Frames /sing


Spinoza on Admiratio (often translated as “Wonder”)

Is “Admiratio” the Wonder of Metaphors?

[Following on the last two posts which worked to establish a Spinozist favor for metaphor]

Below is a nice paper on some of the connections made in Spinoza’s renunciation of the centrality of “admiratio” and the inherent political consequences. Whereas Decartes made of wonder the first of the Affects, Spinoza refuses even to grant it Affect status, instead reading it as a kind of stalling of the mind. Any theoretical groundwork which would establish a Spinozist primacy for metaphor would have to wrestle with Spinoza’s politically-minded renunciation of “admiratio”. Indeed, metaphors make us wonder, they have a “look-to-ed-ness” that fixes the gaze, but I suspect that it can be argued fruitfully that the constitutive tension between the literally false and the figuratively powerful, by which metaphors achieve their effect, makes them largely immune from the kinds of warnings of and distance Spinoza takes from  “admiratio”.

Metaphors seem to already provide the split between the order of the affections and that of affects which allow the mind to enage their fixation power. They work to break the chain of affections and images by maintaining a gap between their power and literal truths, one that the mind then is freed to investigate. To be sure, metaphors in their power do have the capacity to bewitch the mind and become literalized pictures of the world, in the political sense that Spinoza fears, but this does not seem constitutively so the danger that Spinoza has in mind when he thinks about admiratio.

One should also keep in mind when thinking about admiratio that the Latin word is used with some dexterity to mean both “veneration or admiration” AND “suprise or wonder”. Despite the high standard of defintional clarity that Spinoza is famous for, he is not above using the rhetorical richness in a word, and here he is working with the conflation of surprise and admiration in the service of the political role the miraculous has played in the development of Nations. Thus what Spinoza primarly has in mind I imagine is the admirational dimension of this word, making the usual translation “wonder” can be seen as somewhat insufficient. Because the wonder or surprise of metaphor is only loosely connected to the powers of “admiration” (one may come to admire someone through their metaphorical descriptions – “Richard the Lionhearted”) the full epistemic virtues of metaphor, those that tap into Spinoza’s fifth part appraisal of the power of images that refer to a multiplicity of causes, are not really captured in his judgments on admiratio.

Here is Spinoza’ s Defintion of the “Affect” of Admiratio, for reference, Cook’s Comments on Rosenthal’s Spinoza follows:

IV. Admiratio [Wonder] is an imagination of a thing in which the Mind remains fixed because this singular imagination has no connection with the others. (See p52 and p52s.)

Exp: In 2p18s we showed the cause why the Mind, from considering one thing, immediately passes to the thought of another – because the images of these things are connected with one another, and so ordered that one follows the other. This, of course, cannot be conceived when the image of the thing is new. Rather the Mind will be detained in regarding the same thing until it is determined by other causes to think of other things.

So the imagination of the new thing, considered in itself, is of the same nature as the other [imaginations], and for this reason I do not number Admiratio among the affects. Nor do I see why I should, since this distraction of the Mind does not arise from any positive cause which distracts the Mind from other things, but only from the fact that there is no cause determining the Mind to pass from regarding one thing to thinking of others. 

I don’t have a link to the exact essay responded to below, but a related one making some similar points: “Spinoza, Miracles and Modern Judaism”,  M. A. Rosenthal

“Rosenthal on Spinoza on Wonder and Miracles”

J. Thomas Cook

The topic for today’s mini-conference is Spinoza’s psychology. And yet Michael Rosenthal tells a story that reaches from the rise of modernity to the disenchantment of the world, from the insidious power of the miraculous, to the need to overthrow despotic rulers and liberate ourselves from the tyranny of false Gods. This looks to be a far-flung and varied collection of topics, but there is a central conceptual thread that holds the pieces of this apparent patchwork together – and ties these pieces to the subject of our mini-conference. On Rosenthal’s account Spinoza sees all of these aforementioned phenomena as directly or indirectly related to that state of mind that Spinoza calls admiratio – usually translated as “wonder.” It’s a somewhat surprising thesis, but Rosenthal makes the case convincingly. He moves easily from the Ethics to the TTP and back, showing the conceptual connections and filling in the gaps in Spinoza’s armchair anthropological narrative. One train of thought leads from wonder to miracles, to a false conception of God and to the disastrously wrong-headed idea of free will. Another related path runs from wonder to veneration and thence to political domination.

Given the great value accorded to wonder in the writings of earlier philosophers as well as the positive valence that wonder generally has today, it is rather surprising to be reminded that in Spinoza’s view this state of mind is an indicator of — and is itself an instance of — cognitive deficiency. It’s not the good kind of deficiency – a privation that naturally leads one to try to fill the lack. Wonder is a dead end state of mind that goes nowhere, though it leaves one vulnerable to being led astray. And wonder is at the root of behavioral tendencies that perpetuate this cognitive deficiency and help to give rise to institutions, discourses and practices that only make it worse. On Rosenthal’s reading of Spinoza’s view, there is nothing wonderful about wonder, and nothing admirable about admiratio.

The thought of the object of wonder is, by definition, an idée fixe – and that is not a good thing. The mind comes to a stop – so suspended (Shirley translates suspensum as “paralyzed”) in considering it that it cannot think of other things. When I wonder at something, the idea of that thing is not connected, in my mind, to the ideas of its real causes, nor are there other imaginational ideas associated with it as a result of my past encounters with things in the “common order of nature.” Standing unconnected with other ideas my idea of the object of wonder is by definition inadequate in my mind – isolated from its natural nexus in the causal order of ideas that is identical with the causal order of extended nature, it is (in Bennett’s memorable phrase) a “bleeding chunk of the mental realm, hacked out” of its proper context. Lacking connection to other ideas at that moment, my mind lacks any natural path to move on, and so, in accordance with the laws of Spinoza’s version of associationistic psychology, my mind comes to a stand. When we stand in wonder, riveted by the unexpected character of some seemingly unique event, we are especially vulnerable to the prophet or the prince peddling a pseudo-explanation in terms of miracles and the wondrous will of God.

I find Rosenthal’s account of the centrality of wonder for Spinoza convincing. Additional steps and the cooperation of other causes are required, of course, to get from wonder to superstition or from wonder to tyranny, but that does not alter the fact that wonder, as defined by Spinoza, plays a key role. Rosenthal raises a number of interesting large points regarding the disenchantment of the world, modernity and the empowerment of the individual – points that deserve more attention than I can give them here in my brief comment. I will concentrate, instead, on a couple of smaller points, addressing more directly the interpretation of Spinoza’s views.

For example, Rosenthal rightly makes much of the fact that there is a kind of social dimension to wonder and to its contrary, disdain. This social dimension explains in part the importance of these affects for politics and religion. But there is a real — if somewhat technical — problem here, as I see it. The social dimension of these emotions depends upon the mechanism of the “imitation of the affects.” For example, if I notice that someone else whom I think to be like myself, wonders at some thing A, I too will be affected with wonder. The “imitation” can also go by way of seeming similarities between the objects (as opposed to similarities between the persons experiencing the emotions). So if I note that a certain thing (X) resembles some Y toward which I already experience wonder, I will also be affected with wonder for that X. This all follows nicely in accordance with basic principles of Spinoza’s psychology.

But if I understand Spinoza’s position correctly here, there is a problem in the doctrine. To the extent that I note a resemblance between X and some other Y (that, by hypothesis, I admire), I am making comparisons between X and Y, noting similarities. And to the extent that I am doing that, my mind is in motion, and I am not stuck in the mental staresis that is characteristic of (indeed, definitive of) wonder. Of course I do not have adequate ideas of the causes of the objects. Indeed, I very likely don’t even have inadequate ideas of the causes of the object of my wonder. But I have ideas of similarities between this object and another object – and that will provide my mind with somewhere to go. Precisely because of the tendency described by the psychological laws of association, my mind is moved from the idea of the one object to that of the other, and my mental/affective state is eo ipso no longer a state of wonder. My point here is that the putative similarity between the present object and the previously admired object – a similarity that helps to explain the infectious character of wonder – undermines the putative singularity and lack of associations that explain the wonder to begin with. To avoid this conclusion one finds oneself wanting to say that two objects resemble each other in that neither of them resembles anything else. But this amounts to saying that what these two things have in common is their uniqueness – and while that may not be formally paradoxical, it is at least problematic.

It might be thought that what is needed here is greater attention to the fact that we can regard an object under different aspects. So an object might be unique in one way, but share lots of other properties with other things. Spinoza’s example of veneration might seem to provide the kind of example that is needed. The property in another person that provokes wonder in me (Spinoza suggests) might be that other person’s remarkable prudence. I am of course familiar enough with prudence in general, and there are of course plenty of ideas associated with the idea of another person in my mind, but prudence to such a high degree is unprecedented in my experience, and hence, Spinoza suggests, it might be a singularity that holds my mind in thrall by virtue of its lack of associations. As Spinoza puts it, “[the mind] has nothing in itself which it is led to consider from considering that.” So singular is this idea of super-prudence that my mind is stuck for lack of associative connections to provide it anywhere to go.
Now it is certainly true that we can focus on one aspect or property of an individual and note how extraordinary is its possession of that property in such a high degree. And it is true that our minds can come to something like a standstill in the face of some extraordinary thing or event (or in this case, an extraordinary degree of prudence). Our ordinary folk-psychological ways of talking reflect this interesting psychological fact. We say that a person is “riveted” by the sight of something – “fixed” or “absorbed” in contemplation of some singularity. And Spinoza’s account of the origin of this “fixation” in terms of the lack of associations to provide tracks for the mind to move on is a typically brilliant move. But further reflection on the thought processes involved in recognizing an individual as possessing the characteristic of prudence reminds us that such recognition presupposes all kinds of simultaneously held additional ideas. Moreover, a comparative judgment is required to see an individual’s prudence as extraordinary. One does not have to be an Hegelian to have doubts about the story of a mind’s possessing an isolable and indeed thoroughly isolated idea of an individual’s extraordinary prudence. One does not have to be a thoroughgoing holist to think that ideas of comparative degrees of complex properties such as prudence do not happen as isolable units in the mind. And yet Spinoza’s account of my wonder at someone’s extraordinary prudence requires just that.

This is of course not an objection to Rosenthal’s clear and insightful exposition of Spinoza’s view, but a question about the view itself. A great virtue of Rosenthal’s paper is that it draws our attention to the central importance of Spinoza’s treatment of wonder and thus invites our more careful scrutiny of the plausibility of that account.
Before closing I would like to raise a question about one claim that Rosenthal makes that seems quite surprising to me. Perhaps I have misunderstood him, and he can clarify the point. I find the account of the relation between wonder, miracles and our erroneous belief in free quite convincing. And maybe it is true that the mystery of the human free will brings with it an aura of quasi-transcendence that vests our ostensibly free decisions with a kind of special status.

Rosenthal claims (if I’m understanding him correctly), that contract theories of the state, since they rest on a kind of free choice of the citizens, inherit some of the special status that accompanies the mystery of free will – a special status not entirely different from the special status accorded the state in earlier theories that explained the sovereign’s rule by reference to divine providence. This is an interesting claim, and it may even be true of some contract-based political theories and some of their defenders. But I find it extremely surprising that Rosenthal includes Hobbes and Spinoza among those theorists, for these two were, of course, vehement and consistent deniers of free will tout court. Maybe Rosenthal can clarify for us the claims that he is making in this part of his paper.

I agree with Cook’s contention that the fixedness of surprise is not as stalled and disconnected as at first blush it seems that Spinoza would like to make of it, especially when conflated with the social dimension of the other meaning of admiratio…veneration. There is much more to look-to-ed-ness than simple stalling, an entire field of ideas and affects which qualify something as unique by contrast. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that Spinoza’s concept of vision/perception, as found in his optics, is based on a field conception of coherence, driven by a holism of coherence and a centerpoint of what one may call “admiratio” sympathetic to perceptual theories of Cognitive Dissonance. But do not believe though that Spinoza’s view, even as interpreted by Rosenthal, is as sterile as Cook finds it, for aside from his narrow reading of admiratio as a disconnectiveness, within the Spinozist framework is room for argument that admiratio can work as a productive means for breaks from the order of the body’s affections, and an engagement of the mind through the resultant noticing of surprising similarities. In fact, Spinoza’s  3p52 concept of the “singularity” of attention, under which we find a scholium critique of admiratio, could be read as a cognitive dissonance principle of perception: If we have previously seen an object together with others, or we imagine it has nothing but what is common to many things, we shall not consider it so as one which we imagine to have something singular. Resolution of singularity is can be seen as the primary drive of perception.

Thus one can presume that at the center of perception is a suspension which can either work to a new chain of affection-based images, OR, given its nature, an engagement with the mind, as it looks for causes. A lightening strike can fill us with terror, it can lead us to understand electro-magnetism. In fact, as an artisan who produced telescopes and microscopes of the highest quality for the Age, and as an investigator who looked through magnifying glasses with no doubt “admiratio” in terms of wonder and surprise, it seems very unlikely that Spinoza had a poor view of investigative wonder, the tickle of the mind or eye that caused one to look for causes. It is rather the paralysis of the miraculous, the stunning incomprehensibility, which he must have read as a kind of confusion, that he had in mind when he minimized “admiratio”.  And in particular, it seems that metaphors above most imaginary ways of organizing the world, given their built-in tension with the literal truth, operate “surprise” with a specific orientation towards the mind and connectivity.


2 responses to “Spinoza on Admiratio (often translated as “Wonder”)

  1. Jack Bronston December 22, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    Spinoza believed that the mind is a psycho-physical mechanism which can be broken down and studied like any mechanism. In his elaboration of this theory, Spinoza anticipated many of the findings of modern neuroscience. See Damasio. Looking for Spinoza, in which a leading academic in the field marvels at Spinoza’s intuition in the absence of the elaborate tools of modern science which validate his theory. To today’s neuroscientists. Admiratio is simply a particular arrangement of brain cells which is what Spinoza would have said if he had the tools and the vocabulary.

  2. kvond December 22, 2008 at 11:40 pm


    I don’t know what that has to do with the post above, (and I have read Damasio’s book). But thanks for the comment.

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