Frames /sing


Spinoza’s Confusion of Ideas, and then, Metaphor

Productive Confusion of Objects

Michael Della Rocca has an excellent section in his new book Spinoza (2008 ) in which he discusses Spinoza’s panpsychism in terms of two problems, th0se he calls the Pan and the Pancreas problem. These are the explanatory diffculties that arise in Spinoza’s panpsychic (there are a long of pans here) epistemology that seems to confer “mind” to every thing. If the object of our thoughts is our body, how is it that we are able to form perceptions of external objects, i.e. frying pans; and if our mind is the idea of our body, how is it that we are not readily aware of our most of the changing states of our pancreas? He comes upon a summation of the nature of our confusion, (remember confusion is con-/fusion), is a blurring together of ideas of both states in the world and states of our body. It is that the human condition is one in which any ideas of our body are tied up with (confused with) the ideas of the external bodies that affect them, and the same goes for the ideas of external bodies themselves, as he sums:

Spinoza’s general account of confusion seems to be the following. (This is apparent in his discussion in 2p40s1 of certain universal notions which for him are highly confused.) For Spinoza an idea is confused when it represents, or is about, two separate things and yet the mind is unable to distinguish these things by having an idea which is just of one of the objects and an idea which is just of the other of the objects. In a case where more than one thing is represented, the lack of confusion requires being able to to perceive the things separately. I think that this is a fairly plausible condition to place on being free of confusion…When the body is affected by an outside object and the mind perceives the bodily effect as well as the outside object, all the ingredients for confusion are in place (113).

This descriptive argument cast my eye in another direction – and it is interesting that Della Rocca founds it upon Spinoza’s dismissal of Universals as confused ideas. What comes to mind is something that Spinoza works as hard as possible to distance himself from in most cases, not withstanding his love of Terence and some pointed exceptions…metaphor. Metaphor is the deliberate, and creative perceptual con-fusion of two objects. In a metaphor a literal falsehood is uttered, “That man is a wolf” or one of my favorites, “the dolphin-torn, gong-tormented sea” such that something of an indistinguishability is achieved.  Vico theorized that metaphors were the primative, poetic creation of “imaginative universals”, a way of fusing multiple objects together in the imagination such as to be able to produce something new, an ontology of quality (I write about this in some detail here Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet ). This kind of collapse is part of what I am sensing. But one must turn to the Cartesian notion of  “clear and distinct” from which Spinoza is operating to get the full sense of what I am after. Clear and distinct is born of optics, a judgment of the quality of image in a lens. Whether one is straining to see a flea leg in a microscope, or the recently discovered fleck of the moon of Saturn, its “clarity” which was its brightness, and its distinctness, which was the ability to distinguish a form from what surrounded it, were as one can imagine braided aspects of a lens’ power. An image had to be bright and distinguishable, and it is was on this demand that Decartes, and then the even more optically practiced lens-maker Spinoza, rhetorically traded. (How interesting that the descriptive of adequate ideas itself begins as a metaphor.)

But as I argue elsewhere, metaphor give us to affectively feel the same about, to confuse, two (0r more) objects in their causal relationship to our internal lives. We are to feel the same way about this man (or if we follow Hobbes, all men) that we feel about wolves. Following Yeats, we are to feel about the sea, its surface, its waves, the same way we feel about things that are tormented, fabric and gongs. And in so doing, something else comes to the surface, something bright and distinguished from what it is not (but still not ideationally clear). It is the living, electric line of a similarity which remains to be delineated in a specific way. Both objects, let us stick with the “man” and the “wolf”, remain distinct as ideas, but these ideas fall back, like the rough, gray penumbra of the outer edge of the magnifying lense. It suddenly is the “wolfiness” of the man — and if we are in a situation where we would be threatened by it it can jut out crag-like at us. And dialectically, there comes to be the counter-infection, the maniness of wolves.

If the confusions of ideas of the body and external objects are indeed born of how Della Rocca argues that Spinoza conceives of them, such that we cannot have a clean idea of external objects that is not in some sense contaminated by our ideas of our bodies, and visa versa, our attempt to clarify our ideas through a separable understanding of objects through their causes that we read as clear and distinct can be seen to be fostered by another confusion, an intentional one, wherein it is not inside and outside that is confused, but two or more external objects are affectively and poetically fused within us, so as to give birth to a shimmering clarity of aspect unseen before. It is engagement with this line, brought up from the ground, that allows us to make greater clarity and distinctness of the ideas that will come to surround it, as we come to seek its causes.

To Hephaestus’ house came Thetis, silver-footed  (Iliad, xviii, 369)


3 responses to “Spinoza’s Confusion of Ideas, and then, Metaphor

  1. larvalsubjects December 12, 2008 at 1:03 am

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re arguing here, but nonetheless I find your remarks interesting. Deleuze had a deep hostility towards the linguistic operation of metaphor from one end of his thought to the other. I suspect that part of this had to do with the early Lacanian theory of metaphor. There the idea runs that the subject enters the symbolic order through the substitution of the name-of-the-father which names the desire of the mother. This primordial metaphorical substitution then becomes the ground of all subsequent metaphorical substitutions. As a consequence, the argument runs, any subsequent metaphorical operations ultimately refer to this primordial metaphorical operation or substitution whereby the name-of-the-father gives form to the desire of the mother or caregiver. This would be what’s intended by phallus or phallic jouissance, where all operations of substitution ultimately refer to this primordial substitution. The search for meaning would thus be organized around this primal metaphorical operation as a synthesis of the imaginary and the symbolic.

    Clearly Spinoza does not fall in this line of thought. For Spinoza the name-of-the-father is foreclosed as is evident from his thought of the infinite without lack or castration. This is not, of course, a critique or criticism of Spinoza. You seem to be suggesting something else about metaphor. That is, it appears that you’re emphasizing a non-phallic or Oedipal creative function of metaphor in this post… A veritable production of the real.

  2. Pingback: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination « Frames /sing

  3. Pingback: How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch? « Frames /sing

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