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Spinoza Transfigured and reExplained: “Idea” as Information

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

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

Informational Propositions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Actions of Calculation

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

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

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

“By mathematical attestation”: Spinoza’s Epiphantic Calculation

Just How Mathematical Was He?

I have been having an interesting conversation over time with Eric Schliesser at Leiden University who holds a minority position on the role mathematics plays in Spinoza’s position on what can be known. He strongly interprets Letter 12 towards a skepticism for just what mathematical calculation (and its attendant applied empirical observation) reveals. As Letter 12 attests, Spinoza regarded mathematics as a “product” of the imagination, come from our imaginary classifications of objects as wholly bound things – cut out from the cloth of Substance, if you will. I wrote on my agreement with this here Spinoza and Mechanical Infinities, but Eric really would like to push the interpretation so far as to restrict all of mathematical endeavours to the realm of the imaginary (the lowest forms of knowledge for Spinoza, the other two being the “rational” and the “intuitional”). This of course comes up against Spinoza’s rather obvious and profound use of mathematics as a model for philosophical investigation and even the higher forms of knowledge as both his method more geometico and his illustrations of higher knowledge both make use of mathematical forms as exemplary.

In large part I really am in agreement with Eric, in the most common Spinoza interpretations the mathematical has somehow risen far above the frame in which Spinoza intended it, but it makes very little sense for me to regard the “products” of imagination as imaginary itself – in the Emendation Spinoza speaks of the production of tools of intellection out of imaginary relations as a positive progression. Clearly mathematical description provides distinct causal understanding of the relations between things, and it is exactly in this vein that the empirical science observations of several centuries does provide a substantive remove from mere superstition, something that Spinoza firmly places himself against. It would seem that Spinoza’s true position lies somewhere in-between, not accepting Galileo’s thought that Nature is written in the language of mathematics, but also grasping that in mathematics (and observation, experiment) there are genuine increases in understanding, freedom, power, joy,  and ultimately for Spinoza, Being.

In this way mathematics is seen as:

1. Both a product of the imagination, and an aid to the imagination [Auxilia imaginationis] (Letter 12).

2. As such they are qualifiable as ens rationis which is what Spinoza calls them in letter 12 [eius modi Entibus rationis], something he is elsewise careful not to be blurred with ens imaginationis (E1App). 

3. It should be admitted that Spinoza does not help things by just prior to distinguishing “number” as a  “things of this reasoning” in letter 12 to Meyer he refers to it as  “nothing more than thinking’s, or better imagining’s, modes” [nihil esse praeter cogitandi, seu potius imaginandi, modos] - he wants to straddle the line here and a little confusedly so.  

4. But reading numbers as ens rationis (distinct from ens imaginationis), these, as Spinoza notes in the all important E2p49 asserting the collapse of volition into the concept of “idea”, are not ens reale (Cor. dem. [III. B (iii)], accept when the latter is understood as an operant, an affirmation and an action. 

5. The real and the rational abstraction that describes it are not to be confused. It is this final distinction that provides the skeptical element towards an ultimate mathematical reduction of Nature.

6. One has to live with the exegetical problem that while Spinoza in the Appendix of Ethics part I makes a strong distinction between things of the imagination, and things of reason, in letter 12 he oscillates, even within sentences, between things of (this) reason and something he undefinedly calls aids (auxilia) of the/to the imagination, never sure how he wants to describe Number.

Are Maths Only Imaginary? What Would that Mean?

By my understanding Eric places increases of power in mathematical description solely within the a “usefulness” category, all the while restricting them to the “imaginary realm”. While I really enjoy this outlier position, the very substantive nature of these increases in usefulness simply remains unexplained. And though this in part may be due to some inconsistency in how Spinoza treats the imagination (and the concept of order itself), I do think that Spinoza saw in mathematics (and scientific testing) genuine increases in the understanding of things, without acceding to the thought that mathematics genuinely reveals the eternal essences of things. For Spinoza we are, even the most scientific among us, like a “worm in blood”, not comprehending entirely the body and indeed the Universe we live in.

In this discussion there is an interesting, and indeed I think problematic sentence that at least provisionally I would like to retranslate. It is found in the Appendix of the first part of the Ethics, and in it Spinoza appeals to the very mathematical attestation by which we perceive or understand things of the world. He has just finished rebuffing two stages in thinking: addressed are those that feel that astronomically it is the motions of the heavenly bodies themselves that somehow compose [componere] a  harmony, a harmony that God delights in; and then those that from this notion of celestial harmony then find that it is the disposition of the brain alone from which human judgment comes, something which results in a skepticism of knowing in general. One is left with either a physiognomic theory of differences of perceptions (there are as many different kinds of brains as there are palates), or presumably on the other end the “veil of ideas” of proto-idealism.

In contrast to this physiognomic skepticism, Spinoza turns to the very discernment of things [res]:

Res enim si intellexissent, illae omnes teste mathesi, si non allicerent, ad minimum convincerent.

I translate this literally because there is some disagreement in the major English translators on the meaning of Spinoza’s sentence (and I think that both of them are somewhat wrong):

For if things they would have been able to discern, those all by mathematical attestation, if they were not allured, at minimum they would have been convinced.

The two counter translations I provide here. Curley in some rather convoluted restructuring, attempts to emphasize the “all” as an accusative. All these persons would be convinced if they merely discerned things correctly. The things themselves would convince everyone. While Shirley, I think more correctly, places emphasis upon both Spinoza’s mode of argumentation, and mathematical attestation. Here they are:

“For if men had understood them, the things would at least convinced them all, even if they did not attract them all, as the example of mathematics shows.” (Curley)

“For if men understood things, all that I have put forward would be found, if not attractive, at any rate convincing, as Mathematics attests.” (Shirley)

There really is no support for Curley’s inventive transformation of “omnes” into a universal emphasis of agreements, though that may be implied. Really what Spinoza is saying is that indeed contrary to merely the physionomic understanding of judgments (and also a celestial orderliness model), distinct discernments of things has come via the testament of mathematical treatments. While Shirley’s translation grasps the general thought of this, Curley captures the very epiphantic nature of such intellection, it through mathematical treatments that the very nature of “things” appears.

And the little caveat on the nature of how such men will be affected by such discernment is telling. Such fellows will be convinced, though they may be “attracted” to such an interpretation. Here Spinoza seems to be putting his thumb in the eye of those that disagree. There are it would seem libidinal investments in seeing the world other than the way in which it is most arguably so. There is also perhaps a commercial connotative association of liceo, “to buy, to put a price on, to value” which may not be far from Spinoza’s intention.

Teste Mathesi

So what are we to make of this “by mathematical attestation” [teste mathesi]. Clearly, it is by reason of mathematics that philosophers (and scientists) arrived at the notion of a harmony composed of celestial bodies in motion, a sense of harmony that for Spinoza ultimately lead to viewing the brain as the source of all human judgment; so it cannot be by mathematics alone that we come to discern things properly. And Spinoza has in turn used the geometic method in such a way that he seems to feel that he has, via such a mathematical attestation, produced a discernment of things. As Spinoza in Letter 12 strongly calls into question the ultimate knowledge available by mathematical measurement and calculation, there would seem to be only one more meaning remaining. Mathematical attestation is for Spinoza a revelatory one, one in which the coherence itself (what is calls elsewhere a different “standard of truth”) provides the conviction of discerment, but also one in which any mathematical description always remains merely an approximation, a rounding off of the edges. And these are edged through which the epiphany of perception itself shows through. This is in keeping with my general sense that in that all the propositions found in the Ethics are linguistic expressions, none of them actually are adequate ideas. It is rather that the interaction with the Ethics itself, its real, material and ideational body, is to provoke, is to cause, a real material and ideational change in the reader, one which cannot be reduced to the arguments themselves.

In a certain sense, Spinoza’s very intellectual and physical experiences as a craftsman, the precise use of calculation when applied to physical substances in the service of gaining the desired effects is the very thing that would preclude any minimization of mathematics or the testing of experimentation. Craftsmanship is after all where abstracted calculation and experiential rule of thumb come most closely together. And by all testament, Spinoza was a superb and devoted craftsman.

In a modern sense, we might want to say that for Spinoza the Universe is not a linear mathematical thing, but that the coherences of cognitions and communications between things is at best brought out by linear mathematical treatments (those only known of the day), treatments that in the end must also then be compared with man’s own finitude as a creature. As a craftsman perhaps he not only understood the way in which calculation and figure could be used to control and shape material, but also understood the often unexpected, unique and eruptive form of material itself, the way in which the glass, bubbled and fogged as it is, defies the curve of optical imprint of the lens grinding form. For Spinoza there are always non-linear magnitudes within magnitudes, beyond any one boundary-making, linear abstraction. But this does not prevent mathematics itself to produce reductive epiphanies unto the relationship between things.

Some follow-up thoughts: Spinoza “Following the Traces of the Intellect”: Powers of Imagining

Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?

In reading through Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warefare (aspects of which I have already engaged, here), there are pockets of useful summation that one runs into in his narrative that simply call for investigation. I’m going to have to pass on an elaborate presentation of the ideas of Cybernetics and Complexity, but Bousquet provides excellent, essential cartography. In particular is his emphasis that Cybernetic thinking from the 40s, 50s and 60s concerned itself with a borrowing of the concept of “entropy” from thermodynamics, organization processes of “negative feedback” in pursuit of system homeostasis, with a concentration upon system “control”. Systems were seen as hermetically closed loops which worked inwardly to organize themselves to fight off entropy, noise, confusion, and establish an unending homeostasis which required no fundamental change in their own internal structure. The most basic form of the system was one that was able to note internal deviations from system “norm” which promoted external actions which would affect either a change in the environment or within, which then directed the system back to where it was before disturbed.

For some concerned with the philosophy of Spinoza there are immediate prima facie correspondences here, enough to suggest that Spinoza seems something of a proto-cyberneticist. Spinoza’s stoic-like internal regulation of one’s own thinking processes, especially on the order of the avoidance of “confused” ideas, along with his doctrine that the conatus (essential striving) of a person or a thing was a driving force to preserve itself against outside destruction, seem to hold true to a cybernetic framing of the question of epistemology and power/control. Add to this that cybernetic models were of a distinctly linear mathematical nature (marked by the additive property of cause), and that at times Spinoza seems to treat causes in the same linear fashion (for instance the idealized assertion that two men of the same nature, when combined produce a new body twice as powerful), suggests deep conceptual ties been Spinoza’s self-regulating bodies of conatus continuation and early information theory, cybernetic concepts of the control of “noise” and pursuant homeostasis. (There is of course the signficant difference in the concept of entropy itself, as Spinoza reads all degradation as caused by external influence, and not natural to any system itself.)

To this comparison of affinities we also have to add a significant metaphysical homology, something that struck me as rather surprising. I have long emphasized that Spinoza’s onto-epistemology partakes in an unusual though very distinct way in the Neoplatonic model of Being as read in degrees. This is to say, things do not simply have Being or not, but rather have degrees of Being. And, as I also emphasized, Augustine was probably the greatest purveyor of this Neoplatonic doctrine, taken from Plotinus, through the Christian Middle Ages to post Renaissance thinking. In such a view, “evil” is under a non-Manichean, and one wants to stress, non-Dualistic definition. Evil was simply the absence of good (and not a force in its own right).

Historical Digression: Handled briefly so as to give a sketch of the historical ground we are covering, the Augustianian, Neoplatonic position is perhaps best expressed in his Enchiridion. There  the ontology of the Good is equated with Being (an argument also found in the City of God  XI, chap. 9, where the relative non-Being of evil is also briefly stated. As with Spinoza so many centuries later, the question of the Being of evil becomes one merely one of privation:

CHAPTER IV. The Problem of Evil

12. All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good.

One can see the correspondence between Augustine’s Ne0platonic “privation” and Spinoza’s theorizing on falsity, wherein the “Good” has been transposed into issues of truth; in the Ethics the gradated Being resolution of traditional dualisms has taken on its most systematic character. As Spinoza writes, ultimately echoing Plotinus’ radiating conception of Being (Enn. 3.2,5; 4.5,7):

E2p33 There is nothing positive in ideas whereby they can be said to be false.

Proof: If this can be denied, conceive, if possible, a positive mode of thinking which constitutes the form [forma] of error or falsity. This mode of thinking cannot be in God [E2p32], but neither can it be conceived externally to God [E1p15]. Thus there can be noting positive in ideas whereby they can be called false.

E2p35 Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate ideas, that is, fragmentary and confused ideas, involve.

Return to Our Main Point: What is interesting is that Bousquet brings to our attention that Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, actually subscribed to an Augustinian concept of evil as well. That is to say, he regarded informational “noise” as that which a cybernetic system fought to overcome, understood as the absence, or non-recognition of order (pattern). When a cybernetic system fails it is due to a confusion resultant from an inability to read clearly the pattern of the events outside of it. And Wiener felt that cybernetic systems not only described thermostats and computer negative feedback loops, but also human beings and social systems.

The passage Bousquet evocatively cites is this:

I have already pointed out that the devil whom the scientist is fighting is the devil of confusion, not of willful malice. The view that nature reveals an entropic tendency is Augustinian, not Manichaean. Its inability to undertake an aggressive policy, deliberately to defeat the scientist, means that its evil doing is the result of a weakness in his nature rather than of a specifically evil power that it may have, equal or inferior to the principles of order in the universe which, local and temporary as they might be, still are probably not to unlike what the religious man means by God. In Augustinianism, the black of the world is negative and is the mere absence of white. (190)

The human use of human beings: cybernetics and society

One can see an immediate base similarity of project, in which the scientist looks to make clear and distinct the noise of the world, presumably by ordering his/her own ideas and internal organization as best that he/she; this, coupled with Spinoza’s own significant ontological tie of ordered and clear ideas with self-affirmations which render real changes in power in the world seems to place both Wiener and Spinoza within a world of potentiating noise and confusions, in which systems of every sort create islands of relatively more self-acting, clearer idea’d, internally coherent workings. The internal patterns of recursive coherence are those which recognize and order themselves amid a general pattern producing world. And there is ever the sense that the patterns, the coherence, the rationality is already out there. In Bateson, this is the “pattern that connects”.

But There Are Other Aspects of Spinoza

This is the way that Spinoza is often read, as the devoted, internally turned Rationalist. Neglected though is an entirely countervailing second aspect of Spinoza’s thinking. His Letter 12 skepticism towards mathematics, which he relates to products of the imagination (often overlooked), exposes a general distrust of ANY finite, localized expression of the universe, especially on the aspect of “control”. This is to say, Spinoza is ever suspect of the human mind/body’s ability to direct itself in the world, and as such, this skepticism yields to distinctly non-linear, non-equilibrium prescriptions which go far beyond Cybernetic science presumptions.

As Bousquet tells it, it is the realization that negative feedback isn’t the only primary organizing principle in systems. Indeed if a system is ever going to be able to adopt to environments which themselves are changing, it must have the ability to rewrite and change its own internal interpretative relations. And in order to do so they must be able to move from equilibrium pursuit (that ordered Good), to other equilibrium states. In fact in a certain sense the more semi-stable states a system is able to move into, the greater the chance it will have the flexibility to adapt to expected (unwritten yet) events. In short, one might want to say in a dangerously rhetorical way, a bit of “chaos” has to be introduced into the system. It is here where the conservation oriented, evil noise fighting cybernetic model gives way to Chaos theory and Complexity theory, fused into what has been called Chaoplexic thinking.

Positive feedback loops are those of a kind that do not push the system backdown to a homeostatic state, negating the effects of some outside perturbation. Instead they excite the system and work to produce more external events which, in what could be a vicious cycle, stimulate the system into further action. Positive feedback loops are those which can be self-extinguishing, as they throw the system forward into states from which it might not ever be able to return.

Now one can definitively say that just such mad chases are what Spinoza most often theorizes against. The burn-out amplifications of the imagination are just the kind that produce violence and hatred among peoples, and, as Spinoza artfully worked to show, these hatreds are logically linked to loves as well. Love and hate each can produces amplified destructions of reverberation. But if we look closer, is it not the case that negative feedback closure is also what Spinoza sees as insufficient? And, can we not agree with some systems theorists, that it takes a combination of negative-feedback groundings, and positive feedback exposures, flights, in order to produce a viable and self-preserving system? And, at the most fundamental level must we not also admit that for Spinoza behaviors and conditions of rationality are themselves positive feedback in their nature: rationality and clear understanding tends to produce more rationality and clear understanding (however contingently contextualized). What I suggest is that Spinoza’s cybernetic model of clearer self-organization amid a potentially threatening environment of noise is tempered (or one should say spiked) with an alternate Chaoplexic embrace of positive feedback amplifications, and that these amplifications help us read out some of core prescriptions in Spinoza’s advisement.

I feel a turn to an excellent diagram offered in Linda Beckerman’s informative essay “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” will be of some help in uncovering the non-linear thinking of Spinoza. The diagram along with some of her explication hopefully will show the numerical, as well as still determinative aspects of chaoplexic organization, such that Spinoza skepticism of finite systems/expressions may dovetail with such thinking.

In explanation of the diagram Beckerman writes in a passage so clear it is worth quoting at length…

3. Bifurcation

3.1  Non-linear systems have the capacity to exhibit multiple stable states. This is illustrated in Figure 1 in what is termed a bifurcation diagram. The far left hand side of the diagram represents systems that are mono-stable and upon perturbation will eventually settle down to a single static or steady state condition. Just to the right of this region, the system “bifurcates”. This merely means that there are two states available to the system. For one range of perturbations and conditions, the system will settle down to one state and for another range of perturbations and conditions, it will settle down to another state. As we progress towards the right, each branch splits, and then each branch further splits resulting in a rapid increase the number of stable states. On the far right hand side are those that are Chaotic. Chaotic systems appear to have an infinite number of potentially stable states. But they never settle down to any of these for long and are therefore considered to be unstable…

3.3 Systems that are mono-stable or in steady state are so stable that any perturbation causes them to snap back to their stable state, leaving no opportunity for adaptation. Change requires “surgery”. An example of this would be a nation that solely uses attrition warfare to achieve its aims, regardless of the perturbation and underlying conditions (e.g. nature of adversary) causing them to go to war.

3.4 Figure 1 also shows an opportunistic region for adaptation. It is opportunistic precisely because there are so many states available. Many non-linear systems can be caused to bifurcate repeatedly merely by increasing the magnitude of the control parameters (see section 4). The most opportunistic portion is that immediately preceding the chaotic region (referred to as the “Edge of Chaos). The difficulty is the danger that a high amplitude perturbation (input) or change in system configuration (number of interconnections) could push the system into the chaotic region.

What I would like to put into immediate juxtaposition to such a Chaos-oriented framework is Spinoza’s famously suggestive numerical, and physical equation of “the Good”, where the Good is understood as “useful”…

E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

Hopefully you can see clearly how deviant this axiom of use is to the perturbation-shrinking model of negative feedback elimination. Indeed, much more suitably does Spinoza view of the enhanced body seem to reside – not in some fixed, closed off organization – but actually in the twilight region so described above in the diagram, the place between rigid stable states and pure chaos. Once in such a mathematical and determinative sweet-spot too much a deviation, either towards stability or toward turbulence, reduces the number of ways a body can effect and be affected. Only in the wave-line is this ideational maximality found, and one could say that for Spinoza it is this aesthetic line – caught between a hubris of excessive control and a reckless amplitude of destruction – that constitutes the proper, which is to say living, positive feedback loop.

It is Spinoza’s skepticism both towards finite expressions of knowledge, and also towards the human being’s capacity to become self-determined, that ever directs any individual outward, towards the surface of its interactions. But not only outward, where the border between self and world, self and other is ultimately broken down and reconfigured, but so breadthwise, across the horizontal of explanations. It is Spinoza’s pursuit of the maximization of interactive powers that undermines any primary subject/object, or subject/world concerns. Instead, it would seem, that all our interally directed, cybernetic-like orderings, all our reductions of informational “noise” must also then turn back towards the very interface that composes them, to the living line of a multiplicity of possible states.

Valuably Bousquet notes that the passage from Cybernetics to Chaoplexic thinking has been characterized as the move from concerns of “control” to those of “coordination”, what has been called the “coordination revolution”. Bousquet cites Arquilla and Ronfelt who put the case in the context of military theorization. No longer is the ultimate thought for the control of all events internal to a network or system, but rather in terms of the loosely configured relatability of elements:

In these and related writings, we see a trend among theorists to equate information with “organization,” “order,” and “structure”—to argue that embedded information is what makes an object have an orderly structure. As this trend has developed, its emphasis has shifted. At first, in the 1940s and 1950s, information theorists emphasized the concept of “entropy”—and were thus concerned with exploiting feedback to improve “control.” Now, the emphasis has shifted to the concept of “complexity”—and this has led to a new concern with the “coordination” of complex systems. Control and coordination are different, sometimes contrary processes; indeed, the exertion of excessive control in order to avoid entropy may inhibit the looser, decentralized types of coordination that often characterize advanced forms of complex systems. What James Beniger called the “control revolution” is now turning into what might be better termed a “coordination revolution.” Entropy and complexity look like opposing sides of the same coin of order. About the worst that can happen to embedded information is that it gives way to entropy, i.e., the tendency to become disorganized. The best is that it enables an object to grow in efficiency, versatility, and adaptability (148)

In Athena’s camp: preparing for conflict in the information age John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

The reason for this is that, in perhaps a rediscovery of many rule-of-thumb warnings against excessively directed control, if one too strictly links internal elements within a finite system, the very improvements of the system when under stress might actually lead to the catastrophic collapse of it. Instead of tightly organized linkages, loosely based, more chaotic and therefore flexible relations are desired. Bousquet citing John Urry:

In loosely coupled systems by contrast there is plenty of slack in terms of time, resources and organizational capacity. They are much less likely to produce normal accidents since incidents can be coped with, so avoiding the interactive complexity found within tightly coupled systems. In the latter, moreover, the effects are non-linear. Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster. And sometimes this results from a supposed improvement in the system.

Global complexity  John Urry

At the risk of having steered too far from our course, the genuine skepticism over finite, linear, rationalistic, internally directed and corrective, often hierarchical organizations, shows itself in the truism of how such linearity can switch into non-linear collapse, blindside to the episteme of the system itself. Instead a skepticism towards rational systems in general directs our attention between towards horizon creating interactions themselves, towards the notion of co0rdination and agreements, out towards an aesthetic of mutual bodies forming a crest of living, self-producing edge-of chaos complexification.

If it is so that Spinoza possesses such a non-equilibrium appeal, where is it to be found? Is it enough to invoke his defintional awareness of the usefulness of numerical interactions? Does his skepticism towards mathematics and any finite division of magnitudes establish a non-linear bent, enough to quell the dominant linearity of his age with Newton just around the corner? Is there a radical non-equilibrium pursuit that balances out the conservatism of his conatus doctrine? I think there is. And it falls to the entire directionality of the Ethics, in particular the acme psychologies of the fourth book, and at last the passing into Intuition of the fifth book.

This is the determinative passage I feel. Spinoza is an interesting writer, for as he is often times at such pains to draw out and weave concepts into an extensive web of taken-to-be luminous clarity, pages and pages of definition, proof, axiom, proposition, all interlinked. His very best stuff can be expressed gnomically, small statements whose interpretation is that upon which everything else turns:

E5p2 If we separate out aggitations (commotiones) or affects (affectus) from the cognition (cogitatione) of an external cause, and we join them to other cognitions, then Love and Hate, toward the external cause, as are the vacillations of the soul (animi fluctuationes) arising from affects, are destroyed (destruuntur).

Carefully consider this proposition in the context of the Cybernetic/Complexity dichotomy. It subsumes the whole of Spinoza’s quantifiable psychology of the preceding fourth book. It is the very cognitive temptation to give wholesale systemic valuation (“good”/”bad”) to external events that Spinoza has called into question. To put it into cybernetic terms, when the human body/mind system passes away from a state of equilibrium (moves to a condition of greater or lesser power), the credit is inordinately attributed to an external event. That external “cause” is given the valuation of good or bad given the changes in the system. When the experience is negative, that is, a breakdown of the internal coherence of the system experienced as Sadness, the system steers itself away from such events, back to equilibrium (risking a fixed, conservative stasis induced by fear). But when it is experienced as positive, that is, an increase in the internal coherence of the system experienced as happiness, then a positive feedback loop ensues, and the system steers towards the amplification of such events, promoting their increase (risking runaway dissolution).

Spinoza’s psychology is based upon moving clear from either of these determinatives, each of which are governed from an inordinate assessment of the power of an external cause. He at first directs the eye inwards, in a cybernetic-like valuation. It is not in the nature of the external event (alone) that the passage from one desired or undesired state has occurred, but rather in the very orders of our bodies and minds. We were predisposed to be affected a certain way, but it is our cognitive tendency to attribute the cause of these changes to some external thing that ultimate weakens our self-determination and freedom.

Compellingly, once this internal self-check is conducted separating out the affect from any one-to-one dichotomization of some state of our bodies/mind and some state of the world, the affect itself, the very feeling of the body in change is to be joined to other cognitions besides those of the thought of some overt external cause. I find this fascinating because Spinoza is advocating a kind of turning the body and its feelings over to the very interface with the world, wherein the world is seen as a great screen of causal effects. This is to say, our affects continue to distribute themselves across our bodies (minds), but they do so in a broad-spectrum fashion that invokes the edge chaos sweet-spot of Beckerman’s diagram. One can see this I believe in Spinoza claim that the fluctuations of the soul are “destroyed” in this process of opening up and cognitive awareness. This is not for him a passage into a conservation of the Self, so defined apart from the world, a falling back into an equilibrium of maintanence, but rather an expansion. The oscillations he has in mind are the oscillations of Love and Hate, the way in which loves generate fears and conservative retrenchments of the self against the world. And hates open up into flights that can disintegrate into turbulent chaotic flow. Instead there is an aesthetic place, between the two. It is a kind of equilibrium of perpetual growth, or the openness to a complexity of states that defies the equilibriums of the past, a literal opening up of the finite to the Infinite. A rift of becoming. Because the affect itself becomes separated out from its distinct (and false because partial) conscious interpretation, the affect exists almost as pure bodily thinking, or put another way, thinking purely through Joy (transitions towards perfection, power, freedom).

Thoughts Tending Towards Deleuze and Guattari

This is I think what Guattari and Deleuze called the Body Without Organs. And while for some it makes difficult sense to see where Guattari and Deleuze can find common ground with the sobriety of Spinoza, I believe it is here, in the intermediate, where the BwO meets Chaoplexic edge that the two/three find their home. And while Spinoza’s aesthetic setting seems closer to “stable” and D&Gs closer to chaos, they are operating in the bandwidth, in proximity, as each takes Joy as its compass heading. What Spinoza provides is a careful analytic of the powers of Cybernetic organization, at the level of epistemology and psychology. Indeed the rewriting of internal codes, the reorientation of cognitions toward each other, within the understanding that the affects of our body serve as material guide, is essential to seeing that Spinoza’s Rationalism is ever an A-Rational theory of growth, a search for the line of complexity that is ever re-inscribing anew the boundary between self and world.

Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order


In my rereading of Spinoza I have come upon an apparent contradiction which bothers me some, in particular his treatment of the attribution of “order” to things. In the Appendix to part one he makes of order [ ordino, ordo ] something entirely of the imagination, yet in part II, prop 7, he sets forth his most vital and difficult proposition of what has been called “the parallel postulate”.

The two passages:

And those who do not understand the nature of things, but only imagine them, affirm nothing concerning things, and that the imagination for the intellect, they firmly believe, in their ignorance of things and of their own nature, that there is an order in things [ordinem in rebus]. For when things are so disposed that, when they are presented to us through the senses, we can easily remember them, and so easily remember them, we say that they are well-ordered [bene ordinatas]; but if the opposite is true, we say that they are badly ordered, or confused.

And since those things we can easily imagine are especially pleasing to us, men prefer order to confusion, as if order were anything in nature more than a relation to our imagination [quasi ordo aliquid in natura praeter respectum ad nostram imaginationem esset]…

Appendix, Ethics Part I

[such a statement is also found in his letter to Oldenburg (15/32) : "but I will premise that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or deformed, ordered or confused.]


The order and connection [ordo et connexio] of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

Ethics Part II, prop7

While I understand that in the appendix Spinoza is attacking the teleological notion that God has put things in order so as to benefit mankind (or himself), I am troubled by his rather categorical insistence that order is nothing other than a relationship between “things disposed” and our imagination. This seems to preclude the founding of his parallel postulate which guarantees the order of both ideas and things, (or at the very least confines this to the imagination itself).

The order of the PII7th propostion is founded upon Axiom 4 of the first part:

The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.

But knowledge of cause must also pertain to memory, and the ease of its use, must it not? Even the retention of the axioms of geometry involve their memorization and employ, the ease of which is produced presumably by their disposition.

The order of the parallel postulate could be of a different kind, perhaps that founded upon his concept of “common notions”, but it is altogether unclear how he can essentialize this order outside the imagination, which he has already foreclosed in his appendix description. In fact Spinoza himself seems to feel that he has encountered an aporia, as he continues (or discontinues…):

Nor will it, perhaps, give them pause that infinitely many things are found which far surpass our imagination, and a great many things which confuse it on account of its weakness. But enough of this.

Appendix, Part I

It would seem that Spinoza who founds the pleasure and good of order upon the capacties of memory to retain, that is, within the domain of the imagination, sees a world whose incomprehensibility defies even the dictates of order imposed by his parallel postulate, something that he perhaps relegates to Infinity.

[written August 24, 2007]


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