Frames /sing


Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

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The above is the scheme of Spinoza’s implicit theory of a prophetic imagination, come from his letter to Peter Balling (17), where a father writes about his premonition of his son’s death. The pertinent description from which this is drawn I quote:

To take an example like yours, a father loves his son that he and his beloved are as though one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the affections of the son’s essence, and what follows; and the father, through the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, because necessarily the father’s soul from the son’s ideal essence, and with the affections of the same, through this, to what follows he must participate (as I have demonstrated elsewhere at greater length). Next, since the father’s soul participates ideally in this – in the things which follow from the son’s essence – he (as I have said) can sometimes imagine something of what follows from his [the son’s, implied] essence as vividly as if he had it before his eyes…

nempe, pater (ut tui simile adducam exemplum) adeo filium suum amat, ut is et delictus filius quasi unus idemque sint. Et quoniam (juxta id, quod alia occasione demonstravi) filii essentae affectionum, et quae inde sequuntur, necessario in Cogitatione dari debet idea, et pater, ob unionem, quam cum filio suo habet, pars memorati filii est, etiam necessario patris anima de essentia ideali essentiam filii, et ejusdem affectionibus, et iis, quae inde sequuntur, participare debet, ut alibi prolixius demonstravi. Porro, quoniam patris anima idealiter de iis, quae essentiam filii consequuntur, participat, ille (ut dixi) potest interdum aliquid ex iis, quae ejus essentiam consequuntur, tam vivide imaginari, ac si id coram se haberet…
I’ve discussed this letter before [How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead? and Spinoza and the Caliban Question to name two posts], quite frankly, if fascinates me, and it seems its ideas are often neglected in serious discussion of questions of the role of the imagination and the knowledge of the essences of external things. I was listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation” today, which I recommend for anyone interested in a slightly Deleuzian and highly literary appreciation of Spinoza’s notion of what constitutes an individual. Selcer’s treatment of “individual” as anything produced as a singular effect by a multitude (something to be appreciated by ne0-objectologists), set off another foray into the ideas of this curious letter, which I read in support of some of his thinking. (The lecture, as well as many other wonderful Spinoza papers just given on Spinoza and bodies, is found here). 
I thought it best to scheme it out, if only for later reference – and perhaps in posting it others will find it interesting, or may even be able to correct it with a better understanding. Sometimes I have a weakness for diagrams and schemes, as they anchor points in the mind so that it can do related, more inventive work along the way. Hopefully some will enjoy the map.
What is most troubling or difficult about the prophetic imagination is that it is far from clear just how to read the becoming “one and the same” of the father and the son (quasi). In many respects this simply falls into the imitation of the affects which foregrounds socialization itself, as found in the Ethics [treated quite thoroughly by Balibar, Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion]. It is a purely imaginary projection, the seed of conflict and excessive binding, needing to be leavened by power of rational unity. To be sure, Spinoza is covering something of the same grounds here (the beloved to the Father seems a passionate connection).  But this is no mere fantasy, but rather the real (though imaginary) prophetic experience of a future affective state. (It should be noted that Peter Balling externalized the affections of his son, heard his son’s future groans and did not feel pains or difficulty of breathing himself.) This imaginary relationship has epistemic traction. Spinoza is at pains to propose a dichotomy in which the ideational source of this imaginary event provides a real knowledge (if confused) of the future. Thus, just what the traction is it seems, must be found with the real participation of the father in the essence of the son, an implied merging of the two, or at least assemblage or mutuality (something I am tempted to read as cybernetic).
Under the question of the knowledge of other essences (or their affections that follow) it is significant that this portend comes from the ideational side of one’s own expression. That is, it does not come from the affections of one’s own body (which Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian is supposed to represent). It comes instead from the idea of the affections of another person’s body, casting into doubt just where one’s own “body” ends, and other’s begins. To a point of near contradiction, some idea follows from one’s own essence which, due to love and union, necessarily is of the affections that follow from another’s essence. This is something which one would presume could only occur if the two of you formed a single essence in some shape or form. Perhaps there is another answer to this, but this is all that I can see.
Another note worth talking about in brief is that I have been under the running theory that Spinoza contracted his tuberculosis from his own father (or step-mother), both of whom I hypothesize died from the disease [discussed recently here: Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect? and originally here: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion]. If this is the case then the image of the “union” of the father and the son, and the idea that there are affections that might follow from the each of them certainly would grow more vivid. Indeed, Spinoza may have felt his very love for his father wove itself into the mutuality of their shared physical fates (as I most tentatively argued, Spinoza seemed to abstract into idea his own symptomatic, affection pathways in the first paragraphs of the Emendation).
The question is, does this letter (and my possible schematization of it) represent a confusion of Spinoza’s theories of body, idea and imagination, or does it possibly shed greater light on some of the more difficult passages in his thinking. I suspect the latter, especially in the sense that I have long held that Spinoza’s view is cybernetic, one in which knowing things intimately breaks down the boundaries between self, world and others, all the while retaining causal distinctions as concrete and distinct. In the letter to Balling Spinoza seems to, closer than at any other time, touch on the very mechanism of mutuality and its real, physical and mental effects. And that he does so in the context of arguing a prophetic imagination, this makes it all the more curious, and possibly engaging.

2 responses to “Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

  1. Barrett Pashak October 29, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    As a father, I have had an experience similar to that of Balling (not tragic, but distressing and freaky enough).

    I try to live with this insight of Spinoza’s, recognizing a profound psychic connection between myself and my children.

    Btw, you’re taking a good route exploring the connection between cybernetics and Spinoza. I have a paper written by Henri Lurié (in French) on the subject:

  2. kvond October 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    To bad I do not read French, I would find the article interesting. I discuss Spinoza’s connection to cybernetics, in part, here:

    But the idea goes deeper than that posting. I’m very glad that you have a personal experience of some of what Spinoza is expressing here.

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