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Tag Archives: Neoplatonism

Spinoza, Infinite Substance, and Kabbalah Influence

Math Unto Infinities of Different Sizes and Badiou

I’ve been looking into the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s ontology and epistemology, and been having some discussion with Eric Schliesser with whom I agree: Spinoza is a skeptic in terms of a stable, mathematical knowledge of nature via mathematical thought and operation. This of course is rather counter intuitive considering the heavily rationalistic interpretation of Spinoza in the last century, and the rather strong circumstantial evidence of his more geometrico form of his Ethics, which seems to announce the primacy of mathematical knowledge.

There is also a timely subject matter to these questions, at least in these circles of blogged conversation, as Badiou’s Cantor-inspired Set Theory framing of Being runs right up against and perhaps turning upon the onto-epistemic standing of maths in Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from any critique that Spinoza might offer Badiou’s Being a la maths, there is the provocative historical fact that Cantor’s Set Theory was heavily influenced by early study of Spinoza, in particular his position on kinds of Infinity and questions of divisibility. Spinoza represents a kind of Ur-figure in the concepts Badiou make central, so getting a firm grasp of Spinoza’s differences seems contemporaneously a significant thing to have.

The Door of Heaven and Spinoza’s Early Influences

But in this post, given my personal context, I simply want to post a significant passage on the connection between some of Spinoza’s most elementary ideas, and the thesis that Spinoza was strongly influenced by concepts found in the Kabbalah and the Zohar. Long have I noticed the similarities, and have even come upon other sources outlining them, but it seems that it is a fact/thesis that often get forgotten – some of Spinoza’s most significant contributions to philosophy, not to mention his involute and sometimes sublated Neoplatonism, are best reflected in the ideas found  in this religious thinking. It is good to provide a googable link and easy reference for those who have not thought about it much.

The best Spinoza interpreters continued to link the great philosopher with the doctrines of the authentic Kabbalah, especially those of the Zohar. One of the most important among them was Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, a German Jesuit whose book Der Junge de Spinoza/ is still a classic hardly ever matched by more recent publications. Dunin-Borkowski has a full chapter called “Kabbalistische Wanderfahrten” (Kabbalist travels). A subdivision of it reads (pp. 176-90): “Der Ursprung der Mysticism-Kabbalah und die Urkeime des Spinozismus” (The origin of Mystericism-Kabbalah and the first germs of budding Spinozism). The author stresses that “a higher form of cognition of all finite things, a cognition of God and the light of eternity in the Kabbalah as well as in De Spinoza appears as the highlight of Ethics“. According to him, there was a highly developed older and intermediary type of Jewish mysticism prevailing beside the Kabbalahin the thirteenth century, and the Talmudists had already conceived the existence of mediators between God and the Universe. From these mystics, he concludes, an infinitely long and slow but almost straight evolution leads, through the ideas of the (kabbalistic) sephiroth and the neoplatonic emanations, directly to the basic concepts of the natura naturans and the first links of the natura naturata  in Spinoza’s system. Dunin-Borkowski, in contrast to Heinrich Grätz, the well-known historian of Jews in Germany, calls the sephiroth in the Sepher Jetzirah (Book of Creation) of the Zohara “highly advanced evolution of the secret philosophy of the Talmud, a groping for a link with secular science, an important transitional work pointing to the speculation of the oldest gaonitic religious philosophers. The concept of the En Sof, the Endless or Boundless one, Dunin-Borkowski continues, dominates the Zoharto the same extent as it will later be prevalent in Spinoza’s mind. And here we encounter exactly the same determinations which by so many thinkers and scholars consider a fundamental clevage between Judiasm and Spinozism. God (the En Sof) cannot be designated by any known attributes. He is best called Ayin (the undeterminable). Hence, in order to make His existence known to all, the Diety was obliged (or, what amounts to the same thing, wishes) to reveal Himself at least to a certain extent. But the En Sof, being boundless, cannot become the direct creator, for he has neither will, intention, desire, thought, language nor action, attributes which belong only to finite beings. The En Sof, therefore, made His existence known in the creation of the world by the ten sephiroth, which flowing directly from Him, partake of His perfection and infinity.

These substances or emanations are parts of one another, as sparks are part of the same flame; yet they are, at the same time, distinguished from one another, as are different colours of the same light…The pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar  have become of the highest significance for Spinoza. For there the sephirah “wisdom” forms a perfect unity with the crown and the En Sof. “They are like three heads which, actually, form only one. Everything is connected and linked together in the one whole (the universe). Between the Universe and the Ancient One (God) there is no distinction at all. All is One, and He is all – without distinction and separation.He who describes the sephiroth as separated from one another, destroys God’s unity’.

But Dunin-Borkowski has made another important discovery. The concepts of the Kabbalah were first transmitted to young Spinoza in a rather palatable contemporary version, i.e. Abraham (Alonzo) Herrera’s famous book Door of Heaven. It was written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew by Isaac Aboab. This work, which dealt with Kabbalistic philosophy, was a favorite sourcebook of Baruch’s noted Talmud teachers, Saul Levi Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. In 1678 (one year after Spinoza’s death), a Latin version appeared under the title Sha’ar Hashomayim  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”Hashomayim “>seu Porta Coelorum. In quo Dogmata Cabbalistica Philosophorum proponuntur et cum philosophiae Platonis conferuntur.

Herrera himself had already died in 1639, and young Baruch absorbed the contents of Door of Heaven just during those most decisive years of mental development when the imprint of new ideas of strongest and everlasting in every budding intellectual. He read, of course, the book in its Hebrew version, the language he mastered best up to his death (despite his somewhat clumsy Latin publications and Dutch letters).

According to Herrera, there is on original substance with an infinite extension. Outside it, there are only divine modiwhich are all encompassed in that original substance, the En Sof, even in the potentialities. Thus, there is a created (finite) and a non-created (infinite) State of God, i.e. both God in His proper sense and the Universe; but God is and remains the immanent cause of all things, and the “Universe is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God”. Therefore, we find in the “Lexicon Cabbalisticum” (a chapter of the Door of Heaven) the unequivoked statement: “the acceptance of this unity is part and parcel of the faith of every genuine Israelite; we must believe that the Infinite manifests Himself in all His modi through the unity” (my italics). There is one substance, Herrera stresses, with infinite properites. It is determining itself by a multitude of infinite beings which are, however, nothing but its modifications. God is One and Many at the same time – one in so far as He is infinite; many in so far as He determines Himself in His attributes and modi. These modi cannot exist nor be understood without the Divine One inherent and indwelling in them. Everything is one in God(my italics). Dunin-Borkowski reaches the following conclusion: “Especially the first five treatises of the book [Herrera's Door of Heaven] explain that only blind prejudice can overlook this source of Spinoza’s.

“Spinoza and Kabbalah” by Henry Walter Brann,  in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings (2001), edited by Genevieve Lloyd

If Spinoza had read The Door of Heaven  it was likely before the age of 15, but really the Kabbalah was a prevalent conceptual touch-stone at this time due to messianic stirrings in the political realm. In any case, as I see it, Spinoza’s Kabbalistic influence seems likely, and it is noteworthy that Brann reads the Kabbalistic impulse, along with its mathematical preoccupations, as part of the attempt of mysticism to come to grips with the power of science. In a certain sense Spinoza’s system can be seen as an extremely rigorous, scientific and literal radicalization of both the religious impulse of the Kabbalah, but also its political force (an immanent unity towards a freedom through communication, an offspring of Renaissance revolutionary conceptions of civil transformation). In a more particular view towards the question of the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s system, the Kabbalistic influence of an insistently Infinite and unbroken Substance helps interpret the power of Spinoza’s seemingly anti-mathematical stance in his letter 12 to Meyer, wherein he declared mathematics imaginary in origin. Perhaps we get a glimpse of just how Spinoza conceived that it is through the Intellect that we see any quantity as infinite and undividable into finite parts, despite our ability through mathematics to divide quantities with incredible facility and clarity.  Additionally, Spinoza’s pantheism, (the issue under which the Catholic Cantor most firmly staked his objection of Spinoza), understood as a position taken upon mathematical infinity and set=making itself, may help provide the most robust correction to Badiou’s mathematical ontologies.

A River Runs Through it: Scotus, Spinoza and then Davidson

 

 

In recent conversation the connection between contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson and Spinoza has come up, a connection which I have felt runs in several directions. Previously the only thing I had strictly read on this is Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality by Floris van der Burg, which in my view aside from its conclusions on morality, is very instructive to the matter. Yet today I stumbled upon another source, this one more accessible (only 13 pages): From Duns Scotus to Davidson: Anomalous Monism, Supervenience and the Formal Distinction  Pascal Engel, Conférence, Universita di Verona, 1998, Inédit [or here]

(I am coming to think that in order to fully understand the heritage of Spinoza’s treatment of the attributes they will have to be related not only to Scotus’s formal distinction, but also to the Scotus/Aquinas debate, along with its Neoplatonic influences (both Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius). Here is a thread of Medieval panpsychism which constitutes another story. Spinoza’s treatment of epistemology has strong Augustinian or Pseudo Dionysius principles, in synthesis with Duns Scotus’s univocality of Being, formal treatment of the “names of God”. A synthesis whose ultimate informing sources I have yet to track down.)

In any case, I was looking into the Duns Scotus-Spinoza connection, one written about intriguingly by Deleuze in ’68; I posted some relevant and extensive quotations from Deleuze here:  Spinoza as a Scotist: Formally Distinct and Univocal, for there is very little internet presence of this idea, and not everyone relishes wading through Deleuze.

So it was nice to run into this essay which draws the thread straight through from Duns Scotus to Spinoza’s treatment of the Attributes to Davidson’s distinction between causal relation and a causal explanation. I feel that there are even more important and productive connections between Davidson and Spinoza, mostly found in the homologous order of the Triangulation of Knowledge in Davidson and Spinoza’s grounding of the social within the Imiations of the Affects, but this essay is an excellent source of the armature of Spinoza’s treatment of the same, identity and causation such that it can be effectively read in contemporary terms.

Key to the interpretion is Scotus’s notion of the Formal Distinction, which is something found neither in the intellect, nor even fully in real things, but one could say, in the real of their expression (something that bothered Occam to no end). It is a formal individuating difference, as it is presented here by Engel:

To summarize Scotus claims about distinctions. Entities which are separable by divine power, in the sense that one can exist while the other does not, are “absolutely really” distinct, and those which cannot be so separate are “absolutely really” the same. But within the class of entities which are “absolutely really” the same, we can find pairs of entities which are “qualifiedly” distinct. For example where a and b are absolutely really the same but each is definable independently of the the other, a and b are “formally” distinct. The formal distinction is, as Duns Scotus says, “on the side of things”; it is not a mere conceptual or rational distinction. Thus formal distinction is compatible with real sameness. This is the doctrine which is important for my purposes here: certain things which are true of an entity can be distinct although they belong to the common nature of this entity. The individuating difference is in the individual in question really the same as the common nature that it determines, but nevertheless formally distinct from it (4)

It was just this formal distinction within an identity of Same which allowed Spinoza to make his Attribute distinctions of parallel expressions. For those interested even in one aspect of this trinity of thinkers, Engel does a succinct job of expressing each thinker’s position, and then clearly relates each as a heritage of the next.

Tommaso Campanella et Benedict Spinoza

…this unity [of knower and known] is only possible if the subject and object, the knower and the known, are of the same nature; they must be members and parts of one and the same vital complex. Every sensory perception is an act of fusion and reunification. We perceive the object, we grasp it in its proper, genuine being only when we feel in it the same life, the same kind of movement and animation that is immediately given and present to us in the experience of our same Ego. From this, Panpsychism emerges as a simple corollary to [Campanella's] theory of knowledge.

Cassirer, The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy

When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies

Spinoza, Ethics 2 p13 a2 d)

 A Comparison of Seldolm Considered Affinities

Spinoza

 

Campanella

Panpsychism

Panpsychism
Two Attributes of Extension and Thought which are expressed modally, the essence each is a conatus

Three Primalities of Potentia, Sapientia, Amor
All determination is negation: (letter 50)

All limitation is non-being
Ideas participate in otherness; the affective imagination

To know is to be: cognoscere est esse
Universals are confused knowledge

Universals are confused knowledge
The power to act is a degree of Being (the General Definition of the Affects)

A Plotinian Aristotelianism, degree of Being
Passions involve a confused idea of external cause Illate knowledge (of other things) confuses the soul’s innate knowledge

Falsity as privation; Theory of Affects; affectuum imitatio

Cognoscere est esse; Amor est esse; Operari est esse
Perception is belief; Intellect and Will are one action

Sensation is both a perception and a judgment of a passion
Aristotle’s potency and act collapsed into vector of Being

The principle of Being and the principle of operation collapsed
Use of Scotus’s formal distinction to delineate the Attributes

 

Use of Scotus’s formal distinction to delineate the Primalities
Potientia means power, not just capacity

Potentia means power, not just capacity
Substance’s essence includes existence, modal essences do not

God’s essence includes existence, modal essences exist ab extrinseco
The immanent/transitive causal distinction: God and the modes

Immanent/transitive causal distinction; self vs. other
Power understood as both the capacity to affect and be affected

Potentia activa, potentia passiva/receptiva
The perfection/imperfect distinction essendi

Potentia essendi
All things expressed in Thought and Extension The difference of sensation is not one of essence, but by mode

To love is the increase in perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause

To love is to be: amor est esse
Object of the mind vs. external determination

   

The mind does not measure but is measured
Self-knowledge is expressive in ideas of varying adequacy, all which have the body as their object

Self-knowledge is the nature of Being and Truth (Augustine)
The object of the mind is the body; a body is a communication ratio of parts; self and the other (must) form a ratio, and thus share an essence/conatus

In knowing, the knower becomes the known through the sharing of an essence
The world is determined

No contingency of accidents to substance
The false is privation

Evil is privation (Augustine)
All ideas true in the mind of God All ideas true in the mind of God
   
   
   

The above is a brief conceptual juxtaposition of some of the features of the thought of Campanella and Spinoza, meant as points of departure for an eventual theorization (some preliminary thoughts toward which put forward here and here). I do not find all of these points of convergence equally fruitful. Some of them reach back into a shared reference to Scholasticism (the divisins in which both thinkers attempted to synthesize), and some extend into the roots of a Augustinian/Plotinian Neoplatonism of Being. The crossbeams of the crux of Campanella’s potential contribution to the analysis of Spinoza’s thought are, a.) A comparison of Campanella’s Three Primalities and Spinoza Two Attributes and conatus, and b.) the application of Campanella’s assimulative cognoscere est esse  to Spinoza’s affectuum imitatio and his communitarian, bodily assemblage concept of knowledge. If to know something is to become that something, and sociability is grounded in the experiential, shared affectio  of “a thing like us” and the forming of composite, affective bodies, Campanella’s sapientia transformations are Spinoza’s epistemic increases in power.

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