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A Bit of Email

Spinoza, Anselm and the “I”

Below is my portion of an email exchange I had with a friend who is investigating a priori, indoubitable cogito foundations for presuppositionless thought, a notable endeavour. I thought my answers present a confluence of thoughts that may be interesting to others. They touch on correspondences that may be found betweeen later Wittgenstein, Anselm and Spinoza’s use of the Ontological Arugument, and the notion of the “I”:

Hmmm. I don’t find that Spinoza privileges thought over extension. I have seen that assumed but I have found no convincing arguments for it, so I can’t really answer that part of the question. As to what I think of Spinoza’s ontological argument and its validity, I don’t really favor his presentation of it. I am more in favor of Anselm’s original version, of which I talk about here, as it trades on the nature of the word “understands”:

“Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief”

If one considers the original Anselm notion of “understands” and applies this within Spinoza’s vectoral conception of power as agentizing action, then I think that the Ontological argument comes clear. I wrote once, a long time ago off the cuff that God is simply the Principle of Coherence and it is silly to try to prove coherence. That is somewhat close to how I understand Anselm’s argument.

As for trying to attribute the “cogito” to Spinoza you are going to have the trouble with the “I” of “I think…”. It is not even Lacan’s alienating “It thinks”, but simply “thinking” as a totalizing action or expression. This ontological center of the “I”, as a center, really does not exist for Spinoza whose definitions of a body are fluctuating ratios of movement and rest, and whose notion of reflective thought is merely that of ideas of ideas, all expressions of the body being in various states. The “I” just has no real footing in Spinoza:

Every particular corporeal thing [lichaamelijk ding] is nothing other than a certain ratio [zeekere proportie] of motion and rest.

– A Short Treatise of God, Man and His Well Being

As for immediate transparency or intuition, I think things get muddled when issues of justification (which refer to criteria which are shared and historically contingent) are projected back onto experiences that are taken to be sure. As Wittgenstein helped point out, questions of doubtability are only germane to contexts of criteria use. In a certain sense, talking about the doubtablility of whether I am in pain is a nonstarter, using one kind of language game where it isn’t meant to be used, creating a confusion as one seeks to crawl up under the rug of language. I don’t think though that this is the end of the discussion, because questioning whether one is actually in pain, or just in discomfort for instance, can be a informative self-criticism, and is not the case simply of using the wrong word; criteria is used, and reflexively so, but to locate the surety of a perception within an incorrigibility and to attach that incorrigibility categorically to a subject is an unwarranted leap, at least in my opinion.

What a failure of subjective incorrigibility does for Spinoza’s argument for the direct experience of our immortality (E5p23s) is that once we let go of the necessity of a “subject”, direct experiences become more expressive facts of power and affect. If nothing is the authority of the claim, then the intuition becomes what it was in the first place, the coherence of power and affect itself, without need for an ultimate recourse to criteria. Criteria become what they are for someone like Vico, the historical circumstances and means of assembled power.

 

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