Frames /sing

kvond

Tag Archives: Ethics

Žižek Asks “What is Spinoza?”: Tarrying With a Negative

Where Spinoza Diverts From History

Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.

This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.

The Denial of the Mediator

From Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!

1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.

I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.

2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.

I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:

“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”

Difference and Repetition

Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).

3. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.

It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.

Where is the Center of the Affects?

4. What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”

Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries  of terms Same and Different,  as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.

5. The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.

Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination

This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)

This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.

6. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).

This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).

7. What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.

Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis,  is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.

8. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.

This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.

A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation

Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.

There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.

Spinoza Transfigured and reExplained: “Idea” as Information

In two posts I began opening up the notion that Spinoza’s treatment of “Idea” has strong sympathetic correspondences to modern conceptions of information and organization. First in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist? I raised the idea that Spinoza offered something of a Chaoplexic view of organizational development and ontological power, and then in Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe I adopted the general replacement of Spinoza’s “Idea” with an version of Stonier’s “Information” as the basic structuring element of the Universe.

To help with the thought-imagination of some of this it seemed interesting to offer some retranslations of Spinoza’s propositions dealing with “idea”. I had done this before, come out of some discusssions I had with David Chalmers, but I can seem to find them. The grammar does not always work fluently for such a replacement, and perhaps this will confuse the issue for some, but hopefully you’ll get the gist and the new propositions can bring about a change in the staid way “idea” has been conceieved:

Informational Propositions

E2D3: By informational structure [idea] I mean a mind’s concept that the mind forms because it is a thinking, informational thing.

E2D4: By adequate informational structure I mean information which, insofar as it is considered in itself without relation to its object,  has all the properties or intrinsic denominations of real information (a true idea) [verae ideae].

E2p7: The order and connection of informational structure is the same as the order and connection of material expression (things).

E2p11: The first thing that constitutes the actual being of the human mind [mentis] is nothing but the informational structure of a singular thing that actually exists.

E2p13: The object [obiectum] of the informational structure constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

E2p15: The informational structure that constitutes the formal being [formale esse] of the human mind is not simple [simplex] but is, through a multitude of informational structures, a composite.

E2p16: The information of any mode in which the human body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human body and at the same time the nature of the external body. (The ability to to be changed informationally, to be reorganized by work.)

E2p4: The informational structure [idea] of Nature (God), from which infinite things follow in infinite ways, it is capable of only being singular [unica].

E2p23: The mind [mens] does not know itself except insofar as it percieves the information of the changes (affections) of the body.

E2p25: The information of any change (affection) of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition of an external body.

E2p26: The human mind [mens] does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the information of the changes (affections) of its own body.

E2p27: The information of any affection of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition [cognitionem] of the human body.

E2p32: All information (ideas), insofar as it is related to Nature (God), is wholly real (true).

E2p33: There is nothing in an informational structure that is productive (positive) on accout of which it is called false (confused, untrue).

E2p35: Falsity consists in a privation of cognition, which involves partial (inadequate) or confused information.

E2p36: Partial and confused informational structure follows with the same necessity as adequate (whole) or clear and distinct informational structure.

E2p38: Those things which are common in all things, and which are equally in the part and the whole, can only be conceived adequately.

E2p40: Whatever informational structure that follows in the mind from informational structure that is adequate in the mind is also adequate.

E3p10: An informational structure which excludes the existence of the body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

E3p11: The information of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains or body’s power of acting, increase or diminishes, aids or restrains our mind’s power of thinking.

Def of Affects IV: Love is a joy (an increase in the power to act) coupled with an informational structure orientation towards an external thing, taken to be its cause.

E4p1: Nothing positive (productive) about false (partial) information is removed by the presence of real (true) information, insofar as it is real (true).

E5p18: No one can hate Nature (God). Dem: The informational structure of Nature (God) which is in us is adequate and perfect. Insofar as we contemplate Nature (God), we act. Consequently, there can be no sadness accompanied by an informational structure orientation toward Nature (God), that is, no one can hate Nature (God). 

E5p35: God loves itself with an infinite intellectual love. Dem: God is absolutely infnite, the nature of God enjoys infinite perfection, coupled with the informational structure of itself, the informational structure of its cause. And this is what we said intellectual love is.

General Defintion of the Affects E3: An affect (emotion) which is called a passive experience [animi pathema] (a pathema of the soul) is confused information whereby the mind informationally affirms a greater or less force-of-existing of its body, or part of its body, than was previously was the case, and by the occurance of which the mind [mens] is determined to think this rather than that.

Spinoza “Following the Traces of the Intellect”: Powers of Imagining

-

How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

My discussions with Eric Schliesser on the issue of a skepticism towards mathematical (and empirical observation) knowledge have continued (my recent post). Between us has raised the subject of just what Imaginary Knowledge is for Spinoza. I think that this is an important point for anyone studying Spinoza’s epistemology, and it occurs to me that the fascinating letter to Peter Balling contains some very important distinctions on this front, at least some worth posting. As I expressed to Eric in private correspondence, I take as exemplary of Imaginaray knowledge Spinoza’s thought that we imagine the Sun to be much closer to us than it actually is:

Similarly, when we look at the sun, we imagine it about 200 ft. away from us, an error that does not consist simply in this imagining, but in the fact that while imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and the cause of this imagining- E2p35sch

For Spinoza I think, imaginary knowledge is really phenomenological experience, that is something akin to what he calls “thinking in pictures”. It is the way that we “picture” the world. And when we picture the sun as being only about 200 ft away (I’m not sure who does picture it that way), we are in a state of confusion. Spinoza actually is borrowing this example from Descartes’ La Dioptrique, Sixth Discourse, where Descartes explains the phenomena as a product of the brightness of the Sun and the shrinking of the pupil. No doubt Spinoza has Descartes’ explanation in mind when he qualifies this imaginary knowledge via the combination of the sun’s essence and our own body’s essence, a causal relationship of which we can remain ignorant:

…For we imagine the sun so near, not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of our body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun (ibid.)

While I agree with Eric’s claim that Scientific/Mathematical knowledge cannot give us access to the essences of external things, I do think it a mistake to not see that such knowledge in fact works to increase our awareness of the causes of things, and thereby increase our agency in the world (a primary Spinoza aim). In fact in Spinoza’s example he relates what he takes to be a fact about the size of the Sun, giving it a diameter of 600 times that of the Earth. Clearly Spinoza regards the latter figure as more correct than the former (and the even more correct answer, apparently, is that the Sun is 109 earth diameters). Spinoza is contrasting these two knowledges of the sun. It makes little sense at all say that both knowledges of the sun are merely “imaginary”.

What we can say is that if we picture the sun 200 ft away, and we picture  the sun to be 600 earth diameters, both are forms of imaginary knowledge (as Spinoza’s incorrect diameter figure may attest). Imagining the world to be a certain way, phenomenologically, is key to our ability to find our way around in it. Imagining is a good thing.  But what must be accounted for is the difference between the powers of imagining it one way (200 ft away) and another (109 earth diameters). This is not just a difference in “usefulness” (which itself must be qualified and explained), but an increase in our ability to act in the world – knowing the size and distance of the sun actually allows us to do such things as send probes into space. In my view, any of these increases in the capacity to act, however they manifest themselves in imaginary or phenomenological experiences, must be understood as Ideational increases in adequacy (admitting with both Eric Schliesser and Micheal Della Rocca that we can never have completely adequate ideas about the external world).

Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

So, of what does this difference of pictures consist? An important clue to what Spinoza means by “imaginary” and its relationship to the intellect can be found in his letter to Peter Balling in 1664, a copy of the full text is included at the end of this past post: How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?. I will address the usual reading of the letter in which Spinoza responds to his friend Peter Balling’s account of a premonition he hauntingly received of his very recent son’s death. A certain “rasping” he imagined, a difficulty in breathing apparently long before his son took mortally ill. This is really a striking letter for Spinoza theorizes about the different sources of imaginary experiences, retelling his own account of a waking dream; but also for our purposes how he in this letter reasons that the imaginary follows the intellect exposes why picturing the Sun one way is better than picturing it another way.

Spinoza suggests to Balling that there are two sources for imaginary experiences. There are dispositions of the body, for instance how a fever might compel a hallucination, and then there is the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione] which may produce imaginary experiences of a different power; a power even perhaps capable of foresaging the future. I think that there are some significant problems with such a dichotomy of sources as the parallel postulate and also the definition of the soul as the idea of the body pretty much make such split extremely difficult imagine or justify (a problem perhaps to be resolved with an appeal to levels of conscious awareness or to shared ideas); but we may by-pass that for the moment. What is key is that Spinoza tells Peter Balling that indeed, because his soul partook in the very essence of his son’s soul by virtue of his very powerful love, making them literally and ontologically One, he was able to imagine his son’s future, however confusedly. In short, the father’s confused premonition of his son’s breathing actually is born out of an ideal, for Spinoza, intellectual relationship. And as such his imaginary experience held or expressed a certain power.

However skeptical one might be of such an extreme example, in his explanation Spinoza provides the very framework by which we can consider what imaginary knowledge is. To put it briefly, the phenomenological picturing of the world, how we experience it to be, bears a dependent relationship to our ideational states and thus our relationships to others. Spinoza says that the imagination follows the traces of the Intellect:

We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione]; for, as we know by experience, in all things it follows the traces of the Intellect [vestigia in omnibus sequitur], and its images and words out of an order, just as the demonstrations of the Intellect, it organizes, so one after another it connects; so that I submit that there is hardly nothing to discern [intelligere] by which the imagination will not, from a trace [vestiglia], form some image.

Aside from the Balling issue, here we have a key connective between the images of the imagination and the ideas of the soul. The way that we phenomenologically experience (or even in fantasy dream up) the world follows the traces of the Intellect.  We can also read a certain parallel between the physiological sources of the illusion that the Sun is 200 ft away (as explained by Descartes) and the physiological sources of a fevered hallucination in the letter to Balling. In each there is an illusion which involves a certain ignorance of the causes of its production. In the case rather of the picturing of the Sun’s accurate size and the father’s premonition of a death, Spinoza reads the imaginary event as following the traces of the Intellect, the connections of our ideas. When we ideationally understand something about the world, there is almost nothing which we understand which will not produce a produced image.

Again I think Spinoza is a little inconsistent in his theory of two sources, but we have here the groundwork for understanding why one image of the sun is superior to another. The scientific calculation and observation of the sun and other celestial bodies, using the entia rationis which are maths, help composes a sequence of related and dependent ideas, upon the traces of which the imagination will form images. The real, rational processes of intellectual progression which composes scientific explanation of the sun and much else allow a more productive imagination of how the world is.

The Actions of Calculation

But in keeping with Eric Schliesser’s thesis that scientific observation or mathematical calculation can never produce the very essences of external things, and that Nature cannot be adequately rendered in, or reduced to, a mathematical language, Spinoza tells us that an ens rationis should not be confused with ens reale. That is to say in another way, the semiotic impact of a difference in thought which constitutes its ontological force, is not to be confused with whatever it is supposed to be describing or referring to. When I am rationally calculating as a mathematician or a Scientist I am changing my ontological lean towards the World (Substance, Nature), gaining or losing degrees of Being with the coherence of my thought which connects me to others and the world, providing traces for imaginings, but I am necessarily not describing the World precisely or absolutely adequately as it is. My actions as a finite being are always connective and collaborating, but not subsuming.

Put far less opaquely, the rational work that we do as we link our more clearly conceived thoughts to each other (in whatever field), is to construct an armature upon which we are better able to imagine or phenomenologically experience the world. The web of our more adequate ideas composes the traces upon which our more powerful imaginings are built. This can be said to be the case whether in terms of ideology or physical fact. It is not that we are to dismiss the imaginary or phenomenological, but rather to build the most far-reaching and connective imaginations/experiences possible. And it is here that we receive our explanation for what Spinoza likely meant in Letter 12 when he called Number an “aid [auxilia] to the imagination” all the while identifying it as an ens rationis. What is an aid to the imagination (which strives to imagine that which increases the body’s power of acting – E3p12), is that which allows its images to be related to the greatest number of causes. Because the imagination follows the traces of the intellect, the more adequate our ideas, the more powerful our imaginings. And in a very real sense, the imagination of the sun being 200 ft away is related to a greater number of, one might say, constituent causes than the image of the sun being 109 earth diameters.

More thoughts on the powers of Imagination in Spinoza’s framework: Spinoza and the Caliban Question and Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

District (9)

This isn’t a film review, mostly because I find film reviews tiresome (both to read and to write), and it certainly isn’t a critical analysis. The entire critical aim seems misplaced in film, or at least is confined to its own pleasures, like collage-making is only loosely connected to magazines. But perhaps it is a film reaction. And if you haven’t seen the film, skip what follows below because surely there are to be important plot points involved.

District 9 seems a satire of the highest order, which explains perhaps many of the difficulties film reviewers have in grasping the film. When I say of the highest order, I mean that it exploits the form of its presentation as the very mode of ambiguity which is to serve as the abuse  of the film. Caught within humor, genre identification (and alternation), and outright CGI impress, the viewer becomes morally and interpretatively transfixed in a way not easily remembered in film. Kubrick has abused us this way, and sometimes in Verhoeven and Gilliam – before that we have to enter in kitsch. Part The Office, part Robcop, part Videodrome, District 9  bores into us with repeated templates of consciousness, until lastly we are stripped nude…or our nudity is exposed as a trope. What is recalled is the Holocaust, not as figure, but as allegory, and AS allegory its very form resonates with a kind of crude, trans-historical specificity. Again and again through the film you feel as if you “get it”, you get what the director/writer/actor is trying to, even didactically, say. But then the text, the very text of its enunciation is ripped out from under you in the oddest fashion, through boredom and repetition, or through Cronenberg-like flattenings out into flesh, and Spielberg/Cameron oscillations between humanized spectacle and explosive chase. Indeed as much as we want to will that this film is about aliens, or really political aliens, one would have to commend that it is about technology, our flesh, and the eros between.

There is so much to be said about this film, but one should note that the very “inhuman” human character Wikus only becomes human after, first he has been infected by the distilled blood within alien technology, and then, finally, when he “puts on” ἐνεδύσασθε the Aliens (Ripley) cybernetic suit. This, coupled with the very armature of the the satirical structure perhaps shows the way towards an ethical human future that involves a technological irony. What is beautiful about this film is that it takes the no-doubt genetic narrative flaws inherented from its film-short origins, a core of cartoonish characters, and allegorizes both our history and our future, weaving the very schema of our racisms and ethnocentric reactionary impulses into the flesh of technology and love.

A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

…if a man could write a book on Ethics…

In my recent post, Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?, I wrote on Russell Nieli’s review of James Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings. There Nieli makes the determinative point that Wittgenstein’s so called “Lecture on Ethics” is central to understanding early Wittgenstein’s commitment to a two-world mystical view. The lecture is available here or can be downloaded as a Word.doc here: Lecture on Ethics). This is certainly an interesting claim, and it lead me to read the lecture which I had not considered before. While I am unsure of how much of the ethical position remains in the latter-day Wittgensteinian language game depictions, I presume a great deal of it is intact, since the very same Humean dichotomy between “the relation of ideas” and the “relation of facts” presents itself in Wittgenstein’s Grammatical and Empirical categorization. I write on the problems of such a “fork” and the related is/ought distinction here: A Spoonful of Ought.

The Explosive Book

But what really drew my focus was the way in which Wittgenstein seemed be addressing Spinoza’s Ethics directly in his essay. In fact he appears to bring the full force of Hume’s dichotomy directly down upon Spinoza’s text, but, as Wittgenstein is so able to do, in such a way that it has only oblique effect. Look at how he characterizes the possibilities of writing a book that would make a science of Ethics, that is, a book which would make of Ethical truths an objective study and explication.

And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

Its hard for me to deny that Wittgenstein is considering Spinoza at his purest. For while Wittgenstein by virtue of his Hume Doctrine of ideas vs. facts claims that ethical matters can only be approached metaphorically, an echo of his famous tractarian proposition “Where (or of what) one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence”, Spinoza’s book Ethica distinctly avoids almost ALL metaphors and similes, and attempts to speak of Ethics entirely of literal terms. If there was such a book (and there certainly is an attempt by Spinoza to have written one), Wittgenstein tells us that it would “destroy all books”.

Amazing.

The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

Wittgenstein positions Spinoza’s Ethics as either one great confusion (treating things that can only be approached metaphorically, literally, objectively), or as a book that can and has detonated all other books ever written. What is remarkable about this that that in this metaphor Wittgenstein seems to capture something of the excitment that Spinoza enthusiasts feel for the book the Ethics. There is a certain sense in which the Ethics achieves just this, like some logically labyrinthian Borges library, the recursive, interlaced networks of propositions, proofs and scholia works as a time bomb to all other texts. This is the “cold wind” that Deleuze tells us blows through the book, unweaving everything that is woven, so that it can be woven again.

Wittgenstein stakes the impossibility of such a book as the Ethics upon the well-known, but by him uncited Humean Is/Ought distinction. Questions of “is” (what Wittgenstein calls questions of fact, or questions of “relative value”) can never bring you to questions of “ought” (what Wittgenstein calls “absolute value”). The “good” or “right” in relative terms is always specifiable:

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

What Wittgenstein has in mind is that there can always be a reference to criteria, and that if we get outselves to criteria we can agree upon, we can then get down to the goodness or rightness of a thing or situation, (or at least the very nature of our disagreement). As I have argued in the above referenced article, there is no pure Is/Ought distinction, and there is always an “ought” that underwrites any descriptive claim. But it is more than this which give Spinoza’s thinking a life over and above the quiet distinctions Wittgenstein is trying to put forth, or rather, the very nexus of the Is and the Ought gives clue to the way that criteria are organized and distributed, the ways in which we come to agree upon criteria in the first place.

The first point is that Spinoza wholly grants the relative value of things to purposes. In fact any sense of good and bad has to be brought down to the goodness or badness of things to “us” or “me”. In this way anything that is ethically good is pursued entirely out of selfishness itself, the impetus to preserve oneself and increase one’s power and joy. If a kind of action or a kind of thinking is not “good” it means that it is destructive to or weakening to me. And Wittgenstein’s entire matrix of the facts of benefit or harm, and their criteria come into play here. But, there is both an imaginary and a rational dimension upon which the interpretation and communication of these facts rests. And this is: 1). In order to objectively read the world as sense-making we regularly have to take others to be like ourselves, and that because of this there is an imaginary affective bed of mutualities which promote a criteria-less (or at least non-criteria referencing) understanding of “good” and “bad” such that a good thing to another is understood to be a good thing to me based on a primary assumption of sameness. In this way, “This is a good road” may indeed be qualified by reference to all sorts of criteria, but the experience and effect of which is not reducible to such criteria referencing (which does not make it metaphorically good, but only affectively performed and imaginarily understood). And 2). There is a ratio-pramatic consequence of human beings sharing a similar nature and interdepency such that the liberation of another human being possesses an absolute value (non-criteria referencing) of benefit such that liberation is a “good” without qualification (Balibar outlines this expertly, here). Because “man is a god to man” as Spinoza puts it, our selfishness leads us rationally to the realization that when I am helping other person or thing, or environment, I am helping myself – myself under a radical defition. In this way, both on the imaginary level and on the rational level, Wittgenstein’s exclusionary Is/Ought is effectively collapsed at least as an absolute categorial distinction.

In fact the scientific or at least objective way in which Spinoza presents his edifice of the Ethica contains in terms of content nothing of the book that Wittgenstein imagines (a book wherein is written every single fact in the world), but it does refer to a kind of ontological dimension of such a book. Spinoza’s Substance, God, Nature is very much like the ominscience that Wittgenstein conjures up (without the reflexive anthropomophism):

Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

But instead of propositions that have been written down, there are only expressive states, along the extensional and ideational attributes. This totality of Substance in a sense “knows” all things because all things are an expression of it. But the question is, do any of the absolute value propositions contained in the Ethica stand in relation to, or “on the same level” as, all the statements of fact in the world? To answer this one would have to assess whether any of the propositions of the Ethica qualify as absolutely adequate ideas? There is some evidence to suggest that strictly so, even though the propositions of the Ethica are certainly more adequate than others, marked by their very inter-dependent, logical relations, none of them are wholly adequate ideas due to their finite, linguistic expression. But this does not make them metaphorical either. Instead they participate in and are an expression of the very power of rational, material and imaginary combination that makes up both our factual and ethical world, meant as devices of provoked Intuitional knowledge, the knowledge by which all of us know things. The criteria of their goodness is the very capacity for power, joy and coherence in the first place. Which is to say that they are properly metaphysical. Because the Humean severance between idea and fact is refused at the ontological level, so is the ultimate barring of the Is and the Ought. As such Spinoza’s Ethica indeed could be seen as working to explode all other books ever written, or better yet, all other thoughts ever thought. But because of the limited nature of human knowledge, and the necessarily finite expression of our knowledge (even Spinoza’s knowledge), it acts as an incendiary device with a time-delay fuse.

As an amusement, one wonders of course whether Wittgenstein’s criteria for a book that would be explode all books in the world itself would be written in the book of omniscience that contains all propositions of fact.

Some Easy Spinoza

Spinoza is a difficult thinker, not so much to understand, but to tolerate.

That is, there is something so tutorial about his main work the Ethics, it sometimes takes a great deal of effort, or merely exposure, to realize that he has quite benign intentions and realizations, and that there is something even more than a cold wind that blows through the architecture of all those propositions, proofs and scholia. But the work somehow always even upon embrace sits uncomfortably in the mind. It seems to be at the same time obviously false (or intellectually presumptuous), but also evocatively true in ambition and even somehow in reference.

I had a bit of a light-weight epiphany the other day when spending the afternoon down by the creek. The sun was radiating down, the water rushing in that relentless and still pleasurable way, and I lifted my head and stared at the huge boulders that filled the very small valley. In their very size, and the luminosity of the sun upon them they possessed a kind temporality what was in distinct contrast to the ephemera of the day, and of course of myself.

It was in those rocks that something about Spinoza occurred to me, that the kind of things that Spinoza is arguing for in all his elaborate ways are really pretty simple. They are listable.

1. There is one world, which means that when you and I are talking about it, or reacting to it, we are talking about and reacting to the same thing.

2. Things may change in that world, but it is still the same world.

3. We are part of that world, and being part of it is what allows us to communicate and be.

4. Through imagination we helpfully separate out one part of that world from the rest.

5. Through rationality we connect the separated out parts, which are not really separate.

6. Intuition is the flash of this connection. We all experience it.

7. We have very little control over ourselves (much less than we think), and the control we do have comes from thinking clearly.

9. Blaming (and overly praising) things external to us is largely a mistake.

10. Our salvation – in the grand sense, and the daily sense – depends on the salvation of things/persons external to us.

11. No soul can be freed without the body.

12. At any moment you can achieve greater freedom by changing the way that you think.

13. Any thorough embrace of “I” in the most selfish sense, undermines the sense of what an “I” is.

14. Understanding how something works is key to freedom.

15. We are our machines and techniques.

16. Nothing is completely unreal.

17. Everything outside of us has an explanation (causes), but an explanation which we can never be completely clear about.

18. Eternity is just the term for something that is not bounded, but is merely and entirely expressive.

19. The more we become like eternity, even in the most pragmatic situations, the freer and more powerful we are.

20. Gaining control involves separating out yourself from that which is outside of you, then reconnecting yourself by realizing that you were always connected but not in the way that you thought.

21. Things could not have been different than they have been, a thought that makes things very different in the future.

22. Everything thinks, however dimly. Which is another way of saying that things are all to some degree organizing, and not merely passively organized.

23. Thinking involves starting from the widest and working in.

24. I necessarily feel and see the world through others.

25. When we’re wrong, we’re only partially wrong.

This certainly is not exhaustive of Spinoza truths, and some of them may simply be inaccurate. They are a kind of intutional snap shot of much of my reading and thinking on Spinoza recently, and are worth putting down.

Spinoza and Mechanical Infinities

The Mechanically Bound Infinite

I want to respond to Corry Shores’ wonderful incorporation of my Spinoza Foci  research into his philosophical project (which has a declaimed Deleuzian/Bergsonian direction). It feels good to have one’s own ideas put in the service of another’s productive thoughts. You come to realize something more about what you were thinking. And to wade back through one’s arguments re-ordered is something like coming to your own house in a dream.

This being said, Corry’s reading of my material thrills, for he is, at least in evidentary fashion, one of the first persons to actually read it all closely. And the way that he fits it in with his own appreciation for Spinoza’s concepts of Infinity certainly open up new possibility for the Spinoza-as-lens-grinder, Spinoza-as-microscope-maker, Spinoza-as-technician interpretations of his thinking.

There is much to take up here, but I would like to begin at least with the way in which certain parallels Corry draws that change the way that I see what Spin0za was saying (or more exactly, what Spinoza was thinking of, and perhaps associating on), when talking about infinities. Key, as always, is coming to understand just what Spinoza had in mind when drawing his Bound Infinities diagram:

Corry points out in his analysis/summation of Letter 12, grafting from Gueroult’s commentary, that in order to understand the epistemic point (the status of mathematical figures, and what they can describe), one has to see that what Spinoza as in mind in writing to Meyer is a very similiar diagram found in his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, of which Meyer was the active editor. There the diagram is not so Euclidean, but rather is mechanical, or, hydro-dynamical:

The diagram illustrates water moving at a constant rate (a “fixed ratio” one might say), but due to the nature of the tube it must be moving at point B, four time faster than at AC, and a full differential of speeds between. There you can see that any section of the intervening space between the two circles composed of “inequalities of distance”  in the Letter 12 diagram (AB/CD) is not really meant as an abstraction of lines and points as it would seem at first blush (the imaginary of mathematics), but rather real, mechanical differentials of speed and material change. The well-known passage

As, for instance, in the case of two circles, non-concentric, whereof one encloses the other, no number can express the inequalities of distance which exist between the two circles, nor all the variations which matter in motion in the intervening space may undergo. This conclusion is not based on the excessive size of the intervening space. However small a portion of it we take, the inequalities of this small portion will surpass all numerical expression. Nor, again, is the conclusion based on the fact, as in other cases, that we do not know the maximum and the minimum of the said space. It springs simply from the fact, that the nature of the space between two non-concentric circles cannot be expressed in number.

Letter 12

The Lathe Buried Under the Euclidean Figure

But, and this is where Corry Shores alerted me to something I did not formerly see, the relationship between the two diagrams is even further brought forth when we consider Spinoza’s daily preoccupation with lens-grinding and instrument making. It has been my intuition, in particular, that Spinoza’s work at the grinding lathe which required hours of patient and attentive toil, MUST have had a causal effect upon his conceptualizations; and the internal dynamics of the lathe (which fundamentally involve the frictioned interactions of two spherical forms under pressure – not to mention the knowing human eye and hand), must have been expressed by (or at least served as an experiential confirmation of) his resultant philosophy. If there was this heretofore under-evaluated structuring of his thought, it would see that it would make itself most known in his Natural Philosophy areas of concern, that is to say, where he most particularly engaged Descartes’s mechanics (and most explicitly where he refused aspects of his optics, in letters 39 and 40). And as we understand from Spinoza’s philosophy, Natural Philosophy and metaphysics necessarily coincide.

What Shores shows me is that Spinoza’s Bound infinities diagram (letter 12), his very conception of the circle, is intimately and “genetically”  linked to the kinds of motions that produce them. It is with great likelihood that Spinoza is thinking of his off-center circles, not only in terms of the hydrodynamics that circulate around them, but also in terms of Descartes’ tangents of Centrifugal force.

There is a tendency in Spinoza to conflate diagrams, and I cannot tell if this is unconscious (and thus a flaw in his reasoning process) or if he in his consummatephilosophy feels that all of these circular diagrams are describing the very same thing simply on different orders of description. But the connection between a tangential tendency to motion conception of the circle (which Corry makes beautifully explicit in terms of optics) and Spinoza’s consideration of bound Infinities in the letter 12 (which remains implicit in Corry’s organization of thoughts), unfolds the very picture of what Spinozahas in mind when he imagines two circles off-center to each other. Spinoza is thinking of is lens-grinding blank, and the spinning grinding form.

One can see the fundamental dynamic of the lathe from Van Gutschoven’s 1663 letter to Christiaan Huygens, illustrating techniques for grinding and polishing small lenses,

And it is my presumption that Spinoza worked at a Springpole lathe, much like one used by Hevelius, Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis, the dynamics of which are shown here:

In any case, when one considers Spinoza’s Bound Infinity diagram, under the auspices of tangential motion tendencies, and the hydrodynamic model of concentric motions, I believe one cannot help but also see that the inner circle BC which is off-center from the first, is representationallythe lens-blank, and the larger circle AD, is potentially the grinding form. And the reason why Spinoza is so interested in the differenitals of speed (and inequalities of distance) between two, is that daily, in his hand he felt the lived, craftsman consequence of these off-center disequilibria. To put it one way sympathetic to Corry’s thinking, one could feel them analogically, with the hand, though one could not know them digitally, with math. The human body’s material (extensional) engagements with those differentials (that ratio, to those ratios), is what produced the near perfectly spherical lens; and the Intellect intuitionally – and not mathematically – understands the relationship, in a clear and distinct fashion, a fashion aided by mathematics and figure illustration, which are products of the imagination.

What is compelling about this view is that what at first stands as a cold, abstract figure of simply Euclidean relationships, suddenly takes on a certain flesh when considering Spinoza’s own physical experiences at lens-grinding. Coming to the fore in such a juxtaposition is not only a richer understanding of the associations that helped produce it, but also the very nature of Spinoza’s objection to the sufficiency of mathematical knowledge itself. For him the magnitudes of size, speed and intensity that are buried between any two limits are not just abstract divisions of line and figure, or number to number. They are felt  differentials of real material force and powers of interaction, in which, of which, the body itself necessarily participates. The infinities within (and determinatively outside of) any bound limits, are mechanical, analogical, felt and rational.

Corry raises some very interesting relationship question between the Spinoza Bound Infinities Diagram and the Diagram of the Ideal Eye from letter 39. They are things I might have to think on. The image of the ideal eye is most interesting because it represents (as it did for Descartes) a difficult body/world shore that duplicates itself in the experiential/mathematical dichotomy. Much as our reading of the duplicity of the Bound Infinity Diagram which shows mathematical knowledge to be a product of the imaginary, the diagram of the ideal eye, also exposes a vital nexus point between maths, world and experience.

From Mechanics to Optics (to Perception)

It should be worthy to note that Spinoza’s take on the impossibility of maths to distinguish any of the bound infinities (aside from imposing the bounds themselves), bears some homology to Spinoza’s pragmatic dismissal of the problem of spherical aberration which drove Descartes to champion the hyperbolic lens. When one considers Spinoza’s ideal eye and sees the focusing of pencils of light upon the back at the retina (focusingswhich as drawn do not include the spherical aberration which Spinoza was well-aware of), one understands Spinoza’s appreciation of the approximate nature of perceptual and even mathematical knowledge. This is to say, as these rays gather in soft focus near the back of the eye (an effect over-stated, as Spinoza found it to be via Hudde’s Specilla circularia), we encounter once again that infinite grade of differential relations, something to be traced mathematically, but resultantlyexperienced under the pragmatic effects of the body itself. “The eye is not so perfectly constructed” Spinoza says, knowing as well that even if it were a perfect sphere there as yet would be gradations of focus from the continumof rays of light so refracted by the circular lens. What Spinoza has in mind, one strongly suspects, and that I have argued at length, is that the Intellect, with its comprehensive rational in-struction from the whole, ultimately Substance/God, in intuitional and almost anagogic fashion, is the very best instrument for grasping and acting through the nature of Nature, something that neither bodily perception, or mathematical analysis may grasp. Indeed, as Corry Shores suggests in his piece, it is the very continuum of expressional variability of Substance (real infinities within infinities) which defies the sufficiency of mathematical description, but it is the holistic, rational cohesion of expression which defies experiential clusterings of the imagination: the two, mathematics and imaginary perception, forming a related pair.

In the end I suspect that there is much more to mine from the interelationship between Spinoza’s various circular diagrams, in particular these three: that of the relationship of the modes to Substance (EIIps), that of the the hydrodynamics of circulating water (PCP, implicit in the Letter 12 diagram of Bound Infinites), and the Ideal eye (letter 39), each of these to be seen in the light of the fundamental dynamics of the lens-grinding lathe to which Spinoza applied himself for so many years, and at which he achieved European renown expertise.

 

 

The Infinities Beneath the Microscope

I would like to leave, if only for Corry Shores’ consideration, one more element to this story about Real Infinities (and I have mentioned it in passing before on my blog). There is an extraordinary historical invocation of something very much like Spinoza’s Bound Infinities in the annals of anatomical debates that were occurring in last decade of Spinoza’s life. I would like to treat this in a separate post and analysis, but it is enough to say that with the coming of the microscope what was revealed about the nature of the human body actually produced more confusion than understandings in what it revealed, at least for several decades. Only recently was even the basic fact of the circulation of blood in the body, something we take for granted, grasped. And in the 1670s the overall structure or system of human anatomy was quite contested, contradictory evidence from the microscope being called in support one theory or another. Among these debators was Theodore Kerckring, who was weighing in against the theory that the human body was primarily a system of “glands” (and not ducts). Kerckring’s  connection to Spinoza is most interesting, much of it brought to light in Wim Klever’s inferential and quite compelling treatment of the relationship of Van den Enden  and Spinoza. In any case Kerckring  is in possession of a microscope made by Spinoza (the only record of its kind), and by virtue of its powers of clarity he is exploring the structure of ducts and lymph nodes. Yet he has skepticism for what is found in the still oft-clouded microscope glass leads him to muse about the very nature of perception and magnification, after he tells of the swarming of tiny animals he has seen covering the viscera of the cadaver, (what might be the first human sighting of bacteria). He writes of the way in which even if we see things clearly, unless we understand all the relationships between things, from the greatest breadth to the smallest, we simply cannot fully know what is happening, if it is destruction or preservation:

On this account by my wondrous instrument’s clear power I detected something seen that is even more wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera to swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt or preserve one would be in doubt, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, just the same, a habitation is exhausted by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how as he brought forth bodies, thus to the infinite itself one after another by magnitude they having withdrawn so that no intellect is able to follow whether it is, which it is, or where is the end of their magnitude; thus if in diminishments you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand.

Spicilegium Anatomicum 1670

Several things are going on here (and in the surrounding context), but what seems most striking given our topic, we once again get a glimpse into the material, and indeed historical matterings of what bound, mechanical infinities might be. (As a point of reference, at the time of Kerckring’s  publishing Spinoza had just moved to the Hague and published his Theological-Political Treatise, having taken a respite from his Ethics approximately half done, and he will have died seven years later.) Kerckring  in a remarkable sense of historical conflation looks on real retreating infinities with Spinoza’s own microscope, and exacts much of the same ultimate skepticism toward human scientific knowledge, as per these infinities, as Spinoza  does in his letter to Meyer. This does not mean that we cannot know things through observation, or that imaginary products are not of use to us, but only that there is ultimately for Spinoza and Kerckring  a higher, rational power of interpretation, the comprehensiveness of what abounds. Neither measurement or calculation is disqualified, in fact Spinoza in his letters and experiments and instrument making showed himself to be quite attentive to each. It is rather that the very nature of human engagement requires both attention to the bodily interaction with devices and the measured thing, and also a sensitivity to anagogic, rational clarity, something found in the very unbroken nature of Substance’s Infinity. What Kerckring’s description does is perform the very consequence of conception in scientific observation itself, almost in Spinoza’s stead (expressing very simililar  sentiments as Spinoza does in Letter 32 to Oldenburg on lymph and blood, and the figure of the worm in blood,

Let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood¹, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, &c., and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion. This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another.

There is great conceptual proximity in these two descriptions, suggesting I imagine that Spinoza used his microscopes as well, for observation, not to mention that Kerckring and Spinoza come from a kind of school of thought on scientific observation of human anatomy, perhaps inspired by or orchestrated by Van den Enden, as argued by Klever. Just the same, at the very least, Kerckring  presents greater context of just what kinds of retreating infinities Spinoza  had in mind in his letter 12 diagram, not simply a differential of motions, but also a differential of microscopic magnitudes, each of which were an expression of an ultimate destruction/preservation analysis, something that falls to the very nature of what is body is. Spinoza not only ground lenses, but also made both telescopes and microscopes, gazing through each at the world, this at a time when the microcosmic and macrocosmic, nested infinities were just presenting themselves to human beings. And as such his critique of scientific observation and mathematical calculation preserves a valuable potentiality for our (postish) modern distancings and embrace of the sciences.

The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness

  

 

Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

 Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

John 7:6

Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?

274.

The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

- Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

 Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

Raphael With Hands

The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus – Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand – the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

“Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word "intercession"]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

- Paradise Lost. III 171-173

But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

That it shall never end, so when begin

The father in his purpose hath decreed,

He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

III 184-187

 *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  - Acts 1:7]

Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

Each act is rightliest done,

Not when it must, but when it may be best.

 IV 475-476

How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

Read more of this post

Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

 

 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar's treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

- “Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, [...] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations

I’ve been reading into the depths of the concept of Umwelt which which I have felt some dissatisfaction. It is a concept that exists in a variety of forms, flowing from the much more phenomenological, Kantian enriched experiential world of its inventor, Jakob Uexküll, all the way to heavily systemic, semiotic-functional interpretations which mark its place in much of contemporary biosemiotics. For those unfamiliar with the variety I present a few of these, and article links which may prove interesting reading

Biosemiotic:

Umwelt

Umwelt is the semiotic world of organism. It includes all the meaningful aspects of the world for a particular organism. Thus, Umwelt is a term uniting all the semiotic processes of an organism into a whole. Indeed, the Umwelt-concept follows naturally due to the connectedness of individual semiotic processes within an organism, which means that any individual semiosis in which an organism is functioning as a subject is continuously connected to any other semiosis of the same organism. At the same time, the Umwelts of different organisms differ, which follows from the individuality and uniqueness of the history of every single organism.

Umwelt is the closed world of organism. The functional closer, or epistemic closer is an important and principal feature of organisms, and of semiotic systems. This has been described by Maturana and Varela (1980) through the notion of autopoiesis.

Semiosphere

The expressions ‘collective Umwelt’, or ‘swarm’s Umwelt’, should also be in accord, since organism can hardly be modeled as a centralized system. However, the relationship between the Umwelt of organism and the Umweltsof its cells requires further explanation and more detailed analysis. The whole becomes seen through functional circles which, for example, includethe body of the (swarm-)organism moving together, in one piece. More generally, there are always at least two aspects (processes) which participate in making a multitude of pieces into a whole in living systems: (1) there are many individual processes which take part as steps in a functional circle, the latter being responsible for the appearance of intentional aspects of behavior, and (2) the functional circle always includes recognition, a matching of forms (the pre- existing with the actual), whereas recognition does not work in an algorithmic way (i.e. bit-to-bit checking) but as a simultaneous compatibility (coherence) of forms (e.g., enzymes recognizing their substrates). Thus, the principle of code duality can be extended to the principle of making wholes, Gestalts.

Semiosphere is the set of all interconnected Umwelts. Any two Umwelts, when communicating, are a part of the same semiosphere.

 “On semiosis, Umwelt, and semiosphere” Kalevi Kull, Semiotica, vol. 120(3/4), 1998, pp. 299-310 [click here].

Biosemiotics/AI:

The Umwelt may be defined as the phenomenal aspect of the parts of the environment of a subject (an animal organism), that is, the parts that it selects with its species-specific sense organs according to its organization and its biological needs (J. von Uexküll 1940; T. von Uexküll 1982a, 1989). In that sense, the subject is the constructor of its own Umwelt, as everything in it is labelled with the perceptual cues and effector cues of the subject. Thus, one must at least distinguish between these concepts: (1) the habitat of the organism as ‘objectively’ (or externally) described by a human scientific observer; (2) the niche of the organism in the traditional ecological sense as the species’ ecological function within the ecosystem, (3) the Umwelt as the experienced self-world of the organism.

Does a robot have an Umwelt?: Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll [click here], Claus Emmeche

But really the best treatment that I found was from Paul Bains’s informative and provokingly synthetic The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations (2006) [click here]. For those interested in the possibilities of the concept I highly recommend reading at least the chapter on Umwelten (page 56), available on line, and watch Bains skate effortlessly and illuminatingly between Uexküll, Kant, Duns Scotus, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger, Deely and more. I quote extensively here from the passage in which he explicates the notion via Uxeküll choice of the “tick” (which in well-known fashion Deleuze and Guattari adopts). Here Bains presents the bare essentials of Umwelt  organization, the notion of functional cycle and counterpuntal rhythm.

[Quoting Uexküll] “We are not concerned with the chemical stimulus of butyric acid, any more than with the mechanical stimulus (released by the hairs), or the temperature stimulus of the skin. We are concerned solely with the fact that, out of the hundreds of stimuli radiating from the qualities of the mammal’s body, only three become the bearers of receptor cues for the tick. Why just three and no others?” (J. Uexküll, A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 1957)

The answer for von Uexküll is that living organisms respond to perceptual signs (Merkzeichen) or “meaning” (Bedeutung), not to causal impulses. Physical, chemical, or thermal changes to the receptor organs are interpreted as signs of the (not yet perceptable) “perceptual cues” of an object as counterpart for a specific behaviour. Von Uexküll argues that the “subect” (tick) and the “object” (mammal) dovetail into each other and constitute a systematic whole or functional cycle. The organism or interpreter receives signs from its environment, and these perceptual signs trigger specific action impulses or operation signs (Wirkzeichen). The whole cycle is a process made not of static objects but rather of sign relations – a semiosis. For example, with the tick there are three functional cycles, which follow each other in processual succession…In this functional cycle the mammal (object) is a connecting link between the tick’s effectors and receptors, which metaphorically “grasp” the object like the two jaws of a pair of pinchers. The “perceptual jaw” gives perceptual meaning to the object, and the “operational jaw” gives an effector meaning. For von Uexküll there is a counterpoint or contrapuntal relation between the organism as a “meaning-utilizer” or interpretant, and the perceptual cues or “meaning-factors” of the object – Nature as Music. Living beings develop in a kind of natural counterpuntal “harmony” or refrain, with one another and with their environment. Von Uexküll gives the example of the octopus, designated as the subject in its relation to seawater as the meaning carrier. In this scenario, the fact that water cannot be compressed is the precondition for the construction of the octopus’s muscular swim bag. The pumping movement of the swim bag on the non-compressible water propells the animal backwards. Von Uexku/ll claims that the rule that governs the properties of seawater acts on the protoplasm of the octopus, thereby shaping the melody of the development of the octopus’s form to express the properties of seawater. The rule of meaning that joins point and counterpoint is expressed in the action of swimming – an energetic interpretant.

So the Umwelt is a model of a species’ significantsurroundings. The essential claim is that organisms interpret their environment and are not merely the passive objects of natural selection, as emphasized by much contemporary Darwinian evolutionary biology. The Umwelt/ consists of significant sign relationships. However, von Uexküll, in the prevailing context of Kantian idealism, presented his Umwelt research as a confirmation of a Kantian philosophy of mind

- The Primacy of Semiosis: an ontology of relations(2006), Paul Bains, 63-64

I want though to approach the concept from the perspective of a Spinozist understanding, one which necessarily would de-emphasize an phenomenological, or subject-oriented foundational basis. It for this reason that I have been playing with the notion of an Exowelt, under which we conceived of the experiential, but nonetheless epistemic relations between the organism and the world, not as an inner-theatre of apparitional events, but rather necessarily see the organism extended beyond its skin, one in which the Real differences in the world which make up the (semiotic) differences within the organism, may be considered as outlying organs of perception themselves: a running shore of epistemic wholeness.
Part of this can be seen to come out of some of Uexküll’s own images, for instance his appeal the the spider’s web which, spun from its body, literally extends that body, epistemically, physically, out into the world:
As the spider spins its threads, every subject spins his relations to certain characters of the things around him, and weaves them into a firm web which carries his existence” (A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men, 14)
What if invited by this analogy is, much as how Descartes invoked the Blindman’s cane, it is not immediately clear where the organism itself ends, and the “world” begins. The reason for this I hope to make clear, for at the moment all would still seem contained within the skin-limits of the beast (the treads are merely meant as internal semiotic threads in this case). Let us go further.In that these threads do connect to real things, real difference that make a difference in the organism, we have to deal with exactly how to parse out the internal difference from the external one (a process that Deely marks as essentially ontological univocal). I will suggest that the process takes place just further out than we regularly, and obviously would like to grant.

Essential perhaps is Uexküll notion of the counterpuntal, the musical co-ordination between an “external” stimulus and an “internal” semiotic event. This fundamental binary seems to be the very stuff that presents the internal/external divide at the surface of the body (or thereabouts). Even the simplest of organisms forms a kind of musical echoing of aspect of nature, and does so as a distinction separate entity. We are told by many in Biosemiotics that this minimal exchange is what distinguishes plant and fungus from animal (which are capable of more complex function cycles). The locus of “self” or subject is at most at the internal shore of the semiotic interpretation, where the sign arrives, qua sign, so to speak. And what distinguishes the animal from the human is that humans are able to actually perceive the relationships between counterpuntals, and therefore the very nature of Umwelten themselves.

What I want to suggest is that if indeed what distinguishes counterpunctals is the semiotic interpretation of real events, and that what makes information “Information” are differences that make a difference, it is very difficult to isolate where and/or if the relations between two counterpunctals are experienced or not, since the very structural coherence of the organism is such that the relations are built-in to the very experience of “sense”, the semiotic recursion of the organism. While this event (difference) solicits this kind of reaction, and that event solicits that kind of reaction, we can never deny that the correspondence between the two does not leave some trace on at least higher animals.

To give an example of what I mean by the knowing of connections between differences that make a difference, if my dog and I are walking in a dark, remote part of town and turn down an empty alley, it may very well be the case that in the pit of my stomach I will get “a bad feeling” about the situation. Now this affective response indeed is the semiotic response to Real differences in the world (and perhaps of real events in the past, and/or instinctive reactions), but this is not a “phenomenal” appearance of the world around me (though perhaps shadows now look darker). It is an epistemic judgment that has no location. We could say that my body is undergoing counterpunctal relations (a music) with the entire environment, “reading” it, but from whence is the apprehension of its dangerousness? Which specific differences in the world am I reading as “danger”? The constellation itself presents itself to my organism. Distinct, experiential “awareness” of connections is not locatable as it is largely, if not entirely, unconscious.

Now, my dog who is with me also senses something and the hair on her back is raised. I see this and the hair on my arms goes up. What events in the world colluded to raise my dog’s hair? What variety of counterpuntals speaks to the knowledge of danger? When is it merely the relation between counterpunctals that actually that which is reacted to?

This brings me to my final, determinative point. Morten Tønnessen, in his “Umwelt ethics,” (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003) attempts to bring a ethical joining of Arne Næss’s Deep Ecology and Umwelt theory. It is a wonderful outline of the possibilities of the thought including an informing critique of Uexküll’s actual political views, but it seems to lack a thorough connection between the two streams, presenting more a juxtaposition. Therein he mentions in passing how Næss identifies with a mountain, though in a manner which is strictly “subjective” and not “intersubjective”
Although he admits that mountains are not alive in a strict scientific sense, Næss himself claims that he identifies with Hallingskaret, where he has a cottage. Identification, as Næss conceives of it, has no natural barrier, and is not an inter-subjective, but a subjective phenomenon (5)

The counterpuntals  that form the outer reach and reference to the semiotic events within my skin, become themselves linked and signs for extended other differences in the world. This is to say, just what difference an organism is fully responding it can never be precisely determined. One can make a tick drop from a blade of grass by exposing it to the appropriate chemical stimulus, but what the tick is responding to is not butyric acid in some form of one-to-one correspondence (though you can make the tick drop again and again), but rather the tick is responding to the entire constellation of historical/genetic relations between chemical and mammal presence. When I look to my dog and see that she too is reading the world as dangerous the counterpuntal between her hair raised, and mine becomes expressive of other factors of the world. I am literally reading the world off of my dog’s states. My dog has become an organ of my perception.

The key to this perceptual logic is found in Spinoza’s Ethics:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect.

But I would like to depart from Spinoza’s rigorous and rather satisfying treatment of imaginative Ethics, and look instead to a semiotic, Exowelten, basis for the powers of this transmission of affects, one which will undermine the distinctly “subjective” character of even mountain-identification. And this way forward is provided if we cease to define the boundary of the subject at the skin, or somewhere there abouts, or at the locus of a phenomenological appearance of “outer world”, and realize that epistemically the limits of the organism exist at the locus of real, signifying events in the world, where the spider’s threads connect. The Exowelt is the manner in which contrapuntals open up to other differences that make a difference. This is to say, the differences that make an immediate difference in our organism themselves express relations which are making differences to the depths of an organism’s structure. The reason why my dog can become an organ of perception for me is that our Exowelten overlap, and to a great extent. The differences that form the outer limit of my epistemic body, out to which awareness reaches as how the blindman literally feels the world at the end of his cane, also compose the outer limits of my dog’s epistemic body, such that we are intimately (affectively) and semiotically linked. Ethics are foundationally experientially epistemic; and the organs of our perception go far beyond our ear and eye tissue.

The reason why Næss’s identification with Mt. Hallingskaret is not merely subjective is that subjectivity is necessarily Exowelt-bound, and the very sharing of Exowelt nexus points determines some degree of an implicit inter-subjectivity. And yes, mountains have Exowelten. If a musculature of an octopus’s swim motions can express the rule that water cannot be compressed, then where – what specific sign – in the octopus is this compressibility difference registered as a difference? Where is it “experienced” and making its appearance? And if not locatable, where not do the forces of gravity, wind and sun register their semiotic differences, reflectant in the mountain?

There is much to be said, for instance, about what a Spinozist/Davidsonian analysis could contribute to Morten Tønnessen’s Deep Ecology ethics, and even more to investigate in terms of just how Exowelten could overlap, and with what consequence. I hope to have opened up an avenue of extra-somatic interpretation of the real way that awareness crosses boudaries and resides in organs of  perception beyond what is well-considered our “body”.

So an animal, a thing is never separable from its relations with the world
- Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (125)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 56 other followers