a network, the body’s about of acting is increased or diminished, assisted or checked. We can thus think of a body as being akin to a field of potentials, such that in entering into an assemblage with another body, potentials of the body are drawn forth or pulled forth from the body, manifesting themselves for the very first time. Already we can sense that Spinoza’s entire theory of the emotions is contained in this conception of the body as a power of acting and being acted upon. As Spinoza will say, emotions are also composed of the ideas that accompany these affects (thoughts, feelings). Those assemblages that enhance a body’s power of acting will be accompanied by joyous ideas of these affections, while those that diminish the body’s power of acting will be accompanied by sad ideas of these affections.

In a recent National Public Radio story it was reported that ideas of affects are themselves contagious between bodies:

A new study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego documents how happiness spreads through social networks.

They found that when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent.

“Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness,” says Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study.

Perhaps more surprising, Christakis says, is that the effect extends beyond the people we come into contact with. When one person becomes happy, the social network effect can spread up to 3 degrees — reaching friends of friends.

It would thus appear that emotions, far from being internal, private affairs, but are the result of collective assemblages where my own happiness is dependent on the happiness of those about me. But what, we might ask, is going on at the level of affects, what is going on at the level of bodily assemblages, to produce these ideas of affections accompany these affections?

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