Frames /sing


Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens



Something that has always tugged on me in the effort to understand Spinoza. No commentator I know of has made much of the ideas implicit in Spinoza’s means of survival. In fact it strikes me as dramatically under studied. He was a lens grinder (in fact it is assumed that he died an early death from the glass inhalations of that work). If one thinks about what lens grinding is, it is the shaping of a material thing, glass, according very precise mathematical ideas (calculations), the result of which is the change in the idea (representations) that are produced by that lens. In a sense, the lens holds the analogy whereby the material expresses an idea, whose product is a representation. The better the math, the clearer (literally), the image. Spinoza lived at the rise of the use of the camera obscura (Hockney), and it was the master painter Rembrandt who lived down the street in his childhood neighborhood.In the age of representation, that is just after Descartes, when ideas will be thought of clear and unclear representations of reality, Spinoza had a priviledged position. He actually was a grinder of a mechanism of representation, so he understood both the ideational and the material aspects of what makes representations happen. In this way, he is not interested so much in the Cartesian theatre, that is what he calls “fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”:

Spinoza wrote:

We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought]

Ethics, 2p48s.


The pictures made, the imaginary images that supposedly occur to us in our Cartesian theatre, are really of less interest to Spinoza. And perhaps this is because he was a lens grinder. What he imagines is that if we get more adequate ideas, not our pictures will become sharper, but the lens itself will become more capable of acting, more Joyful, more expressive. In a sense perhaps, as a lens grinder, Spinoza was a first primative computer programmer, to return to your illustration, in that he took a program (a mathematical formula) and programmed a piece of material (glass), so as to produce some capacity of informing action. He imagined though, that the ideas that were important were not those that were supposedly projected at the back of the head (in a Cartesian world), to be viewed by an abstract will, but were the very ideas which constituted the material organization of the body, in a kind of mobius loop. That is, like a program, the ideas we hold shape, and express our very construct, and end up producing our very affective experience of ourselves and the world. While we spend much time looking the the Cartesian movie show, and thinking about just what is going on there, what it means, I think Spinoza wants us to spend more time thinking about what it means to be, and what it feels like being, a lens. An interesting turn on Plontus’ analogy of the Mirror and light. The very least, I think that being a lens grinder convinced him of the absolutely material, and parallel manifestation of any idea.

2 responses to “Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens

  1. Claude Martin February 10, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    I appreciate very much the work you are doing on Spinoza and lens grinding, and I send you my congratulations.
    I don’t find any reference about “Plontus’ analogy of the Mirror and light” as it is mentioned in this page.



    • kvond February 10, 2009 at 6:18 pm

      Good point Claude. Through out my various posts I have sought to build the link between Plontinus and Spinoza, in particular in the use of a degree of being conception of the usual dichotomy of Spirit/Matter, Being/nonbeing. In Spinoza’s approach to epistemological power in degrees (Falsity is a question of privation), there definitely is a continuation of the mirror/light analogy, though I don’t think that this analogy was something that Spinoza in particular had in mind.

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