Frames /sing


Spinoza’s Letter 21 to Blyenbergh: Negation and the Unseeing Stone

I reprint here part of a letter I wrote to a good friend, as part of our exchange over philosophy. It includes an explication of Spinoza’s influential January 28th letter to Blyenbergh, wherein Spinoza reveals his take towards negation, a passage which Hegel would focus on, as significant for what it asserts, but also what he would claim it does not grasp.

“omnis determinato est negatio”


I think that one of the most important ideas in Spinoza is the way that he treats “negation”, for he makes a distinction between the difference between negation and “privation”. It is rather in that Negation often is conflated with privation, making of it a kind of “lack”, upon which all desire is founded, that much of Modern Philosophy parts company with Spinoza. Instead Spinoza argues for the perfection and completeness of any particular state of the world, at any one point in time. His description of the capabilities of “seeing” (those missing in a blind man, and those missing from a stone), is one of the most illustrative examples of this thought. In his Letter 21 to Blyenbergh, he outlines fairly clearly the difference between negation and privation. It is an extraordinary thought, (not the first time said in history):

 I will proceed to explain further the words privation and negation, and briefly point out what is necessary for the elucidation of my former letter. I say then, first, that privation is not the act of depriving, but simply and merely a state of want, which is in itself nothing: it is a mere entity of the reason, a mode of thought framed in comparing one thing with another. We say, for example, that a blind man is deprived of sight, because we readily imagine him as seeing, or else because we compare him with others who can see, or compare his present condition with his past condition when he could see; when we regard the man in this way, comparing his nature either with the nature of others or with his own past nature, we affirm that sight belongs to his nature, and therefore assert that he has been deprived of it. But when we are considering the nature and decree of God, we cannot affirm privation of sight in the case of the aforesaid man any more than in the case of a stone; for at the actual time sight lies no more within the scope of the man than of the stone; since there belongs to man and forms part of his nature only that which is granted to him by the understanding and will of God. Hence it follows that God is no more the cause of a blind man not seeing, than he is of a stone not seeing. Not seeing is a pure negation.

January 28, 1665

What he means is that a blind man is not missing sightedness, just as the stone is not missing sightedness, only our imaginary comparison of one state of the world to another causes us to say so. Instead each thing (the blind man and the stone) is negated in a particular and determined way. That is to say, limited. The limitation is the nexus of causes that bring it into being, the bordering interactions with other modes of Reality which make it what it is. And what it is is exactly what it can do. Negation simply means having boundaries of the capacity to do.

The thing is, because Substance (or God or Nature) is by essence not limited at all, but infinite, all negation is a kind of illusion. That is, we might see the blind man as limited or determined in a certain fashion, but the blind man is actually a modal expression of Totality, and our drawing of a line around him, making of him a closed entity (which can or cannot see), is only a temporary perspective. If the blind man is standing on a plain of grass (or perhaps more thoroughly, living there) there is nothing that stops us from perceiving it as a blind-man-plain-of-grass assemblage, where “seeing” is only one sliver of any number of possible and complex interactions between parts, (one can glimpse the ecological consequences of such a flexibility, wherein dependence become expression, or inter-expression between environments). Moment by moment, each thing is perfect because it could be no other way; all is a full expression of God/Substance/Nature.

So when Spinoza talks of the non-being of something, that is, just as in the description of the perception of the basket in Joyce (perceiving through what something is not), this non-being is simply a perspective. It is, in a certain sense an imaginative illusion. There is no such thing as non-being, (it has no ultimate bearing on things), because all things derive their power from the fullness of Being itself. Any localized mode of Being (be it a stone or a man or a grassland) is a full expression of God, which is also dependent upon all the negations which constitute it. That is, the causal boundaries which compose any figure by limiting it, actually compose it, in the way perhaps how negative space around a statue might be said to “be” the statue.

So there is a double move in Spinoza. One is that any one particular moment of expression, of a man say (both of his body and his idea), is already perfect because it flows from the Infinite being of God, what we call Nature. The fullness and perfection of each thing is thus guaranteed. But the second move, one that Hegel misses [and I am following Gatens and Lloyd here, who are following Macherey] because he would like to wedge out the soul of a man to a place of importance, is that the negation of any one thing, that is, its actual boundaries which seem to limit it, are veritably the connective tissue to all that is, the assembled source of its power. (It is for this reason that Deleuze characterizes Spinoza’s Theory of Power as “the ability to be affected”. Through the fabric of these “negations” the assemblage of things shows itself to be an incredibly complex thing. Even the simplest thing, a water molecule, through its very limitations, connects to huge things, a tidal wave.


So to return to Joyce’s description of the basket, which is a beautiful one,

[quoted in a previous letter] In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in spae. But temporal or spatial the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

Stephen Dedalus, in The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man

If we keep in mind the way that Spinoza sees the body and the nature of perception, we see how even this description of the basket is superseded by the notion of the perceptive Body itself. Recall, Spinoza says that all perception of “things” (those things outside of us), are actually our perception of our body. All ideas are of our body being in a certain state. A neurophysiologist can describe the brain as being our sixth sense, that which perceives the Body. So, while it may very well seem that we are perceiving a “basket” and doing so by also perceiving its non-being, all that is not-basket outside of it, Spinoza would say that all the while we are only holding ideas about our own body being in a particular state (a state that due to the causal relations between out body and all else, which allows us with clear ideas to act powerfully in the world). The being and non-being of things cloaks the actual changes in power of our own body, as we form ideas of that body in particular states.

This conception of the body as a closed arena of perception, forming ideas only about its own state, leads Spinoza to articulate a theory about the passions and being a passive state. Affects, that is emotional reaction to the world, is part of the imaginary and confused ideas of the world that necessarily make up human perception. In a sense, it is part of our experience of living in time, the way that we compare the world and ourselves to past and future states of being. This is a very subtle and strange thought for me, and one which it took me a long time to understand, and then possibly to accept. The core expression of it is found at the end of part 3 of the Ethics, in “The General Definition of the Affects”:

E3: DOA. Emotion, which is called a passivity of the soul, 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 one thing rather than another.

Explanation.–I say, first, that emotion or passion of the soul 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 an emotion 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 emotion affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

Note, central here is that the Mind, as it moves through pleasures and pains and appears to do so by comparing its current state to other states, past and future, but Spinoza claims that it really is not doing so at all. Instead, the Mind as it thinks is rather affirming in more or less clear ways the force of particular parts of the body, such that that actual affirmation gives those parts, that expression, more reality. This is an amazing thought. We conceive of ourselves having one reality, a fixed baseline of reality, as all things do, passing into various characteristic states. But here Spinoza, because there is only One Reality, that is the reality of Substance, the things which partake of that reality more (that is, express themselves with a greater capacity to act, a greater capacity to be affected), actually are more Real. The coming and going of Pleasure and Pain is the coming and going of the Reality of a thing, even though each state is perfect, because from the point of view of the Totality even the smallest part is a fully real expression of the Whole. Our entire lives are fluctuations of becoming more or less real as persons, as we pass into more or less active states of being, all the while expressing a perfection.

I thoroughly agree with you that our departures over Nietzsche, insofar as we have disagreements, are in the degree of credit that I offer him. There are a few reasons for this for me, the largest of which is that I am, or have been quite Nietzschean in nature, and thus have found Spinoza to be a kind of relief or antidote for this nature-a way of directing it, making its impulses more powerful and more at ease. In this sense Nietzsche gets my razored critique as part of my own self-critique. I also believe that Nietzsche himself requires that I be ungenerous, as this is the way that he conducted his own thought, savagely attacking those he thought close to himself. He would not want to be “given” anything. Thus for me reading Nietzsche generously is somewhat unNietzschean. And lastly I suppose, I am hardest on those that achieve the broadest degree of cultural acceptance, and Nietzsche has been rather thoroughly embraced by an academic heritage, at least on the Continental side, and by culture as a whole. I can think of no other modern philosopher, in spirit, who is so well esteemed (if mis-understood) by non-philosophers; and also not one so credited. Thus my stand against Nietzsche operates as both a stand against myself, and a stand against various instutionalizations of thought, a pronged critique I cannot resist. Spinoza then operates as something new, radical and liberating, in the most pragmatic of senses. I certainly would not to think to have you agree with me in approach, because this is individual, but it is good that you know the motivations of my arguments, and take them for what they are worth for you. Yes Nietzsche can be read as reacting to the “moral climate of his time” (but this makes him a bit reactive and not as active as he might be); and the same can be said of Spinoza, but his tone and method more quiet (perhaps more powerful?). The question of the influence of his own thought, and his pre-mediation of those difficulties is an excellent one. Considering that he was a near-forgotten writer until reanimated after the two world wars, this either reflects his own inflated sense of grandiosity, or his incredible prescience. Probably both.

As to my thought that there is no “negation” in biology, I mean that only in the sense that there is no “non-being” in biological explanations. In genetics in particular, and statistical and population analysis, the idea of “lack” has no place at all. Instead we only have ways of combining, molecular and algorithmic capacities to act, and an inter-relationship between environment, populations and genetic properties which only display what can be done. The genetic material and the conditions which unfold are shown to be expressions of each other, by most accounts that I have read. Specifically I have in mind the work of Maturana and Varela and their biological theory of Life, Autopoiesis, but also general Neo-Darwinian accounts. I have yet to hear any theory of biology which would support a Hegelian view of the world. This is not to say that it is not possible, but only that I have not heard it.




2 responses to “Spinoza’s Letter 21 to Blyenbergh: Negation and the Unseeing Stone

  1. Pingback: Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod) « Frames /sing

  2. Pingback: The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through « Frames /sing

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