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kvond

What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

Thinking God and other Things

“Spinoza did not prove the existence of God; existence is God” – Goethe

Over at Deontologistics we’ve had a nice discussion of his claim that Spinoza committed a philosophical error called “onto-theology” which apparently is the taking of God or Nature or in Spinoza’s case Substance to be a kind of being. This is to say a dog is a being, and a cloud is a being, but Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, it is merely “a” being with unique qualities (one being that it is self-caused, rather than being caused by things other than itself, for instance). I don’t want to cover the discussion there as you can read it if you like, hereBut as a point of interest much of his point rests with the idea that God/Substance for Spinoza must be “a” being because God has both an “essence” and an “idea”, and anything that has one of these must be “a” being (to some minimum degree).

What this gives me to think about, and this is the subject of the post, is that the reason why Spinoza gives God/Substance both an essence and an idea is not to claim that God/Substance is “a” being, but rather to simply say that God is thinkable. And, to great significance, individual beings are not the only thing thinkable. In fact, the way in which Spinoza argues the nature of God and Substance undermines the very notion that thinking is confined to “beings” per se.

So what is it to “think God” for Spinoza? What does it mean for instance that God has an “idea”, that there is an “Idea of God”? And what connection does this have to us “having an idea of God”? It is here, right away, that we come right up against the non-representationalist view of “idea” for Spinoza. Quite apart from much of Cartesianism, and certainly far from the Idealist followings after Kant, to have an idea of something is not to represent it. In fact, as Spinoza tells us, when we are thinking about things in the world we are merely thinking ourselves. So if God has an Idea, and we can have an Idea of God, what does this mean? First off, we know that the Idea of God is not a representation of God. It is rather an expression of God, we might say. And when we have an idea of God this does not mean that we form a representation of what God is like. The last thing that Spinoza has in mind is the notion that we form an image of God, and perhaps it is not even correct to say that we have a “concept” of God (for our concepts of God change, but the adequacy of our Idea of God does not).

The Infinity Within The Boundaries of Our Thought

Part of a clue to this is that Spinoza claims that we can only have an adequate idea of God. Despite all the images and anthropomorphisms, or even atheistic beliefs, we automatically, by virtue of our capacity to think and be, have an adequate idea of God (as – it can be argued – do all things).  Understanding this may be helped by the holism both Goethe and Herder found in Spinoza, that each thing possessed a kind of “intrinsic infinity”. This is to say that while we regard individual things as bound, finite things, indeed within any bounded thing lies an infinity. As his letter 12 claims, this is an infinity of internal magnitudes, but it is also the nature of the infinity of God, that is to say, the Idea of God. In a certain sense, internal to a finite, determined being such as ourselves, lies the very infinitude of God, and the reason for this is because we literally are God, in action (as are all things). So when someone wants to compare God to our finitude and try to imply that God must be “a” being just as we are “a” being, they are looking through the wrong end of the lens. If one really had to choose, it goes the other way: instead, it is much more that we are an infinitude, because God is an infinitude (Hegel knew this well because he claimed that Spinoza actually produced an acosmism). 

So, when it is said that we have an idea of God this simply means that God  is thinking through us by virtue of his/its own ideational expression. In fact the combination of God having an essence and an idea is simply the groundwork for this kind of claim. Our thinking God is the case of our coherent powers of agency, and we cannot help but do so. And in such a case calling God “a” being really goes strongly against Spinoza’s very conception, the point he is trying to get across. 

Perhaps the meaning of this would be made more clear if I use my recent readjustment of Spinoza’s notion of Idea to correspond to the modern concept of “information”. We might say that Nature (all of it) has a kind of totality of Information which we could call the Idea of Nature. And we as natural informational beings, composed of and expressing information in a determined way, as we think about things in the world do so by virtue both of the specific information we are composed of, but also because in certain sense the totality of information is “thinking through us”; our informational structure connects us to the world due to the very informational order of everything. The whole moves through a part (in very complex ways). This is something akin to what Spinoza means when he says that we all necessarily adequate idea of God. We think the Idea of God/Nature/Substance by simply the virtue of being an expression of it.

Spinoza’s argument though makes all of this an expression of Substance, and as such the kinds of things we want to say about finite beings, are not the kinds of things we can say of the Immanent ground. While the cat is “a” being, and the lamp is “a” being, it makes no Spinozist sense to say that Substance is “a” being. God is not a super-quality version of us or other things. It is precisely this usual attempt to think God as a super version of regular things that Spinoza tries as best he can to upend. The reasoning goes the other way. It is the Infinite which opens up what the finite is. As Lessing put it to Jacobi, Spinoza will not prejudice human ideas.

Cybernetic Admixtures Toward Freedom

There is a very good reason why this tension between “beings” and their immanent cause is not resolvable by thinking of that cause as a special kind of “being”.  A good deal of this reason lies with Spinoza’s undermining of just what “a” being is, and in a way what we – as finite beings – are to think about ourselves and the world. What Spinoza ideational epistemology is organized to tell us is that the less that we think in isolated terms, the less that we think of things as separated from us, the less of “a” being that we become. That is, in what perhaps is best called a cybernetic view of human powers, the more that we combine with other things, and do so through our increasingly adequate ideas of their causes, the less that we can say that we are merely “a” being. Rather, “we” are exposed to be a combination of beings, the boundaries of which transpierce what we are. The mutualities which condition our very powers are the things that defy the actual Heideggerian Idealist (optical) notion of “a” being in the first place. I discuss these important differences between Spinoza and Heidegger here: Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr. Heidegger’s notion of beings is necessarily a story of alienation and occlusion, Spinoza’s is combinative and liberating at every turn.

This brings us to one more aspect of the argument that Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, and that is the idea that while each thing in the world is caused by things other than itself, but only one thing is its own cause. It is supposed that Spinoza is putting forth that Substance is just a different sort of “thing”. But because “thingness” itself is what is under revisement in Spinoza, the beingness of Substance is not the point at all. Rather, the emphasis is on the nature of freedom itself.  The principle of sufficient reason for Spinoza, the idea that the explanation of something is key to the nature of its power to act and be, is that which grounds the very ethics of Spinoza’s Ethics. This is to say, as we come to understand the causes of things this is not just an accumulation of knowledge, but rather is a real change in ontological power. This is something that is profoundly missing in so-called “flat ontologies” and is vital to understanding the nature of power and freedom itself.  As we understand the causes of things we come to be in combination with them, forming a mutuality. It is not simply the (optical) Heideggerian question of whether the thing we describe “hides” from us or not, but rather the change in the degree of being, our very power to act and exist, that occurs when we have more adequate ideas in the world. This is the true meaning behind Spinoza’s self-caused idea of Substance. As we approach towards Substance’s own self-determined nature, becoming more like Substance as we go, our very “a” beingness is under transformation. It is this freedom through combination that literally operates our distinctions making valleys and mountains out of what otherwise would be taken to be flat.

Lastly: The Barking Dog and the Dog in the Heavens

“Further (to say a word here concerning the intellect and the will which we attribute to God), if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, we must take these words in some significations quite different from those they usually bear. For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”(E1p17cor, sch)

 

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5 responses to “What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

  1. Paul Bains October 5, 2009 at 1:41 am

    I am not a scholar and I wish I had the knowledge to follow all this but there is one place I would like to stay with. You say:

    ‘That is, in what perhaps is best called a cybernetic view of human powers, the more that we combine with other things, and do so through our increasingly adequate ideas of their causes, the less that we can say that we are merely “a” being.’

    I can’t do justice to this now (or probably ever) but there is a v. impt issue here about ‘human powers’ – or rather the powers of any empscyhed being.
    Yes, we are not just ‘a’ being. And yes, we are finite and brought into being. But there is the possibility that each empsyched person is unique or cadacualtic (the term is explained in a number of places online) e.g.:

    http://knol.google.com/k/mario-crocco/cadacualtez-or-why-one-is-not-another/2ude40i84gh9i/2

    This is quite different from the cybernetic view (as recently pursued by G. Bateson. ‘We’ are systems.

    SPINOZA’S ERROR IS ANOTHER ONE
    by Mariela Szirko
    5 June 2001, posted 26 June 2001 Karl Jaspers Forum

    “Already since long I lack time to write to our forum, moreover feeling that I utterly failed to communicate all that I tried here to say.

    Yet on Maurice McCarthy’s “SPINOZA’S ERROR” I feel it needed to point out that Baruch Spinoza’s fault in fact consisted in another flaw, unmentioned in McCarthy’s lucid contribution.

    Spinoza’s mistake is nothing else than the widespread mistake I already commented many times on this forum, namely the central tenet of the Pythagoric- Parmenidean gnosticisms, consisting in misconstruing being as if to be were a predication.

    If one believes à la Minkowski that present situations do not intrinsically differ from past or future ones (which amounts to the struggle against time which such a central Gnostic tenet serves to), or, what is the same, that a perfectly well crafted hundred-dollar bank note in imagination not differs from a c-note in one’s pocket, then consistently one could not distinguish the causal start of new situations, by free will, from the continuation of its already causally-exhausted antecedents.

    This lack of understanding of efficient causation as enactment of non-predicative being is what coherently led Baruch Spinoza to mistake free will as free necessity.”

    I would be v. interested to learn more about Spinoza’s understanding of ‘free will’ and on the basis of which principles Spinozism might not be able to accept unique inexchangeable persons.

    I don’t except you to spend time on elementary expositions – but could you point to a useful site?

    Just wondering! In good faith.
    Paul.

  2. Paul Bains October 5, 2009 at 5:20 am

    It’s ok – don’t waste your time on it. I think I understand…the detached acceptance of the inevitable.

    • kvond October 5, 2009 at 10:54 am

      I’ll be glad to think about it more, but I’ve been away from the computer, but to put a short answer on one point you brought up, I don’t think that Spinoza was simply enough to think of Being merely as predication (he did over value human language, or even its powers of description). Being is predication, or we can predicate it, because being is enaction, a process. In a sense, Being lies beneath predication.

      The reason why I talk about “human powers” is that Spinoza argues for specific human ethical responsibilities due to the similarities we share in nature. We are an ecological resource to ourselves. But because we share powers with all things, these responsibilities (and advantages) spread out, and are necessarily cybernetic.

      On human free will I’ll send you an article you might like.

  3. Paul Bains October 5, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks for that. Fun to see A. Bain, 1859, in the biblio. I will read it soon but I also will be away from this desk for a few days.

    Just watched ‘Waltz with Bashir’ which is indeed a sad film. An animation about an Israeli army mission in the first Lebanon War of the early 80’s. Includes the Israeli rock song ‘We bombed Beirut today.’

    It’s interesting how the animation of such a subject is quite compelling. The unfamiliarity of the treatment makes one focus on it.

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