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Spinoza’s Degrees of Being: A History

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Starting with Spinoza as the modern end, and working backwards so as to grasp the nature of at least the Spinozist panpsychist position, this is a rough delineation of a genealogy of panpsychism. Several important intermediate figures have been left out (Bruno and de Cusa for instance), for the focus is on fleshing out a significant aspect of this progression, the turn from Plotinus to Augustine. Any additions, or clarifications to the evolution are appreciated:

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Parmenides: A conception of Being which is equivalent to Thought: “…it is the same thing to think and to be” (fragment 3).

Plato: The Parmenides (second part): Being as an emanation of hierarchized distinctions: Proto-One; The One/many; The One and Many.

Stoics: Tripartite subjects of Philosophy: physics, logic, ethics; The soul partakes; the soul (hegemonikon) partakes in the hegemonikon of the universe, Logos (a fiery rationality).

Poseidonius: God seen as a “fiery breath which thinks” expressed in degrees of Immanence. Influential commentary on the Timaeus, the Platonic, mythical account of the material world made through a Demiurge.

Gnosticism: A hierarchy of Being in specific degrees, mythologized: the Pleroma of Aeons, Sophia-Achamoth, the Demiurge and Matter, expressed in three worlds: the celestial, planetary and the terrestrial. So, in men predominate one principle: as such they are “pneumatic”, “psychic” or “hylie”.

Plotinus panpsychism

Plotinus: Being viewed as gradated emanation from a Unity that exists beyond Being: The One (Hen), Mind (Nous), Soul (Psuche), Nature (Phusis), Matter (Hule), in which matter participates in direct contact with Mind, as non-being. Following from Parmenidean Thought = Being is the idea that Contemplation itself (theorein, “to view, behold”) is Making (poiein,”to produce, create”), to view is to make, turning knowing into productive action. This is something that Nature essentially does. This is a combinatory conception of Being, which turns towards the higher emanative Unity, contemplative looking “with-light” (sunoran) in objects rather than by light at objects, result in greater Being. As such, the affective, personal experience of unity guides the rational grasp of greater and greater wholes, in which all things share, according to their degrees.


Augustine: Takes the 3 stoic categories of philosophy (physics, logic, ethics), and makes of them constituent of all things, as a trinity of effect: Being (esse), Knowing (nosse), Love/Willing (amare, volle), as a response to skepticism:

“It is without any phantasm or delusive representation of images that I am wholly certain that I exist, that I know this fact and love it” (City of God, Book XI, Chapter XXVI).

As a response to Dualism (Manicheaism) these are found in all things (persons, trees, stones) to the degrees of their capacity to persist (to be, to know, to love/will), understood as vector of power, and as marked by their perfection in God. Thus “evil” is understood as a deprivation in degree. This is a consideration of Being as a gradation expressed as power and knowing is essentially a Plotinian understanding.


Campanella: Follows Augustine’s 3 ontological categories, calling them the Three Primalities: Power (potentia) [altered from Augustine’s “esse“], Knowing (sapientia, cognoscere) and Loving (amare). These “toticipate”. This is use of a Scotus-like “formal distinction” wherein a distinction can be made in mind which is not in the things themselves.

Knowing becomes a process of becoming what you are not in increasing degrees of power, hence his famous “to know is to be” (cognoscere est sum). And this is achieved through direct perception of oneself, as a being in power, knowing, and loving relations to one Unifying World.


Spinoza: Divides the world of Becoming along the 3 categories of Stoicism and Augustine, but in a unique way. He takes the original two (Being and Knowing) and makes them Attributes of God/Substance, Extension and Idea, things which are formally distinct expressions of one thing. The third, Loving/Willing, he makes a process which corresponds to the very essence of things, the striving (conatus) which is in all things to varying degrees of agency. This striving expresses itself in a psychology of affects, which are the experiences of joy and sadness, direct expressions of the adequacy of Ideas one has (epistemology), and the power one has to Be. Joy is placed in a differential of epistemic power, that has Real ontological results. The result is that the original Parmenidean conception of One real Totality in which Thought and Being are the same thing, becomes expressed as gradated ontology of affect and power, making ideas about the world and oneself value relations to be measured in their capacity to combine and become more active.

Behind this thread of development stand two issues, I suggest, that of skepticism and that of radical dualism. The panpsychism at issue works to undo each of these potential conceptual problems, turning knowing into an expressive act which can be measured as an index of power (and value), and the making of the material and the mental two things which fundamentally are resolved in their union. Primary to such a resolution is the notion of Being as not a binary (to be or not to be), but a gradation which expresses itself through the capacity to act. In this way, knowing becomes something that we do, as an expression of what we are, the consequences ever integrated into the results of the act. It is the necessity to ever see our connection to the answer, and not merely the answer, that the web-strands of belief and materiality lead to the greatest meaningfulness and effect, as this tradition suggests.

[written April 4, 2008]

For more on the intersections of Plotinus and Spinoza, these articles.

2 responses to “Spinoza’s Degrees of Being: A History

  1. Pingback: Panpsychism in the West: From There to Here « Frames /sing

  2. Pingback: Many on Panpsychism: The Mind that Abides « Frames /sing

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