Frames /sing


The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

Stones that Think, Imagine and Have Ideas?

Any serious confrontation of Spinoza’s supposed Panpsychism runs right up against some very hard ground, in particular how his ontological descriptions – meant not only for human beings, but for all of existence – are to be taken on down the scale, all the way down to the smallest, micro-existential level. By virtue of how Spinoza defines modal expressions of Substance it seems that from the widest of views anything that does exist would in some sense “think” ; that is, due to Spinoza’s parallelism, even the most minute speck of dust, every tumbling molecule or atom, is an expression of Idea which seeks to preserve itself and stays in existence out of this striving. Yet, when we apply the very terms and analysis which Spinoza applies to the weakness of human cognition, the descriptions which reveal the aspects of man that push him further down the chain so to speak, making a human being more passive, more in-animate, these are very difficult things to apply to animal, then plant, then mineral, and then even lower forms of modal expression. For what would it mean for a Table to possess inadequate Ideas? Or a fishpond? And while we might be tempted to see that higher animals like wolves and giraffes could be dominated by Spinoza’s first form of knowledge, confused, Imaginary Knowledge, condemned merely to a world of images and association traces, is this how we imagine earthworms to be, or bacteria, or even more incomprehensibly, viruses? The categories that Spinoza gainfully employs to criticize the human condition, when brought over to all of existence, simply seem to break down. And the difficulty arises when this disintegration of terms comes to grip with the genuine decentralization of human beings that is meant to guide his ontology in the first place. What we are looking for are descriptions of the variability of human capacities which can also be applied to all things in existence, and these Spinoza does not seem immediately to give. In part this is because he is in particular concerned with the nature of Human Bondage, and so his conceptualizations are in some sense decidedly human (are we to talk about the Passions of the Animus 0f the cactus, the love, jealousy and hatred of the sedimentary rock?) And partly this could be because although Spinoza certainly had a vitalist-like conception of the world as one huge animate expression of Substance/God, in which every part vied with every other part, becoming free only through rational cohesion, how this played out beneath the human level really was not of much importance to him. Man was to use the environment for his benefit, just as man uses man.

So how are we to conceive of the mental actions of the sub-human, and sub-animal in Spinoza’s own terms if we cannot readily apply concepts such as the Inadequate Idea or Imaginary Knowledge to a piece of slate? The answer to this I think comes back down to Spinoza’s definition of the body which I have been dwelling on here for some days. I’ll reprint it.

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies.

or, as Curley translates the important middle phrase: “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”.

If we begin with this notion of Body as any continuing and communicative ratio of parts (or even the sedimentary-like vision of parts pressed close to each other, as Spinoza opens the description); understanding that for Spinoza this activity, this persistence must be mental activity as well as extensional activity we are forced to ask, What is it about these relations themselves that give us to see them as somehow “thinking”? What does it mean for a bowling ball to think?

Not Representation

I think we go a long way towards our answer if we give up the notion that for Spinoza an Idea Represents  ssomething, for we really are at a loss if we want to say that the internal relations in my pencil are in some way representing (that is, re-presenting) some aspect of the world to the pencil. (I think a great disservice was done to philosophy when it made its turn toward seeing the Scholastic notion of Idea as a Representation, ssomething that I think even comes to a wrongful interpretation of what Descartes meant by Idea.) So let us explore a bit what kinds of things that can be happening inside a taken to be inanimate object which might in some sense give a clue for how Spinoza conceived of Idea. What is a viable connection between the inside of things, and the outside of things that presents some kind of traction to the mental?

Well, let us take a deeply over simplified model, one that will emphasize the notion of border that seems implicit in Spinoza definition. Take an object to be something like a water-balloon. If we strike the balloon with our finger there is a certain reverberation of internal effects which we might say “reflect” the external or at least boundary-bound event. That is, as the balloon wobbles back into relative stability of form, there are a transfer of balances between parts within the balloon which are at least roughly coherent unto each other. Any one event within the baloon, or even subset of them does not so much represent the finger strike at it surface, as somehow express it unto the very nature of its internal relations. This is, in my thinking, a semiotic relation, an indication (I use the term semiotic not in its strict Peircian nor Saussaurian Idealist sense, but in a pre-modern Augustinian fashion). This semiosis indicates to the internal relations a consequences of changes (differences), but also is somehow oriented towards the boundary of the balloon. I think something of this is required to give sense to the cognitional capacities of the bodies so defined by Spinoza. It is not that the ideational changes (that is to say, recursively organized semiotic differences) represent  the world to the Body, so much as they indicate to the internal relations themselves how to react, a chain of reactions which in turn can be seen as a reaction to events external to the body. For Spinoza it key to see that the horizon-defined semiotic differences are determined, internally referential actions (ratios which preserve)…thus, Ideas are best seen as mental actions  of the physical, not representations per se.

This internalization of ideational changes, the way that a body can only “perceive” the outside world with reference to awareness of its internal states is precisely what Spinoza has in mind when he says of human beings:

The human Mind does not know [cognosit] the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, accept through Ideas of affections by which the Body is affected, E2p19

The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode [certus modus] of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else, E2p13

It seems that this essential notion of mental closure, in parallel to physical closure is something that Spinoza would take to be all the way down the ladder in the order of things, for Spinoza, which work from the most active to the least. In keeping with this “affections” [affectio] are the material changes within a body, and their Ideas are their semiotic relations to each other (and relation to all materiality in general). Necessarily, though the semiotic relations which help constitute the body as a closed body may be adequate to that purpose, that mind, they are inadequate to the preservation of that body in all conditions it may and will find itself in (thus, there is an answer to the disputable question  whether human beings, or any finite being, can hold completely adequate Ideas: in a certain sense complete adequacy simply does not make sense as a semiotic, finite relation).

So what is the difference at the level of the take to be inanimate between an Inadequate Idea (semiotic relation) and a slightly more Adequate Idea? For Spinoza the question is of the nature of preservation. I think it safe to say that for Spinoza the internal relations of stones and fingernail clippings are essentially Inadequate, the inadequacy a reflection of their fundamental passivity to the world. Yet, these things are also things that in some sense press their existence forward. They do not act in any intentional way (showing beliefs, or fears, or even needs), but they to persist in time, both against countervailing forces, and with forces sympathetic to their cause. This calls to mind one of the more overt panpsychic passages of Medieval Philosophy, Augustine’s notion that each thing is cognizant in that it finds ways to preserve itself:

For if we were cattle, we should love the carnal and sensual life, and this would be our sufficient good; and when it was well with us in respect of it we should seek nothing else. Again, if we were trees, we could not, of course, be moved by the senses to love anything; but we would seem to desire, as it were, that by which we might become more abundantly and bountifully fruitful. If we were stones or waves or wind or flames or anything of that kind, we should indeed be without both sensation and life, but we should still not lack a kind of desire for our own proper place. For the weight of bodies is, as it were, their love, whether they are carried downwards by gravity or upwards by their lightness. For the body is carried by its weight wherever it is carried, just as the soul is carried by its love. – The City of God, Book 11 chapter 28

Adequacy to Landscape

Upon this gradation of capacity to act Spinoza has grafted a more precise internally semiotic notion of degrees of freedom. It is not just that things find their place in the world, and thus persist, but that the internal relations within a thing express a degree of freedom possible for that thing (whatever its boundary), and thus that bodies as their in an increase in the adequacy of their semiotic relations become more powerful, more active entities. (As a sidenote, we can see something of this notion expressed in Stuart Kauffman’s Complexity Theorist take on the self-organizing systems of closure that gave rise to life, not a connection I wish to pursue here though.)

But the question remains, just how are we to conceive of changes in adequacy in internal semiotic relations at the inanimate and then near inanimate level? If we take clue from how Spinoza has divided up imaginary knowledge from rational knowledge, perhaps we can get a sense of this. Despite Spinoza all out and categorical denial of contingency, it is very much the case that a particular body can and does have completely random experiences of increases of power (and hence Ideational adequacy, and thus Joy). This can happen in two ways. One is that a body may find itself in local circumstances which favor it. Suddenly the finite internal relations which have thus far been preserving it suddenly are even more adequate to their local environment (one has a strong sense that Spinoza has presaged a logic of Darwinism here, several hundred years early). The second, in the same vein, is a change in the nature of the internal relations themselves which makes them more adequate to local environments. In either case there is no necessity that the advantage be preserved…it can be pure happenstance…a dust ball might fall into a whole corner of dust balls in an abandoned house. But the way that Spinoza understand it, there are ways to pursue this advantage, either through improvements of the internal semiotic relations (an increase in the adequacy of ideas), a change that would lead to an orientation toward more favorable environments (including the shaping of one’s current environment). In this regard, rivers that shape riverbeds, gene populations which carve out ecosystems, seem to possess systematic increases in an adequacy of internal relations to their environments. There is a strong sense that their determinations of what is outside of them are expressive of determinations which are inside of them. How far down the ladder we can push this, I am unsure, but someone like Kauffman would tell you that the autocatalytic processes which formed the simplest of organic compounds exhibit both organizational closure, and also shaping effects upon their environments, something which seems to suggest a very elemental kernel of an increase in semiotic relations at the heart of even the most random of our material processes (at least in our material history).

Adequacy to Totality?

But Spinoza wants to go beyond questions of adequacy toward local environments (fitness landscapes), but adequacy as per the Total (which for human beings or any other finite body serves as a kind of aysmptotic limit which principally can never even come close to being reached). For this he provides a material/numerical vector by which we might be able to judge  the relative sufficiency of internal semiotic relation of any particular body:

Whatever predisposes to the human Body that it is affected in a great number of ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful. E4p38

Now interestingly there is nothing in this proposition which guards against the contingent local manifestation of destructive forces. One could conceivably increase the number of ways your body can be affected (or affect) at a moment in time it would be advisable not to be susceptible to those influences, at the ludicrous level, taking a Joyful walk outside just when a piano was falling. And there is some question on just how to read this numericity. Does a monk in seclusion mediating increase the number of ways he/she can be affected…perhaps? But in terms of the inanimate/animate nexus, it is a general call toward the real consequences of complexity (a multiplicity of folds, if we literalize it). The cockroach might not be a very complex creature as far as animals go, but its grouped expression nested into all the worlds environments might be quite so; a water molecule may only be able to be affected or affect other things in a few ways, but rich is the number of ways that water itself interacts and manifests shaping the world to give two open questions of the application of this definition.

You can recognize in this Spinoza offering a development of Plato’s own definition of Being as offered in the Sophist (the dunamis/capacity to affect or be affected), and Bateson’s own modern cybernetic “difference that makes the difference” definition of information or Latour’s idea of gradated and Networked Being.

In terms of Spinoza, it seems to be that deeply inadequate semiotic relations are those which hardly register events beyond them so as to be fundamentally passive to those events, subject to any random occurrence whatsoever, yet still adequate enough to have preserved the body, the thing (res) to that point. The expressive conditions of its internal relations are in enough harmony with the relations around it so as to maintain its existence in harmony (opening up the question which Spinoza is always turning to, by virtue of what do we isolate a body from the forces and patterns of others). Under these descriptions it seems possible to stake that all things do think, that is there is some internal relation of which we find things composed that preserves itself in sympathy to events outside of it under a variety of circumstances of increasing complexity and self-reference, much of it involving the mutuality of coherences between bodies which become more and more communicated. This is something of what I believe Spinoza means when he thinks about the whole world being a vital and coherent expression of Nature, God, Substance.

It is not really for Spinoza that we are all One, with an emphasis on the meld of Great Oneness (if that were so he would have written mystical treatises), and this Hegel got wrong. It is rather the incredible distinctiveness, the concrete contours of our separations, under the logic that anything that separates must also necessarily join. His determinative reading of causation and immanation is an attempt to locate the joints of Being that when recognized lead to real shifts in power, in a real world (not imagined to be later or beyond rewards). A change in power is immediately its own reward and consequence. If the world is panpsychic for Spinoza, and I do believe that it is, it is because each and every little thing, each speck of Being is something with which we have the potential to combine (and not just instrumentally observe or detachedly use). The reason why things think for Spinoza is linked to his emphasis that for a person to think is to materially change yourself. When you think a thought you are changing your brain, your body (we don’t often think like this). And when we enjoin a material thing, place it our hand, press its button, flip its pages, we are necessarily joining to its mentality. Things think because we in thinking are akin to them, such that we cannot be kept apart.

9 responses to “The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

  1. Barrett Pashak February 5, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Outstanding post! Thank you. I’m sure I shall refer to it again and again. That quotation from Augustine alone makes it worthwhile.

    One quibble I have is with regard to your comments on Oneness, Hegel and mysticism. It might be worthwhile for you to have a look at Constantin Brunner, who argues that mysticism and philosophy have exactly the same object, Oneness; but what the latter elaborates through ratiocination, the other intuits through immediate apperception. For Brunner, Spinoza the great sophos and Christ the great mystic are two sides of the same coin. Further, Brunner argues that the purpose of the assertion of oneness is to condition our experience and understanding of plurality. In science, this means the systematic investigation of phenomena. You might want to have a look at Brunner’s Spinoza contra Kant, available online in English: You will find in there some significant insights into this whole area of discussion.

  2. kvond February 5, 2009 at 8:01 pm


    Thanks so much for the recommendations. I will look into them. Perhaps though I did not make my points regarding Hegel and Mysticism clear, or at least made them far too briefly (they are not exactly the same point). Hegel’s criticism of Spinoza was that he did not fully appreciate the reality of the Negation (Hegel’s own contribution to the progress of philosophy). I go into some of this in this post:

    but my reading comes from Gatens and Lloyd who point out that Hegel’s accusation of acosmism for Spinoza is a product of Hegel thinking too much in terms of a verticality of cause, ignoring the reality of the modes.

    As far as mysticism and Spinoza, I don’t mean to suggest that he is against mysticism, per se (some of his Collegiant friends were rather mystical in their embrace of God), but rather that he did not write a mysticism for a particular reason. If you follow his reasoning in the Ethics, indeed he wants a thinker to pass as quickly as possible to the Intuition of God which grounds all rational descriptions. Deleuze makes an excellent point (if I recall) that the fifth part of the Ethics moves with incredible speed and tempo when compared with the other parts. I think that in many ways the propositions of the Ethics are meant to be apophantic.

    But this is a not a dissolving into the One, a great melding. It is rather that the connections should become clear, (at least as clearly as possible), the hidden and often obscure ligaments which bind our thoughts and feelings to the conditions we percieve, and this is a very concrete reality, filled with traced specificity.

    Thanks for the good words and a close reading. I will check out the Brunner.

  3. kvond February 5, 2009 at 8:14 pm


    B.P. The connection between Augustine and Spinoza is not a trivial one. It is indicative of a larger NeoPlatonic influence upon Spinoza, the general resolution of the dichtomies of Substance (either Being/Non-Being or Spirit/Matter into a gradated conception of Being). Augustine’s panpsychism comes from his Plotinus influence which he used to argue against the Gnostic binaries. Spinoza follows homologously to some effect Augustine’s NeoPlatonic treatment of Evil as mere privation, regarding Falsity as mere privation.

    But there is another NeoPlatonic influence perhaps, that of the possible influence through Duns Scotus. It was a very Scotus-like “Formal Distinction” which grounds Spinoza’s treatment of the reality of the Attributes, and Scotus was a significant translator and popularizer of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who was basically a NeoPlatonist in Christian clothing).

    In any case, the Augustine quotation provides significant anchorage for any panpsychist readings that maintained themselves in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, having at least a positive effect on Campanella.

  4. Barrett Pashak February 6, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for directing me to your post on negation, with which I am in complete agreement. Your summary on Hegel’s contribution in this area provides me with much food for thought. As for oneness, I agree with you that Spinoza does not want us to dissolve into it. He simply wants us to be aware of it so that it can condition our understanding, so that we understand that all phenomena are causally inter-related.

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about representation not defining thought. Representational thought is specific to certain kinds of things, namely, humans and other animals. Other things think in some manner, but not with representational imagery; but we can only use our own representational thinking to imagine how other beings think. Brunner writes:

    We produce the relative ideatum of our world of things—the directly imaged ideatum of our own thingliness, including our inwardness, thought in all three specificates of feeling, knowing, willing—and the directly imaged ideatum of other things. To the beings similar to ourselves (men and animals) we ascribe, in pursuance of more or less perfect analogy to our own inwardness, an inwardness more or less like our own. In inanimate things we assume—in accordance with the proposition Omnia animata—a fundamentally different inner thinking of relativity, which thinking we can compare, however, only on the whole and to the whole of our consciousness, and through this comparison alone still keep some imagery of it for us. In this manner, on the basis of analogy, image thinking still reaches through all relativities of ideated existence which is not truly.—from here

    This line of thought is developed in The Unity Of Body And Mind, by Lothar Bickel, who was one of Brunner’s closest associates.

    One final comment I would like to make is with regard to your extremely fine selection of graphic illustrations. You may be interested in Maria Bussmann’s illustrations inspired by the Ethics.

  5. kvond February 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Gorgeous illustrations. I am very interested in art directly illustrative of Spinoza as this produces a very instructive tension. I will look closely at them, and thank you for the links.

    As to your thought: ” Representational thought is specific to certain kinds of things, namely, humans and other animals.”

    I just want to make myself clear and say that even in cases of “representation”, these are I believe fundamentally, foundationally, semiotic, or significations. I think that this is what Spinoza is trying to point out in his difference between the Imagination and the Mind. Representing is a kind of condensation (confusion) of Mind. It is quite helpful, (the imagination is how the social of human beings comes about and sticks together, the very means of its becoming), but still only partial in aid . I think you mean this, as seen from your Brunner quote, but I want to make sure that I don’t give the sense that for Spinoza Ideas are representational in human beings (this would be what Spinoza called, falling “into pictures”. In fact I have come to believe that they are not even representational for Descartes either. Ideas are differntials of action, I think is one way to put it.

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  8. Pingback: immanence - kvond’s Spinoza

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