Frames /sing

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Spinoza as Craftsman: A Closer Look

The Craftsman

An initial synthesis of some of the aspects of my research and a more refined notion of craftsmanship: writing to think through.

This is not the place to write a review of Richard Sennett’s provocative, subtly powerful book The Craftsman. I can only say in that vein, it is a book I highly recommend for those who enjoy looking at recurrent themes in culture and technology, wih an eye to informed thinking about the challenges and opportunities that face us today. The book is chock-full of illuminating analogies and narratives of human progress in problem solving [what he does with chicken recipes is astounding]. Aside from this general appreciation I believe Mr. Sennett’s observations on the significance of the wisdom of the craftsman has great consonance with the same point I am have been attempting to establish: Spinoza’s view of seeing technology as a continuous interface between bodies in assemblage. To put it one way the Craftsman represents the bodily knowledge shore between ideas held and our capacity to act, something I believe is embraced by Spinoza’s parallel grasp of both Mind and Body, thought and extension.

But from this book I would like to concentrate on a few distinctions of analysis Sennett makes to study they way that tools are used, and to assess their epistemic value as a means of intuition and inference. I cite from his chapter “Arousing Tools”.

Mr. Sennett starts with a general appraisal of the place of tools in our process of learning and acting:

Getting better at using tools comes to us, in part, when the tools challenge us, and this challenge often occurs just because the tools are not fit-for-purpose. They may not be good enough or it’s hard to figure out how to use them. The challenge becomes greater when we are obliguedto use these tools to repair or undo mistakes. In bothcreationand repair, the challenge can be met by adapting the form of a tool, or improvising with it as it is, using it in ways it was not meant for. However we come to use it, the very incompleteness of the tool has taught us something (194).

He goes onto make a distinction between a fit-for-purpose tool and an all-purpose tool. The example he uses for each is a screwdriver. A philips-head screwdriver is fit for one purpose, yet a flat-blade driver has a flexibility to it, “it can gouge, lift, and line as well as screw”. It is tempting to apply Spinoza’s definition of power to this distinction, the flat-blade tool actually has a greater number of ways it can “affect or be affected”. This does not make it a better tool at any given instance, for it its capacities must be assessed in assemblage to situations and to among other things, screws, but there does seem to be a fundamental difference to be noted.

The all-purpose tool has something of an openness to it:

…in its sheer variety this all-purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities: it, too, can expand our skills if only our imagination rises to the occasion. Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime – the word sublime standing, as it does in philsophy and the arts, for the potentially strange. In craftwork, that sentiment focuses especially on objects very simple in form that seemingly can do anything.

I’d like to stop here for a moment, for I am attempting to look through Richard Sennett’s lens at the discoveries I have come upon in regard to Spinoza’s technical-optical practices. There is no doubt that Spinoza, at least in life, if not in philosophical theory, embodies the core values of the craftsman. He lived a thrift life upon the intentionally thin thread of the earnings of his lens-grinding and instrument making. He came from the artisan class of Amsterdam Sephardic Jewry, and devoted himself to the perfection of things for their own sake, a mark of craftsmanship. And his hands-on experiences with materials and the lathe gave him a distinctly craftsman approach to problems of light and glass. If we ask, For Spinoza, what tools would strike him as “sublime” in the sense that Sennett defines it? It would seem safe to say that the lathe in its simplicity and multiplicity of uses would be sublime. Nearly every required lens could be ground on his bench provided the right glass, abrasives and forms were available. This spinning concentric action must have been “potentially strange” and a source of many, perhaps unconscious, inferences.

I think though that in my close reading of Spinoza’s two Optical Letters, it would seem that Spinoza also regarded the spherical lens as sublime. In his argument for its superiority its essential multiplicity, as long as one accepted its one inherent drawback of slight spherical aberration, gave it a certain panopticalquality, the way that it addressed rays coming from all points of a field of view. One can say that this understanding came from a failure to properly understand the optics involved, but I suspect that it is rather overestimated how correct the understanding of contemporary optics was. A theorist could hold what we take to be a “true” optical belief, but only due to fact that he also held a great number of beliefs we would regard as false. In a sense, to assess the truth or falsity of a scientific belief, one should perhaps take a more tool-oriented view toward these beliefs, asking how they worked to solve which problems.

Keeping this in mind, I think it safe to say that Descartes’ also found his discovered (imagined) hyperbolic lens “sublime”. For Descartes the simplicity of its form (a hyperbola could be made with two sticks and string in the garden he tells us), the elegance of its line bespoke a remarkable potential for applicability. But there is something to the foundational thinking of Descartes’ hyperbola (shown in Kepler), which also seemed to make it something like a fit-for-purpose tool, a philips-head. The way that Descartes saw it, it matched the human eye, acting like a hand and glove prosthetic extension of the organ out into space. It fit its purpose. Additionally to this, it not only fit the shape and powers of the eye, but it also snugly secured itself within Descartes larger conception of perception and the exercise of the Will. The hyperbola’s narrow aim of focus matched Descartes’ idea of the “clear and distinct” object of perception, crispened in a field of obscured images. This field was a background for the exercise of valuations and free choice. It was this fit-for-purpose aspect of the lens that I believe Spinoza instinctively had some objection to. It could be argued that Spinoza’s embrace of spherical lenses also had a fit-for-purpose quality to it, as indeed it did. The sphere was evocative of the completeness of mental-vision that in the pre-requisite acceptance of inadequate and imaginary ideas, strived for a total awareness of the causal matrices that brought things together. What needs to be pointed out is that Spinoza is not the only holder of such conceptual relations. Rather, they are likely endemic to all descriptive, problem-solving thought. At the time the understanding of refraction and spherical aberration was still quite confused, even in the minds of those that would make the most progress in these areas.

In a certain way, Mr. Sennett wants us to know that the very ambiguity of a tool, the fuzziness of its ability to work, is that which stimulates us to imagine what must be the case that would make the tool work (or require a new tool). He tells a wonderful story about the problems that arose with the invention the surgical scalpel (15th century), born of the introduction of silica into the iron, giving a new and remarkable sharpness. It enabled precise anatomical dissections and discovery, as well as advances in living operations. Remarkably this new knife produced the difficulty of now to cut, what techniques of muscle movements could handle this suddenly fine instrument (less shoulder and a co-operations of figures Sennett tells us). It seems it took a century or more to be able to master these new powers. The tool imposes itself upon the imagination in the context of the resistances of the world.

It is easy to think that Descartes had in mind that his hyperbolic lens would act something like the new scalpel, like his hyperbolic doubt, it would cut through the murky imperfections of the field and clearly select out what is essential. It would carry the eye to distant things, by extending the eye itself. Generally it is assumed that Descartes valuably got it right with the hyperbola, as he identified a solution to spherical aberration (already pointed out by Kepler). And if we are to imagine that he got it wrong, there are likely two ways he was wrong. The first was the widely assumed connection between what turned out to be chromatic aberration (the obscuringcolored ring in telescope observations), and spherical aberration. But, as Graham Burnett has pointed out, he also got wrong his assumption that he could just take a mathematical formula, engineer on paper a machine that could would carry it out, and with a little advice and sweat from a hired craftsman, his paradisaical lens could easily be produced. Again and again he expressed frustration with hired artisans that either they or the materials were failing him.

Four Stages

Sennett gives us a guide to stages of technological development that might help us see Descartes difficulty more clearly, and perhaps gain the value of Spinoza’s craft-sensitive, if metaphysical objections. First he says that there is reformatting. Reformatting is simply the “willingness to see if a tool or practice can be changed in use”. The example offered is the way that Christopher Wren used chiaroscuro techniques of shading in his illustrations of specimens shown in Robert Hooke’s microscope, so to produce plates more vivid than what could actually have been seen in the poor quality glass and light, while still being perceivedas quite accurate. Descartes indeed employed reformatting in both his development of mathematical tools (a forwarding of the Law of Refraction), and his inventive design of an automatic lens-lathe, but lacked any capacity to reformat techniques of placing materials in relation to each other in real machines, assuming that this was the least difficult portion of the process, just getting the matter to do what the mind wished it to.

Secondly, there is adjacency. “Two unlike domains are brought close together; the closer they are, the more stimulating their twined presence”. This seems precisely what Descartes did in terms of his imagination of the eye and his hyperbolic lens. By placing the two hyperbolic forms, organic and glass, together in an assemblage, his inferences to the clarity of thought and vision took wide gallop.

Thirdly, is intuitive leap or surprise. “Although you were preparing for it you didn’t know in advance precisely what you would make of the close comparison. In this third stage you begin to dredging up a tacit knowledge into consciousness to to the comparing – and you are surprised. Surprise is a way of telling yourself that something you know can be other than you assumed” (211). This no doubt lead to the writing of the Dioptrics, and his more than decade-long pursuit of a grinding machine capable of making his very precise lens.

Fourth is Gravity. “The final stage is recognition that a leap does not defy gravity; unresolved problems remain unresolved in the transfer of skills and practices…The recognition that an intuitive leap cannot defy gravity matters more largely because it corrects a frequently held fantasy about technology transfer. This is that importing a procedure will clarify a murky problem; more often, the technical import, like any immigrant, will bring with it its own problems” It is in gravity that Descartes seems to have failed, and is there no better evidence of this than Descartes (feigned?) glee that his craftsman de Beaune had severely cut his hand trying to make the desired lens, proving to Descartes the superiority of his rational vision! Descartes lacked the connection to material practices to adequately transfer his familiar terrain of mathematics and geometry to lathes and glass. His lens was impossible to make.

These four stages help us enframe something of Descartes’ failings and also help suggest to us something of Spinoza’s resistance to the lens and its attendant conceptions. There is one more tidbit that Richard Sennett offers us in this chapter that I want to bring to the issue. He says that in his distinction between a fit-for-purpose tool and an all-purpose tool, as they are designed specifically to either repair something broken or seek to improve it upon repair,

The tool that simply restores is likely to be put mentally in the toolbox of fit-for-purpose-only, whereas the all purpose tool allow us to explore deeper the act of making a repair. The difference matters because it signal two sorts of emotional responses we make to an object that doesn’t work. We can want simply to relieve its frustration and will employ a fit-for-purpose tool to do so. Or we can tolerate the frustration because we are now also curious; the possibilities of making a dynamic repair will stimulate, and the multi-purpose tool will serve as a curiosity’s instrument (200).

It is fair to say that both Spinoza and Descartes, in their philosophies, imagined the possibility of radical improvements in the minds and lives of their readers. Descartes’ radical doubt, and Spinoza’s “clear and distinct” excellerated leap to the Totality of Causes: God, are figured as sublime simplicities. And each thinker has characterized the process as that of the making of tools that could make other tools, like a blacksmith (Spinoza borrowing the image from Descartes). What I would want to ask would be, what is the role of the simplicity of craftsman understanding of the lathe and the lens in Spinoza’s vision of what is clear? For Spinoza I think it likely that he thought of the spherical lens as something like the flat-edged screwdriver, capable of a workman-like enhancement of human bodily powers. This all-purpose property allowed him to remain with this curiosity focused upon a more systematic and comprehensive vision of what made vision clear: the Ideas that we hold. I suspect that it was his hands-on practice of grinding glass to required mathematically describe shapes, and his physical understanding of the fancifulness of Descartes’ hyperbola, that lead him to disparage the enthusiasm for the shape. This did not prevent him from investigating it, but it did keep him in deep suspicion of metaphysical and scientific foundations of its importance.

I think also that this resistance to the hyperbola, and the fundamental acceptance of spherical aberration as a slight and perhaps necessary impairment, draws our attention to Spinoza’s understanding that real change occurs in the world of human imagination and affects, within the realities of our weaknesses. Despite his great concentration upon rationality and abstract reasoning, the model of Euclid’s Geometry, it is within human sociability that the hands touch the matter at hand. The realities of the properties of present conditions are the actual vectors of the power we may have. Any active use of reason does not transcend its earth. As he understood that any change in power and freedom requires a change in the body, and that any ideational move was a physical move, so must he to some degree have gleaned this understanding from the resistances of the cloudy glass and the spinning of the lathe, in the cybernetic feedback of his body’s own actions and experiences. The polishing of a lens was prosthetic, but not prosthetic to the eye, prosthetic and expressive of the body and mind.

I think that that in the gap between the two Substances of Descartes lies Spinoza at his lathe.

A related post writen some time before: The Lathe Mind: What Spinoza Meant by “Individual”

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