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Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight

How The Two Philosophers “See”

I feel that there are some important things to say about my recent post, A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza , but I am still undecided just how deep the influence of these thoughts run. So pervasive is the metaphor of vision and light within Western metaphysics, any identification of an ocular appropriation into the field of metaphysics, and the questioning of its radical truth or application, may have far reaching interpretive effects.

What may prove the advantage of this analysis is that it promotes a simplification. Like all simplifications it is misleading to take this as the whole story, but it does help us identify a core element of disagreement between the two Natural Philosophers. The difference between Descartes and Spinoza cannot be reduced to these two diagrams, of course. But there is an essential divergence in the thinking about vision as a metaphor for thought that is expressed in them. 

Descartes' Ur Image: The Hyperbola

Spinoza's Ideal Optical Eye

The first of these, for those uninterested in the optics under question in Spinoza’s letters 39 and 40, shows the capacity of a hyperbolic lens to focus any rays that are parallel to its central axis to a point along that axis. What the hyperbola provides is a schema for thinking about vision and clarity, the analogy of imagining that a focused image of the world that is “clear and distinct” is one where all the rays of a kind are brought to a mathematical ideal, poured into a point. We are not dealing here with all the details of lenses, and how they interact with the human eye and light in the fullness of their variety, but rather with a guiding diagram of what a lens should do – focus rays of light to a center point – and what that means for the experience of vision. For this reason, it is best to understand that this image for Descartes is likely intuitive of directions for investigation, steering both his theories and empirical observations.

The second of these is from Spinoza’s Letter 39, and works as a vivid contrast to Descartes’ Hyperbola. Instead of imagined parallel rays focusing down into an ideal point in the very center of the eye (which in some ways Descartes will conflate with the free Will), for Spinoza the Ideal Eye is one that in using the properties of a circle is able to focus rays parallel to a variety of axes (in fact, an infinity of axes). Rays coming from all directions are hoped to be focused across the back of the eye. And Spinoza sees the human eye (insofar as it does not have a spherical lens), as failing to achieve this kind of vision. Ideal mental vision, instead of being modeled upon a central point of focus, Spinoza conceives of as panoptical; that is, one “sees” as best as a human mind can the cross-section of rays as they converge from every direction upon the human being.

As admitted, this is truly a vast over-simplification, for much unites these two philosophers, and the kinds of radical divergences that Spinoza makes are must more diverse than this simple diagram comparison. But really there is something suggestively profound in this contrast. For one, in that Descartes’ hyperbola inheritance may be traced to Kepler’s Paralipomena its conceptual framework should be viewed as grafted from that Neo-Platonic Ideal, opening up the question of what aporias arise under such a graft (for instance, a point of focus in a Neo-Platonic realm, does not operate with the same powers or meanings as a point of focus does within a Will-driven conception of the soul). Additionally, Spinoza’s rejection of the naturalization of the hyperbola, and the analogy of center-focused human vision, has far-reaching consequences for the reading of the place of the Self in his philosophy of power and affect. If Ideal vision occurs across a field of foci, the periphery has no less a “truth” than any center. The margin does not merely, as Kepler says, “serve” the axis – so goes the critique in so many postmodern attacks on a philosophy of Presence – hence the margin is the very place where a search for truth is made, whether it be the margin of society or a comprehensive Totality of Being.

It is my hope that these two sketches of focus, one by Descartes and one by Spinoza, can help draw out the more refined differences of both philosophers, along an analogy of sight.

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One response to “Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight

  1. Pingback: The Optica Promota and Spinoza’s concept of focus « Frames /sing

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