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Differences in the World as Organs of Perception

Organs of Perception

In my last post I began reasoning how the usually assumed limits of an organism (a physical boundary to which other boundaries are thought to more or less correspond) might be extended far beyond where skin, bone, nerve ends, each organism expressing itself to an outer-limit of an Exowelt. In this approach I sought to assert that the differences in the world to which an organism attends actually operate as organs of perception for the being. This raises the question, what would it mean for parts, aspects or features of the world to act as organs of perception for the organisms that they affect?

Perhaps we can start at the roughest of sketches so as to disabuse this thought of merely a metaphorical status. What Aristotle told us is that organs have their unique objects, objects that they specialize in, and in which they do not err in reporting:

Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

De Anima Book II Part VI (418)

What would be the “special objects” of differences that organisms attend to? How is it that we see though differences in the world unique other objects? We can suggest that the unique objects that are perceived through the object differences we attend to, are those objects that form part of its Exowelten, those differences that indeed do affect it. In this way the states of the world which are revealed by my attending to the behaviours of my dog, are those that necessarily affect my dog, and those that are shown through my attending to states of a mountain, are those that affect the mountain. Both the dog and the mountain become organs of perception for my organism, inhabited locations in which my awareness, if fleetingly, resides.

[If one wants a fuller sense of how I am picturing this kind of epistemic trianguation, the way in which we combine with other things in order to perceive the world, my essay on Wittgenstein, Davidson and Spinoza might make a few things clear The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV ]

It is as Davidson argued of inter-subjective rational belief in his “Three Varieties of Knowledge” , and then deeper, as Spinoza argues in regards to the affectuum imitatio, frequently cited on this site:

E3, Proposition 27: If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect,

That we regularily read the world through the “sameness” of other aspects of it, such that the organs of truth and of perception must be extended beyond any isolated island of unitary substance. Taken to its literal truth, organisms themselves must extend beyond and combine with aspects of the world itself. What this alternate model of the organism means is that while we might investigate the connections between otherwise assumed to be discrete units by looking at what is inside of them (be they thoughts, concepts, affects, images, beliefs, etc), we would do better by appreciating the connections by the very overlap of Exowelten, and the sharing of nodal points as differences in the world. In short, you and I communicate because we share Exowelt nodes in the world, specific real differences which make differences in our organisms. And the same is for the communications between me and my dog, and even between me and my desk.

Not Balls or Bubbles

Key to this model is the non-intuitional appreciation that boundaries overlap. For very good causal reasons we take the best descriptions of what is real to be the apparent physical boundaries which create specific exclusionary pictures. Like bouncing balls there are imagined to be private interiors, and then external laws of relations which connect them. (Much of this stems from the social private/public cultural developments of the West. Metaphysics of privacy, and its problems, seem to play out in projective fashion social concerns.) Such a world picture is clear in Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt (experiential outer world), as explained by his son Thule, who compares our individual world to “sharply delineated but invisible bubbles”:

Reality, to which all things must yield and from which everything must derive, is not “outside” in infinite space that has neither beginning nor end and that is filled with a cloud of elementary particles. Nor is it “inside,” within ourselves in the indistinct, distorted images of this “outside” that our minds create. It reveals itself in the worlds (Jakob von Uexküll calls them Umwelten) with which sensuous perception surrounds all living beings as if with bubbles that are sharply delineated but invisible to the outside observer. These “bubbles of self-worlds” are like Leibniz’s “monads” the bricks and mortars of reality.

What I suggest is that despite the cultural appeal of imagining hermetically sealed objects, bubbles sealed off from each other, we take such bubbles and extend them out into the world itself, such that the world itself (aspects of it)becomes “organs of perception”. And concordantly, that instead of mutually exclusive bubbles sealed off, these are necessarily overlapped, partially mutual exo-bodies, siamese and conjoined. The “problem” of communication is pre-existingly foreclosed. The “bricks and mortars of reality” are webbed.

Deleuze in this study of Spinoza, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, speaks to just this intimate connection between organism and environment, under an explanation of “ethology”:

Ethology is first of all the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacites for affecting and being affected that characterize each thing. For each thing these relations and capacities have an amplitude, thresholds (maximum and minimum), and variations or transformations that are peculiar to them. And they select, in the world or in Nature, that which corresponds to the thing; that is, they select what affects or is affected by the thing, what is this animal unaffected by in the infinite world? What does it react to positively or negatively? What are its nutriments and its poisons? What does it “take” in its world? Every point has its counterpoints: the plant and the rain, the spider and the fly. So an animal, a thing, is never separable from its relations with the world. The interior is only a selected exterior, and the exterior, a projected interior. The speed or slowness of metabolisms, perceptions, actions, and reactions link together to constitute a particular individual in the world (125)

What Deleuze does not follow up on because he is concerned with the production of kinds of affects qualified by speed and intensity is that because organism and world cannot be separable, defined rather by their relations, organisms themselves must share nodal points in the world (and it is this very mode of sharing that brings together the mutuality of their bodies). My relations to this part of the world are those which place value (epistemic and also ethical value) upon your relations to this same part of the world. Our bodies are in a mutual form of conjunction that may be best imagined as an overlap of Exowelten. The same things in the world make a difference to us (though the difference made may not the similiar), and the same things in the world potentially reveal other aspects of the world. The “same” in Spinoza’s affectuum imitatio is a same of relations.

So when Deleuze asks on the following page,

How do individuals enter into composition with one another in order to form a higher individual, ad infinitum? How can a being take another being into its world, but while preserving or respecting the other’s own relations and world?

The answer must presume the very mutuality of material confluence and overlap between organisms, the richly conjoined nature of epistemic/affective end-points, a sharing of “organs of perception” which cannot err.


Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca’s Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes’ thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)


Davidson, Spinoza, Aristotle: Veridicality and Organs

A ruminating thought floats behind these considerations.

Is there a connection between a). Davidson’s world thought to be the cause of our beliefs which assumes an inherent verdicality of belief, making of a triangulating community of language users a kind of organ of truth, b). Spinoza’s (proposed) expectation that interactions with his Ethics, that would cause increases in our power to act along a vector of Joy, the proofs of which serving as organs of mental perception, within a cohering affectively bonded sociability, c). and Aristotle’s functional defintion of the products our sense organs as incorrigable.

Further, aside from any imposed normativity, projected upon funcationality, such and organ bound communication of veridicality would open the question up along biological valences of affect and power. Organs can open up to an analysis of the Body Without Organs. Communicated action across functionality.


Secondly, perception of special sensibles is incorrigible for Aristotle because it is constitive of the very notion of veridicality. Vision under optimal conditions is the only criterion we posses by which to judge whether something has a particular colour: for example to view something under optimal conditions is to meet all the relevant conditions by which colour is determined. On this account, to distinguish between something really being red, and just looking red to someone with excellent eyesight who views the object under optimal lighting conditions, would simply make no sense…This is not an epistemological account of perception, in the sense of an account that tells of how the veridicality of our knowledge of the natural world can be secured…it is not just that the proper use of our sense organs automatically gaurentees the verdicality of what we perceive, but rather that, given their proper use (i.e. the proper use of normal sense organs operating under optimal conditions) the question of our being mistaken simply makes no sense (159-160).

– Intellectual Biography 159 – 160)

Aristotle, De Anima Book II Part VI (418):

In dealing with each of the senses we shall have first to speak of the objects which are perceptible by each. The term ‘object of sense’ covers three kinds of objects, two kinds of which are, in our language, directly perceptible, while the remaining one is only incidentally perceptible. Of the first two kinds one (a) consists of what is perceptible by a single sense, the other (b) of what is perceptible by any and all of the senses. I call by the name of special object of this or that sense that which cannot be perceived by any other sense than that one and in respect of which no error is possible; in this sense colour is the special object of sight, sound of hearing, flavour of taste. Touch, indeed, discriminates more than one set of different qualities. Each sense has one kind of object which it discerns, and never errs in reporting that what is before it is colour or sound (though it may err as to what it is that is coloured or where that is, or what it is that is sounding or where that is.) Such objects are what we propose to call the special objects of this or that sense.

A Spider about

William of Auvergne’s Spider, 13th century, cause and belief

Thus the apprehension, as I said, of the spider with respect to the capture of the fly, is occasioned by the motion or concussion of a thread in his web, but it is effectively or efficiently caused by an innate light, or by an art naturally implanted in the spider. Just as you may see reminiscences and recollections issue forth from the habits of the sciences, and the virtues and vices, by the lightest stimuli of external occurances. This is seen in the example which Aristotle of the mental aptitude (solertia ), i.e., of the man who sees someone talking with the money-changer, and from this concludes that he wishes to get some money changed by him. Here this sight gives the occasion to the quick-witted mind, so that out of comes this thought, or suspicion. However, it is manifest that the view itself could not in itself be, in any way, the cause of this opinion or suspicion; on the other hand there is no doubt that there is something of an occasion, and that as a kind of help (adminiculum ) it favors the formation of the opinion. But the quick-witted is in itself the cause of the formation of the thought, which issues forth from it like an overflow, or like a stream from its source (trans. Moody).

De Universo

A Non-moral theory of Evil

John Cobb and David Ray Griffin propose a definition of Evil that for me is hard to resist. Evil falls into two categories,

1). Discord.

2). Unnecessary triviality.

This is based on their onto-aesthetic assertion:

“Perfection is the maximal harmonious intensity that is possible for a creature, given its context.”

They expand:

Discord, which is physical or mental suffering is simply evil in itself, whenever it occurs. Triviality, however, is only evil in some cases. A trivial enjoyment is not evil in itself insofar as its harmony outweighs its discordant elements. But if it is more trival, and hence less intense than it could have been, given the real possibilities open to it, then it is evil. Hence while discord is absolutely evil, triviality is only comparatively evil.

Key to their definition of triviality is the concept of intensity. This is how they explain intensity, which reflects something of Aristotle’s aesthetics of the whole:

“Intensity depends upon complexity, since intensity requires that a variety of elements be brought together into a unity of experience.”

For them the process of the Good is ever a process of discovery: “To escape triviality is to risk discord,” or as Alfred Whitehead puts it, “[the evil of discord] is the halfway house between perfection and triviality.”

I would be interested in any views of this non-moral definition of Evil. Are there moral conundrums that could not be subject to it? I have thought of examples of triviality, and each time realized that they would be more “perfected” if made more intense, that is if a greater variety of elements were incorperated into the “unity of that experience;” and though the “evil” of physial or mental discord seems self evident, such discord seems ever redeemed if it leads to greater intensity/unity.

[written Feburary 25, 2006]