Frames /sing


Some Easy Spinoza

Spinoza is a difficult thinker, not so much to understand, but to tolerate.

That is, there is something so tutorial about his main work the Ethics, it sometimes takes a great deal of effort, or merely exposure, to realize that he has quite benign intentions and realizations, and that there is something even more than a cold wind that blows through the architecture of all those propositions, proofs and scholia. But the work somehow always even upon embrace sits uncomfortably in the mind. It seems to be at the same time obviously false (or intellectually presumptuous), but also evocatively true in ambition and even somehow in reference.

I had a bit of a light-weight epiphany the other day when spending the afternoon down by the creek. The sun was radiating down, the water rushing in that relentless and still pleasurable way, and I lifted my head and stared at the huge boulders that filled the very small valley. In their very size, and the luminosity of the sun upon them they possessed a kind temporality what was in distinct contrast to the ephemera of the day, and of course of myself.

It was in those rocks that something about Spinoza occurred to me, that the kind of things that Spinoza is arguing for in all his elaborate ways are really pretty simple. They are listable.

1. There is one world, which means that when you and I are talking about it, or reacting to it, we are talking about and reacting to the same thing.

2. Things may change in that world, but it is still the same world.

3. We are part of that world, and being part of it is what allows us to communicate and be.

4. Through imagination we helpfully separate out one part of that world from the rest.

5. Through rationality we connect the separated out parts, which are not really separate.

6. Intuition is the flash of this connection. We all experience it.

7. We have very little control over ourselves (much less than we think), and the control we do have comes from thinking clearly.

9. Blaming (and overly praising) things external to us is largely a mistake.

10. Our salvation – in the grand sense, and the daily sense – depends on the salvation of things/persons external to us.

11. No soul can be freed without the body.

12. At any moment you can achieve greater freedom by changing the way that you think.

13. Any thorough embrace of “I” in the most selfish sense, undermines the sense of what an “I” is.

14. Understanding how something works is key to freedom.

15. We are our machines and techniques.

16. Nothing is completely unreal.

17. Everything outside of us has an explanation (causes), but an explanation which we can never be completely clear about.

18. Eternity is just the term for something that is not bounded, but is merely and entirely expressive.

19. The more we become like eternity, even in the most pragmatic situations, the freer and more powerful we are.

20. Gaining control involves separating out yourself from that which is outside of you, then reconnecting yourself by realizing that you were always connected but not in the way that you thought.

21. Things could not have been different than they have been, a thought that makes things very different in the future.

22. Everything thinks, however dimly. Which is another way of saying that things are all to some degree organizing, and not merely passively organized.

23. Thinking involves starting from the widest and working in.

24. I necessarily feel and see the world through others.

25. When we’re wrong, we’re only partially wrong.

This certainly is not exhaustive of Spinoza truths, and some of them may simply be inaccurate. They are a kind of intutional snap shot of much of my reading and thinking on Spinoza recently, and are worth putting down.

11 responses to “Some Easy Spinoza

  1. Carl July 31, 2009 at 10:53 pm

    This is great. The appeal is clear. I’m reminded so much of Stoicism.

  2. kvond July 31, 2009 at 10:57 pm


    There’s a lot of Stoicism in Spinoza (or at least parallels), though I have read that Spinoza took stands against Stoicism because he was mostly familiar with a Christianized version of it.

    There also seems to be some Buddhist parallels, though I have never read this comparison.

  3. wildcat August 1, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Kudos for this post.. thanks for writing and sharing these insights

  4. anodyne lite August 1, 2009 at 9:00 pm

    Agree with the other commenters.

    “14. Understanding how something works is key to freedom.”

    I like this one best, but they’re all very good, with a nice, active, you might even say aggressive optimism (but not really a utopian sensibility) to them.

    • kvond August 1, 2009 at 9:07 pm

      Thanks AL, I tried to put them in differnt nomenclature, so to bring them out of some of the philosophical framework which makes them sometimes inaccessible, or less appraisable. Most of these actually strike me as rather uncontested, or at least something one could rather easily embrace with some very positive consequences – outside of the typical philosophical oppositional way of thinking about things (every position has its irresolvable contradiction).

      I like how you put that, agressive optimism. I think I recall that James used to say that philosophers had dispositions reflected in their thought, and used Spinoza to illustrate something of a “sunny” disposition. I had forgotten about this until your comment. And yes, I like 14 quite a bit. Althusser did too, which is why he attempted to reclaim Marx as a scientist.

  5. Shane August 6, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks, kvond. I think you’ve convinced me that I must return to Spinoza for some careful study.

    14, “Understanding how something works is key to freedom,” brings to mind a personal epiphany I had about Nietzsche the other day. It’s nothing profound, but I remembered a question that a fellow student had in class: “How can Nietzsche both laud the affirmation of everything, the whole world and the history of the world, and simultaneously be so critical of modernity?” How can he point out all these things that are wrong with philosophy and culture and demand a new philosophy and a new culture, and yet affirm everything as it is? After leaving this problem on the back burner for some time, I finally thought that in order to really affirm something one must first understand it. Otherwise, what does one affirm? Nietzsche does not point out all these problems with a view to improvement, but rather with a view to correction. It is understanding that gives one freedom to affirm the eternal recurrence of the same.

    May I request a clarification?

    23 states that “Thinking involves starting from the widest and working in.” The protocol I have followed in philosophy is to begin with learning the parts and then attempt to apprehend the whole from them. Even in your list reasoning begins with connecting parts after imagination has already separated them out (4 and 5). In what sense are you using the word “widest” here?

    • kvond August 7, 2009 at 12:01 am


      I look forward to clarifying #23, and responding to your thoughts on #14. I just want to give it my best. Tomorrow I’ll respond.

  6. kvond August 7, 2009 at 7:44 pm


    I did not have in mind Nietzsche’s affirmation, and Spinoza diverges a little from Nietzsche with a much fuller faith in that understanding consists in understanding something through its causes. And this is a knowledge that we certainly can participate in, rationally. Nietzsche likes to cast a much deeper suspicion on this.

    As to #23, you ask:

    “23 states that “Thinking involves starting from the widest and working in.” The protocol I have followed in philosophy is to begin with learning the parts and then attempt to apprehend the whole from them. Even in your list reasoning begins with connecting parts after imagination has already separated them out (4 and 5). In what sense are you using the word “widest” here?”

    Here Spinoza makes, at least for me, a rather profound break with a great deal of the philosophical tradition that followed after Descartes. If interested wrote on this with some precision of reference to Cartesian texts here: (skip the introductory paragraphs). But if I could put it simply, Descartes and much of the philosophy after him was concerned with “the part”, that is, if we can isolate the sure, definitive, core clarity, (or the clarity of clarity itself) upon that we can build all else. This in my view was distinctly driven by an optical metaphor of focus and lenses.

    But what Spinoza saw was that ANYTIME we understood or saw something with clarity, it was because ALREADY we were understanding things outside of it. In fact, the periphery was giving the context, the frame which made it all make sense. So insteaad of trying to get to the central clarity, the “phenomena”, one had to start wide, at the widest, and work in. One had to uncover all the breadth of what makes a certain part clear.

    You are right indeed that reasoning works on the parts that imagination separates out, but Spinoza will tell you that reasoning is ALREADY working because even the processes of imagination employ, however dimly, a “idea of God” (the immanent connectivity of all of it), and the power of causal explanation. When you are learning the parts of something, a mechanism, let’s say, the only reason why you are able to learn what they do is that the connectivity that lies beyond them is operating. What Spinoza wants us to do is to first look outside, beyond the point of our focus and realize how much of what we understand is coming from the border, however unconsciously.

    Wittgenstein makes a similar point in his Philosophical Investigations when criticizing the Idealizations of language that occur in much of analytical philosophy. When we treat a cognitive operation as a “part” we are often missing “the rest of the mechanism”, so to speak.

    ” “I set the brake up by connecting up rod and lever.” — Yes, given the whole of the rest of the mechanism. Only in conjunction with that is it a brake-lever, and separated from its support it is not even a lever; it may be anything, or nothing.”

    PI, Remark 6

    For Spinoza, “the rest of the mechamism” is the entire causal and immanent structure of God/Nature/Subtance. You cannot even make the most rudimentary of cognitive operations without some idea of these. Wittgenstein was an engineer, Spinoza was a technician and a craftsman. I believe what is being thought here is that there is always a sense that the power of a local truth always relies on something outside of it, an awareness OUT OF WHICH our cognitions occur.

    So for Spinoza, he wants us to begin at the limit, and work in. Each thing is connected to the other things, and learning how they are connected is what sets us free, makes us more powerful, makes us more Joyous. The “rest of the mechanism” is ultimately the concern for the whole of philosophy, of which Science plays a radically imporatant part as well.

    Spinoza makes this point actually against Descartes in the realm of optics, from which much of the philosophical presumption of clarity arose. He objected to Descartes’ hyperbolic lens because it fundamentally misrepresented how the eye, and analogically, the mind worked. That we see anything clearly is due to as many rays of light, from the full field of our vision, are drawn into focus. Or, we can say, out comprehension of the background allows us to see the foreground (even if our imagination *seemingly* is able to separate out the foreground from the background altogether).

    I hope that answers your question, or at least I hope my reasoning is clear, because I feel that this is one of Spinoza’s strongest criticisms to modern philosophy as it was begun from Descartes.


  7. jot.zna August 15, 2009 at 7:29 am

    22. Everything thinks, however dimly. Which is another way of saying that things are all to some degree organIZNG, and not merely passively organized.

    Congratulations 🙂 For me it’s the deepest insight into quintessence of Spinozism.

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