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Tag Archives: 17th century

Why Spinoza? A Historical, Sociological Argument

Why Study Spinoza? …

The question may arise when considering the work of a philosopher, why should we study him, particularly for those outside of the discipline of philosophy. In the case of Spinoza there are some who have suggested that his importance has lain in his proximity to Descartes both in time and in concept. Under this idea, at least philosophically, we have been living in a largely Cartesian age, one that descends from Descartes’ fundamental dichotomy of Substances – Mind and Body – and has been attempting to heal the respective gap between subject and object ever since. This has been reflected in two main offspring-lines passing through the intermediary bridge of Frege/Brentano, those that wrestled with the problems of reference in the Analytic School, and those that articulated philosophies of Presence in the Continental School. These differences are seen to reflect, or express, large-scale sociological facts, the manner in which we in the West conceptualized and utilized objects of industry, and conditioned ourselves in our bodies in a detached and extra-mental way. In this lineage of thought and action Spinoza can be seen to stand, conceptually, as the path not taken. If we were to allow an analogy from biology, Spinoza’s thinking, born in the generation just after Descartes, represents a species of thought which for a variety of reasons did not come to proliferate here. Spinoza’s is a continent of life unto itself whose capacities for coherence and analysis express powers that Descartes’ and his descendants do not.

Related to this conceptual importance of Spinoza is the quality of the time in which he lived. Spinoza lived at the cusp of modernity. In Amsterdam, as an ostracized member of a marginalized group of Jewish merchants and religious believers, Spinoza witnessed and debated some of the most remarkable human leaps in social growth in the history of the West. During the decades of Spinoza’s life the fledgling Dutch Republic posed experiments in early capitalism, democracy and social tolerance (attended by the shadows and dangers of each), such that the core of his thinking can be regarded as something of a stem-cell of modern capitalist and democratic logic, one that, when examined, may provide us with a grammar of analysis for our own times insofar as they have been long delayed in the development of what remarkably was given birth in mid-17th century Holland. Within this notion of Spinoza as a divergent line of conceptual branching are the hopes and possibilities for what is possible to think, and in thinking, do. While Descartes’ division between Mind and Body may have served the human West well for several centuries, Spinoza’s unification of the two, formulated radically as a correction to Descartes, may provide an even more significant capacity, given our place and time. In short, we may be ready for Spinoza.

human stem cell

human stem cell


The Text of van Gutschoven’s Letter to Huygens No. 1148

[Posted here is the full original text of Huygens letter 1147, for which there are some comments here A Method of Grinding Small, Spherical Lenses: Spinoza ]

No. 1147.

[G. van Gutschoven] à [Christiaan Huygens].


Apendice au No. 1146.

Instrumentum ad vitra minoris sphaerae terenda.

Laminam eream AB schamno tornatorio affixam excavabis secundum circulum CD cuneo parato in formam circuli aequalis circulo vitri formandi. dice aequalis circulo maximae sphaerulae cuius lens particulam referat. in hoc excabato canali CD, atteres vitra capulae affixa et canali appressa : modo capulam in manu continuo dum vitrum attertur vertas, ut ex omni parte vitrum aequaliter atteratur : consultissimum autem erit laminam horizontalier circumagatur, nam hoc modo non tam facile arena decidet, vltimam autem polituran vitro addes simili lamina sed stannea terra tripolitana inserta : vel lamina simili lignea ex lingo aliquot molliori, quale est salicis, vel populi.

Lentes cavas formabis sphaerula stannea vel plombea EF schamno tornatorio affixa ut vides, polies vero eadem sphaerula vel lignea ut superius dictum terra tripolitana inserta.

Hoc concavo cono schamno tornatorio affixo, scabies vitrorum limbos polies, ne dum ultimam in charta inducimus vitro polituram, particulae tenuiores vitri exfilientes et in poros chartae sese infinuantes vitrum deturpent.

Instrumentality and Perception in the Seventeeth Century


Just to jot down a few thoughts and co-incidences that are coming together in regards to my article. These are born from a discussion I had with my wife this afternoon as I sought to renew my focus, and to differentiate between her synthesis of ideas and mine is not easy, nor even necessary. There is something of interest, from the grandest of historical perspectives, in correlating several aspects of the rise of instumentalized thought during the Golden Age. For instance there is the instrumentalization represented by Descartes’ substantial divorce of the Mind and Body, and the attendant mechanized view of phenomena which showed the way for a love of the complex, automated device. On the other hand, there is the mechanized view of produced efficiency that inspired the slave trade just at this time, driving the shift from indentured and sharecropped plans of sugar production (as harsh as they were) toward an imparitiave “progress”: the wholesale import of enslaved African human labor. To put it a bit more precisely, there is something to the kind of vision that was well-appraised in the Cartesian, hyperbolic model, which allows the narrowness of focus on local causal relations, abstracted to calculable laws, which through its valuation alone redeems any particular efficiency, solely due to its distinctness and clarity, a model that bespeaks the horrors of enslaved human beings.

There is something to the rise of the lens and the desire to see more and more clearly, in a blinkered sense, that grants priority to narrow focus. And I believe that it was in this that Spinoza found his greatest objection to automated, instrumentalized productions. Perhaps like our discovered or invented esteem for HDTV, the clearer the better, Spinoza seemed to lack an enthrallment to the “device” as a mere medium of truth. Despite the fact, or even because of it, that he was a grinder of real lenses and a philosopher of the “clear and distinct”, he was much more sensitive to the joining points between human beings and their actions, in particular to the kinds of ideas that were held by persons. One does not simply see better because one sees further, or more minutely. If we take Descartes’ much esteemed and persued mono-axial hyperbolic lens, and turn in analogy to, for instance, the discovered efficiency of West Indies sugar trade through slavery, yes one could say with clarity, “We are producing sugar better”, in the tunnel-vision of clarity for clarity’s sake, but still not see the consequences, the poly-axial realities of the kinds of production we are truly enforcing. There is something to Spinoza’s resistence to the polished mechanism (letter 32) – an uncraftsmanlike transfer of mathematics to form through measure and mechanism, which works with a kind of transcendental force, the device becoming invisible and unconscious – which Spinoza would collapse. He draws our attention both to the flesh-hand that rests on the mechanism itself, but also to the Ideas held by users, ideas which he argues determine the degree of power and perfection of the human actors and their assemblage with their instruments. There is something about Spinoza’s metaphysical reconsilation of the split between Mind and Body – that Descartes had only a few decades before cleaved in the name of a doctrine of a transcendent God, and a Freedom of Will – and Spinoza’s material concern with lenses, light, lathes and glass, which points forth an alternate path or conception, a turn from the sheer instrumentality of either gears or humans. At the very least, a calculation, for Spinoza, must be seen as an act, the mathematical point, as a relation and expression, and an instantiation, a persistence. The criticism Spinoza would have is epistemic. That is, one is always seeing-with, and seeing-with is a communication of parts. If this study of lenses teaches a lesson to me, it would be that the radii of causes, comprehensively taken, are the finer part of seeing, and one only takes the hand off the process, knowingly. There is a certain ecology of perception that Spinoza’s observations on the eve of the Instrument define.


Some related posts: Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight, A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza, Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy

L’occhiale all’occhio (1660), Primary Source for 17th Century Lens Grinding Techniques

Carlo Antonio Manzini, astronomer and designer of lens-grinding Machines, wrote his L’occhiale all’occhio as a comprehensive guide to the state of the art of lens-grinding in 17th century Italy. Importantly its woodcut diagrams are the earliest we have of these devices. The details of the work in terms of practical techniques was meant to alleviate the secrecy of the oral tradition of passed along knowledge, kept by particular craftsmen, as the spread of the telescope put these skills in demand. For the convenience of others I post the link here of a viewer for a copy of the manuscript, and its PDF, (unfortunately whoever copied the text did not look closely at the results and a series of odd numbered pages are off-margin). The text is in Italian.

L’occhiale all’occhio (1660)

Descartes as a Scotist

I post here the second chapter of professor Roger Ariew’s Descartes and the Last Scholastics. Importantly it presents the historical and argumentative support for Descartes haveng significant debt to the Scottist strain of Scholasticism which was dominant in Paris at the time of his education and early life. This adds somewhat to the context of Deleuze’s conclusion that Spinoza was Scotist in thought, and gives added significance to Behan’s and Yolton’s suggestion that due to the scholastic conception of “sign” a representationalist reading of Descartes’ notion of “idea” is not complete.

Descartes and the Scotists

Gilson’s Index

To date, the most substantial works on the intellectual relations between Descartes and his predecessors have been Etienne Gilson’s masterful studies.1 In the Index scolasticocartésien, Gilson catalogued various concepts in Descartes and matching ones in his scholastic predecessors. Gilson’s choice of antecedents was carefully chosen. He compared Descartes’ works with those of Thomas Aquinas, the Jesuits of the University of Coimbra, Francisco Suarez, Franciscus Toletus, Antonius Rubius, and Eustachius a Sancto Paulo.2 As Gilson indicated in his introduction to the Index scolastico-cartésien, the teaching at Descartes’ Jesuit college, La Flèche, was based on Saint Thomas, and Descartes continued to consult Thomas throughout his life. Further, Descartes became acquainted at La Flèche with the works of the Coimbran Jesuits, Toletus, and Rubius. Gilson defended the choice of Suarez by indicating that Descartes was familiar with his work-that Suarez’s Disputationes metaphysicae was basically the handbook in metaphysics for Descartes’ teachers. Read more of this post

The Hockney-Falco Thesis: New Space

Ever Wonder How They Made that Fabric So Real?


I must write briefly here, but highly recommended is artist David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. I’ve had it for a few months as part of my investigation into Spinoza and lenses, but only today did I enter it. It enters like a film. First, it is a gorgeous book, filled which large format, glossy copies and enlarged details of some of the greatest painted images in Western History, (at a fairly inexpensive price). Second, is just the investigative and painterly-minded search that Hockney conducts. Apart from its value as a historical thesis (is it correct or not?), the simple following of an intuition and visual perspicuity across the centuries is invigorating in the most mental of senses. One sees through the track-finding eyes of a man who stakes his claim as a seer of images. But thirdly, and most importantly, is the intrusion of the lens and mirror upon the growing rational scene of Dutch thinking and art. Hockney documents a literal refiguration of space, the construction of new internal and aesthetic relations sprung up from the capacities of a found realist, representational technique. Not only are the possible technes of detail capture outlined and exhibited, but these technical discoveries are nuanced by Hockney to the degree that the restrictions and distortions that accompany the machine of a lens and mirror are made evident. As a space and figuration evolved, it was no longer simply a matter of capture or exactness, in expression, but the artist at that time had to synthesize his vision to his lens/mirror, synergistically, along with the newly imposed compositional restraints. The lens/mirror became a part of the eye-hand-brush-palette-easel-model-light source assemblage, creating a recursive event. As such there was, if Hockney is correct, such profusion of lens and mirror in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century, especially within the field of craft and aesthetic, one really cannot underplay the relation between these devices (and their compositional, experiential characteristics) and the philosophical conceptions of representation and perception that were one the rise. To represent was to focus.

Details of the Hockney-Falco Thesis can be found here, and wikiAlso Philip Steadman’s optical study of Vermeer Vermeer’s Camera, is painstakingly accurate and of very good use. Perhaps, for me, a conclusion will follow as to how this lens/mirror relation to aesthetic production helped shape the ideas of Spinoza, the lens-maker.

Ever Wonder How Space Could Be So Stablized by Detail, But Still Could Wobble?