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How Normative Is the Greek Chorus? Spinoza, Rorty, Davidson and Sophocles

Geometry of Know

A passing comment recalled to me a certain conceptual break through. I was studying Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”which presents his theory of Triangulation while at the same time studying narratology, and looking into Bakhtin. For some reason discussion of mimetic and deitic elements suddenly struck me as revealing of the elemental Greek Tragedy structure (Hero, Chorus, Audience), and I realized that Greek Tragedy exemplified Davidson key epistemological point, that we attain objective knowledge due to our largely coherent, belief-veridical, intersubjective knowledge of others (with Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument playing an integral part). The Tragic Chorus formalized an essential epistemo-ontological ground, a necessarily reflective element within the field of the real which indicated to us something of what the real was, as if it were us. And just as quickly it seems, I realized that Davidson’s Triangulation was the same sort of argument  Spinoza put forth which grounded the “social” within the imaginary powers of an imitation of affects - E3p27 (we feel what others we take to be like us are feeling). That is, there is a bio-kinesthetic linking of affective capacities with perception ordering itself which allows affects to ripple through and across bodies in  a reportive, if imaginary way. The broadcastive behavioral forms of other things condition our own experiences, determining them along a causal vector, in a sense normatively and charitably making rational, affective wholes without which the world could not coherently exist.

The Normativity of Truth

Thought comes to mind about Rorty’s wonderful reversal of a decade of dispute with his ally Donald Davidson, wherein he realized that indeed there is a place for a Theory of Truth in Philosophy. His realization was that without a community of users, there is no language game, and a community requires normativity (presumably of use, behavior and experience). As he put it, Prescription precedes Description. It was here, in prescription, in normativity, that the powers of our descriptions lie. So to complete full circuit, if indeed Greek Chorus performs the middle (intersubjective) leg of Donald Davidson’s Triangulation of three knowledges, just how normative is the Greek Chorus?

Rorty’s Alternate History of Heidegger

I repost here Rorty’s brilliantly written and imagined alternate history of Heidegger. He contingently falls passionately in love with a young Jewess in 1930, moves to American eventually to teach at Rorty’s literal alma mater the University of Chicago (not mentioning that when he enrolled there while still a 14 year old in 1946, Rorty could have taken a course with the projectional Heidegger – can you imagine the little pubescent/precocious young boy staring at the lowering German, I think Rorty wants us to), eventually taking a formative place in the moderate Right of German politics, a thorn in Habermas’s side.

It shows off something more than just a political, or even philosophical point. I think it shows the glee Rorty felt for the nature of an Idea, even a narrative one, a glee that drove many of his Anti-Realist, a-philosophical musings. There is a tendency I think to minimize the weight of Rorty’s contribution to philosophy, to see him as a something of a popularizer – how can someone be saying something philosophically significant, and still be understood by the “masses”, must not philosophy be a question of access, of initiation, of terms…a profession in code? I sense that Rorty did something more than synthesize and simplify. In any case, this piece contains something of the elan of the man, his Joy, the professional anti-philosopher. 

Aside from this, Graham Harman, Heidegger’s metaphysical revisor/interpreter seemed to enjoy it, so at the very least it takes its place among some of the more entertaining, concisely written “ifs” in the history of philosophy.

The Alternative History of Martin Heidegger | Richard Rorty
From Philosophy and Social Hope (p.190-197 ), originally published in the London Review of Books as ‘Another Possible World’, 8 February 1990. This is an excerpt found at Good Reads:

I take a person’s moral character – his or her sensitivity to the sufferings of others – to be shaped by chance events in his or her life. Often, perhaps usually, this sensitivity varies independently of the projects of self-creation that the person undertakes in his or her work.

I can clarify what I mean by ‘chance events’ and ‘independent variation’ by sketching a slightly different possible world – a world in which Heidegger joins his fellow antiegalitarian, Thomas Mann, in preaching resistance to Hitler. To see how this possible world might have been actual, imagine that in the summer of 1930 Heidegger suddenly finds himself deeply in love with a beautiful, intense, adoring philosophy student named Sarah Mandelbaum. Sarah is Jewish, but Heidegger barely notices this, dizzy with passion as he is. After a painful divorce from Elfride – a process that costs him the friendship of, among other people, the Husserls – Heidegger marries Sarah in 1932. In January 1933 they have a son, Abraham.

Heidegger jokes that Sarah can think of Abraham as named after the patriarch, but that he will think of him as named after Abraham a Sancta Clara, the only other Messkirch boy to make good. Sarah looks up Abraham a Sancta Clara’s anti-Semitic writings in the library stacks, and Heidegger’s little joke becomes the occasion of the first serious quarrel between husband and wife. But by the end of 1933, Heidegger is no longer making such jokes. For Sarah makes him notice that the Jewish Beamt, including his father-in-law, have been cashiered. Heidegger reads things about himself in the student newspaper that make him realize that his day in the sun may be over. Gradually it dawns upon him that his love for Sarah has cost him much of his prestige, and will sooner or later cost him his job.

But he still loves her, and eventually he leaves his beloved Freiburg for her sake. In 1935 Heidegger is teaching in Berne, but only as a visitor. Switzerland has by now given away all its philosophy chairs. Suddenly a call comes from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There Heidegger spends two years slowly and painfully learning English, aching for the chance once again to spellbind seminar rooms of worshipfully attentive students. He gets a chance to do so in 1937 when some of his fellow emigres arrange a permanent job for him at the University of Chicago.

There he meets Elizabeth Mann Borgese, who introduces him to her father. Heidegger manages to overcome his initial suspicion of the Hanseatic darling of fortune, and Mann his initial suspicion of the Black Forest Bauernkind. They find they agree with each other, and with Adorno and Horkheimer; that America is a reduction ad absurdum of Enlightenment hopes, a land without culture. But their contempt for America does not prevent them from seeing Hitler as having ruined Germany and being about to ruin Europe. Heidegger’s stirring anti-Nazi broadcasts enable him to gratify a need a strike a heroic attitude before large masses of people – a need that he might, under other circumstances, have gratified in a rectorial address.

By the end of the Second World War, Heidegger’s marriage is on the rocks. Sarah Heidegger is a social democrat to the core, loves America, and is a passionate zionist. She has come to think of Heidegger as a great man with a cold and impervious heart, a heart which had once opened to her but remains closed to her social hopes. She has come to despise the egotist as much as she admires the philosopher and the anti-Nazi polemicist. In 1947 she separates from Heidegger and takes the 14-year-old Abraham with her to Palestine. She is wounded in the civil war but eventually, after the proclamation of independence, becomes a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University.

Heidegger himself returns to Freiburg in triumph in 1948. There he gets his old friend Gadamer a job, even though he is acidly contemptuous of Gadamer’s acquiescence in the Nazi takeover of the German universities. He eventually takes as his third wife a war widow, a woman who reminds all his old friends of Elfride. When he dies in 1976, his wife lays on his coffin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the medal of the order Pour le Merite, and the gold medal of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This last had been awarded him in the year after the publication of his brief but poignant elegy for Abraham, who had died on the Golan Heights in 1967.

What books did Heidegger write in this possible world? Almost exactly the same ones he wrote in the actual one. In this world, however, the Introduction to Metaphysics contains a contemptuous identification of the National Socialist movement with the mindless nihilism of modern technology, as well as the remark that Hitler is dragging Germany down to the metaphysical level of Russia and America. The seminars on Nietzsche are much that same as those he gave in our world, except for a digression on Nietzsche’s loathing for anti-Semites, a digression that contains uncanny parallels to Sartre’s contemporaneous but independent Portrait of the Anti-Semite. In this world, Heidegger writes most of the same exegetical essays he wrote in our world, but he adds appreciations of Thoreau and of Jefferson, composed for lectures at Harvard and at the University of Virginia respectively. The two essays evince Heidegger’s familiar sentimental agrarianism and suspicion of the urban proletariat. His books in this world are, in short, documents of the same struggle he carried on in the actual world – the struggle to move outside the philosophical tradition and there ‘sing a new song’. This struggle, this private pursuit of purity, was the core of his life. It was incapable of being greatly influenced either by his love for particular persons or by the political events of his time.

In our world, Heidegger said nothing political after the war. In the possible world I am sketching he puts his prestige as an anti-Nazi to work in making the German political right respectable. He is adored by Franz Josef Srauss, who pays regular and worshipful visits to Todtnauberg. Occasionally Heidegger appears with Strauss at political rallies. Social Democrats like Habermas regret Heidegger’s being consistently on the wrong side in postwar German politics. Sometimes, in private, they voice the suspicion that, in slightly different circumstances, Heidegger would have made a pretty good Nazi. But they never dream of saying such a thing in public about the greatest European thinker of our time.

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 “ 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

The Mediation of the Fall

Below I post a significant response to Larval Subjects which deals with the question of intermediator as it is theorized in various forms. Larval Subjects had difficulty reconciling my own view that he favors a mediating position for those who hold knowledge, and his own contention that he is politically committed to the opposite.

LS: “As for mediators, much of the political thought on this blog has been devoted to arguing against precisely the sort of thing you were railing against in this post (i.e., the need for priests). Of course, it would be unreasonable for me to expect you to have read two + years worth of blog entries so as to be aware of this. Although perhaps it would not be unreasonable to expect you to understand that you’re entering a discussion midstream.”

Kvond: Of course I realize I am coming in midstream on your discussion with others and yourself. But in catching my stroke in these shifting waters one cannot help but note where EXPLICIT contradiction shows itself. For instance you declare yourself as against mediators, but then profess what seems to be a rather mediating “pegagogic fantasy” in which you imagine your students to be in Plato’s Cave, a place from which you imagine yourself to free them, so to speak. This is fundamentally the role of a priest (and I mean no offense). As you wrote to me in your comments on your rationalism:

[LS wrote] “As for the pedagogical fantasy I outline, in the course of my teaching I’ve come to believe there’s a sort or maieutic that students must go through before reaching more complex things such as metaphor, rhetorical strategies, and all the rest (although in my critical thinking courses I actually begin with the analysis of rhetoric and common informal fallacies). In my view the reigning doxa of our time is relativism, such that no truths exist or are possible. Insofar as this is a doxa (Plato’s cave), the more radical gesture is to first treat of valid arguments and the possibility that truth exists, and then move in to the rhetorical dimension where all of this is problematized. If you begin with the problematized position you end up being an apologist for a “whatever goes” ideology that prevents students from ever encountering the split in their being and from confronting alternatives to their own belief systems.”

As I responded at the time, I would never see students (or anyone else) as locked within a Cave from which I meant to free them with my supra-cave knowledge (even if I am “freeing” them to their own possibilities). I think that this is one of the most interesting consequences of a Spinozist approach to thinking. Even the most apparently self-imprisoning organizations are already organizations of freedom by degree. There is no strict categorical difference between those in a Cave, and those who can go outside a Cave. In my opinion, part of respecting the discourse of others is how one frames that discourse. It strikes me that at least in respect to your “being-splitting” fantasy of pedagogy, you place yourself as a kind of mediator between your student’s current state, and the state they may be able to achieve, through your mediation. This does not mean of course that the theorizer of the mediatation is malevolent. In fact they can be benificent. But what is more important is how knowledge is positioned and liberation is conceived plays a large part on the paths taken.

I have of course to patch together themes as I read your posts, and where there are apparent contraditions form ideas as to explain them. Perhaps your thought has tensions in it: your over-arching theoretical work in the service of non-mediation and your experiences of being a mediating Lacanian clinician and analysand may pull in two directions. Or perhaps what you mean by mediation and what I mean are different things. The Cave Allegory though is a primary example of the role of the intercessor.

LS: “What I have suggested is that you have approached these issues based on the notion of error and Spinoza’s 6th axiom defining truth, and not based on what Deleuze refers to as these “richer determinations”, where certain forms of illusion are generated inevitably through thought itself. Talk of lack, I have argued, is not a simple theoretical error that fails to properly represent the relationship between a proposition and the world, but is rather a transcendental illusion generated within those subjects that experience themselves as lacking.”

Kvond: The 6th axiom you appeal to, “A true idea must agree with that which is the idea” has to be read within Spinoza’s parallel postulate and his epistemology, if one is going to make analytical sense of it. The idea of anything in the mind is of the body as it exists, and nothing else. That is its object. All our ideational moves are material moves, therefore. There are no “transcendental illusions” which become objects of our analysis. Spinoza reads our thoughts to be the thoughts of God/Substance:

“…the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God. Therefore when we say that the human mind perceives this or that, we are saying nothing but that God, not insofar as he is infinite, in insofar as he is explained through the nature of the human mind, has this or that idea” (2p11c).

The human mind/body experiences lack, but the path out from such an experience is seeing that such thinking is only part of a larger thinking expression. This very seeing has a “stronger affect” which overpowers weaker ones. There is no mediating knowledge (or intersubjective relationship) which allows us to overcome “transcendental illusions”. The process is one of witness and experience; one simply sees the sense of it, like when an explanation of a phenomena suddenly shows how it works, what Spinoza called “seeing with the eyes of the mind”, thus drawing on the original meaning of “theory”, theôrein.

Your treatment of your “transcendental illusions” which are born of thought violates Spinoza’s fundamental Naturalism, that is his primary objection to treating things in the human world as a “kingdom within a kingdom”. You are free to do so of course, but not within a Spinozist framework. Spinoza set himself solidly against the Cartesian split between the “human world” and the natural world, and Kant finds himself on the Cartesian side.

As Della Rocca articulates in his new book on Spinoza,

“Spinoza’s problem with Cartesian and other accounts of the affects is that such a views introduce an objectionable bifurcation between human beings and the rest of reality. Here we have non-human nature which operates according to one set of laws and here we have another part of reality – human beings – which operates according to a different set of laws…” (Spinoza 2008, 5)

Now the status of the very non-Spinozist “transcedental illusions” is an interesting one. I can’t tell if you take these necessary illusions of thought as a priori or a posteriori. If a priori then indeed we have entered the Kantian realm of the scheme/content distinction, wherein the philosopher acts as priest or mediator to truth. That is, in order to have access to the proper content, one has to consult the mediator who has access to the scheme that determines the truth. As Rorty has made clear following Davidson’s critique of Kant, this scheme/content dualism is a nesting ground for political power structures. And it is for this very scheme-mastering reason that Nietzsche found the philosopher’s work so much a Will to Power that had to be acknowledged.

Now if such “transcendental illusions” are a posteriori, or simply historically contingent, really it would seem that the proper non-elitist, non-mediating approach to them would be ethnographic, and part of a praxis of empowerment. A description of said illusions, and a practice toward their dispel through the display of OTHER ways of thinking about things would be the suitable way to counter them.


To return to a more Spinozist approach, the illusions of lack are countered by stronger affects, that is the power of seeing the world in more constitutive ways…at least that is the way that I see it, not by undergoing a process of subjected mediation. If the Sun appears 200 ft away one encounters the power of thinking of it roughly 93,000,000 miles away. This does not mean that it ceases to appear 200 ft away, but one is able to act outside of this experience. The same goes for the illusion that this woman you love makes you sad when she ignores you. Yes, you may have that affective experience, but a deeper understanding of causes and affects will allow you to experience your relations differently. (One need not consult someone who understands that human beings have all been subject to castration when entering language and therefore are (un)naturally subjected to a kind of perpetual crisis of desire in relation to an ineffable object.)

Key to this is understanding that the resources of power and freedom are within the affective capacities of a person, as NATURAL, as connected to all the rest of nature, and not seeing human beings as “a kingdom within a kingdom”. This is the reason why one turns to “ontology” when one wants to answer modal questions. There are no humans-only (or language holders only) laws.

I think that these are not just theoretical issues, but also issues of power distribution. It is in the great history of the priest that the human-world (however it is articulated or defined) is distinguished from, and CUT OFF FROM the natural world. The priest (however well-meaning) is the one who attempts to reconnect these two in whatever ritualized way, mediating them. Anytime you find these two cut off from each other, look for the priest. The notion that the subject is cut off from the Real by its entrance into language is the myth of the Fall all over again.

 The question is ultimately one of how knowledge itself is to be conceived of. It is a immanentive praxis, the exercise of freedom, in any degree, or is it fundamentally a distributive relation. That is, is it intercessed, or expansive?

[addendum: I post here as well Larval Subjects considered response to the above, which he took to be "name calling". Hmmm. What is one to say? If one's thought cannot be critiqued by how much one coherently follows stated principles without feeling that names are being called, well...]

Larval Subjects writes:

“In your opposition to transcendental illusions, it is clear then that you are opposed to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari on Spinozist grounds, then. Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari do, in fact, develop a naturalistic account of transcendental illusions. I am not sure where you get the idea that I think I’m somehow free of all ideology or illusion, as there is no view from nowhere. I also find your reading of Spinoza highly peculiar as we are, after all, talking about the author of the Theologico-Politico Treatise and who saw himself as correcting mistaken views about the nature of God. At any rate, it is difficult to continue a discussion with someone who has poisoned the well by referring to you as a priest and suggesting that you have a fascist or totalitarian agenda that is elitist in nature, so I would politely ask you to cease posting on my blog as I am getting little from this discussion beyond irritation at your rather uncharitable portrayals of my positions and claims. You also seem bent on measuring everything against Spinoza as the ultimate arbiter of truth and what counts as naturalism -your riff on Della Rocca here -which interests me not in the least. Such name calling is no way to continue a discussion nor get anywhere in discussion with others and clearly calls into question your motives here. Nor has your practice of posting messages I’ve deleted on your blog reflective of a charitable or good will effort at discussion. [LS then went on to edit his response to add] I have patiently and politely attempted to outline my positions in response to your questions, yet in each case you’ve attributed the most malicious of motives and positions to me (in stark contradiction, I might add, to your remarks about mediators). When I’ve deleted your messages you’ve gone and posted on your blog that I simply couldn’t withstand your arguments and was unable to tolerate difference, when in fact it has nothing to do with your arguments- which tend to evince a very limited background with what you’re discussing -but your rude and insulting tone. Enough.”

Kvond: I can say only say that posting comments of mine which Larval Subjects has unilaterally and with no explanation deleted, over here at my weblog space seems like the only rightful thing to do. When someone attempts to control (and I do mean limit) a discussion through unilateral means, in particular the shaping the medium in which it appears, the only “good will” effort is to present one’s own censorially effaced side of the discussion. Posting my claims here, rather than letting Larval Subjects decide just what is germane and not seems to be part of the larger project of having a rightful discussion. If Larval Subjects thinks that “priest” is a dirty word (I do not at all feel this way at all, as much good has been done in the world through priests, and even their modern avatars, analysts), it would be perhaps better for him to not behave priest-like in the more historically embarassing fashion - deleting dissent. As to the notion that I have accused him of “fascist” or “totalitarian” AGENDA, well one can only chuckle, for I have said nothing of the sort, nor did it cross my mind. His (re)actions though, raises the question tho’ if he “doth protest too much”. Publishing dissenting opinions after all is a lasting method of dilectical discourse, and my posting of my dissent is nothing other than this.

I post this additional response of Larval Subjects here in part because he would like to publically express his irritation and dissatisfaction with my critique of his position, failing to use email. Because his is a public mission, a public response is in keeping.

As far as the points that he makes in the above, there are some interesting thoughts to add:

LS:In your opposition to transcendental illusions, it is clear then that you are opposed to the thought of Deleuze and Guattari on Spinozist grounds, then. Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari do, in fact, develop a naturalistic account of transcendental illusions.

Kvond: As I said in my response, if one is going to address historically contingent “transcendental illusions” then the path to take is one of ethnography and prescriptions of praxis which empower the person or group through their experience of stronger affects, and not through any mediation of knowledge. As Larval Subjects ossilates between championing Deleuze and Guattari, and claiming that they are in need of a strong dose of either Kantian or Lacanian truths, one is never sure what to make of an appeal to their position. What I have tried to put forward is that the Lacanian and Kantian prescriptions hold within themselves theorization of a mediator (implicit or explicit), necessary for the freedom of others who do not have access to the “transcendental” scheme. One is left with the uncertainty of whether the Deleuze and Guattari onto-ethographic, praxis treatment of the transcendental illusion would survive the Kantian and Lacanian correction Larval Subjects would like to submit it to. 

LS: “I also find your reading of Spinoza highly peculiar as we are, after all, talking about the author of the Theologico-Politico Treatise and who saw himself as correcting mistaken views about the nature of God.

Kvond: The question isn’t whether Spinoza wrote as a corrector — he after all wrote on the Emendation of the Intellect — but whether he theorizes a path to freedom that  positions language using human beings on one side of a CUT, with Nature being on the other side, such that intercessors of knowledge are required to either repair the breech, or patch it up in some way or another. His Theological-Political Treatise after all is meant to liberate by given its readers hermenutical tools for how to read the Bible and the sociological authority based on it. None of this evokes a required intercessor role, nor is the human condition assumed to be a “kingdom within a kingdom”. Keys to liberation in Spinoza’s approach are through understanding exactly how this is not the case, how the ontological determines our freedoms, and how knowledge expresses real ontological change. A church official who claims to rule the people due to the authority found in Bible is NOT an unnatural thing.

LS: You also seem bent on measuring everything against Spinoza as the ultimate arbiter of truth and what counts as naturalism -your riff on Della Rocca here -which interests me not in the least.

Kvond: I can only say that I am unsure how to read Larval Subject’s own appeal to Spinoza. He seems to feel that he can invoke an axiom from the Ethics, Part I (the 6th), and not expect an analysis of what ROLE this axiom plays within Spinozist thought (perhaps this is symptomatic of his creative pick and choose method of concept synthesis from a variety of thinkers). If Larval Subjects had refrained from appealing to Spinoza, (and renounced Deleuze’s own commitment to Spinoza), then of course explaining what Spinoza meant or the kind of freedom he offered/theorized, would be at most alternatives to his own view. But because Larval Subjects feels that Spinoza’s 6th axiom is an important one, if one is to assess this one has to, as I explain, take up the entire context of such an approach to truth. The parallel postulate and Spinoza’s renunciation of a split between a human-realm and the natural realm are required if we are going to make sense of the relevance such an axiom would hold in our discussion. The “riff” that Della Rocca presents helps expose the “rift” Larval Subjects wants to open up between the human realm, and the natural realm. Spinoza is on this side of Descartes.

But because I have “poisoned the well” by suggesting that SOME of Larval Subject’s positions theorize for a necessary mediation, we may never know what may come of such a critique.

I might say that I highly recommend Larval Subject’s weblog, as it has some very articulate summations of the thought of Lacan and Deleuze (&G). There are times where the neutral voice slips into re-description wherein Deleuze and Guattari are expressed to have absorbed the critique he would like to make on their thought (i.e. they already bear the Lacanian, and it seems heavier Kantian, influences he wished they had embodied), but it is a most thoughtful weblog. What you might stand to learn from his propensity to delete critical comments, and perceive critique as personal attack, is of course up to you.

Davidson’s “Three Varieties of Knowledge”

Here is an on-line copy of Donald Davidson’s remarkable 1991 essay “Three Varieties of Knowledge”. As far as contemporary philosophical essays go, it is perhaps the finest, far-reaching essay in my memory. In terms of style it employs a jargon-free, clear language approach reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s straightforward  problem solving (without the hypnotic aphoristic gloss over of aporias). In terms of content, here is a Davidson’s powerful concept of Triangulation, and the application of the Principle of Charity in the context of Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument. Here is the rational, yet still historically contingent process of growing knowledge, guided by communal relations. I find there to be much of Spinoza in this, and a nexus point between both Continnetal and Analytic Schools. I urge you to read this elegant, modest and yet resounding essay. I have the distinct impression that despite the 18 intervening years, philosophy has not caught up with the full consequences of Davidson’s subsuming argument.

page: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. [click on each photo there to enlarge]

At this point, this important essay is not easy to find, but is published in Subjective, Intersubjective and Objective, an excellent collection. This, and The Essential Davidson  would give you a great proportion of his bridge-building thought.

I apologize for the messy margin notes, and underlines as I didn’t imagine that others would be reading this copy, but I feel that this is an important essay, significant enough to post here for those just coming in touch with its arguments and view of the world. If you want some sense of the kinds of arguments that stem from this essay, look to my The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation.

The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

Spinoza as Seer

In a sense, if we are to understand Spinoza’s optical influences we have to come to at least consider what seeing, or more helpfully, perceiving meant for Spinoza, for behind any optical conceptions Spinoza had lies the very act of actively engaging the world. Much as Descartes worked from definitive values of what clear perception was, wrestling with both empirical experiment and mathematical analysis, so too Spinoza held core positions on what clear perception involved, and these factors into the nature of Spinoza’s break with his precursor. It has become my running thought in this research that if we can generalize, Descartes’ model of clear perception involved the hyperbola’s capacity to refract rays come from a single point on an object, to another co-ordinate point on the surface of the back of the eye, and that importantly this point fell upon the central axis of the hyperbola, a mathematical line which expressed, or was the locus of, the human freedom of Will. This point of focus was - at least in the accounts of vision where Descartesis in praise of the hyperbola and the remarkable representational accuracy of the eye - the fulcrum of a naturalized embrace of narrow focus, frontal clarity.

The hyperbolas central point of focus as a model of clarity

The hyperbola's central point of focus as a model of clarity

This seems to be contrasted in Spinoza with an emphasis upon the multiplicity of visual axes that a spherical lens affords (Spinoza’s optical letters are talked about here: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters ). Spinoza was privileged enough to be familiar with thinkers who argued that spherical aberrationwas over-emphasized as a problem, and he seemed to hold that there was also a problem of “hyperbolic aberration” (my term), that is the inability of such lenses to focus rays cleanly to any points peripheral to the exact center-line of vision. Whatever one is to make of the impact such aberrationwould have had on telescope construction, it is plain that Spinoza’s view of a model of vision was panoramic, that is, anything that had clarity in the center, was clear due to its place within the context of the clarity of all that surrounded. Instead of a vague and confused border of “confused images” which only “serve” the central crispness (Kepler), because Spinoza felt that we looked with the Mind and not the eyes – something that Descartes also argued but withthe burden of theological-theoretical commitments to a free faculty of Will - Spinoza holds that ideal vision embraces the tableau, the scope of things. The hyperbola’s acute focus, as Spinoza understood it, just did not provide the convincing analogical force of what clarity would mean. I think it safe to say, neither thinker, Spinoza or Descartes, had a sure enough idea of what exact effect spherial aberration had on telescopes nor how refractionproduced its images, and it was their different notions of mental claritywhich governed their arguments for ideal lense shapes, filling in the blanks of what was known.

a modified diagram from Spinozas letter 39 designed to bring out the capacity of spherical lenses to focus peripheral rays

a modified diagram from Spinoza's letter 39 designed to bring out the difference between spherical and hyperbolic lens focus as it pertains to peripheral rays

Within this overview of differences, it is worthwhile to consider my guiding assumption of this research: that Spinoza’s experiences as a lens-grinder and instrument maker (not to mention his social standing having come from an artisan class) decisively gave him a craftsman’s appreciation of perception, one that reflects itself in his metaphysis. To get a firmer grasp on what a “craftsman’s appreciation of perception” is, I turned to Richard Sennett’s book on the subject, The Craftsman. There he writes adroitly on the nature of craftsman perceptions, thinking processes and environments, in particular the relationship to tools and on-site difficulties. This has been of great value. In his sum of craftsman perceptions he turns to “cognitive dissonance’ theory to help explain how the craft perception functions. This strikes me to be of use in pointing out just where Spinoza and Descartes seem to optically diverge. Below he discusses the nature of “focal attention” (he mentions two examples he has discussed previously, the house the philosopher Wittgenstein designed and had built, in which he infamously had the ceiling height of a room changed 3 cm, just as the worksite was being cleaned up; and Gehry’s explorations into the processes of forming titanium, designed for the rippling skin of his Bilbao project).

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

The capacity to question is no less or more a matter of investigating the locale. Neurologists who follow the cognitive dissonance model believe the brain does something like image in sequence the fact that all the doors in a mental room are locked. There is then no longer doubt, but curiosity remains, the brain asking if different keys have locked them and, if so, why.  Questioning can also occur through operational success…This is explained neurologically as a matter of a new circuit connection being activated between the brains different regions. The newly active pathway makes possible further parallel processing - not instantly, not all at once. “Questioning” means, physiologically, dwelling in an incipient state; the pondering brain is considering its circuit options (278-279).

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

It is not my intention to claim that Spinoza holds a proto-cognitive dissonance theory, though there are some signficant and suggetive correspondences (a social dimension to agreement, determintative conditioning and holistic forces in judgment). Rather, I would like to put it the other way around, to use Sennett’s point about the nature of focal attention to shed some light upon Spinoza’s difficulty in accepting Descartes notion of an ideal crystal clear center of vision. If we simplify, we could say that Descartes was concerned with identifying and constructing means of “clear and distinct” perceptions or thoughts which would define idealvision (mental and otherwise). His engagement with the hyperbolic lens is at least analogically connected to his engagementwithhyperbolic doubt, each designed to focus the mind on a central clarity. What Sennett’s appeal to the craftsman experience of Cognitive Dissonance does is help expose a rift in the very center of focus which Descartes hopes to at least rhetorically stabilize. Focal Attention may be best understood as an irreconcilable line of fragmenting possibility and dys-clarity, and not the consummate moment-after experience of veritability. Modelsof the mind which have most thoroughly drawn upon the visual metaphor for truth mostly have taken the clarity of a perception as the exemplar of correspondence. I see two dogs, and I know that they are twodogs and this clarity is established against a figure-ground constrast. But a Cognitive Dissonance approach seems to suggest is a much finer grain look at what perception is. That is, when our focal attention is turned from this thing to that thing, this aspect to that aspect, it is not clarity which guides our view, but dys-clarity, a fuzziness of the possible and the incomplete. The eye may apprehend the distinction between a figure and the ground but it does not stop there; it continues to trace the significance of relation of elements that both compose the figure, and distinguish it from its context. The processes that give birth to a single distinction carry on in a relational, distinguishing manner. This destabilization of the center, and its resolution through its coherence with a whole, I believe is expressed in several ways in Spinoza thinking.

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

But first a short defintion of the concept

Cognitive Dissonance: “the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions.”

Spinoza and the Trace of Consciousness: the grain of wood

Sennett is concerned with the experiences and perceptions which guide the craftsman through his work, the careful notice of differences in materials, possibilities and designs, how a hand passes over wood grain or the mind might connect one part to another part. It is the waythat the mind glides over difficulties and solutions. Taken in its visual state, it is the way that the eye focuses upon this or that, leading itself across the bed of differences. And it is my intuition that Spinoza’s lived practices with craft that gave him a distinct sense of what it means to perceive and distinguish.

What is necessary is to establish just what it is that lies at the center of focus, if it not a crystalline clarity. And there are two selections of the Ethics which I have in mind in response to the Cognitive Dissonance lead. The first is Spinoza’s maxim concerning what it is that we imagine to be the case. It is important to realize that when Spinoza talks about the imagination, he means a confluence of both sensory experiences, and the beliefs we form about them, so much so the latter cannot be separated out from the former. The ideas we hold – or more properly, the ideational states we are in – determine our imaginary, phenomenological experience of the world.

Spinoza writes in part 3 of the Ethics, proposition 12:

The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting.

This is the key proposition on which Spinoza will found our imaginary relationship to both to the world, but also to others. Through the mind’s force of positive imagining, it brings coherence to our body’s relationships, and thus improves our ability to act more freely (as our own cause). He continues to explain in the demonstration:

Hence, as long as the mind imagines those things that increase or aid our body’s power of acting, the Body is is affected with modes that increase or aid its power of acting, and consequently the Mind’s power of thinking is increased or aided.

In Spinoza’s view, though our relationship to the world may be imaginary (that is, we may not fully understanding the causes and effects involved), if we imagine a relation which improves our power to act, we will experience Joy (defined as an increase in this power, DOA 2), and thus the Mind will tend to continue to imagine in this fashion. Any imaginary improvement, if it results in Joy, is also an improvment in the power of thinking, and thus there is an imaginary, though non-optimal, path to greater power and freedom.

Hopefully the rough connection to Cognitive Dissonance theory will be seen. There is a tendency in perception and belief which determines the mind to think in a more coherent fashion. When there is dissonance – that is, a disjunction between one’sown ideationaland physical states and the states of the world – the imaginary value is to resolve this. In a sense, the imaginationis guided by the resolution of a center of dissonance, bringing the body into concert with its own powers as far as it understands them. (I leave aside the ladder of rational, causal understanding.) 

For Spinoza there is a cohering balast that centers the processes of imaginary experiences of the world. This is reflected in the most characteristic experiences of consciousness, the passing from one thought to other, as if in a chain. When Spinoza presents his General Definition of the Affects, he radically asserts that our chain of thoughts, most generally, are the result of the Mind affirming one state of the Body or another, such that each affirmation leads either to an increase or decrease of the power to act. These changes are the result of affects which express the adequacy of the ideas which compose our mind:

E3: General Defintion of the Affects: An affect, that is called a Passion of the mind is a confused idea, whereby the Mind affirms concerning its Body, or any part thereof, a force for existence (existendi vis) greater or less than before, and by the presence of which the mind is determined to think of this rather than that.

Exp: I say, first, that an Affect or passion of the mind is a confused idea. For we have shown that the mind is only passive, in so far as it has inadequate or confused ideas. (E3P3)
I say, further, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body or any part thereof a force for existence greater [or less] than before. For all the ideas of bodies, which we possess, denote rather the actual disposition of our own body (E2P16C2) than the nature of an external body. But the idea which constitutes the reality of a passion must denote or express the disposition of the body, or of some part thereof, which is possessed by the body, or some part thereof, because its power of action or force for existence is increased or diminished, helped or hindered.
But it must be noted that, when I say a greater or less force for existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past disposition of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the reality of an affect affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

There are two significant aspects of this definition I would like to point out. The first is the ateleological view Spinoza takes toward these kind of ideational affirmations of the body. The mind does not arrive at its present affirmation state through a comparison of a present state with a past one, but rather makes of its present existence a repeated and continual “concrescence” (to borrow wrecklessly from Whitehead’s wordsmithing). Any perceptual grasp of the world, insofar as it involves a shift in degrees power and Joy, can be seen as coming from a comprehensive grasp in a sphere of understanding. To put it another way, if we adopt the cognitive dissonance model of perception and belief holding, the running line of potentiated dissonance which guides and centers our focal points of attention becomes repeatedly resolved in the affirmative embrace of a perception/thought/state of the body, made in context with the whole. Clarityarrives not due to the crispness of an axis of perception, but due to the resolution of that line within the panorama either of the visual tableau, or the ideas we hold. Seeing something clearly, thus, is fundamentally a connective and comprehensive apperception.

The ultimate perception is, as Spinoza argues, the perceptual Idea of God, one whose scope and speed of embrace brings clarity to all other affects and imaginations. From the 5th part of the Ethics:

P13: The more an image is joined with other images, the more often it flourishes.

P14 The Mind can bring it about that all the Body’s affection, or images of things, are related to the idea of God.

The second aspect of the General Defintion of the Affects I want to point out is that the chain of thoughts which make our everyday consciousness are not centered upon a Will which controls them, but rather are an expression of the ideas that make up our MInd; thus our ideational states determine the line of imaginary and cognitive processes which include our visual perceptions (clarity of perception cannot be the model of knowing), yet only insofar as these are understood as affirming our physical states. There is no center of vision nor of judgment. Rather there is the confluxof repeated changes in the power to act, something that reveals itself not in binary of Being and Non-Being, but along a gradated spectrum of Being, wherein the power one has is a function of the degree of Being one has.

All this proceeds too fast, for I have not properly connected Spinoza ateleological, affirmational understanding of perceptions and thought-chains to the kinds of curiosity and tensions that arise even the the smallest of conscious distinctions. What a Cognitive Dissonance model of perception and belief provides, I have suggested, is the idea that there is a fissure at the center of the eye’s focus, and that this rift is only closed through the coherent orientation to our experiences at the edge of that rift, in relation to all that lies at the margins. Any philosophical view that in a binary strictly equates focal clarity with Being, and all else with Nothingness or Non-Being, does not fully appreciate the recommendations that a metaphor of visual experience would provide; for at the very center of the eye, if we follow Spinoza’s thinking, lies not the undoubtable truthof one proposition, or the pure assurance of an object seen, but rather the living line of the electric destablized possibility for greater Joy or freedom. Perceptions are a body’s forward lean. In Spinoza’s terms, this line is the shore-point of our realized power to act, and thus occurs along the affects we experience, as they are expressed in both the ideas that make up our mind, and the states our body is in. The very center of focus is our fluxuations in perfection and Joy.

Descartes not Representational Despite His Love of Lens

Now at this point really I would like to take the opportunity to make clear that I have for the sake of contrast been unfair to Descartes, for by and large when he seeks clear thoughts he does not have in mind a clarity which operates independently of other understandings. He, like Spinoza, sees a global and connective sense in truth, one which puts any clear perceptions of the world in the context of the natural dispositions of the Intellect and our soul’s relationship to God. His use of skepticism and doubt is likely at most pedagogical. There has been too much groping at what has become a cadaver of Descartes’ notions of Ideas, without notice of the living relationship such concepts hold in his overall natural science and theological scheme. Nadler, Yolton and Behan (his new piece “Descartes’s Semiotic Realism” forthcoming), all have worked to show that most of our modern conceptions of Descartes’ Representationalism are ill-considered, forwarded by a chain of deformations: first Malebranche, then Reid, and lastly to great effect, Rorty. Much of what we rail against as invidiously “Cartesian” is not really something Descartes would champion. I think the arguments of Nadler et al are very well taken, and expose a tendency of philosophy, for all its sophistication, to organize itself around oppositions simple to grasp. And thus it does us some good to look closer at the forefather of the great Substance divorce between the Mind and the Body.

This is a strange thing to say, considering that much of my contrast between Spinoza’s view of perception and Descartes’ view seems to rely upon representational models of what is known. Spinoza objects to the representational notion of clarity, what he calls “falling into pictures” because he feels that representation simply is inadequate to express what happens when we hold ideas about the world. As I have presented it, Descartes seems too seduced by the visual metaphor of a center of vision becoming clear, a ring of focus, which then can be traced down an ancient heritage of an Ocular philosophy of Presence, where the revealing aletheia of Being stands out from the confusions and negations of Non-Being, playing out the 1s and 2s of dialectical Greek counting. But I would put forward that Descartes is only drawn in this direction against, or at least in tension to, a more comprehensive understanding of perception, one in which the Mind “sees” in a very unrepresentational way, with the “mind’s eye” (a phrase that likely Spinoza takes from Descartes). It is my sense that only Descartes theological commitments to the soul and its freedom of choice expressed through the judgments of the Will which force Descartes away from what he would otherwise be more comfortable with, into an account of vision which emphasize visual clarity along a central axis of focus. It is the need for a localizable edge of judgment, most amenable to an analogy of the otherwise blurred field of view, overdetermined by an essential binary of clear and unclear, which pulls Descartes back into pictures. We see this in the development of his Dioptrics away from the non-representationalistexplanations he begins with.

Descartes’ Blindman

The greatest example of Descartes non-representational concept of mental “seeing” is his analogy of a blindman who sees the world through the use of two sticks, literally feeling the world into accurate appraisal. But first, like Spinoza, Descartes warns us not to fall into pictures. Here he points up the semiotic stimulations of our thought. It is not on the basis of resemblance that we come to know or sense things:

…it is necessary to beware of assuming that in order to sense, the mind needs to perceive certain images transmitted by the objects to the brain, as our philosophers commonly suppose; or, at least, the nature of these images must be conceived quite otherwise than as they do. For, inasmuch as [the philosophers] to not consider anything about these images except that they must resemble the objects they represent, it is impossible for them to show us how they can be formed by these objects, received by the external sense organs, and transmitted by the nerves of the brain…instead we should consider that there are many other things besides pictures which can stimulate our thought, such as for instance, signs and words, which do not in any way resemble the things which they signify (forth discourse, trans. Olscamp)

And then here Descartes draws on the very physical modes of sensing, or seeing through a stick:

It sometimes doubtless happened to you, while walking in the night without a light through places which are a little difficult, that it became necessary to use a stick in order to guide yourself; and you have then been able to notice that you felt, through the medium of the stick, the diverse objects around you, and that you were even able to tell whether they were trees, or stones, or sand…(first discourse)

…just as when the blind man of whom we have spoken above touches some object with his cane, it is certain that the objects do not transmit anything to him except that, by making his cane move in different ways according to their different inherent qualities, they likewise and in some way move the nerves of his hand, and then the places in his brain where the nerves originate. Thus his mind is caused to perceive as many different qualities in these bodies, as there are varieties in the movements that they cause in his brain…(fourth discourse)

Descartes figure 18, Dioptrics

It is Descartes conception of light that the tendency of rays communicate themselves without movement, instanteously across space, just as a blindman’s stick seems to. When rays connect to our eyes, Descartes understands our sensing to be that of connective stimulation. When we see objects, we are seeing like a blindman, with sensations directly transmitted to our nerves. He compares a blindman holding two sticks to the baton centers of vision of each of our eyes, emphasizing that the image itself is not what is directly communicated to the Intellect through the nerves.

 So you must not be surprised that objects can be in their true position, even though the picture they imprint upon the eye is inverted; for this is just like our blind man being able to sense the object B, which is two his right, by means of his left hand, and the object D, which is to his left by means of his right hand at one and the same time. And just as the blind man does not judge that a body is double, although he touches it with two hands, so likewise when both our eyes are disposed in this manner which is required in order to carry our attention toward one and the same location, they need only cause us to see a single object there, even though a picture is formed in each of our eyes (sixth discourse).

The eyes using the two batons of central rays of light

[These citations discussed some here: Descartes and The Blind Man’s Cane ]

It would seem that there is within Descartes thought a primary distinction, as Yolton and Behan argue, between signifying and representing; the stimulations of the senses communicate themselves directly through the nerves in a signifying process not based on essential resemblance. The problem is that such a signifying mode of interpretation does not favorably present itself to the requirements of an Individuated and free action of the Will. Where, and before what would the signification process end…the pineal gland? This puts Descartes in tension with himself, as the analogy of visual clarity, embodied by the pursuit of hyperbolic focus in lenses, pulls him back toward representationalist notions. I don’t at all believe that Descartes holds such a representationalist idea of knowledge, but rather suspect that it is only the independence of the freedom of the will which again and again forces its intrusion, under an auspices of directed and establishing clarity. The resting place of hyperbolic doubt, the cogito, assures a clear focus relation on which all relations can be reconstituted, owing to God. 

Conclusion: Spinoza and Craft

What makes this most interesting is that because Spinoza objects to Descartes at the most radical level of the Will itself, denying the rationality of such a theological vestige (Ethics, 2p48s records the critique of boththe will and representation), he remains unencumbered by the need to take from vision a strict Being/Non-Being binary of optical focus and blurring, center and margin. Instead he draws on, if we can be bold enough to assume it, another luminous analogy, that of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonism, the notion that light radiates in a sphere (put forth by Kepler), and that it expresses itself in gradations of ever-weakening power and cohesion, understood as degrees of Non-Being and power. Spinoza positions himself in the Augustinian, Plotinus line of thought which makes of evil a privation, but he does so at the epistemological, yet by virtue of his parallelism, still bodily level, where the degree of the adequacy of our ideas result in real, affectual experiences of the fluctuations of our power and perfection. Instead of a center of vision which affirms a crisp focus of assured clarity, Spinoza’s center of vision is the breaking wave of the affirmation of our own body’s power, its capacity to act, understood within the context of the full scope of tableau of what is “seen”. As our eyes, fingers, ears, mind flits from thing to thing, we are constantly in states of imagined increases of pleasure and power, owed to the coherence of causes and effects. While central clarity may help incise distinctions of importance, these distinctions only grow meaningful and distinct in the full context of the margins.

It is my sense that Spinoza gained something of this metaphysical insight, in addition to the great variety of sources we might name, from his experiences as a craftsman. His patient polishing of propositions not only reflect in form his careful polishing of lenses, but the content of his thought I believe express the sensitive, non-representational experiences of judgment that come from working with materials, designs and tools in a comprehensive fashion. Spinoza’s refusal to admit Descartes Substance divorce of mind and body perhaps came from his bodily experiences of shaping and sensing glass under tension. While Descartes spent much of his time in mathematics and theory, informing and confirming his hypotheses at times through experiments, he lacked hands-on knowledge of what mechanical construction and application required. In a sense, his vision was mechanical, but his hands were not. One cannot help but realize that Spinoza’s cybernetic turnings of the grinding lathe (either with his off-hand or by foot pedal), communicated a complex of sensations and judgments far too subtle and rapid to place the crown of knowing upon a independent and freely functioning Will. Instead, as the lathe was tensioned in a flux of speeds and grits, and his eyes caught the traces of changes, as his hand holding the torquing glass blank felt the moment to moment consequences of his lathe’s turning – in one great curcuit - he necessarily understood the shore of perceptions within a comprehensive and assembled bodily whole of communications. The coherence that a craftsman brings betweeen his own hands, the limits and possibility of tools, the variations and states of material, amid a continuous, creative line of “dissonance”, a hole in the center of the percieved, non-absolute differentiations of grades, their deviations in form, doubtlessly expressed itself in Spinoza’s own embrace of the union between body and mind, and the careful consideration of the moment to moment changes in the body’s capacity to act.

Rorty’s Daimon


Rorty, in view of his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, wrote “The Fire of Life” a Socratic-like, just-before-death turn to the power of the music of words.

I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. “Well, what about philosophy?” my son asked. “No,” I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation… “Hasn’t anything you’ve read been of any use?” my son persisted. “Yes,” I found myself blurting out, “poetry.”

Rorty’s father was a poet. Here he puts forth, in summing up his recent essay “Pragmatism and Romanticism”, that what comes from rationality must first come from imagination:

At the heart of Romanticism, I said, was the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken. No words, no reasoning. No imagination, no new words. No such words, no moral or intellectual progress.

This bears some connection to my thoughts on Davidson and Vico, and the nature of metaphor, for which Rorty was a partial guide. And we recall here Decartes’ comments about hammers having to be smithed at some point once without the aid of hammers (and Spinoza’s appropriation of the image).

What one is left with though is a sense that imagination itself is rational, that is, it both explains and constitutes our relationship to the world, and to others, and that what we call “imagination” is a production of reasons.


We thank with brief thanksgiving
  Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
     Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The “Glassy Essence” and a Rorty Reflection

Richard Rorty, in his very influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argues that since the time of the Greeks, Western philosophy has been dominated by one over-riding metaphor, that the mind forms a mirror which reflects with more or less accuracy that which Real. This is a superb critique of philosophy, partly because it subsumes many otherwise diverse arguments and positions within a much wider scope, allowing us to see their own relations to each other. The Picture of Reality notion of truth is a significant one, one that pervades some of the most sophisticated of theories of the Mind and Knowing, and I am in favor of much that follows from Rorty’s critique.

But I was at the lake today, sitting with my wife, staring across that water plane, and I was thinking heartily, if absently, about the nature of reflection. The sun was showing itself on the dark, muddy green surface, in patches. There would be halos of it, which my wife pointed out, where the water seemed to ripple out, as if for no reason. And the rest would remain dark. I said, that must be where the lake has grown shallow, and the breeze stirs it up, just so to catch the light. I think she agreed. So the lake as bespotted with light lay there, shimmer in this kind of expressive way.

We sat for a while, eating our sandwiches, watching the light show, and suddenly the breeze kicked up. Across this perfect skin spread a wave of glittering light, just near the shore, spreading out in an incredible patten, like a harp stroke. At the same time one could read the “shape of the wind” and also the hidden topography of the unseen bottom of the lake. The two unvisibles meet in an ephemeral sheen.

Now it occurred to me that if indeed the metaphor of reflection has dominated philosophical thinking for more than two thousand years, it is not just the kind of reflection we think of with the perfectly clean mirrors of our machined age (and our “mirrors” are very good now). It had also to be the reflection of natural phenomena, in particular the kind of which we saw today.


Different from the now long abhorred “transcendental” aims of using the mirror to see beyond itself, the mirror trope tells us things about our relation to things other than some conceived Real (or Divine). When the breeze passed over the lake, I was as much fascinated with what was revealed “below” as the print of the wind itself. And the sun’s reflection was not the point. What was revealed was much more local, much more contingent and unexpectant. I came in contact with the lake’s bottom and the breeze, through this reflection.

We see this trope of reflection all the time, as we watch the world being reflected across the faces (and bodies, and we could even say words), of those we interact with. I say “reflected” (but not necessarily represented). For just like the sheen of a passing gust on the surface of a lake, so too an effect, perhaps a cry-out in a room, passes across the surface of others. Through this we come to learn and coordinate ourselves to what others are experiencing, and we can “see” the invisibles of breeze. There is nothing transcendental about this, but there is something revealing.

It is this substantial knowing of what is hidden and effects otherwise unseen that is captured in the notion of reflection. Reflection is something that we in a kind of mother’s milk understand and experience as causal and triangulating, bringing our world into coherence. So a forest of downed trees reflects the storm that passed.

If we see the world through others, it is not because those that are very still and seemingly clear have transcended our contingent place, but rather because our community with them, as a materiality, is experienced as being connected to both us and it. Even the most cloudy of us concretize the reality of what is near, and carnate our most dense human affective possibilities. If we are mirrors, we are affective mirrors, and it is the material sheen of our felt textures (even our thoughts have textures and speeds) which communicate our states to each other, such that “image” and “representation” is no longer a sufficient trope.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ‘s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.


A Spoonful of Ought

Some Thoughts on the Is-Ought Distinction










Hume famously said that he noticed something very peculiar in the arguments of those making moral arguments. They would always conducted this curious kind shift, from “is” statements to “ought” statements. This is how he put it:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not,that expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

- A Treatise of Human Nature

At first this seems quite formidable, for there does seem some kind of slippage. Suddenly one kind of thing seems to be talked about, and then another. And the assumption here is that these are really two kind of mutually exclusive things, that one really can’t go from one to the other. That is, one is really reefed on the one side of “is”, getting a glimpse of the sandbar of “ought” but just can’t agumentatively swim the distance.


But to change the metaphor (always exciting to mix metaphors, it makes the world turn), this apparent insolution is based a bit on a fork in the road, the so-called “Hume’ Fork”. He puts it this way:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.  

- An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding


Moral “oughts” just don’t have place in this dichotomy of “objects”. There are, by his assertion, no “moral objects”. One can see floating behind such a fork the Analytic truths distiction which Quine worked to undo. The question is, if this strict and categorical distinction is not maintained, can the from is-to-ought (and from ought-to-is ) prohibition be maintained? Is there really such a fork in the road? As a side note, Wittgenstein went far in this direction turning “Relation of Ideas” into the “grammar” of words but also relatedly, the realm of criteria referring reasons, but was this When one starts treating the grammatical or criteria as if one is treating “facts”, Wittgenstein wants us to see that one approaches a kind of non-sense. But I would like to keep my eye upon the is-ought distintion.

I would say that what one has to understand is that this difference between “is” and “ought” is not a matter of deduction, that is, one can differentiate claims into kinds, but not make them mutually exclusive. That is, again, knowledge is not something that we “get” from an environmental “is” which then we do stuff to (empiricism). No sense data enters into our brains, which then gets mashed up into different forms by ideas and concepts, which eventually gets transformed (appropriately, or inappropriately) into “oughts”. If this were the case, this would be an empirical picture of the world, and in such a picture one can get the sense that is and ought do not coincide. But because the analytic (saying something about ideas alone) and emprical (saying something about the world) distinction does not strictly hold (beliefs and criteria must always be included in statements of fact about the world), the normative cannot be categorical excluded from any “is”. Further any “is” statement, pulls along with it a communitarian inforcement quite related to “ought”.


To show this conceptual inter-relationship: “That is a ‘cat’.” (A simple ostensive defintion), is certainly differentiatable from “You ought to call that a ‘cat’”. But the second form is wrapped up in the first. I certainly can tell the differences between them, but I can also see that the two are intimately related. Now, there is a very long way from “You ought to call that a ‘cat’” to “You ought not to murder”, but the essential, thought-to-be-unbreakable transition is already there. Prescription lies at the heart of description.

As one employs these ostensive, and otherwise established criteria, to describe the world, the normativity of use is subsumed in the process.

To argue the length of it, from the one (of use) to the other (of murder) is a perhaps worthy but lengthy task. One that I would not readily engage in this particular post, under this particular question. If one wants to get a taste of it, one can visit Spinoza’s Ethics. One can, as I have done elsewhere, put his “imitation of the affects” principle which governs sociability and conflict,

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.

Spinoza, E3, Proposition 27:

in close relation to Davidson Principle of Charity and Triangulation (more on this in essay “Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification“). If one does, I believe they will see that because the Principle of Charity is not a wise adage, but a componented part of all interpretability and sense making, any description presumes a prescriptive. Any communicability of what “is” draws in with it the normatives of community, which enable it. The Deontic is a folded into the Ontic, so to speak. First at the level of performative force, secondly at the level of affective binding. The mistake is, of course, to think that any ONE prescriptive has deontological standing, which cannot be violated (this was Kant’s mistake of universal law-making). Just like beliefs where any particular belief can be false, but all beliefs cannot be false, any one rule can be broken, but not ALL rules can be broken, and one still remain a describer of the world.

Rorty and Davidson Talk

See and hear this 1997 conversation between philosophical fellow travelers Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson, posted by Gundlegung, which ends:

Davidson: “Well, it sounds to me that by your standards I am a straight-forward pragmatist.”

Rorty: “Even in the romantic sense?”

Davidson: “Even in the romantic sense.”

Rorty: “That’s nice.”

One gets the dramatic sense that these two souls are still in tension from their ethos, even though they repeatedly come to agreements in principle. There is a bodily sense in which the comfort of ideas tugs each in opposite directions. Rorty seems to work with the breadth of thinking, and Davidson with the micro-structures. Agreement seems to be what they have agreed upon.

Closely Related Post: Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet


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