Frames /sing


A Conflation of Spinoza Diagrams

How Spinoza Thought of the Eye, the Lens and The Modes

Perhaps this is an irresponsible and trite comparison, but sometimes the mind indeed works visually, even in authors as exacting and deductive as Spinoza attempts to be. It is striking that Spinoza uses two very similar diagrams to illustrate on the hand, the powers of spherical lenses to most ideally focus rays across an infinity of axes, (the manifestation of which is subject to the properties of real lenses):

Text not available

Letter 39 to Jelles, March 3rd 1667
Benedicti de Spinoza opera quotquot reperta sunt quotquot reperta sunt By Benedictus de Spinoza, Baruch Spinoza, Johannes van Vloten, Jan Pieter Nicolaas Land

Depicted above are the hypothetical intersection of rays, in two sets taken to be parallel, as they arrive at the surface of a spherical lens. Such rays are taken to be then focused at the back of the circumfrance, as the would be at the back of the eye, or as part of the refractions of a lens.


In this diagram, Spinoza illustrates how each contingently expressive mode – what is usually taken to have come into existence and then will pass away – are implied by, that is caused by as immanent to, the Idea of an infinity of points that make up a circle. In this way, the rectangles that are immanent to a circle’s circumfence are by analogy seen to be dependent upon that circle. The rectangles come and go, the circle remains eternal. As explained in Ethics IIp8s:

The nature of a circle is such that if any number of straight lines intersect within it, the rectangles formed by their segments will be equal to one another; thus, infinite equal rectangles are contained in a circle. Yet none of these rectangles can be said to exist, except in so far as the circle exists; nor can the idea of any of these rectangles be said to exist, except in so far as they are comprehended in the idea of the circle.

There is the simple coincidence of using a circle to diagram both physical effects, and metaphysical effects (which for Spinoza are of course commensurate). But if one allows a conflation, one that may have occurred within Spinoza’s thinking, in the first we have the effects what occur within the eye, as it interacts with events outside of it, and in the second, we have the effects (modes) as expressed immanent to the circle that contains them.

Because Adequate Ideas are understood by Spinoza to be Ideas uncaused by something external to them, I don’t think it is too big of a leap to understand that when Spinoza is diagramming the effects of light with the eye (and for a lens, post-angle of incidence), he is thinkingof the second diagram. It is perhaps for this reason that Spinoza is not obsessed with the crystality of vision that occupied Descartes in his quest for the hyperbolic lens. The sharpness of an image is but a part played in an assemblage of knowledge. However clearly one’s eye, or lenses work, this simply is not clear thinking. Of course Descartes understood this as well, but there is something to how Descartes and Spinoza each responded to spherical aberration which reveals a difference of emphasis in the very project of mental and physical liberation. I believe in this co-incidence of diagrams, a profound conflation is being accomplished in Spinoza’s process of thinking.

I see hear as well an interesting graphic subsumption of the scattering of rays that occur with spherical aberration, as in being focused they tend about a “mechanical point” [Johannes Hudde]. Much as rays are never entirely focused to a mathematical point (even with real, hyperbolic lenses), so too we never possess wholly adequate ideas. The focus rays as seen in the first diagram (again, if we allow an analogical thought), appear to enact indices found in the second diagram. Is Spinoza at some level conceiving of rays of focus as being parallel to the adequacy of ideas? And is Spinoza’s theoretical acceptance of spherical aberration [a la Hudde] a product of his acceptance of the fundamentally inadequate nature of ideas we hold? Is his mechanical project of lens focusing analogous to a mechanical – that is, pragmatic, rational and crafted – construction of human freedom? These are large and obscured questions.

This certainly does not make up an argument either for Spinoza’s position, or for an interpretation of Spinoza’s position. It is really more an intuition into the kinds of thought processes Spinoza may have been engaged in, in part elicited by the diagrams he used to make things clear. Meant is a direction for future analysis.


One response to “A Conflation of Spinoza Diagrams

  1. Pingback: Spinoza’s Circle and the Interior « Frames /sing

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