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A Few Random Thoughts…Spinoza, Descartes, Latour

Descartes philosophized laying in bed, it is said, and Spinoza did so at the work bench where he ground lenses during the day. A difference in affects of philosophy.

Genevieve Lloyd says in her “Male, Metaphor, and the Crisis of Reason” that female designates the undifferentiated, and that the male designates the de-gendered soul to be appropriated by (male) Reason, while female designates that which is marked by gender (sex), by virtue of its alignment with the Body. One wonders, is Spinoza’s Substance to be read as feminine (perhaps here is where Schelling tries to grasp him)? Plotinus’s move of the One (Hen) is a quick shuffling from “male” (progenitor) to “female” (engendering) in a single line (Ennead V ii, 1).  She also says that Descartes was caught up in the analogy of motions of the mind (no doubt conflating physics and mentality). Is this why Spinoza thinks of the agency not as a motion, but as a shift in Being, and not an act of Will? Is all transparency masculine? Is there not a transparency of body? Are Latour’s black boxes female holes in the materiality of the body? Is it not the case that instead of a world of black boxes we have orbs of transparency?

Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

[click on photo for large image]

I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class="hiddenSpellError" pre="ut ">eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 

 

[click on photo for larger image]

In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 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…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.

Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

The above is the scheme of Spinoza’s implicit theory of a prophetic imagination, come from his letter to Peter Balling (17), where a father writes about his premonition of his son’s death. The pertinent description from which this is drawn I quote:

To take an example like yours, a father loves his son that he and his beloved are as though one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the affections of the son’s essence, and what follows; and the father, through the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, because necessarily the father’s soul from the son’s ideal essence, and with the affections of the same, through this, to what follows he must participate (as I have demonstrated elsewhere at greater length). Next, since the father’s soul participates ideally in this – in the things which follow from the son’s essence – he (as I have said) can sometimes imagine something of what follows from his [the son's, implied] essence as vividly as if he had it before his eyes…

nempe, pater (ut tui simile adducam exemplum) adeo filium suum amat, ut is et delictus filius quasi unus idemque sint. Et quoniam (juxta id, quod alia occasione demonstravi) filii essentae affectionum, et quae inde sequuntur, necessario in Cogitatione dari debet idea, et pater, ob unionem, quam cum filio suo habet, pars memorati filii est, etiam necessario patris anima de essentia ideali essentiam filii, et ejusdem affectionibus, et iis, quae inde sequuntur, participare debet, ut alibi prolixius demonstravi. Porro, quoniam patris anima idealiter de iis, quae essentiam filii consequuntur, participat, ille (ut dixi) potest interdum aliquid ex iis, quae ejus essentiam consequuntur, tam vivide imaginari, ac si id coram se haberet…
 
I’ve discussed this letter before [How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead? and Spinoza and the Caliban Question to name two posts], quite frankly, if fascinates me, and it seems its ideas are often neglected in serious discussion of questions of the role of the imagination and the knowledge of the essences of external things. I was listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation” today, which I recommend for anyone interested in a slightly Deleuzian and highly literary appreciation of Spinoza’s notion of what constitutes an individual. Selcer’s treatment of “individual” as anything produced as a singular effect by a multitude (something to be appreciated by ne0-objectologists), set off another foray into the ideas of this curious letter, which I read in support of some of his thinking. (The lecture, as well as many other wonderful Spinoza papers just given on Spinoza and bodies, is found here). 
 
I thought it best to scheme it out, if only for later reference – and perhaps in posting it others will find it interesting, or may even be able to correct it with a better understanding. Sometimes I have a weakness for diagrams and schemes, as they anchor points in the mind so that it can do related, more inventive work along the way. Hopefully some will enjoy the map.
 
What is most troubling or difficult about the prophetic imagination is that it is far from clear just how to read the becoming “one and the same” of the father and the son (quasi). In many respects this simply falls into the imitation of the affects which foregrounds socialization itself, as found in the Ethics [treated quite thoroughly by Balibar, Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion]. It is a purely imaginary projection, the seed of conflict and excessive binding, needing to be leavened by power of rational unity. To be sure, Spinoza is covering something of the same grounds here (the beloved to the Father seems a passionate connection).  But this is no mere fantasy, but rather the real (though imaginary) prophetic experience of a future affective state. (It should be noted that Peter Balling externalized the affections of his son, heard his son’s future groans and did not feel pains or difficulty of breathing himself.) This imaginary relationship has epistemic traction. Spinoza is at pains to propose a dichotomy in which the ideational source of this imaginary event provides a real knowledge (if confused) of the future. Thus, just what the traction is it seems, must be found with the real participation of the father in the essence of the son, an implied merging of the two, or at least assemblage or mutuality (something I am tempted to read as cybernetic).
 
Under the question of the knowledge of other essences (or their affections that follow) it is significant that this portend comes from the ideational side of one’s own expression. That is, it does not come from the affections of one’s own body (which Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian is supposed to represent). It comes instead from the idea of the affections of another person’s body, casting into doubt just where one’s own “body” ends, and other’s begins. To a point of near contradiction, some idea follows from one’s own essence which, due to love and union, necessarily is of the affections that follow from another’s essence. This is something which one would presume could only occur if the two of you formed a single essence in some shape or form. Perhaps there is another answer to this, but this is all that I can see.
 
Another note worth talking about in brief is that I have been under the running theory that Spinoza contracted his tuberculosis from his own father (or step-mother), both of whom I hypothesize died from the disease [discussed recently here: Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect? and originally here: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion]. If this is the case then the image of the “union” of the father and the son, and the idea that there are affections that might follow from the each of them certainly would grow more vivid. Indeed, Spinoza may have felt his very love for his father wove itself into the mutuality of their shared physical fates (as I most tentatively argued, Spinoza seemed to abstract into idea his own symptomatic, affection pathways in the first paragraphs of the Emendation).
 
The question is, does this letter (and my possible schematization of it) represent a confusion of Spinoza’s theories of body, idea and imagination, or does it possibly shed greater light on some of the more difficult passages in his thinking. I suspect the latter, especially in the sense that I have long held that Spinoza’s view is cybernetic, one in which knowing things intimately breaks down the boundaries between self, world and others, all the while retaining causal distinctions as concrete and distinct. In the letter to Balling Spinoza seems to, closer than at any other time, touch on the very mechanism of mutuality and its real, physical and mental effects. And that he does so in the context of arguing a prophetic imagination, this makes it all the more curious, and possibly engaging.

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

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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

Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

The life of the passions, like that of reason, is similarly conditioned by the struggle to persevere in being; like reason, the passions express a natural (though inadequate) mode of human Desire. Does this mean that the passions, which are a constant cause of conflict between men, represent the antithesis of sociabilty? Not at all. What Spinoza demonstrates is that there is another form of the genesis (or “production”) of society, which springs from the passions themselves and which is worked out in them and through them, even if, in this case, the result is not necessarily a harmonious society (85)

- Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics

How Passions Bring Us Together

Recent discussion made me realize that there is an very significant text out there on Spinoza that is likely quite under read, and it is best to give it a boost. While much attention gets paid to Spinoza’s vast metaphysical claims, much less is directed towards his very early championing of liberal democracy freedoms (one of the first in European history). And seldom when his political views are examined does the analysis seem to fit snuggly back into his metaphysics. It often appears to be the case that there are two slightly disjoined topics, the metaphysical and then the political (we can insert “the psychological” which is also a branch of his thinking that sometimes is taken with some autonomy from the rests).

With great surpass, this cannot be said of Etienne Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics, very inexpensively available from Verso. The book is a brilliant slim volume, perhaps the best work on Spinoza from the neo-Marxists (though Negri’s The Savage Anomaly is inspiring, or at least quite inspired).

I want to post here a pdf of the book: Spinoza and Politics, Etienne Balibar [click here].

If you want to get a grasp on the lines of political argument as found in the Ethicsplease at least read the fouth chapter, “The Ethics: A Political Anthropology” (76-98), where Balibar braids together two separate descriptions of the social, one rational, one affectual, passing back and forth between the third and fourth books of the Ethics. (Warning, it does take a close reading, with page-turnings best done with the Ethics  in hand). He does such a wonderful job of drawing out the two, mutually supporting arguments that are almost in hidden dialogue with each other, that he makes much of the rest of Spinoza political thinking more clear. What comes through is that counter to a Hobbesian mythology of a natural, animal state of the war of against all, even our greatest conflicts between persons and society are alreadysocial. There is no pre-social state of conflict. This is a conclusion of the utmost theoretical consequence for it undercuts much of what is projectively assumed about the nature of goverment, and it has bearing upon the very roots of epistemology and perception. Additionally, it brings into bold relief the mistaken simplification that Spinoza viewed the affects or the imagination in solely a detrimental, or antithetical fashion.

Here I provide a copy of the excellent diagram he includes to help the reader follow his explication. It is a figure that I have returned to many times, both in the reading, but also later in thinking through Spinoza’s position. And below that is a from-text summation of part of the argument.

 

Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Mind Without Metaphor?

Beginning from my last post which opened up a Vician affirmation of metaphor as a constitutive and creative force for the growth of knowledge, it seems a good idea to look closely at the Spinoza system to see if indeed there is room for such a productivity. Prima facie it certainly seems to be the case that Spinoza would hold low esteem for metaphorical use. His entire “mail and mask” more geometrico  seems in defiance of any positive role for metaphors, treating thoughts and feelings literally as if they were planes and lines (falling under the same causal laws). In philosophy there is hardly a systematic document that seems less friendly to the metaphorical than the Ethics. The vast perception is that categorically for Spinoza metaphors are bad (confused), literal truths good (clear and distinct). A wide ranging philosopher like Richard Rorty who professes much admiration for Spinoza except for the perceived antipathy for the metaphor, sums up the impression well:

Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind-the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness….He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome (“Spinoza’s Legacy”).

With respect to Rorty, there is a great difference between something that should be overcome, and something having no value; but it is easy to join Rorty in what seems to be an obviousness, metaphors are confusions and confusions are things that one should try to make clear, a clarity that leads to real, affective Joy. How is one to reconcile the predominant message in Spinoza’s writings with the possibility that metaphors are very real productive, and non-eliminatable modes of increased activity and Joy in the sense that Spinoza thinks of Joy. As to that Joy, even upon repetition the pleasures of metaphors endure, something Davidson calls it their “eternal youth” which he compares to the “surprise” in Hayden’s Symphony 94. The flash of realization moves us to see. Is there room for such revelation in Spinoza?

Perhaps one needs to start with the strict possibility that human beings cannot hold purely adequate ideas at all, but only in their finite minds may asymptotically approach increasing adequacy of ideas. The very path to adequacy it seems would be one in which the imagination has historically played an integral role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas (like the first blacksmith hammer and tongs, they had to be made from something), and given the fundamental, one might say, existential passivity of the human mind, imagination likely would play a constitutive role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas, no matter the stage of our development.

Joy: The Increase in the Adequacy of Ideas

In Della Rocca’s new book, and confirmed in generous private exchange, is found the interpretation that human beings are unable to hold completely adequate ideas in the full spectrum of the ways that Spinoza defined them. This is something I long had felt myself. They are likely best seen as a limit upon which we gauge our own knowledge (and Joy). If we accept this the door for a productive use of the imagination in general, and metaphors specifically, is opened up. Gatens and Lloyd wrote an excellent book on Spinoza’s undervalued relationship to the imagination, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza Past, Present and Future. But I would like to dwell on metaphor itself, the unique way that it stirs us with a kind of waxing pleasure, and how this is achieved through an intentional confusion. (As I mentioned in my last post, and then more at length in an earlier article on Donald Davidson and Giambattista Vico, this “confusion” is the cause of a reader or listener to affectively equate two or more objects, that is to feel about the one as one would feel about the other, taking each to be the cause of the same affection, such that one is brought to noticed an unspecified number of similarities between the objects or classes. And this is primarily accomplished through the strict falsehood of the metaphorical statement: “That man is a wolf” is false because wolves are not men.) The effects (affects) of two or more objects are confused so as to produce a pleasurable notification of what is shared.

There can be no doubt that metaphors are pleasurable, in fact, in contemplation, are Joyous. This also is a good place to start. For given Spinoza’s definition of Joy, his parallel postulate and his explicit assertion that activities of the mind ONLY arise from adequate ideas (3p3), one is forced to say that the Joy we feel when we encounter a wonderful metaphor is a Joy that comes from an increase in the adequacy of our ideas (as all Joy). I was happy to find that Professor Della Rocca consents to this understanding of mine as well. Something about good metaphors increases the adequacy of our ideas. What is it, in Spinozist terms, that this something is? It is more than the pleasure of a song or music.

Contrary to many philosophical intuitions, Spinoza is not mute on the benefits of the imagination. In fact, besides the way in which he grounds the social field in the imaginative “imitations of the affects,”  in the fifth part of the Ethics, a part concerned with the achievement of the Intuition of God, he presents a string of propositions on the powers of the image . Whereas earlier in part III he had spoken of the third kind of knowledge, Intuition, as a kind of extension of the Second kind of knowledge, Reason, invoking the example of how merchants can calculate with great speed without walking through the steps of a calculation, here he seems to set up the ultimate intuition of God along side qualifications of the positive effects of the imagination. And while intuitions of God/Substance/Nature are not our aim, these distinctions in terms of images seem ready-made to be applied to the benefits of metaphor use.

 From Memory to Metaphor

First there is a numerical qualification which helps us determine what gives us the strength of an emotion (I use the Shirley translation, but “emotion” should be read as “affect”). An affect’s strength comes from a simultaneous condensation of causes:

5p8 – The greater the number of causes that simultaneously concur in arousing an emotion, the greater the emotion.

This indeed does seem to conceptually orient us to the power of a metaphor. When Homer compares wounds to mouths, or when we are told, “the heavens wept” there is an intensity of simultaneity that seems very much to make up the nature of the effect. The ideas of each object or process are affectively fused, and their causes confluence in a way that no single idea, or its literal expression, would have. And when this is pleasurable, we in our strengthening condition we are able to arrange our mixing affections, undistracted by a Sadness:

5p10 - As long as we are not assailed by emotions that are contrary to our nature, we have the power to arrange and associate affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.

While the effect may be a condensation or confusion of affects, because it is Joyous, our affections are open to clarification. Our very agreement with the effect leads to the possibility of an unfolding of the consequences. The propositions that follow then switch from emotions to images themselves:

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

Proof : In proportion as an image or emotion is related to more things, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused and fostered, all of which the mind, by hypothesis, regards simultaneously as a result of the emotion. And so the emotion thereby occurs more frequently – i.e., springs to life more often – and engages the mind more (5p8).

The very relatability of two or more images as we find in the apt or even beautiful metaphor (again, I solicit a favorite, “…that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”), bring together the genealogy of causes to a point where it is not just that the body is affected, but the mind itself. This is an important distinction, one that requires that we turn back to another section where Spinoza speaks of the powers of the imagination, in the second part where a very powerful function of the memory is discussed. Here, instead of the two or more con-fused ideas that are involved in metaphors, it is the images that are born of a contingent simultaneity when we are affected by objects at the same time…that is the trace the coincidence leaves on us:

2p18 – If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, and when the mind afterwards imagines one of them, it will straightaway remember the others too.

2p18, scholium – Hence we clearly understand what memory is. It is simply a linking of ideas involving the nature of things outside the human body, a linking which occurs in the mind parallel to the order and linking of the affections of the human body. I say, firstly, that it is only the linking of those ideas that involve the nature of things outside the human body, not of those that explicate the nature of the said things. For they are in fact (2p16) ideas of the affections of the human body which involve the nature both of the human body and of external bodies. Secondly, my purpose in saying that this linking occurs in accordance with the order and linking of the affections of the human body is to distinguish it from the linking of ideas in accordance with the order of the intellect whereby the mind perceives things through their first causes, and which is the same in all men.

Furthermore, from this we clearly understand why the mind, from thinking of one thing, should straightaway pass onto thinking of another thing which has no likeness to the first. For example, from thinking the word “pomum” [apple] a Roman will straightaway pass onto thinking of the fruit, which has no likeness to that articulate sound nor anything in common with it other than that the man’s body has often been affected by them both; that is, the man has often heard the word “pomum” while seeing the fruit. So everyone will pass on from one thought to another according as habit in each case has arranged the images in his body.

The way that the imaginative memory works, according to Spinoza, is that images are ordered associatively, occurring in correspondence to their coincidence in time, determined by the affections of the human body. The imaginative memory is a kind of ideational associative habit, to be distinguished from the way that the intellect orders thing through its understanding through explanation and cause. This habit contingently links even words and images, and the “linking” is the linking of the affections of the body, not the intellect. In contrast to the memory’s corporeal  “ordering and linking”, if we return to the relative properties of images found in 5p11 where the very numericity of relatedness produces an engagement with the mind, this seems to give the avenue by which metaphorical confusions specifically help to produce an increase in the adequacy of our ideas. The mind is engaged by the causal profusion that produces the strength of the metaphorical affect, aided by the fact that the affect is Joyous and in agreement with our natures, an engagement that is expressed in the very relatability of the two or more images (or ideas, one would assume) that compose the metaphor.

This mental (as 0pposed to a merely bodily) link is further delineated in the next proposition. The most relatable images are those of things which we already understand:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

Proof: Things that are clearly and distinctly understood are either the common properties of things or deductions made from them (see 2p40s2, def of reason) and consequently they are more often before the mind (2p11proof). So it is more likely that we should regard other things in conjunction with these, and consequently (2p18) that they should be more readily associated with these than others.

Spinoza is building an argumentative case for the images which are relatable to our Intuitive understanding of God. Our clarity in a concept of God creates a substantial framework for the relatability of images in general. In a certain sense, far from being radically against the imagination, Reason actual works as its facilitator. Through our understanding of common properties of things, other imagined associations increase. Aside from Spinoza’s argumentative goal, in the case of metaphor production one can see how this also would be so. Metaphors are born atop our primary clarity of understanding. If I can say that the brain is the computer of a body, this metaphor trades upon knowing with some clarity what a brain is and what a computer is. And the metaphor through its illumination suddenly gives us to see certain (yet innumerable) common properties. These leap to life in an apparent increase in our adequacy of idea.

The Polyvalance of Image Relations

Lastly, it is this very associability founded upon numerical and causal connections with produces a temporal increase in the association. This may serve as a very broad framework in which to read the lateralization of metaphors, the way that mouths of rivers and bottle eventually move from unexpected, non-literal metaphor, to simply a new literal use of the word. The causal richness of the word used underwrites a pragmatic sublimation of our imaginary powers.

5p13 - The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

Given this tracing of a Spinozist space for the productive intellectual powers of metaphors, perhaps it is best to ground the favorability back upon the body, from whence it begins. The causal, associative power of metaphorical confusion, if it is to result in real-world empowerment must also be seen as a material gain, a turn toward the possible polyvalence of the body. Here the numerical duplicity of two objects affectively experienced as one is related to a generalized numerical increase in causal openness, the famous “..in more ways” definition of “advantage”:

4p38 – That which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in more ways [pluribus modis], or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in more ways, is advantageous to man, and proportionately more advantageous as the body is thereby rendered more capable of being affected in more ways and of affecting other bodies in more ways. On the other hand, that which renders the body less capable in these respects is harmful.

Metaphors must be read, if we are to embrace them as Spinozist creations of Joy, as increases in the number of ways in which the body is capable of being affected and affecting others. This would be a groundwork assumption.
Let this post be a kind of reasoning-aloud about the conceptual space affordable for the products of the imagination, and in particular the benefits of metaphors. Under such reasoning, contra Rorty, there is indeed a value in the use of metaphor, in fact given our fundamental passivity of mind, an arguably prodigious value. Because more adequate ideas are not immediately available to us at any particular time on any particular subject or need, given the particular historical conditions we might find ourselves in, the creativity of associative thought, the affective conflations that metaphors achieve, can be seen to play a central role in illuminating new aspects of phenomenae of every kind, from objects, to ideas, to relations. It very well may be wanted for us to say, “The Heavens Weep” rather than “It is raining outside”, for the first condensationally draws together a wealth of causal relations, as Deleuze might say virtual relations, which the second would simply occlude in its distinctness. The first may bring us Joy, the second little. Metaphors cause us to notice, in the shimmering light of what is a revelation, what the Greeks thought of as an “uncovering”, what then  can be excavated by the intellect.

I have to say that despite the loose success of this picture, there is one aspect of Spinoza’s argument that troubles me, and I have found this distinction in other writings of his, (for instance his letter to Peter Balling regarding his prophetic imagination of his son). When Spinoza wants to qualify that something is linked only in the body, and not in the intellect, given his parallel postulate I can not rigorously understand the distinction of an ordo  of the body, since each linking in the body MUST be a linking in the mind of God. As events happen in they body, they are also following adequately in the mind. I can perhaps imagine that the ideational linkings of bodily affections read as coincident are perhaps too obtuse for the finite mind to immediately comprehend, and therefore as a shorthand bodily affection associations are to be distinguished from intellectual reference. But I cannot see in principle how these are divided, as the human Mind is nothing more than God thinking in a finite mode. The understandability that even allows affects to be intelligible at all confirs some mental order to them. Even the associations Spinoza regards as contingent, those between the sound of the word “apple” and the image of the apple that comes to your mind is intimately linked to the network of rationally organized beliefs about the world and language use which over and above habit provide the context for interpretability. In a sense, one sees an apple, as an apple, because one knows the word “apple” and understands its concept (how to use the word), and this was learned under causal conceptions with others in a shared world. To be sure, there is a free-flowing connection between images based on personal experiences, but these are shot through with inferential and deductive understandings of the world.

What is a metaphor if not a kind of pirouette

performed by an idea, enabling us to assemble its diverse names or images?

—Paul Valéry

Pythagorian Spinoza?

Leibniz’s Summation

Of some significance, here I post a summation of Spinoza’s philosophy, as passed through the mouth of a loyal friend, Tschirnhaus, and as relayed to Leibniz in 1675, originally published in English by Wim Klever. It draws out some curious Klever might say esoteric aspects of Spinoza’s thinking. Most distinct about it is the notion that Spinoza held a Pythagorian idea of a transmigration of the Mind. Besides the obvious distortions that can be brought about through one man telling another man what someone else believes, there remains the possibility that the account is somehow intentionally colored in details, either to couch Spinoza, or to put him in a personally favorable light:

As Klever relates:

“In spite of Spinoza’s warning that Tschirnhaus should be reluctant in communicating what he had received for private use, we know that Tschirnhaus nonetheless revealed many secrets to the inquisitive Leibniz. This appears from a note written by Leibniz which he must have made shortly after a meeting. I think it worthwhile to quote this note here in full because it enables us to see how Spinoza’s doctrine was perceived, understood, and explained by his friends and followers in or around 1675. A second reason is that this note which is not known by many scholars and iis not yet available otherwise in English contains several interesting points which cannot be found elsewhere and is also for that reason relevant:

Sir Tischirnhaus told me many things about the handwritten book of Spinoza. There is a merchant in Amsterdam, called Gerrit Gilles [Jarig Jelles] I think who supports Spinoza. Spinoza’s book will be about God, mind, happiness or the idea of the perfect man, the recovery of the mind and the recovery of the body. He asserts the demonstration of a number of things about God. The he alone is free. He supposes that freedom exists when the action or determination originates not from an external impact, but only from the nature of the actor. In this sense he justly ascribes freedom to God alone.

According to him the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God. He thinks that there is a sense in all things to the degrees of their existence. God is defined by him as an absolutely infinite Being, which contains all perfections, i.e. affirmations or realities or what may be conceived. Likewise only God would be substance or a Being which exists in itself, or which can be understood by itself; all creatures are nothing else other than modes. Man is free insofar as he is not determined by any external things. But because this is never the case, man is not free at all, though he participates more in freedom than the bodies.

The mind would be nothing but the idea of the body. He thinks that the unity of the bodies is caused by a certain pressure. Most people’s philosophy starts with creatures, Des Cartes started with the mind, he [Spinoza] starts with God. Extension does not imply divisibility as was unduly supposed by Descartes; although he supposed to see this also clearly, he fell into the error that the mind acts on the body or is acted upon by the body.

He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge that he calls intuitive, of which of which only a few are conscious. Because knowledge is either sensual, imaginative, or intuitive. He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that the mind goes from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher. He thinks that apart from thought and extension there are an infinity of other positive attributes, but that in all of them there is thought like here in extension. How they are constituted cannot be conceived by us but every one is infinite like space here (“Spinoza’s life and works” Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, 46-47)

 

I posted below some rough thoughts I had some time ago, and their related Spinoza texts. Klever’s evidence of a kind of at least percieved Pythagorian transmigration adds an esoteric meaning to Spinoza’s mathematization. And while I cannot conceive how such a transformation could be understood within the propositions of the Ethics [on what account is the preservation of identity maintained], it does give conceptual context for some of the more difficult to interpret passages on this issue.

Notable as well is the summation’s deviation from Spinoza’s theory of the three knowledges as found in the Ethics. Here, the trinity of “imaginary, rational, intuitive” has become “sensual, imaginary, intuitive”. Assuming an accurate translation of the passage, this may give some clue to the differences of Spinoza’s treatment of the Imaginary and Order (spoken about here, in Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order). Professor Della Rocca in correspondence had affirmed his belief that Spinoza is somewhat inconsistent in his treatment of “order” in the various parts of the Ethics. What is suggested by the Leibniz summation, perhaps, is that even the rational, propositional conception of true and free in Spinoza is still imaginary; this may be linked to Spinoza’s variation on whether we can or cannot ever have wholly Adequate Ideas.

Slightly, Re-evaluating Descartes

The Flexed Lens of Hyperbolic Doubt, as it Imaginatively Focuses the MInd

 

Instead of seeing Descartes as the harbinger of the tremendous severing of the Body and the Mind, as philosophy can be thought to have suffered over the centuries that followed, there are more subtle readings that grasp the cohesive project that Descartes attempting, one in which the imagination is seen to play a role in rational understanding. Such a take remains critical, but at a level which is more nuanced in the historical contexts of his ideas, while understanding the breadth of Descartes’ vision of how things cohere.

An important if prospective conclusion in concert with Descartes’ re-evaluation is reached by Graham Burnett, as he places Descartes’ pursuit of hyperbolic lenses in tentative relation to the use of hyperbolic doubt (I find this connection to be brilliant):

Descartes’ greatest philosophical success lay, from his perspective, in a systematic investigation of the human mind and the perfection of cognitive operations those investigations promised; that human mind received, via natural light of reason, an instantaneous, clear, and distinct illumination, but only by means of interposition of another hyperbolic focusing device – hyperbolic doubt…

…In Gaukroger’s reconstruction of Descartes’ psychology [Descartes, an intellectual biography ], a quite elaborate extension of the hyperbolic (lens)/hyperbolic (doubt) analogy would be possible. In Gaukroger’s reading, the imagination mediates between the pure intellect and the realm of the senses, and the experience of cognition inheres in this intermediate faculty, which represents the content of the intellect and the content of the senses both as “imagination.” Where these two map onto each other the experience is that of “perceptual cognition.” As the project of hyperbolic doubt is abundantly imaginative, and as Descartes has insisted that the natural light of reason does not stream down from God but is within our intellects, it would be possible to argue that the imagination plays the role of the focusing of the hyperbolic lens, and receives the light emanating from the intellect, which normally enters the imagination confusedly, quickly distorted by the “blinding” profusion of imagery from the senses.

Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest

Compare this conclusion to Augustine’s own Neo-Platonic conception of our own self-knowledge, Augustine whose “Si fallor sum” preceded Descartes “Cogito ergo sum”, and we can see the legs of this approach in relation to an pervasive conception of the divine:

For we exist and we know that we exist, and we take delight in our existence and our knowledge of it. Moreover, in respect of these three things of which I speak [a trinity of being, knowing and loving], no falsehood which only resembles the truth troubles us. For we do not make contact with these things by means of our bodily senses, as we do in the case of things extrinsic to ourselves…[in] these cases it is the images resembling the sensible objects, but not the corporeal objects themselves, which we perceive in the mind and retain in the memory, and which excite us to desire the objects…

City of God against the Pagans, Book XI, Chapter 24

The much defamed “doubt” of Descartes really is not so much a doubt for skeptical doubt’s sake, or even a doubt played as a pretense for the foundation of an augment; it rather acts as a kind of imaginary corrective to sense images and experience itself, a use of the imagination upon the imagination, something that focuses the mind on just what is most sure, under a conception that reason is something that both resides and connects. When seen in this way, the division of mind and the body becomes not only ludicrously joined by the pituitary gland, but also by the imagination itself.

Descartes Sans Homunculus!?

One might productively add to this John Yolton’s reconfiguration of Descartes’ project to be one of an immediate Realism, and Natural Philosophy. Here, the scholastic division of the sign’s two parts, that of its signfication, and that of its representation, promises to free up the cliched reading of Descartes as harboring the perverse theoretical imp of an infinity of homunculi buried inside the head. As David Behan points out, scholastic formal signs (ideas) can be read by minds entirely without awareness. Representation, per se, no longer becomes the standard for Descartes’ notion of knowledge. A Few Selections…

The being of an object of the mind is epistemic; it is (in a phrase that I picked up from Norman Wells) the being of being known. The epistemic rendering of “being in the mind” is an important shift from an attempted ontic transfer of an objects reality to a cognitive transfer. The explication of “existence in the mind” does not only occur in Descartes. Behan calls attention to a passage from William of Auvernue which employs the same language, “What it does mean is that it is in the soul according the mode of the being of the soul, which is cognitive”…

David Behan interprets Descartes’ brain motions as formal signs. In support of this interpretation, he refers to the scholastic tradition just behind Descartes, a tradition to which Descartes must have been exposed. As Behan explains, formal signs in that tradition are not themselves known, they signify without without or being aware of them. If we read Descartes’ suggestion of brain motions as signs in this way, the supposed need, which commentators are fond of insisting upon, for a code-reader or, as Wolf-Devine repeatedly says, a homunculus, does not arise…

As a mode of mind, an idea does not…make ‘something other than itself come into the mind’. If an idea represents or if,…the act of cognizing by means of ideas does the representing (the combination of act and idea), in that function, ideas are not ideas as such. That is, in that representing function, they are not modes of mind. I do not suppose that there are any ideas on Descartes’ account that are only modes of mind in the narrow sense I am suggesting. I simply want to distinguish their nature as modes of mind from their nature of function as objectively real. It is this objective reality that is in some cases (e.g. the idea of God, some physical objects) caused by something other than the mind. Ideas as objectively real (or the combination of act and idea) do not play a sign role: they simply are the objects, that which is known.

There is an interesting similarity in Descartes’ account of brain motions and ideas: both play two roles or have two function. Brain motions are both physical events and signs carrying meaning. The motions become something other than motion. Ideas are ideas and objects, modes of mind and the object known. In this secondary role, ideas are something other than ideas. Brain motions become signs to a mind. Signs must refer beyond themselves. Ideas as objects do not really refer beyond themselves on Descartes’ account: they are the objects known. Thus the relation or function of representation is not a signifying relation, signifying differs from representing. Both are necessary for knowledge and perceptual awareness. To represent is to be that which is represented. The combination of signifying and representing ‘gets the object into the mind’, that is, makes the object known.

John Yolton, “Response to Fellow Symposiasts” found in, Descartes’ Natural Philosophy

I think sometimes we moderns, (even we post-moderns), are in the habit of setting up our grand narratives. And in our story about the errors of our historic ways Descartes has come to play the conveniently villanous role that makes any good story worth telling. He plays this role in a curious way though, in particular in the form of the rather easily used and ubiquitous adjective “Cartesian”. We should watch just how satisfying this word is, how simplifying. It is tossed about in Philosophy of Mind and in so many other fields with remarkable reassurance. In regards to it, there is supposed to be a neat and tidy error – some want to call it a irrefutable sounding “categorical error” – which is consistently present in Descartes’ program, and ferreting out this error (or even defending it obstinately) wherever we may find it makes up a very good portion of our philosophical endeavors.

In such a perspective Spinoza can be of very good use for he represents a turning point just before Idealism took up and swallowed the Cartesian poisoned pill. Descartes severed the Mind from the Body, but Spinoza just would not let him. I do think that there is much to be said for such a broad brushing of philosophical history on the West, and even for the very useful distinctions which underpin it. But I also suspect that Descartes’ thought holds within itself much more subtlety and tension that is otherwise granted. Representation simply does not hold such a privledged, and pristine place in Descartes’ thinking about knowing. And in this way, Spinoza’s thought, in relation to Descartes, is perhaps more complex and sympathetic than we otherwise might suspect.

This does not make Spinoza’s thinking “Cartesian” – that adjective again ! how it works something like the words “Communist” or “Racist” – for I am not even sure how frequently we can be assured that Descartes is entirely “Cartesian”; but it does make the connections between the two thinkers more imbricated than a simple comparison of a position of Attributes affords. I suspect that in the grey penumbra of Descartes, somewhere in Descartes’ conception of the blind man’s cane, for instance, in the folds of his treatment of the Imagination, and in the signifying, homunculus-defying aspects of Idea, there are sweet-spots of affinity between the two that may be good to trace.

  

Spinoza and the Caliban Question

The Power of Liberative Imagination in Spinoza, the Calibanic Art

CALIBAN:
Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.

   

Political Theorist, and at one time imprisoned Spinozist, Antonio Negri calls it the Caliban Question. And I think it is perhaps the greatest question of all, in regards to the full applicability of Spinoza to modern times. What is the Caliban Question?

For Negri, the Caliban Question is the search for the positive role of the imagination in the architecture of Being which Spinoza presents. This is a difficult thing to assess, for the great weight of a Rationalist interpretation of Spinoza tugs at us with pendulous force. We feel that we may have freed ourselves up from it, only to be dragged down again as we encounter the rather obvious and plainly stated descriptions against the imagination, wherein Spinoza repeatedly calls it confused, and lessor. The Caliban Question is, What room does Spinoza make for imaginative processes which lead towards the liberation of humans? What good does the imagination have?

Caliban of course is the slave of Prospero, from Shakespeare’s Tempest. He is a “moon-calf”, a deformed and dark human offspring of the witch Sycorax by virtue of which he thought himself to be King of himself, and inheritor of the island to which Prospero had been shipwrecked. Prospero, by virtue of his learning and knowledge is himself a sorcerer, and by these powers he has enslaved this primitive boy-man as a retribution for an attempted rape of his daughter, attempting to people “this isle with Calibans”. Comical Caliban, in more recent post-colonial studies has been taken as an emblem of indigenous and childized, magical society.  And Caliban’s alliance to the two, Stephano and Trinculo, charmed by their celestial liquor, symbolizes a fundamental if mystified revolutionary spirit, the impulse to throw off an oppressive tyrant. To put it in short, the Caliban Question is the question of affective empowerment through an imaginary relation.

How to Make Tools Without Tools

Spinoza himself puts the position of the imagination within a process of intellection, taking up the interesting Cartesian analogy of trying to smith a hammer without a hammer. Here the question is raised of how the intellect is able to bootstrap itself up from non-intellective capacities. Implicit is that there is something of tool before proper “tool” and there is something of intellection within imagination:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. (5) For, in order to work iron, hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. (6) We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. [31] (1) But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, complicated mechanisms which they now possess.  

The Emendation of the Intellect

But the question remains, whether we are discussing the invention and production of tools, or of logical means, what exact role does imagination play in such a progression? One may very well accept the ultimate reduction of the world to a sub specie aeternitatis view of Ideas and Extension, but really at some point the imagination of the world as orderly, of tools being able to do one thing or another, is implicit in a rational and cohesive view of action. Imagination cannot solely be a bad, retarding thing. Or, to position the question another way, there must be gradations of clarity or efficacy within imaginary thinking as well: Caliban must be granted a path to liberation while still being, or even by virtue of himself being, a Caliban.

  

Negri’s Caliban: Spinoza takes a five-year break from his Ethics 

Negri, because he is at most interested in the political liberation effects of Spinoza’s philosophy, wants to isolate and ensure this locus of a positive imagination as it is found in Spinoza’s total picture of the capacities of human beings, (and he brings this argument to bear in chapter 5, “Interruption of the System” of his The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics ). As some have, he focuses on the mysterious five year break Spinoza took from writing his magnum opus Ethics, from 1665 – 1670, during which Spinoza turned himself from the most abstract Ontological and Epistemological considerations of Substance and God (Books 1 and 2 of the Ethics), to treat the much more concrete and practical issues of Theology (Biblical hermeneutics, in particular as they are used to legitimate and organize power), and Politics (how that power is so organized). Negri’s point is that Spinoza has been forced by circumstance and the limitations of his top-down abstractions, to embrace the concrete conditions of a modal and historic time, the phenomenal and real surface of a profundum sea. In short, Spinoza pulled his head out of eternity, and turned his analytical gaze to matters of his day, the facts of human power.

The historical circumstances of Spinoza’s break were these:

1. In March of 1665 the English set out in War to limit the Dutch domination of sea-faring world trade. It was in the basis of this trade the Spinoza’s home community in Amsterdam was becoming a proto-capitalist world economic force, straining the limits of Royalist political forms. After several early successes by the British, the war would become quite bloody and fierce. Eventually the political ramifications would lead to the imprisonment of Spinoza’s epistolary British friend and secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg.

2. Plague, come 1663, hit northern Continental Europe. In its first year nearly 10,000 died in Amsterdam, 24,000 in the next year. By 1665 it had swum the channel to London. Early that summer, a thousand deaths a week were reported in the city, by August it was 6000 a week. 200,000 cats were killed. Houses were sealed, the gates of London closed. It would drive the scientifically minded Royal Society in London to stop meeting (1666), as the wealthy took sick, or fled to country estates. In the winter of 1664 Spinoza himself for a few months would leave the village of Voorburg because its size and proximity to The Hague had made it unsafe.

 

3. There was a strong messianic tide in the air. Christian millinarians were disappointed that the year 1656 – a number derived from the book of Daniel and a calculation of the date of the flood – had passed and the Jews had not converted to signal the time of Second Coming. In Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh beth Israel had reported a decade earlier that some of the lost tribes of Isreal had been discovered in the New World, indicating that the messiah was approaching. Sabattai Zevi, a Smyrna Jew born on an auspicious date, come to be an inspirational Cabbalist, in Jerusalem in the Spring of 1665 declared himself to be the Messiah, and announced that the day of Redemption would be June 18th, 1666. Religious fervor over this figure and the date spread across Europe. Eschatologically minded Christians took this Jewish activity and expectation as a sign that the end days were near.

(1664, drawing and observations of Matasaburou, a 12 year old boy in Japan)

4. In early December of 1664 the (in)auspicious appearance of a comet in the sky set the tone for propheticized and earth-rending changes, and remained in the sky well into the next year. Christopher Wren and John Wallis among others set to testing out their theories as to the nature of comets, while in widespread fashion most understood the comet as harbinger of the disasters. (Anecdotal to fears, Robert Knox tells of a rebellion that broke out in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at mid-night on Dec 21, when the “fearful blazing star” was directly over head. The rebellion lasted more than a week, until the tail turned its direction.)

One has to picture the  degree of social crisis occurring at nearly every level of exchange and expectation. Imagine thousands upon thousands dying in our major cities, particularly in the quarters brimming with poor. See that letters themselves were being heated and ironed, so to take the disease out, as it traveled from elsewhere. Un-visible death creeps through every association and acquaintance, and families and friendships are disintegrating. Reports of the brutality/bravery of Dutch navy men reached both shores, as invisible shipping lanes spread across the channel are being fired upon, those tenuous threads across the Atlantic stretched taut all the way down to Brazil, a place of “primitive” and mythologized wealth, a balancing point for new opportunity and cultural redemption – the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam being the fathers and sons of a recently inquistioned people. Spinoza was part of a ring of exchange, as he haply kept correspondence with Oldenburg in London, scientists sharing and combating over their startling new theories and mechanisms. Knowledge circulated with relative freedom from Italy to Paris to The Hague to London and back, passing through veils of secrecy. But now all this potential connectivity was threatened and stamped by death, and the friendship with Oldenburg would not survive the war, plague and publishing in warmth. Every opening for others was also a breech. The messianic fervor of both Christians and Jews should not be underestimated. It expressed viscerally the ambitions of an expected, and then yearned for deliverance. As plague wiped out the the city centers, focusing on the poor, and as Royal forms of governance strained, the eschatological, the coming of an “event” to trigger it all, was ripened into a hung fruit. How startling the comet of the winter of 1664 must have seemed, in retrospect! I bring the drawing from a Japanese boy’s diary to suggest the global semiotic force of its presence. Such a light, no matter its interpretation, confers on every eye, each evening of long nights, an interpretive imperative. The most distant planets were just being glimpsed in glasses of the kind that Spinoza was polishing. Now a body was burning across the sky, filled with empty signification. The prophetic fulfillments of Zevi Sabbatai, the Jewish occult assurance of a date of Redemption, surely stirred the volatile mix deep, deep, bringing together history, biblical fact and historical cataclysmic in a single star. The condensation of all these forces, fears and transitions, before death’s door must have shaken even Spinoza’s quiet soul to the bone. Spinoza’s turn to the matters of the day, how social reality was produced, was a kind of philosophical triage.

The moon-calf’s isle full of noises: Spinoza writes a letter to console a Father who lost his son

CALIBAN
Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?

STEPHANO
Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.

CALIBAN
I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.

At this time of coming war, the not-yet-comet, horrible city-plague and messiah expectation, Spinoza’s good friend Peter Balling’s young son suddenly succumbed to pestilence (for controversial thoughts on the timing of the son’s death, see here). It is one of the few glimpses we have into Spinoza’s tenderness, for his letter to Mr. Balling (letter 17), though answering questions of metaphysics, is tinged with the personal and heartfelt. Balling was one of Spinoza’s circle of Amsterdam Cartesians with whom he had grown close a decade before, and Balling had just finished translating some of Spinoza’s work from the Latin.

It is upon this letter that Negri’s research into the substance of imagination lights, for in it we have the sensitive treatment of a most human and most imaginative event. Peter Balling, knowing well Spinoza’s arguments against the imagination, tells Spinoza of a hallucinatory experience, one that disturbingly binds him to his son now dead. We know of the contents of Balling’s description from Spinoza’s response.

Spinoza begins by telling Balling that his prophetic experience of his son’s groans were merely of the imagination:

With regard to Omens, of which you make mention in telling me that, while your child was still healthy and strong, you heard groans like those he uttered when he was ill and shortly afterwards died, I should judge that these were not real groans, but only the effect of your imagination; (tran. Elwes)

We might at this point see that Spinoza is going to say that these hallucinated groans are to Spinoza merely imagination, a confused play of the mind upon itself. But this will not be the case. For really Spinoza finds degrees of truth in all knowing, even imaginary knowing. And here he will a distinction which says something in particular about kinds of imaginary influences. First Spinoza cements his conclusion that indeed these were imaginary effects. They were not direct perceptions gained through the senses:

for you say that, when you got up and composed yourself to listen, you did not hear them so clearly either as before or as afterwards, when you had fallen asleep again. This, I think, shows that the groans were purely due to the imagination, which, when it was unfettered and free, could imagine groans more forcibly and vividly than when you sat up in order to listen in a particular direction.

CALIBAN:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

 

A Brazilian Caliban: the dream opens itself up

Spinoza then makes a rather interesting, if discordant, diversion. He means at the surface of it to explain that he too had experienced a play of the imagination which forcefully maintained itself, superimposed upon the world, when one thing or another was not being stared at. But the content of this dream, and its persistence, the jutting presence it seems to have in the letter, makes of it for the psychologically minded, a cypher:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same negro appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified).

We can see the imposition of the black and scabby Brazilian negro. It is easy now in our time of critical reflection to understand that the figure, though Spinoza had “never seen” him before, embodies much that is projective in the wealth and organization of Amsterdam and European crisis. (Spinoza is from merchant’s family which traded primarily with colonial Brazil.) The Brazil. The locus of some of the lost tribes of Israel, the slavery of humanity on whose trade fuels a new and possibly democratic liberation in the United Provinces, a diseased figure which speaks to the plague, a persistent intruder in Sense itself. Spinoza turns to this memory in empathy with, and not just an illustration of, Peter Balling’s premonition. There suggests a grand kind of synthesis here. The most personal and the most economic and cultural. A son one has always known, slave one has never met. But how is it to gain footing?

Spinoza makes an important distinction, one that I think is requisite by the very nature of his bi-Attributive metaphysics (perhaps though in violation of a postulate of an infinite number of Attributes):

Effects of imagination either from the constitution of a body or of a mind, originate (translation own).

Effectus imaginationis ex constitutione vel coporis vel mentis oriuntur.

Spinoza wants to have Balling see that the dream of the Brazilian Caliban is perhaps somehow fundamentally different than his own premonition of his son’s illness and death. At this point in the letter to this effect Spinoza brings up the kind of hallucinations which characterize the effects of the imagination brought on by the condition of the body. First he mentions the delirium caused by fevers. Next he mentions how a constitutionally “tenacious” man or woman tenacem imagines “nothing but quarrels, brawls, slaughterings, and the like”. These are effects that are supposed to flow from physical effects. In contrast to this physical arisal, there is the logic of imaginary progressions, spreading out in a web of expanding associations and tracings:

We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the character of the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione ], for, as we know by experience, it follows the traces of the Intellect in all things, and arranges its images and words, just as the Intellect arranges its demonstrations and connects one with another; so that we are hardly at all able to say, what will not serve the imagination as a basis for some image or other.

Spinoza, in his dichotomy of causes, will set up a distinction as to which effects of the imagination are possibly prophetic of the future, and those which are not. The distinction is simple, if ever impossible to support as pure. Effects which proceed from the body can have no prophetic glimpse, those that proceed from the mind/soul, can, in a confused way, have a presentament of the future:

This being so, I say that no effects of imagination springing from physical causes can ever be omens of future events; inasmuch as their causes do not involve any future events. But the effects of imagination, or images originating in the mental constitution, may be omens of some future event; inasmuch as the mind may have a confused presentiment of the future.

He goes further, characterizing just what it was about Peter Balling’s hallucination what may have made it prophetic, and it is based on the concept of union and love:

It may, therefore, imagine a future event as forcibly and vividly, as though it were present; for instance a father (to take an example resembling your own) loves his child so much, that he and the beloved child are, as it were, one and the same. And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

The prophetic capacities of Peter Balling causally stem from his loving and shared essence with his son. There is for Spinoza a very real sense in which participation in another person’s force of existing can make of you both One Thing, and by virtue of this synthetic and truly cybernetic understanding of shared essence, the imagination can operate as an, albeit confused, but still forceful and productive means of understanding and liberation. Just how Spinoza aims to delineate that his own hallucination of the Brazilian Caliban, wanting of freedom, as a participant in the forces which helped enslave him, as a merely bodily effect of the imagination, one does not know. Perhaps this distinction only is a residue of his need to privilege his friend’s intimate hallucination. Or perhaps he himself could not fathom the ideational sharing he might have with a distant and dark figure whom “he had never met”. The question remains open.

But Spinoza then will set out, as if a diagnostician of imaginative phenomena, several pragmatic restrictions which serve to curtail too rampant an application of this prophetic principle:

Again, as the soul of the father participates ideally in the consequences of his child’s essence, he may (as I have said) sometimes imagine some of the said consequences as vividly as if they were present with him, provided that the following conditions are fulfilled:

I. If the incidence in his son’s life be remarkable; II. If it be capable of being readily imagined; III. If the time of its happening be not too remote; IV. If his body be well constituted, in respect not only of health but also free from all cares and troubles which could outwardly trouble the senses; [V.] It may also assist the result, if we think of something which generally stimulates similar ideas. For instance, if while we are talking with this or that man we hear groans, it will generally happen that, when we think of the man again, the groans heard when we spoke with him will recur to our mind. 

Negri  grasps hold of this affirmation and does not let go. The Reality of the Imagination, the constitutive partaking it has with the essences of things, the fact that all of the social Real is shot through with imaginary forces, and that these forces concretely and causally make up the forms of our social domain, is the hinge-point on which Negri turns Spinoza’s critique of imagination, to a imaginative project of liberation. It is possible, indeed historically necessary, to imagine, and perhaps phenomenologically experience, a liberation in order to bring it about. And this occurs as part of cybernetic sharing of persons in a single form. In a sense, if the future is not too far out, and the event is imaginable and distinct enough, and the body is in good enough health, a prophetic, if confused capture comes into play.

Making the cat speak: the negotiation between the knowing imagination and the oppressive powers of knowledge

STEPHANO:
open your mouth; here is that
which will give language to you, cat: open your
mouth; this will shake your shaking, I can tell you,
and that soundly: you cannot tell who’s your friend:
open your chaps again.

 

…CALIBAN:
I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island;
And I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god.

Negri conducts a rather thorough analysis of a diachronic and synchronic braid of arguments in Spinoza’s interruptive Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the result of which is the conclusion that Spinoza is caught in the embrace of necessarily imaginative historical concreteness of the human condition. Imaginative effects are those which constitute modal reality, in particular those effects which serve to bind the social whole. The imaginary telling of the nature of the world and its laws is a necessary over-determination of the Real determination of causal explanation, manifest in a phenomenal expression which is distinctly affective. I quote here at length to finish off the point:

In other words, the problem consists of the special nature of the effects of the prophetic imagination, of the paradox of an essential nothingness that produces historical being and certainty. This is the moment when the critical function becomes phenomenological. The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate being by molding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of the human operari. Therefore, two levels can be identified: a first, static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the ethical constitution of the world.13 The political raises the theological to the level of truth. And here the problem of “false consciousness” is posed in modern terms! We must now, therefore, follow this process that, through a powerful operation, raises illusion to the level of truth; we must examine and differentiate its internal truth and falsity. The instrumental paradox of the “libertine” critique of religion is accepted here (imagination is illusion) in the inverted form that really constitutes it (and illusion constitutes reality). But the Spinozianin version of the constitutive function evades the skeptical danger and every skeptical temptation. Constitutive activity, in fact, is not a simple political function, it is not double truth; it is, rather, ontological power. Revelation’s lesson is undoubtedly “ad hominem” an illusory sign of a hidden truth, but it is the operative character of illusion that makes it real and therefore true (chapter II, pp. 43-44)  

The potential for ideological critique in this position is immense, but in this thread of thoughts I am not so much interested in the political, as important as it is. I am interested in the figure of Caliban himself. Where does he stand in this cross-fire of imaginative effects, the universal primative cast in a permanently comic and revolutionary position? Or, what does Spinoza make of his dream? Could it come solely from bodily effects? (And problematically for Spinoza’s distinction, since all bodily effects are paralleled by ideational effects, how does such a division maintain itself?) So how long does this figure linger over our focus upon his arguments? In what manner did the dream (winter of ’62) and its recollection (summer of ’64) foreground his break with the Ethics and his endeavor to concretize his theories in historical form? And as comet, war, plague, messiah, personal deaths and distant colonies invade upon the civility of a productive Europe is not the imagination itself the locus of any move towards freedom? How much did Spinoza imagine the possibilities and needs of his Ethics as he returned to it in roughly in 1670, and took on the nature of the affects and appetites of men, and their unliberative powers?

What I want to question here how much each of us are a Caliban, a moon-calf who hears the sounds of our island, and is taught not only a language of means, but also of oppression. That the condition of our means is one of mystification, an over-determined vision of how things are. And that though Spinoza argued and believed that clear and distinct thought were the best means of a liberation, imaginary participation in shared substance may be the primary means of progressive increase in the power to act. Ever to ask, who endowed our purpose with words. It is interesting that while Shakespeare traces out the historic conditions of a succession of powerful takeovers by means of knowledge: Sycorax of the island, the King of Naples over Prospero, Sycorax over the moon, Prospero over the sea, Prospero over the island, placed in Caliban is the liberative force itself, made comic and absurd, the acknowledgement of a certain passivity and dependence which gives birth to alliance. And it is the same dependence which for Spinoza links the most brutish thing to the “rest of the rock”. There is a place, I believe, between a father’s shared premonition of his son, and a community’s prophetic glimpse of its own future.

MIRANDA:
When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.

 

CALIBAN:
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.

Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

Recently though I have been reading Michael Della Rocca’s essay, “The Power of an Idea: Spinoza’s Critique of Pure Will,” and despite my embrace of its conclusion as to the radically anti-Cartesian nature of 2p49, something of its intermediate conclusions troubled me. I may not fully understand the position, or it may be simply that I understand it, and disagree with it slightly.

It is Della’s Rocca’s conclusion that all modes of thought are indeed only those of ideas, and thus, of representations that confuses me. I do understand how he uses this principle causal reading of Spinoza to deny any possibility of a mental x (non-representational, will) determining a mental y (idea). But for me the difficulty arises with the nature of affects themselves, for while Spinoza certainly has argued that there is no will which determines which ideas we hold, it seems rather that the ideas that we hold indeed do determine the affects we have, and these affects are to be understood as “modes of thought”. I will go over this point a few times, so feel free to skip the examples.

What struck me was his exclusive reading of modes of thought so to be “fully reduced” to ideas was this kind of argumentative aim, as he writes, “I would also show, more generally, that there can be no item in thought, and thus no states of desire, hope, love, etc. that do not reduce fully to ideas” (Nous, 220).

I am unsure of just what he means to say, “states of x” are “fully reduced to ideas”. Is he reading an affect of Joy or desire to be an “item in thought”, even though it is defined as a transition that is “accompanied by”, and presumably not identical with, an idea? I might tend to agree that “representational content does all the causal work in the mind” for Spinoza (ibid), but something seems amiss here; if one is to fully describe Spinoza’s theory of the affects this something seems to be an account of the very degree of perfection of the ideas themselves. For the degree of the perfection of ideas determines the affect one has, and the very transition from one degree of perfection as a bodily power affirmation, (as found in the definitions of Joy and Sadness) should be considered a mode of thought, and perhaps a non-representational mode at that: for love itself apart from what is loved (Joy), represents nothing. In fact 2ax3 it would appear makes just this kind of distinction, an affect taken to be mode of thinking which is not its necessarily accompanying idea.

So we see the possible non-representational nature of affective modes of thought in a few places.

First, Spinoza in his attempt to deal with volition apart from desire presents representation-type model, (2p48s: “by will I understand a faculty…not the desire by which the mind wants a thing or avoids it”), gives his affirmations of a triangular example which he cites [the relationship between the ideas of a triangle and the angles therein]. Yet, in his General Definition of the Affects, he presents a very different kind of affirmation, that which is affirmed in examples of inadequate thought; here it is not some rational entailment as to the nature of the idea to itself (triangle/right angles), but of the body a degree of force of existing, or perfection. This affirmation of a degree of perfection seems to be a non-representational mode of thought, that is, it is only “born out of an idea” orta ex idea (for instance in the definition of the affect of Confidence), but remains distinct from that idea. We see this same distinction between the idea and the transition itself marked out in the definitions of Love, “Love is a Joy [an increase in perfection] with the accompaniment of (concomitante) an idea of an external cause”. What an idea affirms, that is, the mode of its thought, seems of paramount importance. In the instance of love, what is being affirmed as represented, is the idea of an external cause, but what is being affirmed (non-representatively) is the very power of the body to exist, in a specific degree. The question is, is “affirmation” necessarily representational (and not say, expressional).

For Spinoza, the modes of inadequate thinking are componented as to what they affirm, and what they represent. For instance, if I think I am saddened by a man betraying me (Hate), this is an affirmation of the belief that he is the cause of my sadness, (thus the idea is taken as a true representation of the causal explanation as to my state); but also by this very idea the Mind acts to affirm a weakening force of the body to exist such that it does exist to a lesser degree. Is this affirmation a “representation”? Spinoza says that it is a kind of representation, that is, it is something that “indicates or expresses” indicare vel exprimere the constitution of the body. But the very transition itself into a less real state, the feeling of sadness coming out of the idea which “constitutes the form of the affect”, does not seem a representation as we take the word.

This may of course have consequences for the nature of consciousness, that which “determines the mind to think this rather than that” (General Definitions of the Affects). Spinoza writes at 2p18s, defining Memory as “the certain connection of ideas involving the nature of things outside the body” and that this connection is the connection of the “affections of the human body”. Thus there is a kind of shadow parallel postulate which mirrors the parallel postulate of 2p7. There is the order and connection of ideas and things which is the same at the adequate level; but there is the order and connection of ideas about the nature of external things, and the affections of the body which are the same at the inadequate level. Of this second order, we think of an apple when we hear the word “apple” because the affections of our body are such that these have coincided, the hearing and the seeing. Presumably, this is also because in each affection, we have had the affect of joy, in that the Mind has affirmed in our body a greater degree of existing, transited (transito) to a greater perfection of being. These are two “orders” so to speak, the order of causal explanations provided by the Intellect’s ideas (2p18s), and the order of the affections of the body which produce the affirmations of the body, and affects via inadequate ideas. Both orders are modes of thinking, but how essentially representational, I am not sure. The first affirms and negates conceptually (as in the case of triangles), the second through its inadequate ideas “indicates or expresses” the degrees of being of the body, whose shifts (states of Joy, Sadness and Desire) do not seem represented.

This is the same fundamental tension which exists in the way he wants to talk about the will (voluntatem ). On the one had, it is a faculty (facultatem ) of presumably ideational affirmation and negation (2p48s); and yet he still wants to define Desire (Cupiditas) by its strivings, impulses, appetites and volitions (volitiones), which are as manifold (varia ) as with the constitution (constitutione ) of each man that is manifold (hominis…varii ), taking as their objects the very bodily states themselves; that is to say, volitions follow the order of bodily affections (Definition of the Affects, I). The faculty of voluntatem which rests with the affirmations and negations of ideas, and the inadequate production of volitiones result in two kinds of affirmations, and two different notions of representation. One affirmation occurs at the ideational level with adequate ideas, such as one does when discussing the ideas of triangles, (a triangle and not a circle), with no reference to the body at all, and one that occurs at the seemingly non-representational affective transition, “born of” inadequate ideas/images which indicate a degree of being of the body, affirming that, through the order of its affections.

What makes an idea=representation equivalence confusing is that Spinoza would like to distinguish ideas from images (“fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”), yet each can be taken as a representation. What Spinoza privileges as a true idea, what I would read as “an idea insofar as it is an idea” (2p49) isn’t really a representation in the usual sense, that is, it is not an idea about the nature of an external thing (that is, it does not literally re-present it). The intellect, insofar as it affirms or negates, understands things through their first causes, it explains them (2p18s). Thus, the intellectual Idea of God or Substance explains modal reality, but does not represent it, except perhaps in the most Scholastic of senses.

Axiom 3, Ethics Part II: There are no modes of thinking, such as love, desire, or whatever is designated by the word affects of the mind, unless there is in the same Individual the idea of the thing loved, desired, etc. But there can be an idea, even though there is no other mode of thinking.

I think key to reading 2ax3, on which Della Rocca’s interpretation rests, is understanding that when Spinoza writes “There are no modes of thinking, such as love…unless there is the idea of the thing loved,” he announces that the affect of loving (Joy), is a non-representational mode of thinking (already admitted by the axiom as distinct) which is concomitant to a representational, affirming mode of thought (inadequate idea) regarding an the external thing. That is, the affect arises out of the idea, but is distinct from it.

I agree with his thought, “Spinoza claims that because an idea cannot be conceived without a certain affirmation, and because that affirmation cannot be conceived without the idea, it follows, given Spinoza’s conception of essence (2def2), that affirmation pertains to the essence of the idea, and that the affirmation is identical with the idea” (Nous, 202). But we must distinguish between adequate and inadequate ideas. It is the particularity of the affirmation which marks it as such. The rational affirmation that is involved in the Intellect’s understanding through first causes, is not the same affirmation involved in affects as passions, though the latter can be explained through the former. Spinoza views all ideas, insofar as they are in the mind of God, as true. That is, what they affirm and negate constitute their essence. But in instances where we are not thinking of triangles, but inadequately of external objects, what is being affirmed is not the ratio of angles unto a conception of triangles, but a power of the body, an affirmation which is largely, if not entirely unconscious.

As I look closely at 2p49, affirmations (including the affirmation of the degrees of power of the body to exist) exist because they are involved by ideas (involvit ) insofar they are ideas. This quatenus idea est, can only mean as far as I can tell, ideas as opposed to images, adequate ideas as opposed to inadequate ideas, ideas as they are taken to be in the mind of God. The difficulty with strictly equating this aspect of affirmation (that of an idea insofar as it is an idea) with belief, is that it would be at the level of strictly true belief. As one passes from the strong notion of adequate ideas, to the weaker notion, what is being affirmed, by Spinoza’s definition of affect and inadequate idea, has changed. The affirmation (and negation) which at the level of adequate ideas would constitute true belief, at the level of affects is an affirmation of the body’s capacity to act. Indeed, having ideas of any sort is a kind of belief, an affirmation. But what is being affirmed seems for Spinoza to slide along a gradated, asymptotic line, at whose pinnacle adequate ideas as explanations of the causes of things, affirm and negate the internal particularities of those ideas; but insofar as they are not (true) ideas, they produce a non-representational change in the body’s power. These affective affirmations of the body may be said to be “enfolded by, wrapped by” adequate ideas which involve them involvere, but are they “reduced to” those ideas, for their effects remain modally distinct, as expressions?

 

I am thinking of a description of affects I once found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza, one which made me think deeply about the restrictions Della Rocca was placing on mental action; it lead me to my close reading of Della Rocca’s line of thought. Deleuze writes, explaining the fundamental difference between an idea and an affect:

“Thus we start from a quite simple thing: the idea is a mode of thought defined by its representational character. This already gives us a first point of departure for distinguishing idea and affect (affectus) because we call affect any mode of thought which doesn’t represent anything. So what does that mean? Take at random what anybody would call affect or feeling, a hope for example, a pain, a love, this is not representational. There is an idea of the loved thing, to be sure, there is an idea of something hoped for, but hope as such or love as such represents nothing, strictly nothing. Every mode of thought insofar as it is non-representational will be termed affect”

(Cours Vincennes – 24/01/197eight)

Deleuze, whatever one makes of him, reads affects as essentially non-representational modes of thought; this seems to answer at first blush Della Rocca’s position “…this argument rule[s] out other modes of thought not ultimately ideas or representational states” (Nous, 220). This depends on what he means by “ultimately”. It would also depend on what one means by “representational content”. For, in his essay he seems to often take as identical in meaning, idea and representation. Yet as Spinoza distinguishes between idea and image (2p49s), and Della Rocca understands image to be the means by which the mind represents an “external state of affairs” (Nous, 210; via 2p17); just how “representational” are the affirmations of adequate ideas, for they are not representing external states of affairs (alone), but rather are explaining them. It seems rather, what is taken as “representational” in the usual sense, for instance the idea of a frog, that frog there, insofar as it makes me think of this or that, feel this or that, is merely for Spinoza an image, and not an idea proper.

I think this disjunction in what representation means can be seen in the way that the different kinds of affirmations are approached by Spinoza. Those of triangles and the such, by the intellect, involve no reference at all to states of the body itself, even though, all ideas in the Mind are supposed to take as their object the Body as it actually exists, an object in fact constituted (constituentis) by that state of the body (2p13). When discussing our ideas of triangles (and what they are supposed to represent, if we take such ideas to be fundamentally representational), there is no mention at all of the actual object of those ideas, the human body. Spinoza does not, in fact cannot say with any sense, “the idea that the two angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is affirmed because the body is in actual state x, which forms the actual object of this idea of the mind”.

The conflation of image representations and idea representations seems to undermine the thought that there can be no “interaction between…ideas and any non-ideas” (Nous, 223). While I certainly agree that there is no room for a Cartesian free will as an explanatory cause of belief in ideas, what does not seem supported by Spinoza in that he takes representations (inadequate ideas) to be unconscious affirmations of the body which give “rise to” shifts in perfection, transitions which are not representational in character. In the end, Spinoza actually seems to invert Descartes, and makes what we commonly take as “will,” the products of consciousness and choice, a non-representational, ontological effect, caused by largely representational states (inadequate ideas, images of external states), and these inadequate representational states in turn to be further caused by Intellectual affirmations and negations, which in the mind of God are less “representations” in the common sense term, as immanent expressions of modal states of the world, as ideas.

Key becomes the question, are the risings and fallings of degrees of power of the body to exist (and act), those transitions to and from perfection, to be considered “modes of thought” or of some alternate category, neither extension nor thought. There seems no room in Spinoza’s ontology for this third category.

I wonder if I have misunderstood a vital component of Della Rocca’s argument. I can certainly see how it makes clear the very nature of Spinoza’s radical refutation of Descartes, but I feel that some of his uses of “representation” go too far to adequately capture what Spinoza means by affect.

 

Michael Della Rocca is in my mind the clearest expositor of Spinoza living, and teaching at Yale. Highly recommended, his Represenation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza.

Closely related posts: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order ; Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens ; Wasps, Orchids, Beetles, Crickets

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