Frames /sing

kvond

Tag Archives: affectus

The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism

Stones that Think, Imagine and Have Ideas?

Any serious confrontation of Spinoza’s supposed Panpsychism runs right up against some very hard ground, in particular how his ontological descriptions – meant not only for human beings, but for all of existence – are to be taken on down the scale, all the way down to the smallest, micro-existential level. By virtue of how Spinoza defines modal expressions of Substance it seems that from the widest of views anything that does exist would in some sense “think” ; that is, due to Spinoza’s parallelism, even the most minute speck of dust, every tumbling molecule or atom, is an expression of Idea which seeks to preserve itself and stays in existence out of this striving. Yet, when we apply the very terms and analysis which Spinoza applies to the weakness of human cognition, the descriptions which reveal the aspects of man that push him further down the chain so to speak, making a human being more passive, more in-animate, these are very difficult things to apply to animal, then plant, then mineral, and then even lower forms of modal expression. For what would it mean for a Table to possess inadequate Ideas? Or a fishpond? And while we might be tempted to see that higher animals like wolves and giraffes could be dominated by Spinoza’s first form of knowledge, confused, Imaginary Knowledge, condemned merely to a world of images and association traces, is this how we imagine earthworms to be, or bacteria, or even more incomprehensibly, viruses? The categories that Spinoza gainfully employs to criticize the human condition, when brought over to all of existence, simply seem to break down. And the difficulty arises when this disintegration of terms comes to grip with the genuine decentralization of human beings that is meant to guide his ontology in the first place. What we are looking for are descriptions of the variability of human capacities which can also be applied to all things in existence, and these Spinoza does not seem immediately to give. In part this is because he is in particular concerned with the nature of Human Bondage, and so his conceptualizations are in some sense decidedly human (are we to talk about the Passions of the Animus 0f the cactus, the love, jealousy and hatred of the sedimentary rock?) And partly this could be because although Spinoza certainly had a vitalist-like conception of the world as one huge animate expression of Substance/God, in which every part vied with every other part, becoming free only through rational cohesion, how this played out beneath the human level really was not of much importance to him. Man was to use the environment for his benefit, just as man uses man.

So how are we to conceive of the mental actions of the sub-human, and sub-animal in Spinoza’s own terms if we cannot readily apply concepts such as the Inadequate Idea or Imaginary Knowledge to a piece of slate? The answer to this I think comes back down to Spinoza’s definition of the body which I have been dwelling on here for some days. I’ll reprint it.

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies.

or, as Curley translates the important middle phrase: “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”.

If we begin with this notion of Body as any continuing and communicative ratio of parts (or even the sedimentary-like vision of parts pressed close to each other, as Spinoza opens the description); understanding that for Spinoza this activity, this persistence must be mental activity as well as extensional activity we are forced to ask, What is it about these relations themselves that give us to see them as somehow “thinking”? What does it mean for a bowling ball to think?

Not Representation

I think we go a long way towards our answer if we give up the notion that for Spinoza an Idea Represents  ssomething, for we really are at a loss if we want to say that the internal relations in my pencil are in some way representing (that is, re-presenting) some aspect of the world to the pencil. (I think a great disservice was done to philosophy when it made its turn toward seeing the Scholastic notion of Idea as a Representation, ssomething that I think even comes to a wrongful interpretation of what Descartes meant by Idea.) So let us explore a bit what kinds of things that can be happening inside a taken to be inanimate object which might in some sense give a clue for how Spinoza conceived of Idea. What is a viable connection between the inside of things, and the outside of things that presents some kind of traction to the mental?

Well, let us take a deeply over simplified model, one that will emphasize the notion of border that seems implicit in Spinoza definition. Take an object to be something like a water-balloon. If we strike the balloon with our finger there is a certain reverberation of internal effects which we might say “reflect” the external or at least boundary-bound event. That is, as the balloon wobbles back into relative stability of form, there are a transfer of balances between parts within the balloon which are at least roughly coherent unto each other. Any one event within the baloon, or even subset of them does not so much represent the finger strike at it surface, as somehow express it unto the very nature of its internal relations. This is, in my thinking, a semiotic relation, an indication (I use the term semiotic not in its strict Peircian nor Saussaurian Idealist sense, but in a pre-modern Augustinian fashion). This semiosis indicates to the internal relations a consequences of changes (differences), but also is somehow oriented towards the boundary of the balloon. I think something of this is required to give sense to the cognitional capacities of the bodies so defined by Spinoza. It is not that the ideational changes (that is to say, recursively organized semiotic differences) represent  the world to the Body, so much as they indicate to the internal relations themselves how to react, a chain of reactions which in turn can be seen as a reaction to events external to the body. For Spinoza it key to see that the horizon-defined semiotic differences are determined, internally referential actions (ratios which preserve)…thus, Ideas are best seen as mental actions  of the physical, not representations per se.

This internalization of ideational changes, the way that a body can only “perceive” the outside world with reference to awareness of its internal states is precisely what Spinoza has in mind when he says of human beings:

The human Mind does not know [cognosit] the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, accept through Ideas of affections by which the Body is affected, E2p19

The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode [certus modus] of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else, E2p13

It seems that this essential notion of mental closure, in parallel to physical closure is something that Spinoza would take to be all the way down the ladder in the order of things, for Spinoza, which work from the most active to the least. In keeping with this “affections” [affectio] are the material changes within a body, and their Ideas are their semiotic relations to each other (and relation to all materiality in general). Necessarily, though the semiotic relations which help constitute the body as a closed body may be adequate to that purpose, that mind, they are inadequate to the preservation of that body in all conditions it may and will find itself in (thus, there is an answer to the disputable question  whether human beings, or any finite being, can hold completely adequate Ideas: in a certain sense complete adequacy simply does not make sense as a semiotic, finite relation).

So what is the difference at the level of the take to be inanimate between an Inadequate Idea (semiotic relation) and a slightly more Adequate Idea? For Spinoza the question is of the nature of preservation. I think it safe to say that for Spinoza the internal relations of stones and fingernail clippings are essentially Inadequate, the inadequacy a reflection of their fundamental passivity to the world. Yet, these things are also things that in some sense press their existence forward. They do not act in any intentional way (showing beliefs, or fears, or even needs), but they to persist in time, both against countervailing forces, and with forces sympathetic to their cause. This calls to mind one of the more overt panpsychic passages of Medieval Philosophy, Augustine’s notion that each thing is cognizant in that it finds ways to preserve itself:

For if we were cattle, we should love the carnal and sensual life, and this would be our sufficient good; and when it was well with us in respect of it we should seek nothing else. Again, if we were trees, we could not, of course, be moved by the senses to love anything; but we would seem to desire, as it were, that by which we might become more abundantly and bountifully fruitful. If we were stones or waves or wind or flames or anything of that kind, we should indeed be without both sensation and life, but we should still not lack a kind of desire for our own proper place. For the weight of bodies is, as it were, their love, whether they are carried downwards by gravity or upwards by their lightness. For the body is carried by its weight wherever it is carried, just as the soul is carried by its love. – The City of God, Book 11 chapter 28

Adequacy to Landscape

Upon this gradation of capacity to act Spinoza has grafted a more precise internally semiotic notion of degrees of freedom. It is not just that things find their place in the world, and thus persist, but that the internal relations within a thing express a degree of freedom possible for that thing (whatever its boundary), and thus that bodies as their in an increase in the adequacy of their semiotic relations become more powerful, more active entities. (As a sidenote, we can see something of this notion expressed in Stuart Kauffman’s Complexity Theorist take on the self-organizing systems of closure that gave rise to life, not a connection I wish to pursue here though.)

But the question remains, just how are we to conceive of changes in adequacy in internal semiotic relations at the inanimate and then near inanimate level? If we take clue from how Spinoza has divided up imaginary knowledge from rational knowledge, perhaps we can get a sense of this. Despite Spinoza all out and categorical denial of contingency, it is very much the case that a particular body can and does have completely random experiences of increases of power (and hence Ideational adequacy, and thus Joy). This can happen in two ways. One is that a body may find itself in local circumstances which favor it. Suddenly the finite internal relations which have thus far been preserving it suddenly are even more adequate to their local environment (one has a strong sense that Spinoza has presaged a logic of Darwinism here, several hundred years early). The second, in the same vein, is a change in the nature of the internal relations themselves which makes them more adequate to local environments. In either case there is no necessity that the advantage be preserved…it can be pure happenstance…a dust ball might fall into a whole corner of dust balls in an abandoned house. But the way that Spinoza understand it, there are ways to pursue this advantage, either through improvements of the internal semiotic relations (an increase in the adequacy of ideas), a change that would lead to an orientation toward more favorable environments (including the shaping of one’s current environment). In this regard, rivers that shape riverbeds, gene populations which carve out ecosystems, seem to possess systematic increases in an adequacy of internal relations to their environments. There is a strong sense that their determinations of what is outside of them are expressive of determinations which are inside of them. How far down the ladder we can push this, I am unsure, but someone like Kauffman would tell you that the autocatalytic processes which formed the simplest of organic compounds exhibit both organizational closure, and also shaping effects upon their environments, something which seems to suggest a very elemental kernel of an increase in semiotic relations at the heart of even the most random of our material processes (at least in our material history).

Adequacy to Totality?

But Spinoza wants to go beyond questions of adequacy toward local environments (fitness landscapes), but adequacy as per the Total (which for human beings or any other finite body serves as a kind of aysmptotic limit which principally can never even come close to being reached). For this he provides a material/numerical vector by which we might be able to judge  the relative sufficiency of internal semiotic relation of any particular body:

Whatever predisposes to the human Body that it is affected in a great number of ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or affecting other bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful. E4p38

Now interestingly there is nothing in this proposition which guards against the contingent local manifestation of destructive forces. One could conceivably increase the number of ways your body can be affected (or affect) at a moment in time it would be advisable not to be susceptible to those influences, at the ludicrous level, taking a Joyful walk outside just when a piano was falling. And there is some question on just how to read this numericity. Does a monk in seclusion mediating increase the number of ways he/she can be affected…perhaps? But in terms of the inanimate/animate nexus, it is a general call toward the real consequences of complexity (a multiplicity of folds, if we literalize it). The cockroach might not be a very complex creature as far as animals go, but its grouped expression nested into all the worlds environments might be quite so; a water molecule may only be able to be affected or affect other things in a few ways, but rich is the number of ways that water itself interacts and manifests shaping the world to give two open questions of the application of this definition.

You can recognize in this Spinoza offering a development of Plato’s own definition of Being as offered in the Sophist (the dunamis/capacity to affect or be affected), and Bateson’s own modern cybernetic “difference that makes the difference” definition of information or Latour’s idea of gradated and Networked Being.

In terms of Spinoza, it seems to be that deeply inadequate semiotic relations are those which hardly register events beyond them so as to be fundamentally passive to those events, subject to any random occurrence whatsoever, yet still adequate enough to have preserved the body, the thing (res) to that point. The expressive conditions of its internal relations are in enough harmony with the relations around it so as to maintain its existence in harmony (opening up the question which Spinoza is always turning to, by virtue of what do we isolate a body from the forces and patterns of others). Under these descriptions it seems possible to stake that all things do think, that is there is some internal relation of which we find things composed that preserves itself in sympathy to events outside of it under a variety of circumstances of increasing complexity and self-reference, much of it involving the mutuality of coherences between bodies which become more and more communicated. This is something of what I believe Spinoza means when he thinks about the whole world being a vital and coherent expression of Nature, God, Substance.

It is not really for Spinoza that we are all One, with an emphasis on the meld of Great Oneness (if that were so he would have written mystical treatises), and this Hegel got wrong. It is rather the incredible distinctiveness, the concrete contours of our separations, under the logic that anything that separates must also necessarily join. His determinative reading of causation and immanation is an attempt to locate the joints of Being that when recognized lead to real shifts in power, in a real world (not imagined to be later or beyond rewards). A change in power is immediately its own reward and consequence. If the world is panpsychic for Spinoza, and I do believe that it is, it is because each and every little thing, each speck of Being is something with which we have the potential to combine (and not just instrumentally observe or detachedly use). The reason why things think for Spinoza is linked to his emphasis that for a person to think is to materially change yourself. When you think a thought you are changing your brain, your body (we don’t often think like this). And when we enjoin a material thing, place it our hand, press its button, flip its pages, we are necessarily joining to its mentality. Things think because we in thinking are akin to them, such that we cannot be kept apart.

Advertisements

Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?

There is a primacy of inside and outside in the philosophy of Spinoza that provokes powerful lines of thought that reach far into the future of systems theory and autopoietic conceptions of Life, not to mention a general pragmatism of how to define an individual in the world, whether it be as a political or biological entity. Here I want to dig into one of the most suggestive of Spinoza’s definitions, one that cuts across his entire ontology of an ethics of power and epistemological increase.

Spinoza conceives of an Affect simply [an affectus which is a passio of the animus], a simplicity that is captured in his definition of Love:

Love is a Joy accompanied by [concomitante] the idea of an external cause. Ethics 3, Definitions of the Affects VI

We already know what Joy is:

Joy is a man’s passage [transitio] from a lesser degree of perfection to a greater one. E3DoA, II

This simplicity is something I have often returned to, something of it always slipping out beyond its immediate and apparent clarity. It seems to capture a dynamic of our experience (and Being) that is more than what it says, and thus there is something about it that in rather un-Spinozist fashion seems to resist explanation. I have to say though that my recent theoretically stretchings have given me a different understanding, one that opens up the definition and concept to a new clarity.

Notably, and this has bearing on any consummate notion of object, the delineation of inside and outside is explicit and fundamental to the definition. There are two parts to it. The first is a change within the object/body which has no explanation, an ontological shift in the real being of it. Spinoza calls this shift a shift in perfection, but increases in perfection in Spinoza are nothing more increases in the capacity to act…the body has become more active, less reactive.

So stage/part one is:

1. An increase in the capacity for activity of the body/object.

As to this, because it lacks causal explanation it could happen because of something internal to the object (some event), or due to something external to it (some event). And the effect is one of a definite change. Understanding Spinoza, this change is read as an increase in the coherence of the parts of the object. They, for whatever reason, harmonize with each other better, and in human beings and perhaps all biotic objects, this is experienced in some way as a Joy [Laetitia].

The second part – and it is important I think to see that this is not second in time, but constitutive of the first part – is specific to the inside/outside divide.

2. A change that occurs within the object which refers to, reflects, represents or signifies what in terms of the object/body is an external state.

Something happens within the object/body which orients it towards something considered by the internal relations of the object/body to be outside of them. Several questions arise regarding the nature of this “idea of an external cause”, some of them opening up paths that philosophy has taken since the coming of Descartes. There has been a tendency to view this “Idea of an external cause” as a Representation of something in the world. I think that this is to the debilitation to the point that Spinoza is making, forgetting the nature of the Scholastic debates that he is at work resolving. (In fact, it is not even clear that Ideas in Descartes himself should be read exclusively, or even specifically as representations.) What Spinoza has in mind here is much better understood in terms of Signification, and not Representation, that is, semiotically. This is to say that internal to the object/body, concordant with a change in its harmony of parts, is a semiotic change, a change which is “a difference that makes the difference” which not only recursively indicates consequences to be followed within, but indicates, or in some sense is taken to be the effect of,  states outside the horizon of its boundary. Thus, internally, the change in a harmony of parts becomes a semiotic change which confirms the boundary of inside and outside, linking that effect to its boundary and some event beyond it.

So really, in a passion, we have three parts or aspects.

1. An internal change of the harmony or coherence of parts.

2. A semiotic change internal to the object/body.

3. The two aspects together produce a reinforcement of the inside/outside boundary along the horizon of its nexus.

Now Spinoza’s beginning point is that all of modal expression, the whole of concrete Being is fundamentally conjoined. Which is to say that any particular inside/outside delineation, although concrete and real, is also only partial in understanding. What he wants us to see is that even in the Passion of Love when there is a real increase in the harmony and coherence of our parts, and in that increase a semiotic change which appears to connect that inside to some outside event or state, this very inside/outside delineation, while the vehicle of our increases in power is also the condition of our limitation, a necessarily passive isolation of perspective, an Ultimate Negative theology of the specific ways of Being. We can only make internal semiotic changes to a particular limit of our capacity to act.

There is something in Spinoza’s definition of Love (and Sadness) which directs our attention away from the external state which is signified to have caused the internal change. Thus,  in the fashion of Chrysippus’s cylinder (Cic. De fat. 43), (which can change its reactive propensity to roll down hills by changing its internal relationship of parts: i.e., if it were rectangular it would cease to roll when hills were encountered), a contrary turn of our attention to external causes for Spinoza presents us with a fundamentally passive understanding wherein the power of our condition seems reliant upon the presence or absence of an external state. In cases of our concrete dependencies this cuts two ways: 1) the absence of oxygen will make us quite sad (as we cannot reconfigure our internal relations such that we do not need oxygen), 2) the absence of our new Ferrari might very well be something that we can internally overcome (our sadness is not necessary).

But I would like to move toward the first part of Spinoza’s definition, the change in the harmony of our internal parts, for it is here that question of dependency opens up something other than this dichotomy of relative freedoms (not free from oxygen, free from Ferraris). In Spinoza’s ontology of effects it is important to keep an eye on the fact that even in concrete inside/outside delineations which constitute an object/body, the external event is already connected to the internal event (regardless of the internal signification of what lies beyond it). When a pin pricks my skin and my body undergoes a great number of physical changes which indicate to itself that something external to it has caused a change in the harmony of its parts, this could not occur unless the pin and my body were not already in conjunction in some manner (for Spinoza  this ultimately comes down to both being expression of Substance). The event of the puncture is merely one that makes us aware of this connection, and what Spinoza wants us to see is that the more adequate (harmonious) our internal semiotic changes, they more they work in ways that embrace this mutual connection. Which is to say, the more that the inside/outside boundary is enforced through internal relations, and the more powerful and active these relations, the more this inside/outside boundary is surpassed.

So for Spinoza the more harmonious the intra-relations in an object or body, the more harmonious the inter-relations between objects/bodies, and this is because at least in some sense any two object/bodies already form something an object/body themselves. In combination, their parts are in communication, and this communication forms its own essential harmony.

It is for this reason that I find that the very best way of reading Spinoza’s approach to the nature of object/bodies is something of a cybernetic one. Whatever concrete inside/outside delineations which seem to constitute a body are ever redrawable to more powerful subsumptions. This does not mean that all the objects collapse into one great soup of effects, for this expression is highly structured and historically specific. The pathways of determined and mutual connection, the specific closures of inside and outside, are not illusions, but only partial perspectives, in the way that a worm in the blood is ignorant of the body that it is in, and the nature of the dependencies of its condition (as Spinoza says to Oldenburg, letter 15/32).

What Spinoza’s combinative ontology of bodies suggests is a view wherein any powerful connections we make with other objects in the world, whether they be “natural” objects such as rocks and trees, or technological objects such as automobiles, or scientific instruments, or cultural objects such as holy texts, or voter ballots, or animal objects such as pets, or endangered species, our senator, our child, these combinations are to be seen and experienced as real, physical combinations of whole cognitive bodies. Our body and the bodies that we combine with assemble a new body (for us new), a mutuality of effects. I discuss elsewhere, and I will expand on the point in time to come that these mutuality of effects are necessarily those of epistemic closure, the way that we inhabit other things and they us, in order to discover connections in the world.

Greatly though, as per my recent thinking on Coinjoined Semiosis, this very inside/outside cognitive barrier itself is problematized in a way that Spinoza did not thoroughly appreciate, if at all conceive of (although his metaphysics lays the groundwork for its analysis). This is to say, yes, in following Spinoza there is a fundamental inside/outside horizon of objects which is cognitively determinative. Yes, the semiotic ordering of our internal parts as it pursues harmonic cohesion is ever reinforcing the boundary between itself and the world, perhaps in terms which link as best as possible the connection between the inside changes to events outside. And lastly yes, understanding the nature of our dependency paves the way for a cybernetic understanding of how our bodies cognitively and affectively combine with other bodies in fluctuating epistemic horizons of their own. But the inside/outside cognitive barrier is even further problematized.

The reason for this is Conjoined Semiosis. There are events, perhaps even a plethora of events which are internal to the cognitive whole of a body, swathes of semiotic differences which make THE difference, which are already participating in other cognitive boundaries which intersect the inside/outside horizon. So, semiotic parts within our body are operating with a relative incoherence to ourselves, while still maintaining a relative harmony to themselves only discoverable by viewing the other cognitive wholes in which they participate and inform. In this way, the causes of these semiotic disruptions are both internal and external to the assembled body, running across its fabric like so much cross-weft, ready to be tugged from both within and without.

In this manner such disturbances point to the very insufficiency of the inside/outside horizon, the incompleteness of its view. When resolute, the inside/outside boundary will be destroyed, given enough invading variance. When flexible and transformative, the semiotic tugging will actually reveal the already constituted mutuality of shared material the enfleshed conjoinment of investments, leading to an expanse of what it means to be a Self.

In a sense, the binary of Subject/Object which plagues so many of the Idealist informed philosophies which followed from Descartes is cross-cut. It is not merely that the Subject and the Object combine like two oscillating bodies around a single center of gravity between them, but rather and also that laterally, obliquely, loxogonispherically – to use my favorite word in the history of words, by the grace of Sir Thomas Urquart – a fabric of interweave is already under assemblage. Much of this cross-weave is invisible, and necessarily will remain invisible, but insofar as contingently the tides of other bodies in interaction with the same world as our own work at vectored variance with our experiences, these semiotic pulls will be experienced as both outside of us and within us. Forcing us to expand or collapse.

What Spinoza’s definition of a Passion, in particularly the Passion of Love (or Sadness) does is direct our attention not only toward within, and the very generative matrix of the conditions of our freedom, or without at the apparent locus of our engagement, but towards the horizon itself. The result is not just that in our internal workings, our self-reflections, we think of how to overcome this horizon in a vertical way searching for a hierarchical understanding of what subsumes both of us (my body, and that body), like a body contains its cells, a society its citizens; or even that we turn toward the productive cybernetics of finding more and more bodies to become cognitively cybernetic to (both of these are informative). It is also to our understanding to look at the investments oblique to the very border concept we have which gives us a sense of the priority of the object above all else, a priority which casts it shadow across metaphysics in the illusionary binary of Being and Non-Being. It is the partiality of very specific, concrete, semiotic investments across bodies, the way that we incompletely invade and are invaded by others, which serves as a groundwork for a real mutuality of action.

Where there is a strict and strong experience of Inside and Outside, that is when the oblique investment is most obscured, and has its greatest, unconscious effect.