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Some Rough Thoughts On Spinoza and Technology

The Free Hand

Christiaan Huygens's assited lens mechanism

Today, in contemplating Spinoza’s objection to Huygens’s semi-automated lens-grinding lathe (from Letter 32), and considering what it might mean for an overall Spinoza view of technology, I am struck by an immediate incongruity. Christiaan Huygens’s love of the mechanical, that is the ambition for the nearly direct implementation of the math to the material, through the correct devising of a means of transfer, seems to embody much that Spinoza would agree with. That is, both are determinative mechanists, and the proper construction of a mechanism would seem to be paramount in both thinkers view of how a lens should be ground. For one could say without too much occlusion, Spinoza thinks of the world being made up of two things: information (what he calls “Idea”), and matter (what he calls “extension”). The direct transfer of information to matter that technology seems to promise would seem to be exactly that Spinoza would favor.

But instead Spinoza baulks at the notion that the “free hand” of the craftsman should be removed from the process:

..what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is safer and better than any machine (Letter 32).

One has to ask, is this just a technician’s sobriety, a conservative, “let’s see what it can do before we get too excited”? It seems not, for he really is not at all enthused to even find out. There seems a much more rooted objection, a tugging away from the simple connection between Idea (information) and Thing, that technology embodies. It is strange, because the minimization of the anthropological that Spinoza’s philosophy is most notable for comes right up against another principle, perhaps something we can call the principle of implementation. For Spinoza, because all technology is in combination with human beings, and its use a part of the human perception of the world and itself, in order for any technological process to be assessed, ALL elements of its assembled mechanism, including those of the state of the human beings involved, have to be considered. Because human beings do not form a “kingdom within a kingdom,” any device must be considered within the causal matrix of ideas and matter than make up its users and its practitioners. At least that is what I have come to believe Spinoza is thinking about, as he expresses reluctanceto remove the “free hand” from the process of crafting lenses. He is not against such a handless construction, but one senses that he is hesitant, holding in his view a greater scope of the issue at hand. For the 17th century desire to remove the craftman is not simply the desire to remove the “human error” from a process, but also is a labor calculation, suggestive of the Capitalist forms that were on the rise. The “free hand” question, is the question of interface, of communicative dialogue between the mechanism of gears and wheels and the mechanism of the human person (and community).

In a sense, what is at stake is the full consideration of interface. The impress of an idea (information) upon matter is a condition-dependent relation. One cannot simply press any kind of material into a spinning grinding mould to produce a lens. The specifics of the states of each must be appreciated. In this same sense there is a temporality, a historicity, to the transfer of ideas, one that Spinoza weighs as he wrote his first “rule for living” in the Emendation:

1. To speak to the understanding of the multitude and to engage in all those activities that do not hinder the attainment of our aim. For we can gain no little advantage from the multitude, provided that we accomodate ourselves as far as possible to their level of understanding. Furthermore, in this way they will give a more favorable hearing of truth.

His rule is to speak to the multitude, yet he will learn to not publish his Theological-Political Treatise in Dutch, keeping it from the multitude. Right away a differential comes apparent. The accomodation is really a measurement, a measurement that not only must be done with reason, but within the melieu of imaginary constructions and affective affinities. Perhaps this is why Spinoza is removed from the direct seduction of mechanical transfer. This is a finesse of his monist metaphysics. The transfer of ideas (information) to form, is never actually a transfer at all, but must be seen as an unfolding of two parallel Attributes. There is no descent into matter. Here Descartes and Spinoza radically diverge. Spinoza’s immanence becomes a line of permutation. The human element indeed has no hierarchical privilege in his Universe. It is shot through with error, but removing the human hand does not necessarily increase the power of an instrumental relation. This conceptualization of the human hand as a hand of error, of the craftsman as the ignorant purveyor unreflectant and unmodern traditions, a drag on the transcendent rise of Reason, is – I think Spinoza would say – an imaginary relation. For a machine to work properly, the free hand must always be located, and gauged.

This comes in view of past thoughts on this issue:

To Understand Spinoza’s Letter 32 to Oldenburg

Spinoza’s Comments on Huygens’s Progress

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One response to “Some Rough Thoughts On Spinoza and Technology

  1. Pingback: Spinoza and Huygens « Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Centraal

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