Frames /sing


Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Spinoza and the Rights of Entities

In a brief response to my comment to Graham’s attempt to dichotomize all of recent philosophy into either “radical” or “conservative” forms, he claims that Spinoza is the “arch” radix reductionist:

As for Spinoza, he’s an arch-radix philosopher. You can’t say that there’s one substance and still do full justice to individual entities.

While I sincerely appreciate the future opportunity to have Graham cash out the promise that this will be explained, and I suspect that such a explanation would trade on the concept of “full justice”, from my point of view this claim comes from a very pale reading of Spinoza’s notion of Substance and the modes (Graham risks perhaps a Hegelian misreading of Spinoza’s metaphysics, thinking only vertically and not horizontally, suggesting something of an acosmism.) If Graham means by “full justice” complete autonomy of “individual entities” it would strike me (as it does) that he has retreated into a position that simply gives up the requirement for descriptive, rational explanations, the stuff of philosophy and metaphysics. Entities are autonomous simply because we grant ourselves freedom from the having to explain them, they come into being and then change for no identifiable reason at all (which is thus far is the state of Graham’s theory of causation, at least at the level of the inanimate, those “individual entities” in the greatest need of justice).

(It is interesting that if indeed Spinoza is an “arch” radix philosopher his metaphysics did not make Graham’s top ten seven list of radix philosophies.)

Aside from this, the idea that Spinoza’s metaphysics does not grant full nobility to any modal expression (what he calls “objects”) would have to take into firm account that for Spinoza the modes are that “by which God exists and acts”.  So to say that individual entities are “nothing but” Substance is to not fully grasp the fully concrete authority of modal expression. Without modal expression, God neither exists nor acts. Any “individual entity” is fully rightful in its place in the world. To say that this tea cup here is “nothing more than Substance” (the kind of reduction that Graham seems to imagine that Spinoza has archly performed), is to fail to see that the tea cup is a fully concrete expression of its individual essence, an essence which is particularized and unique in expression (matching Graham’s retreating essences of objects). The big difference is that it is not the sole cause of its existence, it is not autonomous, as it necessarily depends on external causes to bring it into, and to keep it in existence.

To put it roughly (I could draw closer correspondences):

1. Spinoza’s modal essences = Graham’s Heideggerian retreating essences.

2. Spinoza’s extensional expression of an essence = Graham’s real objects in tension with their qualities, composed of inner parts.

3.Spinoza’s ideational expression of an essence = Graham’s Husserian Intentional objects, composed of qualities and accidents.

If Spinoza is failing to grant full rights to entities, I can’t see how Graham does either for they divide up the pie in homologous ways. The only strong difference that I see is that Spinoza explicitly puts forth how these two, the inside and outside of objects, their mental and extensional aspects are related to each other.

“Objects, Objects every where, and all the boards did shrink…”

Graham does respond to my claim that he has simply adopted a metaphysics of two mirror world objects, telling me that these objects can indeed touch each other, across their mirror realms:

They’re not just “doubled in a mirror,” they’re of two different kinds: real objects, and intentional objects, and though two objects of the same kind cannot make contact, two objects of different kinds can. 

Unfortunately, as yet, I cannot tell how he imagines that this happens, other than simply stating that it does, especially on the inanimate level where a representationalist conception of knowledge is more than cumbersome. If he posits a complimentary Hume world and a Malebranche world, and then claims that elements in the Hume world literally touch elements in the Malebranche world, or some such equivalent, the entire claim that these are not isolated mirror worlds rests on precisely the enumeration of the nature of this “touching”. I have a feeling that he has a thing or two up his sleeve and he is waiting until it is more formulated, for he seems quite confident that he can answer the question with some detail. 

Returning to the original point though, the idea that Spinoza has made the modes “nothing more than Substance” (if this is what Graham is saying) would strike me as a deep misreading of even the claims of Spinoza. It would be like saying that for Spinoza natura naturata  is nothing more than natura naturans, an imprecise interpretation that I believe Malebranche also made on the fly when D’Ortous De Mairan begged him to save Europe from Spinozism, which was threatening to take all the miracles out of Christianity.  Such a reduction is explicitly foreclosed in Spinoza’s metaphysics.

I certainly look forward to Graham’s critique of Spinoza which should prove a satisfying groundwork for us finding greater agreement. I would suggest though that failing a rigorous theory of causation, not having defensible reasons why something is they way it is in the world, does not just have the benefit of saving the entity from the possibility of “reduction” (simply, explanation), giving it perhaps the illusion of the “right” to be what it is, to hide from every eye;  it has the very real negative consequence of making an island of it, and imprisoning it from any knowledgeable path towards its own freedom. Any explanation of a condition does not simply pigeon hole something, it also empowers the described if it can be knowing of its causes. The kind of “reduction” that Spinoza makes, insofar as he makes one, the claim that “I” am but an expression of Substance, is precisely the kind of reduction which minimizes none of my status as an “entity” but which directs my attention to the external causes which have made me what I am, and the exact nature of my dependencies. Because it shows me to be dependent, and not perfectly autonomous, it gives me the opportunity to change the nature of my dependencies to the degree that I can, and be given real  freedom, through the imperative that I choose my alliances to other things and persons powerfully.

When there is little explanatory framework, it is the just possibility of this freedom that is cut off from me as an object in the world. Questions of cause are inevitably linked to questions of agency, and Spinoza grants agency to all things. Absolving the question of contact and cause into the poetics of a sensuous realm’s “thin film eaten away over time” as if a time bomb ready to explode, or alternately, it being  “ruptured by distant signals” as Graham so beautifully does in his essay “On Vicarious Causation” actually has the reverse effect of what is intended, in denying objects the justice they require, a path of self-determination in terms of the power to act in the world: the answer to such questions as “How does one get one’s thin film eaten away in the best, most productive fashion?” or, “How does one most benificiently subject oneself to the rupture of distant signals?”

4 responses to “Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

  1. Michael February 15, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    I just wanted to say that I quite liked this post, and was wondering if you could come do some Spinozist magic on my latest blog entry to help me understand how the Will (or conatus) fits into Spinoza’s metaphysics. I’m dying to know over here!

  2. kvond February 15, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks for the good words. Will try.

  3. poodlesandpyramids February 15, 2009 at 3:28 pm

    I have a dog that imitates pain. Wittgenstein may need to consider this in 250.

  4. kvond February 15, 2009 at 3:33 pm


    I too had a dog that “imitated pain,” and I write specifically about how Wittgenstein is in my opinion wrong, using my dog as an example in “The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation”:

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