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The Ignored Letters of Spinoza

Equine In Thought

I have been working for a few days on a commentary on two of Spinoza’s letters, which I will refer to as his Optical Letters. These two letters are Spinoza’s attempt to answer a question about optics and telescopes put to him by his friend Jarig Jelles. I just want to make a short note here on something that has really struck me as quite astounding about the paths research on Spinoza have taken over the last say, 150 years. During these past few months I have read deeply into the biography of Spinoza, and conducted my own attempt to dig into Spinoza’s connections to lenses and optics. I have found extraordinarily detailed work done on the most obscure elements of Spinoza’s life. Diary entries of people who never met Spinoza are combed for bits of significant facts. Spainish inquistion records reveal hearsay of a meeting he was at and the company he kept. The records of Michael Spinoza’s business dealings before Spinoza was born are carefully noted. Indeed it seems that every trace Spinoza’s echoing life may have made upon the Book of History has been dug up with near archaeological precision, all to a wonderful effect.

But what amazes me, I say truly amazes me, is that we have in these two letters to Jelles several pages of Spinoza’s thoughts on light, glass, geometry, optics, Cartesian reasoning, perception and the eye, and nearly no one (in English) has thought to ask with any depth: What is Spinoza thinking here, and why does he think it? This resounding silence on these letters is truly extraordinary, given the Armada of Academia’s resources and desires. The disproportionality is extreme. Part of this may be due to the fact that these letters were not completely available to general English readers until Shirley’s translation made them so in the mid nineties (the Elwes translation simply leave off where the optical portions begin!). But I have been assured that even in Dutch there is a dearth of commentary on these letters, and I am not familiar with any other languaged treatment. Despite issues of translation, the reasons for this silence seem to be two-fold, in perhaps the most broad of interpretations. First, Spinoza seems to have been ensconced, crystallized in a certain mystico-rationalist conception that only Philosophy can achieve, strangely divinified such that certain aspects of his thinking simply are unthinkable as relevant. In such a prisming of his life the fact that he ate “Milk-soop” and raisins indeed might have more importance than what he thought about spherical aberration. This is remarkable, for Spinoza has been championed by diverse, incompatable schools of thought throughout the centuries. I think it says something about the aura we receive Spinoza in, no matter where we stand. The other reason seems to be about Academia itself, that issues of science and philosophy are treated so distinctly that not only are questions not asked which might bring these two disciplines together, but also the people posing these questions are either of one background or the other, such that investigative readers of Spinoza who might have looked deeply enough to have found his Optical Letters simply did not possess the knowledge by which to assess them. The letters just were not of interest to either philosophers or historians. And I suspect that there is something to Academic arrogance or supposition – probably because it is a milieu in which one primarily experiences attack from one’s peers, rather than agreement – that is willing to dismiss the relevance of something that is not well understood and does not fit within its program. That such a combination of programs over the years may had this lasting occluding effect is significant. On a more general note, I have been assured by more than one scholar that this research into Spinoza’s lens-grinding is simply the first of its kind. How can this be?

Mirror

If I were to say something more, I suggest that we look into this hole in our perceptions of Spinoza, as they have been recieved and acted out for the last century or more, if only to get a better sense of ourselves, our need to see the people we study through a particular kind of lens (to beat the easy, but meaningful rhetorical drum). This does not mean that Spinoza is among the greatest scientific minds of his time, or even that he may have been able to contribute something to our vast store of scientific knowledge (that narrative tendency of successive victories needs to be amended I suspect). What it means is that if we are to understand Spinoza’s metaphysics (and politics) we must comprehend the full scope of the man: his intellectual concerns and daily devotions, and not just his Propositions. In a Spinozist sense, the fullness of his modal expression needs to be embraced. And if we are to understand Science, the great rise of rational, experimental and mechanical investigation that came out of the 17th century, we are going to have to understand that the truths in the minds of men, were mixed truths drawn from multiple aspects of what now are distinct disciplines. In history there is no dross.

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