Frames /sing


Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Mind Without Metaphor?

Beginning from my last post which opened up a Vician affirmation of metaphor as a constitutive and creative force for the growth of knowledge, it seems a good idea to look closely at the Spinoza system to see if indeed there is room for such a productivity. Prima facie it certainly seems to be the case that Spinoza would hold low esteem for metaphorical use. His entire “mail and mask” more geometrico  seems in defiance of any positive role for metaphors, treating thoughts and feelings literally as if they were planes and lines (falling under the same causal laws). In philosophy there is hardly a systematic document that seems less friendly to the metaphorical than the Ethics. The vast perception is that categorically for Spinoza metaphors are bad (confused), literal truths good (clear and distinct). A wide ranging philosopher like Richard Rorty who professes much admiration for Spinoza except for the perceived antipathy for the metaphor, sums up the impression well:

Though the human body had been redeemed by Galileo’s discoveries of how matter worked, the imagination had not. The human body is redeemed only when seen under the aspect of eternity, as a feature on the face of the whole universe. But the divine mind-the counterpart, under the attribute of thought, of the face of the material universe– has no imagination. It is literal-minded. It has no occasion to speak in metaphors. So, Spinoza thought, the less we humans use metaphors, the greater our chances of blessedness….He says, for example, that when the Bible tells us that God opened the windows of the heavens, all it is really saying is that it rained very hard. (TPT, p. 44) For Spinoza, metaphor has no value. Like the imagination, metaphor is something to be overcome (“Spinoza’s Legacy”).

With respect to Rorty, there is a great difference between something that should be overcome, and something having no value; but it is easy to join Rorty in what seems to be an obviousness, metaphors are confusions and confusions are things that one should try to make clear, a clarity that leads to real, affective Joy. How is one to reconcile the predominant message in Spinoza’s writings with the possibility that metaphors are very real productive, and non-eliminatable modes of increased activity and Joy in the sense that Spinoza thinks of Joy. As to that Joy, even upon repetition the pleasures of metaphors endure, something Davidson calls it their “eternal youth” which he compares to the “surprise” in Hayden’s Symphony 94. The flash of realization moves us to see. Is there room for such revelation in Spinoza?

Perhaps one needs to start with the strict possibility that human beings cannot hold purely adequate ideas at all, but only in their finite minds may asymptotically approach increasing adequacy of ideas. The very path to adequacy it seems would be one in which the imagination has historically played an integral role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas (like the first blacksmith hammer and tongs, they had to be made from something), and given the fundamental, one might say, existential passivity of the human mind, imagination likely would play a constitutive role in the increase in the adequacy of our ideas, no matter the stage of our development.

Joy: The Increase in the Adequacy of Ideas

In Della Rocca’s new book, and confirmed in generous private exchange, is found the interpretation that human beings are unable to hold completely adequate ideas in the full spectrum of the ways that Spinoza defined them. This is something I long had felt myself. They are likely best seen as a limit upon which we gauge our own knowledge (and Joy). If we accept this the door for a productive use of the imagination in general, and metaphors specifically, is opened up. Gatens and Lloyd wrote an excellent book on Spinoza’s undervalued relationship to the imagination, Collective Imaginings: Spinoza Past, Present and Future. But I would like to dwell on metaphor itself, the unique way that it stirs us with a kind of waxing pleasure, and how this is achieved through an intentional confusion. (As I mentioned in my last post, and then more at length in an earlier article on Donald Davidson and Giambattista Vico, this “confusion” is the cause of a reader or listener to affectively equate two or more objects, that is to feel about the one as one would feel about the other, taking each to be the cause of the same affection, such that one is brought to noticed an unspecified number of similarities between the objects or classes. And this is primarily accomplished through the strict falsehood of the metaphorical statement: “That man is a wolf” is false because wolves are not men.) The effects (affects) of two or more objects are confused so as to produce a pleasurable notification of what is shared.

There can be no doubt that metaphors are pleasurable, in fact, in contemplation, are Joyous. This also is a good place to start. For given Spinoza’s definition of Joy, his parallel postulate and his explicit assertion that activities of the mind ONLY arise from adequate ideas (3p3), one is forced to say that the Joy we feel when we encounter a wonderful metaphor is a Joy that comes from an increase in the adequacy of our ideas (as all Joy). I was happy to find that Professor Della Rocca consents to this understanding of mine as well. Something about good metaphors increases the adequacy of our ideas. What is it, in Spinozist terms, that this something is? It is more than the pleasure of a song or music.

Contrary to many philosophical intuitions, Spinoza is not mute on the benefits of the imagination. In fact, besides the way in which he grounds the social field in the imaginative “imitations of the affects,”  in the fifth part of the Ethics, a part concerned with the achievement of the Intuition of God, he presents a string of propositions on the powers of the image . Whereas earlier in part III he had spoken of the third kind of knowledge, Intuition, as a kind of extension of the Second kind of knowledge, Reason, invoking the example of how merchants can calculate with great speed without walking through the steps of a calculation, here he seems to set up the ultimate intuition of God along side qualifications of the positive effects of the imagination. And while intuitions of God/Substance/Nature are not our aim, these distinctions in terms of images seem ready-made to be applied to the benefits of metaphor use.

 From Memory to Metaphor

First there is a numerical qualification which helps us determine what gives us the strength of an emotion (I use the Shirley translation, but “emotion” should be read as “affect”). An affect’s strength comes from a simultaneous condensation of causes:

5p8 – The greater the number of causes that simultaneously concur in arousing an emotion, the greater the emotion.

This indeed does seem to conceptually orient us to the power of a metaphor. When Homer compares wounds to mouths, or when we are told, “the heavens wept” there is an intensity of simultaneity that seems very much to make up the nature of the effect. The ideas of each object or process are affectively fused, and their causes confluence in a way that no single idea, or its literal expression, would have. And when this is pleasurable, we in our strengthening condition we are able to arrange our mixing affections, undistracted by a Sadness:

5p10 – As long as we are not assailed by emotions that are contrary to our nature, we have the power to arrange and associate affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.

While the effect may be a condensation or confusion of affects, because it is Joyous, our affections are open to clarification. Our very agreement with the effect leads to the possibility of an unfolding of the consequences. The propositions that follow then switch from emotions to images themselves:

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

Proof : In proportion as an image or emotion is related to more things, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused and fostered, all of which the mind, by hypothesis, regards simultaneously as a result of the emotion. And so the emotion thereby occurs more frequently – i.e., springs to life more often – and engages the mind more (5p8).

The very relatability of two or more images as we find in the apt or even beautiful metaphor (again, I solicit a favorite, “…that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”), bring together the genealogy of causes to a point where it is not just that the body is affected, but the mind itself. This is an important distinction, one that requires that we turn back to another section where Spinoza speaks of the powers of the imagination, in the second part where a very powerful function of the memory is discussed. Here, instead of the two or more con-fused ideas that are involved in metaphors, it is the images that are born of a contingent simultaneity when we are affected by objects at the same time…that is the trace the coincidence leaves on us:

2p18 – If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, and when the mind afterwards imagines one of them, it will straightaway remember the others too.

2p18, scholium – Hence we clearly understand what memory is. It is simply a linking of ideas involving the nature of things outside the human body, a linking which occurs in the mind parallel to the order and linking of the affections of the human body. I say, firstly, that it is only the linking of those ideas that involve the nature of things outside the human body, not of those that explicate the nature of the said things. For they are in fact (2p16) ideas of the affections of the human body which involve the nature both of the human body and of external bodies. Secondly, my purpose in saying that this linking occurs in accordance with the order and linking of the affections of the human body is to distinguish it from the linking of ideas in accordance with the order of the intellect whereby the mind perceives things through their first causes, and which is the same in all men.

Furthermore, from this we clearly understand why the mind, from thinking of one thing, should straightaway pass onto thinking of another thing which has no likeness to the first. For example, from thinking the word “pomum” [apple] a Roman will straightaway pass onto thinking of the fruit, which has no likeness to that articulate sound nor anything in common with it other than that the man’s body has often been affected by them both; that is, the man has often heard the word “pomum” while seeing the fruit. So everyone will pass on from one thought to another according as habit in each case has arranged the images in his body.

The way that the imaginative memory works, according to Spinoza, is that images are ordered associatively, occurring in correspondence to their coincidence in time, determined by the affections of the human body. The imaginative memory is a kind of ideational associative habit, to be distinguished from the way that the intellect orders thing through its understanding through explanation and cause. This habit contingently links even words and images, and the “linking” is the linking of the affections of the body, not the intellect. In contrast to the memory’s corporeal  “ordering and linking”, if we return to the relative properties of images found in 5p11 where the very numericity of relatedness produces an engagement with the mind, this seems to give the avenue by which metaphorical confusions specifically help to produce an increase in the adequacy of our ideas. The mind is engaged by the causal profusion that produces the strength of the metaphorical affect, aided by the fact that the affect is Joyous and in agreement with our natures, an engagement that is expressed in the very relatability of the two or more images (or ideas, one would assume) that compose the metaphor.

This mental (as 0pposed to a merely bodily) link is further delineated in the next proposition. The most relatable images are those of things which we already understand:

5p12 – Images are more readily associated with those images that are related to things which we clearly and distinctly understand than they are to others.

Proof: Things that are clearly and distinctly understood are either the common properties of things or deductions made from them (see 2p40s2, def of reason) and consequently they are more often before the mind (2p11proof). So it is more likely that we should regard other things in conjunction with these, and consequently (2p18) that they should be more readily associated with these than others.

Spinoza is building an argumentative case for the images which are relatable to our Intuitive understanding of God. Our clarity in a concept of God creates a substantial framework for the relatability of images in general. In a certain sense, far from being radically against the imagination, Reason actual works as its facilitator. Through our understanding of common properties of things, other imagined associations increase. Aside from Spinoza’s argumentative goal, in the case of metaphor production one can see how this also would be so. Metaphors are born atop our primary clarity of understanding. If I can say that the brain is the computer of a body, this metaphor trades upon knowing with some clarity what a brain is and what a computer is. And the metaphor through its illumination suddenly gives us to see certain (yet innumerable) common properties. These leap to life in an apparent increase in our adequacy of idea.

The Polyvalance of Image Relations

Lastly, it is this very associability founded upon numerical and causal connections with produces a temporal increase in the association. This may serve as a very broad framework in which to read the lateralization of metaphors, the way that mouths of rivers and bottle eventually move from unexpected, non-literal metaphor, to simply a new literal use of the word. The causal richness of the word used underwrites a pragmatic sublimation of our imaginary powers.

5p13 – The greater the number of other images which an image is associated, the more often it springs to life.

Proof: The greater the number of images which an image is associated, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused (2p18).

Given this tracing of a Spinozist space for the productive intellectual powers of metaphors, perhaps it is best to ground the favorability back upon the body, from whence it begins. The causal, associative power of metaphorical confusion, if it is to result in real-world empowerment must also be seen as a material gain, a turn toward the possible polyvalence of the body. Here the numerical duplicity of two objects affectively experienced as one is related to a generalized numerical increase in causal openness, the famous “ more ways” definition of “advantage”:

4p38 – That which so disposes the human body that it can be affected in more ways [pluribus modis], or which renders it capable of affecting external bodies in more ways, is advantageous to man, and proportionately more advantageous as the body is thereby rendered more capable of being affected in more ways and of affecting other bodies in more ways. On the other hand, that which renders the body less capable in these respects is harmful.

Metaphors must be read, if we are to embrace them as Spinozist creations of Joy, as increases in the number of ways in which the body is capable of being affected and affecting others. This would be a groundwork assumption.
Let this post be a kind of reasoning-aloud about the conceptual space affordable for the products of the imagination, and in particular the benefits of metaphors. Under such reasoning, contra Rorty, there is indeed a value in the use of metaphor, in fact given our fundamental passivity of mind, an arguably prodigious value. Because more adequate ideas are not immediately available to us at any particular time on any particular subject or need, given the particular historical conditions we might find ourselves in, the creativity of associative thought, the affective conflations that metaphors achieve, can be seen to play a central role in illuminating new aspects of phenomenae of every kind, from objects, to ideas, to relations. It very well may be wanted for us to say, “The Heavens Weep” rather than “It is raining outside”, for the first condensationally draws together a wealth of causal relations, as Deleuze might say virtual relations, which the second would simply occlude in its distinctness. The first may bring us Joy, the second little. Metaphors cause us to notice, in the shimmering light of what is a revelation, what the Greeks thought of as an “uncovering”, what then  can be excavated by the intellect.

I have to say that despite the loose success of this picture, there is one aspect of Spinoza’s argument that troubles me, and I have found this distinction in other writings of his, (for instance his letter to Peter Balling regarding his prophetic imagination of his son). When Spinoza wants to qualify that something is linked only in the body, and not in the intellect, given his parallel postulate I can not rigorously understand the distinction of an ordo  of the body, since each linking in the body MUST be a linking in the mind of God. As events happen in they body, they are also following adequately in the mind. I can perhaps imagine that the ideational linkings of bodily affections read as coincident are perhaps too obtuse for the finite mind to immediately comprehend, and therefore as a shorthand bodily affection associations are to be distinguished from intellectual reference. But I cannot see in principle how these are divided, as the human Mind is nothing more than God thinking in a finite mode. The understandability that even allows affects to be intelligible at all confirs some mental order to them. Even the associations Spinoza regards as contingent, those between the sound of the word “apple” and the image of the apple that comes to your mind is intimately linked to the network of rationally organized beliefs about the world and language use which over and above habit provide the context for interpretability. In a sense, one sees an apple, as an apple, because one knows the word “apple” and understands its concept (how to use the word), and this was learned under causal conceptions with others in a shared world. To be sure, there is a free-flowing connection between images based on personal experiences, but these are shot through with inferential and deductive understandings of the world.

What is a metaphor if not a kind of pirouette

performed by an idea, enabling us to assemble its diverse names or images?

—Paul Valéry


14 responses to “Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

  1. ktismatics December 13, 2008 at 2:03 pm

    As is often the case with your posts, Kvond, I find my own mental and emotional trajectories in all likelihood diverging from your own. Nonetheless…

    Spinoza’s associationism sounds very much like contemporary neural network models of cognition. Plucking one image or idea in the network tends to activate those nearest to it (this apple is like other apples), along with other more distant associations to which it’s gotten connected through experience and repetition (this apple probably tastes good). Metaphor works least well within this ordinary, perhaps automatic functioning of the network; e.g., “an apple is a pear” doesn’t function very well metaphorically. There has to be an acute or orthogonal slice through the network, something that brings dissimilar and thus neurally distant things or concepts into sudden proximity. It’s the violence of this cutting-across that allow new meaning and new affect to irrupt in the wound, or perhaps to branch off from or be grafted onto the ragged edges of the violated associational reticulum.

  2. kvond December 13, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    I think it is good that you have trajectories different than mine. That in some sense is the point…

    I like your point, but it is very hard to ascribe, in fact perhaps to this point impossible, just what it is that makes an orthogonal cut work, one and not another.

    It is the unexpected, yet seamless.

  3. ktismatics December 13, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    Here’s a hypothesis: The formulaic structure of metaphor, “S is an X,” is most easily interpreted if the common element between S and X is X’s most characteristic feature. So in “that man is a wolf,” wolves are regarded as particularly rapacious beasts. In “the heavens wept,” weeping is characteristic of sadness, so this metaphor would imply something sad about the situation when the rain starts to fall.

    When the feature linking S to X isn’t the most characteristic feature of X, then the metaphor becomes more difficult to parse. Also if the metaphorical relationship isn’t a direct mapping of properties then it becomes more difficult to parse. So, in “dolphin-torn sea,” the dolphin is compared not to the sea but to a force that tears, and the idea of a dolphin slicing through the sea as “tearing” is itself metaphorical. So it’s a sort of double metaphor, making it more complex, more difficult to understand, and perhaps consequently more satisfying when it hangs together. Combine it in the same phrase with “gong-tormented” and you’ve really got complexity. (Why “gong-tormented,” do you think? The resounding boom and the physical rippling of the surface, I guess.)

  4. kvond December 13, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    I like your attempt, but really I’m not sure what to do with it. Metaphors are so incredibly varied that even when it is the dominant feature that seems to carry the force of it, there really is so much more. In fact, there is no limit at all to the number of things you could notice between two objects or classes in an apt metaphor.

    Man is a wolf to man. (Hobbes, from Plautus)

    Is this just ferociousness, or it is ferociousness in packs. Or need for strong hierarchies? There is no end, and even no beginning to what is the focus of the metaphor. Indeed, I would say, following Davidson, that metaphors CAUSE us to notice things, but there is no rule for what it is we are to notice.

    The Yeats metaphor is problematic not just that it is complex I think, but how incalculable its effect is. It has an incredible brevity that opens up a relation to the sea that just was not there before.

    Considered Dickinson’s:

    “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”

    It is not JUST that she was set to go off. It is the stillness of a loaded gun, the masculinity of it, the trigger, on and on and on.

  5. ktismatics December 14, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Characterizing the sorts of convergent associations between two apparently dissimilar entities would seem to fall within the realm of Spinoza’s investigations, wouldn’t it? Not the artistry necessarily, but the properties by which the things connect in the world and hence in the neural net.

    Empiricists investigate these things as well; e.g., children and autistic people have relatively more difficulty in parsing figurative language, as measured by errors and speed in comprehension. Adults can process some kinds of metaphors just as quickly as “literal” phrases, suggesting either the links have been reinforced through repetition or that people get better at traversing less-obvious paths through the network. One could induce properties of metaphors from empirical outcomes: put together a whole range of metaphors, measure speed and accuracy of interpretation on a bunch of subjects, then statistically model metaphorical complexity. Perhaps one could even come up with a measure of emotional response to these metaphors, to see whether complexity and emotional affordance are positively or negatively correlated. This sort of work may seem pedantic and even repulsive to the grand theorist or the poet, but it is a way of putting meat on the bones as it were.

  6. kvond December 14, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    Yes, it would be interesting to see if emotional response was in someway correlated to complexity, but I cannot imagine how complexity could be measured. Some very simple metaphors are highly complex in the kinds of properties that may be involved, “A brain is the computer of the body”, and some complex metaphors like Yeats’ doliphin-torn, gong-tormented sea are rather affectively simple.

    But I do agree that from a Spinozist conception, metaphors would be seen as important in the way that they complexify the number of ways we can be affected, and affect others. The interesting thing about metaphors is that they do not suffer directly from the mistake of taking imaginary relations to be literal ones, but trade on the tension between literal truth and imaginary operations. One KNOWS that most metaphors are literally false, but one FINDS that new literal truths can be noticed.

  7. ktismatics December 14, 2008 at 5:29 pm

    “but I cannot imagine how complexity could be measured”

    Well I just gestured toward two approaches to evaluating complexity: (1) comparing number and types of associative links in e.g. “he’s a wolf” versus “dolphin-torn sea,” and (2) inducing complexity from subjective responses like accuracy and time to comprehend. One could combine these two approaches in attempting to link differences in the things being compared with differences in cognitive processing. Then I think you’d try to look at intensity of emotional response, to see whether simple or complex associations in metaphors provoke more emotional response.

    Presumably complexity stimulates wider activation of the neural network and hence a greater number of associations, which in Spinoza’s 5p13 might yield more affective response. On the other hand, the more complex association is also the less direct and so probably less readily understood, which in Spinoza’s 5p12 might yield less affective response. So you could test alternative hypotheses. My bet is that psycholinguists are already pursuing these kinds of investigations, even if they’re not linking them directly to Spinoza — this is because Spinoza’s associational matrix schema is pretty close to the standard model in empirical cognitive psychology these days.

  8. kvond December 14, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    Honestly, and I don’t want to dim your enthusiasm for your path of thinking on this, I don’t find your 1 and 2 measures of complexity coherently applicable. I’m not saying that someone could not (or even has not already) invented a series of crteria which would be meant to measure these concepts, I just can’t imagine how such a criteria could be consistently applied. Metaphors are just way to varied.

    Is “I lived my life as a loaded gun” more like “He’s a wolf” or “dolphin-torn sea”? Which category does “A revolution is not a dinner party” fall into? And what does the “accuracy” of a metaphor mean? Do you mean “aptness”? A gong-tormented sea isn’t “accurate” at all, but it seems incredibly apt? And why would time it takes be a measure? It seems that I am still fathoming Homer’s comparison of wounds to mouths.

    Again, I don’t want to rain on your thought-parade, these are just my natural responses to your thinking. Perhaps it is nothing more than my thinking that what is interesting in metaphors is NOT their classification. And perhaps I have digested Davidson’s take on metaphor in “What Metaphor’s Mean” as most meaningful, that is, there can be no rule-following guide to metphor use or interpretation.

    I’m not after all a neuroscientist, so musing about what is possible isn’t something I can engage in.

    As usual though, I’m glad that your own branch of thought has sprung from something I find interesting.

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  10. ktismatics December 15, 2008 at 7:47 am

    Ah well…

    “Perhaps it is nothing more than my thinking that what is interesting in metaphors is NOT their classification.”

    It seems that your interest in Spinozan psychology has more to do with his alternative to dualism and his immanent “ktismatics” (defined by me as “theory and practice of creation”) than in his links to an empirically-formulated cognitive psychology. I’m not prepared to undertake the research program on metaphorical thinking that I’ve sketched out here either. We shall talk again of other matters.

  11. kvond December 15, 2008 at 1:23 pm

    I am interested in the notion that due to our fundamentally finite and passive natures we have come to design a mechanism to creatively deal with the kind of involuntary confusions that Spinoza argues makes up the great majority of our mental life, and lead often to Sadness. The notion that metaphors can purposively and productively confusion as part of a general process of immanent connectivity is striking.

    I do enjoy your attempts at cognitive empiricism, thank you for them as ideas bear ideas.

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