Frames /sing


Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

Recently though I have been reading Michael Della Rocca’s essay, “The Power of an Idea: Spinoza’s Critique of Pure Will,” and despite my embrace of its conclusion as to the radically anti-Cartesian nature of 2p49, something of its intermediate conclusions troubled me. I may not fully understand the position, or it may be simply that I understand it, and disagree with it slightly.

It is Della’s Rocca’s conclusion that all modes of thought are indeed only those of ideas, and thus, of representations that confuses me. I do understand how he uses this principle causal reading of Spinoza to deny any possibility of a mental x (non-representational, will) determining a mental y (idea). But for me the difficulty arises with the nature of affects themselves, for while Spinoza certainly has argued that there is no will which determines which ideas we hold, it seems rather that the ideas that we hold indeed do determine the affects we have, and these affects are to be understood as “modes of thought”. I will go over this point a few times, so feel free to skip the examples.

What struck me was his exclusive reading of modes of thought so to be “fully reduced” to ideas was this kind of argumentative aim, as he writes, “I would also show, more generally, that there can be no item in thought, and thus no states of desire, hope, love, etc. that do not reduce fully to ideas” (Nous, 220).

I am unsure of just what he means to say, “states of x” are “fully reduced to ideas”. Is he reading an affect of Joy or desire to be an “item in thought”, even though it is defined as a transition that is “accompanied by”, and presumably not identical with, an idea? I might tend to agree that “representational content does all the causal work in the mind” for Spinoza (ibid), but something seems amiss here; if one is to fully describe Spinoza’s theory of the affects this something seems to be an account of the very degree of perfection of the ideas themselves. For the degree of the perfection of ideas determines the affect one has, and the very transition from one degree of perfection as a bodily power affirmation, (as found in the definitions of Joy and Sadness) should be considered a mode of thought, and perhaps a non-representational mode at that: for love itself apart from what is loved (Joy), represents nothing. In fact 2ax3 it would appear makes just this kind of distinction, an affect taken to be mode of thinking which is not its necessarily accompanying idea.

So we see the possible non-representational nature of affective modes of thought in a few places.

First, Spinoza in his attempt to deal with volition apart from desire presents representation-type model, (2p48s: “by will I understand a faculty…not the desire by which the mind wants a thing or avoids it”), gives his affirmations of a triangular example which he cites [the relationship between the ideas of a triangle and the angles therein]. Yet, in his General Definition of the Affects, he presents a very different kind of affirmation, that which is affirmed in examples of inadequate thought; here it is not some rational entailment as to the nature of the idea to itself (triangle/right angles), but of the body a degree of force of existing, or perfection. This affirmation of a degree of perfection seems to be a non-representational mode of thought, that is, it is only “born out of an idea” orta ex idea (for instance in the definition of the affect of Confidence), but remains distinct from that idea. We see this same distinction between the idea and the transition itself marked out in the definitions of Love, “Love is a Joy [an increase in perfection] with the accompaniment of (concomitante) an idea of an external cause”. What an idea affirms, that is, the mode of its thought, seems of paramount importance. In the instance of love, what is being affirmed as represented, is the idea of an external cause, but what is being affirmed (non-representatively) is the very power of the body to exist, in a specific degree. The question is, is “affirmation” necessarily representational (and not say, expressional).

For Spinoza, the modes of inadequate thinking are componented as to what they affirm, and what they represent. For instance, if I think I am saddened by a man betraying me (Hate), this is an affirmation of the belief that he is the cause of my sadness, (thus the idea is taken as a true representation of the causal explanation as to my state); but also by this very idea the Mind acts to affirm a weakening force of the body to exist such that it does exist to a lesser degree. Is this affirmation a “representation”? Spinoza says that it is a kind of representation, that is, it is something that “indicates or expresses” indicare vel exprimere the constitution of the body. But the very transition itself into a less real state, the feeling of sadness coming out of the idea which “constitutes the form of the affect”, does not seem a representation as we take the word.

This may of course have consequences for the nature of consciousness, that which “determines the mind to think this rather than that” (General Definitions of the Affects). Spinoza writes at 2p18s, defining Memory as “the certain connection of ideas involving the nature of things outside the body” and that this connection is the connection of the “affections of the human body”. Thus there is a kind of shadow parallel postulate which mirrors the parallel postulate of 2p7. There is the order and connection of ideas and things which is the same at the adequate level; but there is the order and connection of ideas about the nature of external things, and the affections of the body which are the same at the inadequate level. Of this second order, we think of an apple when we hear the word “apple” because the affections of our body are such that these have coincided, the hearing and the seeing. Presumably, this is also because in each affection, we have had the affect of joy, in that the Mind has affirmed in our body a greater degree of existing, transited (transito) to a greater perfection of being. These are two “orders” so to speak, the order of causal explanations provided by the Intellect’s ideas (2p18s), and the order of the affections of the body which produce the affirmations of the body, and affects via inadequate ideas. Both orders are modes of thinking, but how essentially representational, I am not sure. The first affirms and negates conceptually (as in the case of triangles), the second through its inadequate ideas “indicates or expresses” the degrees of being of the body, whose shifts (states of Joy, Sadness and Desire) do not seem represented.

This is the same fundamental tension which exists in the way he wants to talk about the will (voluntatem ). On the one had, it is a faculty (facultatem ) of presumably ideational affirmation and negation (2p48s); and yet he still wants to define Desire (Cupiditas) by its strivings, impulses, appetites and volitions (volitiones), which are as manifold (varia ) as with the constitution (constitutione ) of each man that is manifold (hominis…varii ), taking as their objects the very bodily states themselves; that is to say, volitions follow the order of bodily affections (Definition of the Affects, I). The faculty of voluntatem which rests with the affirmations and negations of ideas, and the inadequate production of volitiones result in two kinds of affirmations, and two different notions of representation. One affirmation occurs at the ideational level with adequate ideas, such as one does when discussing the ideas of triangles, (a triangle and not a circle), with no reference to the body at all, and one that occurs at the seemingly non-representational affective transition, “born of” inadequate ideas/images which indicate a degree of being of the body, affirming that, through the order of its affections.

What makes an idea=representation equivalence confusing is that Spinoza would like to distinguish ideas from images (“fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”), yet each can be taken as a representation. What Spinoza privileges as a true idea, what I would read as “an idea insofar as it is an idea” (2p49) isn’t really a representation in the usual sense, that is, it is not an idea about the nature of an external thing (that is, it does not literally re-present it). The intellect, insofar as it affirms or negates, understands things through their first causes, it explains them (2p18s). Thus, the intellectual Idea of God or Substance explains modal reality, but does not represent it, except perhaps in the most Scholastic of senses.

Axiom 3, Ethics Part II: There are no modes of thinking, such as love, desire, or whatever is designated by the word affects of the mind, unless there is in the same Individual the idea of the thing loved, desired, etc. But there can be an idea, even though there is no other mode of thinking.

I think key to reading 2ax3, on which Della Rocca’s interpretation rests, is understanding that when Spinoza writes “There are no modes of thinking, such as love…unless there is the idea of the thing loved,” he announces that the affect of loving (Joy), is a non-representational mode of thinking (already admitted by the axiom as distinct) which is concomitant to a representational, affirming mode of thought (inadequate idea) regarding an the external thing. That is, the affect arises out of the idea, but is distinct from it.

I agree with his thought, “Spinoza claims that because an idea cannot be conceived without a certain affirmation, and because that affirmation cannot be conceived without the idea, it follows, given Spinoza’s conception of essence (2def2), that affirmation pertains to the essence of the idea, and that the affirmation is identical with the idea” (Nous, 202). But we must distinguish between adequate and inadequate ideas. It is the particularity of the affirmation which marks it as such. The rational affirmation that is involved in the Intellect’s understanding through first causes, is not the same affirmation involved in affects as passions, though the latter can be explained through the former. Spinoza views all ideas, insofar as they are in the mind of God, as true. That is, what they affirm and negate constitute their essence. But in instances where we are not thinking of triangles, but inadequately of external objects, what is being affirmed is not the ratio of angles unto a conception of triangles, but a power of the body, an affirmation which is largely, if not entirely unconscious.

As I look closely at 2p49, affirmations (including the affirmation of the degrees of power of the body to exist) exist because they are involved by ideas (involvit ) insofar they are ideas. This quatenus idea est, can only mean as far as I can tell, ideas as opposed to images, adequate ideas as opposed to inadequate ideas, ideas as they are taken to be in the mind of God. The difficulty with strictly equating this aspect of affirmation (that of an idea insofar as it is an idea) with belief, is that it would be at the level of strictly true belief. As one passes from the strong notion of adequate ideas, to the weaker notion, what is being affirmed, by Spinoza’s definition of affect and inadequate idea, has changed. The affirmation (and negation) which at the level of adequate ideas would constitute true belief, at the level of affects is an affirmation of the body’s capacity to act. Indeed, having ideas of any sort is a kind of belief, an affirmation. But what is being affirmed seems for Spinoza to slide along a gradated, asymptotic line, at whose pinnacle adequate ideas as explanations of the causes of things, affirm and negate the internal particularities of those ideas; but insofar as they are not (true) ideas, they produce a non-representational change in the body’s power. These affective affirmations of the body may be said to be “enfolded by, wrapped by” adequate ideas which involve them involvere, but are they “reduced to” those ideas, for their effects remain modally distinct, as expressions?


I am thinking of a description of affects I once found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza, one which made me think deeply about the restrictions Della Rocca was placing on mental action; it lead me to my close reading of Della Rocca’s line of thought. Deleuze writes, explaining the fundamental difference between an idea and an affect:

“Thus we start from a quite simple thing: the idea is a mode of thought defined by its representational character. This already gives us a first point of departure for distinguishing idea and affect (affectus) because we call affect any mode of thought which doesn’t represent anything. So what does that mean? Take at random what anybody would call affect or feeling, a hope for example, a pain, a love, this is not representational. There is an idea of the loved thing, to be sure, there is an idea of something hoped for, but hope as such or love as such represents nothing, strictly nothing. Every mode of thought insofar as it is non-representational will be termed affect”

(Cours Vincennes – 24/01/197eight)

Deleuze, whatever one makes of him, reads affects as essentially non-representational modes of thought; this seems to answer at first blush Della Rocca’s position “…this argument rule[s] out other modes of thought not ultimately ideas or representational states” (Nous, 220). This depends on what he means by “ultimately”. It would also depend on what one means by “representational content”. For, in his essay he seems to often take as identical in meaning, idea and representation. Yet as Spinoza distinguishes between idea and image (2p49s), and Della Rocca understands image to be the means by which the mind represents an “external state of affairs” (Nous, 210; via 2p17); just how “representational” are the affirmations of adequate ideas, for they are not representing external states of affairs (alone), but rather are explaining them. It seems rather, what is taken as “representational” in the usual sense, for instance the idea of a frog, that frog there, insofar as it makes me think of this or that, feel this or that, is merely for Spinoza an image, and not an idea proper.

I think this disjunction in what representation means can be seen in the way that the different kinds of affirmations are approached by Spinoza. Those of triangles and the such, by the intellect, involve no reference at all to states of the body itself, even though, all ideas in the Mind are supposed to take as their object the Body as it actually exists, an object in fact constituted (constituentis) by that state of the body (2p13). When discussing our ideas of triangles (and what they are supposed to represent, if we take such ideas to be fundamentally representational), there is no mention at all of the actual object of those ideas, the human body. Spinoza does not, in fact cannot say with any sense, “the idea that the two angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is affirmed because the body is in actual state x, which forms the actual object of this idea of the mind”.

The conflation of image representations and idea representations seems to undermine the thought that there can be no “interaction between…ideas and any non-ideas” (Nous, 223). While I certainly agree that there is no room for a Cartesian free will as an explanatory cause of belief in ideas, what does not seem supported by Spinoza in that he takes representations (inadequate ideas) to be unconscious affirmations of the body which give “rise to” shifts in perfection, transitions which are not representational in character. In the end, Spinoza actually seems to invert Descartes, and makes what we commonly take as “will,” the products of consciousness and choice, a non-representational, ontological effect, caused by largely representational states (inadequate ideas, images of external states), and these inadequate representational states in turn to be further caused by Intellectual affirmations and negations, which in the mind of God are less “representations” in the common sense term, as immanent expressions of modal states of the world, as ideas.

Key becomes the question, are the risings and fallings of degrees of power of the body to exist (and act), those transitions to and from perfection, to be considered “modes of thought” or of some alternate category, neither extension nor thought. There seems no room in Spinoza’s ontology for this third category.

I wonder if I have misunderstood a vital component of Della Rocca’s argument. I can certainly see how it makes clear the very nature of Spinoza’s radical refutation of Descartes, but I feel that some of his uses of “representation” go too far to adequately capture what Spinoza means by affect.


Michael Della Rocca is in my mind the clearest expositor of Spinoza living, and teaching at Yale. Highly recommended, his Represenation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza.

Closely related posts: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order ; Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens ; Wasps, Orchids, Beetles, Crickets


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: