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The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Late last night Graham Harman posted his objections to monism, a Spectre that haunts his sleep. When I saw the post I was greatly relieved because I thought that finally I was to understand why Graham Harman’s Cartesian-constructed project of  post-humanism would not be better served by a turn to pre-Kantian Spinoza. It has seemed to me that this is really where Graham is heading, dragged by the specific current of his philosophical ambitions. But he has told us that he has great distain for the popularity of Spinoza who seemed to be hidden behind all kinds of postmodern metaphysical imaginations, he resists that robust, salty sea. Further, he has come down the Rhine River’s Idealist tributaries, he likes the beer-houses in local town ports where objects duck and hide, and thus has worked toward wending Intentional object-defined conceptions of consciousness, once solidly in the service of human-centric ontologies (Descartes, Husserl, and even Heidegger), out towards a post-human future. Can it be that all of the nobility of the object will be lost in a philosophical absorbtion into Deleuze and DeLandian “molten slag”? I mean where will the rights  of the object (formerly postulated as the rights of man), stand, if we cannot make objects themselves (and their consciousness partner) the ontological center of philosophy? I was excited because I felt I was really going to have an answer to the question, Why should the “hiddenness” of the object stop there, at the object, and not be read more fully in the hidden Immanence of Spinoza’s Substance, especially if we are going to propose a post-human philosophy that does not privilege the specific conceptual phenomenological reductions of human experience. Is it true that the Rhine only flows into the sea (and if in the sea, does that mean that all is lost, or are there some very good things one can do at sea, as any good maritime adventure knows)?

Here I’d like to take up in more detail the objections I raised in response. My comments there were quick-fire and I believe that restating them with greater context them will bring their argumentative force into even greater relief. Mostly at the time I simply was responding to the disappointment I felt that when Graham took on “monism” he seemed to be taking on everything but Spinoza. He somehow steered either right into the Scylla of undarable Parmenides (the only “real” monism he would grant), or the Charybdis of Spinoza influenced  post-structuralist thinking like Deleuze and DeLanda (D & G’s Thousand Plateaus is actually quite far from Spinoza, though he does get mentioned in interesting ways there, while his monographs on Spinoza are fairly close to text). Straight through, between these rocks, he never goes.

This may be because he is most familiar with both the pre-Socratic and the “molten slag” versions, and less with Spinoza himself, but I suggest, in that as Spinoza offered the most incisive correction of Descartes right at the root of Descartes human-centric theorizations, it is really to Spinoza, to Spinoza’s Monism, he should go. Here I’d like to present his points against monism, piece by piece, and put them in juxtaposition to Spinoza himself, and see how they stand.

1. There are two ancient monisms, that of Parmenides and that of Plotinus.

Graham counts between these only Parmenides’s “being is, non-being is not” the only real monism of the two. The Hen (One) of Plontinus is not a true monism in Graham’s mind because the Hen is only  the source of things. I’m not sure that I follow his thinking here. The way that Plontinus argues his point, the Hen radiates out like a light source, ebbing as it goes, the closer to the source (the greater the Nous union of things as one thing), the greater reality one has, but in many ways there is no Being other than this light, radiation. The relatively isolated parts of the world that appear to not be part of the One, indeed are part of the one, as its emanation. Their isolation from the One is really a kind of illusion of perspective (despite Graham’s insistence that they are not). That is, their existence is that of entirely being an emanation of the One, and as distinctly separate things, this separation is an expression of their non-Being. Thus, insofar as there is One thing, only one thing has being. Separations from the One are simply compositions of Being and Non-Being, a kind of relative, non-Noetic illusion. It is a real noetic difference, expresses as the nature of the radiation of the One, but in terms of Being itself, the separation is an illusion. Now is this a “monism”? Well it depends how you define monism. There is only one thing that has Being, and non-Being has no Being (it works like the outer reaches of the ebbing of the One). But Plotinus puts the One even above the Being/Non-Being distinction (this would already involve Nous), and he is inconsistent as to how he treats matter, either as a kind of substrate of absolute (metaphorical) darkness, or as an illusion of non-Noetic perception, for there is only the One. So let us say, a kind of monism, depending on how you qualify Being.

I go into the nature of Plotinus’s monism because it will be within the concept of a Degree of Being ontology that Spinoza will operate. I don’t know if he picked up the fundamental idea from Augustine who made strong use of it to defend against essential, heretical Dualisms, or from other Neo-Platonic sources, but Spinoza leverages his entire metaphysics upon a degree of Being (expressed as the power to act, the adequacy of idea, a degree of perfection) conception of modal expression. But he does this through an inclusion of the old-fashioned Parmenidean claim, “Being is, non-Being is not,” which in Spinoza reads as the illusion of privation and all determination is negation (letter 21), or “There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false” (E2p33), “falsity consists in the privation of knowledge…” (E2p35). It was Hegel who was struck by the power of the phrase “all determination is negation” as found in Spinoza’s letter 21, and it was he who took up the reality of the negation into a progressive, and human-centric concept of Consciousness, leaving behind the other half of Spinoza’s Plontinian proviso, that all privation is illusion. As I will mention later, Hegel feared that without a progressive march toward the powers of negation human beings simply would not be significant in their conscious powers when placed before the universe. The small compliment Spinoza pays to Man, that he is relevantly more active (and real) than tables and rocks and mice, was simply not enough. Man must be the center of the entire march of history’s progress. Failing this centricity and direction, it was for Hegel that all of Spinoza collapsed into an acosmism, all of creation being merely an illusion.

2. Levinas proposes a qualitiless “there is” (a version of monism perhaps).

“1940’s. Emmanuel Levinas. Insomnia (from which I now suffer) reveals that the world itself is an inescapable, rumbling il y a (“there is”) without any specific qualities.”

Well in terms of Spinoza, this is simply not the case. Right away Graham has passed from ancient monisms to postmodern vagaries of Being, steered from Parmenides into the whirling Abyss. While Spinoza’s Substance does not have “qualities” per se, it expresses itself in Attributes (of an infinite number), and through those Attributes, in an infinity of real modes. And all of these modes are fully actualized, concrete things (though like with Plotinus, their conceptual isolation from Substance which “exists and acts” through them, can bring on a perspective of relative non-Being). Even the remotest speck of particle in the furthest reaches of the universe has complete Being, but when considered apart from Substance and other modal compositions of cause, its Being is to a very small degree.

Graham’s objection to Levinas’s indeterminate “lump”: “For if the il y a is a single lump, how is it meaningful to say that the mind can break it into parts?”  is answered by Spinoza by saying that we can break the world into parts because it is expressed in the two Attributes of Thought and Extension, and the mind as a determined, thinking thing, following from that order, through the affects of its body/ideas, its imagination and rational thought can distinguish the determinations of Being.

3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus¨:  Reality itself is an indeterminate “whatever”…

Clearly these two matching points are Graham’s personal engagement with the outer-reaches of what really is not much of a monism at all. They are quite far from Spinoza, and even quite far from Deleuze’s imaginative refashioning of Spinoza. The incredible unexplainable, one might say non-Noetic, character of this thinking perhaps explains the great trepidation Graham holds for monism (and its swarthy postmodern cohorts).

4. There is an intellectual momentum against “objects”.

This may be in the circles that Graham has come from, clearly the moiling Continental waters of the Rhine dumping into the sea, but if we understand “intellectual” to include scientific pursuits, and even Analytical philosophy, the war against the “object” does not have quite the same character. As far as Spinoza goes, indeed there are objects, what he calls bodies, as Substance is expressed into two discernable Attributes, Thought and Extension. Every body has its parallel idea (and may have ideas which are expressions of its power to act). In a certain sense, because it is not clear at all that any human being can have a completely adequate idea, the adequate idea of any object whatsoever, even the idea of one’s own “object” (body) is actually to some degree hidden from the mind of human beings, one might say that the idea of the object retreats (this proposes a heretofore unmentioned close parallel perhaps to Graham’s hidden object, in a different systematic context).

5. The world is either homogeneous or it is heterogeneous, you can’t have both.

Because this is the most substantial of Graham’s claims against monism, at least insofar as they can be directed against Spinoza, his point is worth quoting in full:

*If the world is a whole, then either it is utterly homogenous, or it is not. If yes, then particular things will tend to be viewed as delusions.

*If the world is *not* viewed as homogeneous, then it must consist of various zones that differ from each other in some way. These can either be called individual objects, or something pre-individual. If they are objects, then my point has been conceded and monism has been rejected.

There are two ways that Spinoza counters this emphatic either/or. The first is that there is both a homogeneity and a heterogeneity built into the expression of Substance. (Remember, Substance does not float out there beyond actuality for Spinoza, but “exists and acts” modally.) Spinoza argues that Substance is expressed in only two Attributes that the human Mind can comprehend, as mentioned, Thought and Extension. In the hands of the modern Analytic philosopher Donald Davidson, who professes a monism of Concept Dualism (Anomalous Monism) these are simply the two concepts of the physical and the mental. They are not reducible to each other, and there is no causation between the one and the other. Spinoza tells us that there is a fundamental homogeneity between Attributes (understanding the actual number of these to be infinite), and that is “the order and connection” of their expression (E2p7). In the case of the two Attributes we can perceive, things and ideas are expressed in parallel. This is a fundamental homogenity in the expression of Substance, it is the same across  Attributes. But, this Attributive expression is distinct in the very differences of the Attributes themselves, that is, the conceptual order of the mental, descriptions of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, is different from the descriptions of objects, things, bodies. And even greater than this, Substance expresses itself in the real determinations of an infinity of modes, granting full reality to any aspect of existence, no matter who flimsy you want to make it. 

6. There is a tendency these days to find some comtemporary philosopher who tries to have it both ways.

This is an odd sounding point. I assume that he is referring to the dissatisfactory “molten slag,” ‘intensity” versions he has already dismissed. But one wonders if merely by trying to solve Graham’s proposed dilemma disqualifies the solution? It seems to me that it is not some contemporary philosopher who solved this cake and eat-it-too  difficulty of monism, but Spinoza himself, who closed the Idealist, human-centered breach right after Descartes opened it. There are of course many contemporary, creative things being done with Spinoza, and I can see why some of them collapse in a dissatisfying way for Graham, but these are not properly Spinoza’s thought. (I should add as well, that the monist Analytic philosopher Davidson, who has some largely unstated metaphysical differences with Spinoza, also seem to evade both horns of Graham’s impossibility: there is one kind of thing: matter; and two different fundamentally conceptual kinds of ways of describing it, concepts that are a product of our evolution). 

7. The status of pre-individuals needs to be explained.

Another point worth quoting in full:

*But the status of these pre-individuals needs to be further explained. Either they are fully deployed in their mutual relations, or they hold something in reserve that is non-relational. If the latter, then they are objects and you’re simply trying to avoid using the name; my point has been conceded.

As Spinoza answers this question of the pre-individual, if I read him correctly, the essence of any modal expression already is in Substance (the Mind of God), but has not necessarily come into existence through the mutuality of (horizontal, transitive) modal causes (causes that will be extrinsic to it). To qualify this existence in the Mind of God sub specie aeternitas  as a kind of “reserve,” I’m not sure what this means, other than to say as Spinoza does, that God is the efficient cause of the essence of things and not just their existence. In a sense, the “reserve” is the immanent, causal power of Substance itself.

But if they are fully exhausted by their mutual relations, then there are really no firewalls of any sort between the various zones of this “pre-individual” kingdom, and you end up with monism. You can’t have an intermediate position.

Spinoza’s ends up with monism. Individuals, objects, thoughts, ideas, relations, each thing, is explained by (which means understood through) both a reference to horizontal transitive causation and Substance’s immanent causation.

8. Latour holds something that might appear to be an intermediate position.

As Graham explains, this appearance is undone by the fact that any change produces a change in object:

Even though Latour is a relationist, his actors are always trapped in a specific set of relations, here and now. A thing cannot change even the least important of its relations even one iota and still remain the same thing.

Now the first aspect is the very same thing for Spinoza’s monism. Each modal expression is (well, not trapped), but determined, expressed, in a very specific set of relations. This determination is both a delineation and an expression of its power. There is not any vagary to this in the least. The question as to whether something remains the same thing or not in Spinoza is an open one. There is the theoretical framework though to argue that Latour’s position is tenable. Spinoza defines a body as a ratio of moving parts that stay in communication with each other, expressing an essence (conatus). The sameness of an object is a factor of both this ratio and the communication (not very Latourian at face value, though one could call this communication a network). The status of this ratio is indeterminate in Spinoza, for ultimately there is only one thing that persists and that is Substance (so any ratio of parts in communication is part of a far greater ratio 0f parts in communication). The ratio of “same” is both real (that is determined and reference-able), but ultimately is it explainable in term of other parts. In this way perhaps (and others) Spinoza is able to achieve something Latour’s occasionalism cannot.

9. Graham’s Model involves an intolerable retreat of every object  into darkness.

The problem with my model, of course, is that with so many different entities withdrawing from each other into an apparently non-relational darkness, one wonders why anything happens at all. But I spend lots of time trying to solve this problem- the problem seems to me inevitable.

I appreciate Graham’s candidness here. But to my ear this is a huge problem for a model that wants to explain the nature of reality. If you can’t explain why anything happens at all, the entire explanatory apparatus of your model is paralyzed. Instead one is left with something perhaps more poetic and epiphanic, than explanatory. In confessing that it is inevitable, one assumes he means of his philosophical position, and perhaps this why he is haunted by monism, the instinctive appeal that if he is ever going to get his cut-off, darkness imploding objects to go anywhere, and do anything, for any reason, he has to fundamentally connect them.

For Spinoza, as I wrote in my response to Graham, “This is not a problem at all…for the change between concrete states is a function of the conatus of each essence striving to persist, the contingency of modal transitive causes, and the degree of power which is expressive of its adequacy of ideas. Nothing is in isolation of anything else, events, objects, bodies, thoughts, emotions are understood through the knowledge through their causes, so the path towards more powerful change is always open, ready to be caused.” What it comes down to is the power and real freedom of a good, rational explanation of events, understood as a linking action, or the consideration of explanation as some kind of contingency, some bubbling up of events.

10. Monism is the cheap way out.

This is how Graham expresses the dodging the snatch-and-run  of monims, (something to be contrasted with his very expensive inability to explain why anything happens at all):

Monism, in short, is a cheap way of trying to avoid the communication problem that may be the central paradox of philosophy: ” a thing is itself, yet it is also another insofar as it affects others and becomes something other.” Monism is a way of saying “it’s a false problem; everything’s already interconnected anyway, so why do you artificially divide it?”

I still can’t tell if when Graham mentions “monism” he is thinking of the most vague of all Being declarations, like “there is something there” or of a particularly rigorous monism. But if we take up his objection, I would tell him that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the path forward is not just that a thing becomes “something other” when it effects others, but that in understanding how it combines with others, that it cybernetically becomes something more, when it effects others (or they affect it), the thing becomes more powerful and free. This change is a real, ontological change, and it is achieved through explanation. Spinoza’s monism is a far cry from some kind of loving, “Hey man, we are all one big piece of Somethin’,” rather it provides the conceptual framework for a cartography of Being, inviting the very particular study of the exact ways in which determinatively we are connected (and determinatively not connected). Only by understanding your causes do you leverage yourself into combination with more things, actively. It is learning to cut so as to not dull your knife, at the joints of Being, so to speak (as the Daoist said, and then Lacan). 

I appreciate Graham’s thoughts on monism, and he has expressed in the past fundamental resistance to Spinoza’s thinking. There may be grounds for his disfavor, but none of them fall on his so-far-expressed  objections to monism. In fact, by my lights, Spinoza slips right through the two fearsome dangers that he poses on each side of the monist tendency, and he does so with Plontinian aplumb, that swashbuckler! Oh, Spinoza, the Odysseus of Being, polútropos ! Perhaps he has never been better described. Now only if I write the Achilles of Being, that is really what I will someday do.

[I thought I would return to the vital question of Hegel’s accusation of Spinoza’s acosmism, but the post did not lead that way, as I have put forward before, following Gatens and Lloyd, Hegel’s accusation stems from his only thinking of Spinoza vertically, and failing to understand the full horizontal reality of the modes for Spinoza: determinations by which God “exists and acts”. I bring something of this argument to bear in my earlier post Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod), coupled with a nice diagram]

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One response to “The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

  1. Pingback: More violent than Hannibal, Caesar, Hector, and an Ox… « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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