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Tag Archives: Cambridge Companion to Spinoza

W. N. A. Klever’s “Spinoza’s Life and Works”

 For those who have not been able to read it in the Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Wim Klever’s iconoclastic “Spinoza’s Life and Works” is available in pdf [for a time this link did not work, now it does]. An excellent sweeping and detailed historical picture of the man. It is some 50 digital pages, but really worth reading.

From an early paragraph, responding to a reasonable sounding summation of his Life:

“Even in this rough survey some features are false, inaccurate, or slightly misleading. For the purpose of a reliable biography, a critical discussion of the available biographical documents is unavoidable. This is the more necessary because the old biographies sometimes show considerable differences in their presentation. I warn the reader that this chapter is a reconstruction of Spinoza’s life story on the basis of a new interpretation of the sources and the presentation of some new sources. I will, however, offer the basic material so that the reader may judge whether I am right or not.”

(Central to Klever’s telling is the introduction of the intellectual and radical political figure of Franciscus van den Enden, Spinoza Latin teacher and possible mentor.)


The “Corporeal Equation” of 1:3: What Makes A Body for Spinoza?

If a Body Catch a Body Comin’ Through the Rye

I have always been fascinated by Spinoza’s defintion of a body as found in the Second Part of the Ethics. Not because it reflected some proto-physics, but because it allowed a radical revisioning of what defined boundaries between persons, and between persons and things. What seems implicit in such a definition is that something of a cybernetic recusivity surrounds and defines any isolated “part” of the Universe, yet, a recursivity that only comes clear by taking a perspective. One understands that really for Spinoza the entire Universe composes a single such body.

Here is Spinoza’s famous Ethics  defintion, and an even more elementary and bold one from his much earlier Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being (KV)

Ethics: 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 (E2p13a2d)

KV: Every particular corporeal thing [lichaamelijk ding] is nothing other than a certain ratio [zeekere proportie] of motion and rest.

Yet, such a vision for Spinoza is more than an instructive imaginary relation, it indeed is a proto-physics, a concrete real which must be accepted as such. There is a certain sense in which Spinoza’s conception of a body must be reconciled with the “facts” of contempory physics if we are to geta stronger impression of the truth of his metaphysics and psychology. As Spinoza wrote to Blyenbergh, “Ethics, … as everyone knows, ought to be based on metaphysics and physics” (Ep 38). At a general level, in Spinoza’s own terms, if his physics is radically wrong this may pose serious doubts as to his Ethics (an entirely rationalist reading of his philosophy notwithstanding). And concordantly, one might assume, new information in physics could have a rippling effect across his philosophy and Ethics.

It is not my aim here to explore these wider meta-questions, but rather to for a moment pause upon a change in my own thinking. I had always taken Spinoza’s above defintions just as I explained, fantastic frameworks for revisioning the world as it common-sensically and historically has come down to us, intellectual opportunities for instance to see the connections between bodies in a Batesonian or an Autopoietic sense. This still remains. But I came to realize that when Spinoza is thinking about a “certain ratio” (as Shirley translates) or a “fixed manner” (Curley), he is thinking of something quite quantifiable, something numeric. I had of course loosely thought that this was the case, but until recently I had never strictly thought about it.

Spinoza’s Objection

There is an interesting, rather provocative point in Spinoza’s letters to Oldenburg, as he is reporting back to this Secretary of the Royal Society on the progress of his brilliant neighbor Christiaan Huygens. It seems apparent from what Spinoza reports that he has had intermittent, but somewhat substantive discussions on not only optics and lens-grinding, but also on physics. Huygens, by what history tells, had corrected Descartes’ rules of motion, and done so through experiment. Huygens was quite interested in the rules of motion for he had invented the pendulum clock way back in 1656 (the same year he had discovered the rings and a moon of Saturn), and for a decade was focused on improving it. Spinoza reports back to Oldenburg Huygens’ disagreement with Descartes, but tantalizingly also speaks of his own disagreement, in particular, with the sixth rule of motion:

Spinoza: “It is quite a long time since he [Huygens] began to boast that his calculations had shown that the rules of motion and the laws of nature are very different from those given by Descartes, and that those of Descartes are almost all wrong…I know that about a year ago he told me that all his discoveries made by calculation regarding motion he had since found verified by experiment in England. This I can hardly believe, and I think that regarding the sixth rule of Motion in Descartes, both he and Descartes are quite in error.” (Letter 30A)

Oldenburg: “When you speak of Huygens’ Treatise on Motion, you imply that Descartes’ Rules of motion are nearly all wrong. I do not have to hand the little book which you published some time ago on ‘Descartes’ Principia demonstrated in geometrical fashion’. I cannot remember whether you there point out that error, or whether you followed Descartes closely to gratify others.” (Letter 31)

Spinoza: “As to what you say about my hinting that the Cartesian Rules of motion are nearly all wrong, if I remember correctly I said that Mr. Huygens thinks so, and I did not assert that any of the Rules were wrong accept the sixth, regarding which I said I thought that Mr. Huygens too was in error.” (Letter 32)

Many commentators have not been able to make much headway when interpreting Spinoza’s objection to Descartes sixth rule of motion, for at the very least, it seems woven to his other rules, and the objection should have spread far wider than this, as in the case with Huygens. Alan Gabbey (The Cambridge Companion ) for instance simply finds it nonsensical. And Lachterman in “The Physics of Spinoza’s Ethics”, really almost avoids the issue altogether. (Wim Klever has taken the question directly on in “Spinoza and Huyges: A Diversified Relationship Between Two Physicists”, tying it to a Cartesian difficulty in explaining cohension, while Rivaud finds what seems to be an untenable conceptual connection between speed and essence in his “La physique de Spinoza”.)

I certainly am not one here to solve the question, but it did get me thinking about how Spinoza conceived of a body, and what a “certain ratio” meant to him.

Descartes’ Sixth Rule of Motion and Spinoza’s Defintion of a Body in the Short Treatise

Below is the sixth rule of motion to which Spinoza found objection. It essentially describes what would ideally happen if two bodies of the same size, one in motion and one at rest, struck. Descartes suggests that if the moving body had four (4) degrees of speed before impact, after impact the ratio would be 1:3, with the body at rest taking on one (1) degree of speed, the bodies rebounding:

Descartes:51. Sixth rule.
Sixthly, if body C at rest were most accurately equal to body B moved toward it, it would be partly impelled by B and would partly repel it in the contrary direction. That is, if B were to approach C with four degrees of speed, it would communicate to C one degree and with the three remaining would be reflected in the opposite direction.

Huygens reportedly showed through experiments at the Royal Society that instead all the degrees of speed would be imparted to the body at rest, and the intially moving body would then be stopped, and it was to this, as well as to Descartes’ rule that Spinoza expressed an unspecified objection. But this is not the ultimate point here for me. I was rather struck by an early note on Spinoza’s defintion of a body found in the Short Treatise , which proposes the same ratio of 1:3 that Descartes used to illustrate his sixth rule, here below stated as the ratio of motion to rest, and not as “degrees of speed”:

Spinoza: Short Treatise, notes to the Preface to Part II:

12. As soon, then, as a body has and retains this proportion [a proportion of rest and motion which our body has], say e.g., of 1 to 3, then that soul and that body will be like ours now are, being indeed constantly subject to change, but none so great that it will exceed the limits of 1 to 3; though as much as it changes, so much does the soul always change….

…14. But when other bodies act so violently upon ours that the proportion of motion [to rest] cannot remain 1 to 3, that means death, and the annihilation of the Soul, since this is only an Idea, Knowledge, etc., of this body having this proportion of motion and rest.

What is striking to me is that such an elementary numerical value for the definition of a body would occur to Spinoza in this context. Alan Gabbey wants us to point out that this ratio of 1:3 is found in editorial notes, and my not even be of Spinoza’s hand, though I am unsure if Spinoza would have allowed such a strong example to slip through if it was alien to his thinking. Provocative is that the context for this proposed illustration of a “corporeal equation” (as Matheron has named it), of 1 to 3, is that it is the human body that is being discussed and not abstract solids such as those Descartes discusses in his physics. Even if Spinoza does not imagine that the human body might actually retain such an elementary 1:3 ratio of motion to rest, somewhere in his conception of the human body there is an affinity to such an simple math. One for instance would not be describing a super computer whose mark would be its complexity, and turn to such a number. It would appear that at least figuratively Spinoza at the time of the Short Treatise  thought of the human body as elementarily composed such that its conatus expressed a homeostasis that was comprehesible and simple. The numerical value of 1 to 3 held perhaps a rhetorical attraction.

By the time of Spinoza’s geometrical treatment of Descartes’ philosophy, the proposed illustrative values that Descartes included in his rules for motion are no longer there. Spinoza generalizes them apart from any particular equation. One could see in this perhaps already a distancing from some of Descartes’ assertions, and Oldenburg tells Spinoza that he looked over Spinoza’s exposition of Descartes to see signs of his disagreement, finding none.

What the sixth rule Meant for Spinoza

For my part, if we take Descartes’ sixth rule at face value, and imagine the interaction between two bodies of the same size, one at rest, one in motion, we get a glimpse into the kind of change Spinoza thinks makes a body. For once the supposed transfer of a degree of speed occurs, the two bodies are now in communication. As long as they are not interacted with by other bodies their ratio will remain 1:3, and they would be considered an “individual”. And if one of those bodies interacted with another body so as to change its speed, immediately one realizes that if the idea of a single body is to be preserved the definition of parts needs to be expanded so that the ratio is to be expanded across a host of interactions. One sees how the definition of a body as a body is entirely contingent upon how you calculate.

Wim Klever finds in Spinoza’s 1665 objection to Descartes’ sixth rule (made almost 4 years after the writing of the Short Treatise ) a testament to Spinoza’s thorough-going commitment to a physics of immanence. This could be. But one could also imagine the case that Spinoza had been caught up in a conversation with Huygens at the Hofwijck estate and was entirely caught off guard by Huygens’ sweeping dismissal of Cartesian physics, which up to that point had been a touchstone for most scientific thinking in Europe. Spinoza’s objection to the sixth rule may have only been a reaction, one that prudently and instinctively placed himself between Descartes and Huygens, on a single point, a point he could not elaborate on.

But what was it about Huygens’ correction to Descartes which may have also given Spinoza pause, especially if Descartes’ rule for the transfer of motion between two equal bodies, one moving, one at rest helped frame Spinoza’s general notion of what makes a body? Would it not be that there was a complete tranfer of motion from one to the other, that one stopped and the other started? Because Spinoza envisioned bodies moving together in community, and integrated communication of impinging interactions that could be analyzed either in terms of their recursive cohensions (for instance how the human body can be studied solely in terms of its own internal events, as one might say, immanent to their essence), or in terms of extrinsic interactions which “through the pressure of other bodies” cause these internal events, the intuitional notion that a body in motion would deliver all of its motion to another body at rest, and not be rebounded simply defied the over all picture of what Spinoza imagined was happening.

I suggest that somewhere in the genealogy of Spinoza’s thought about what defines a body he found Descartes sixth rule quite suggestive. The idea that two bodies which do not seem to be in communication, one moving, one unmoving, (an essential perceptual differential which allows us to distinguish one thing from another in the world), suddenly can appear in communication from the change they bring about in each other in collision, now departing at a ratio of speeds, helped Spinoza psychologically and causally define the concrete yet contingent composition of an individual. The corporeal equation of 1 to 3 standing in for the possibility of mathematical determination which could conceptually unite any two parts in a single body, given the right analysis.

But when Spinoza encountered Huygens’ thorough dispatch of Cartesian mechanics we can suspect that Spinoza came in contact with his own theoretical disatisfactions with Descartes. As we know, Spinoza was part of a small cadre of mathematicians and thinkers which found dissatisfaction with Descartes idealized optics, something that no doubt formed part of his discussions with fellow-lense grinding and instrument maker Christiaan Huygens. And too, Spinoza likely felt that though Descartes’ mechanics provided an excellent causal framework for rational explanations of the world, his determinations lacked experimental ground. It would seem to me that Spinoza’s objection to the sixth rule of motion poses something of a revelation into the indeterminancy of Spinoza’s physics. The sixth rule may have played a constructive role in his imagination of what a body must be, but in particular in view of Huygens’ confirmed rejection of the rule, it became simply insufficient. Spinoza’s physical conception of a body stands poised between a Cartesian rational framework of causal interaction and mechanism, which proves lacking in specifics, and the coming Newtonian mechanics of force. However, in such a fissure, one does have to place Spinoza’s notion of immanence.

Autopoiesis Comes?

Signficantly, and something which should not be missed, is that the definition from axiom 2 of proposition 13 of Part 2 above is not the only conclusive one that Spinoza provides in the Ethics. Lemma 4 under axiom 3 actually provides a view of the body which does not require that the parts themselves remain in a fixed ratio to each other. Rather, it is only the ratio itself that must be preserved:

If from a body, or an individual thing composed of a number of bodies, certain bodies are separated, and at the same time a like number of other bodies of the same nature take their place, the individual thing will retain its nature as before, without any change in its form [forma].

This allows us to see that by the time of his writing of the Ethics, Spinoza’s notion of ratio, the aim of his mechanics, is far from what Newton would develop. The causal histories traceable through interactions between bodies certainly were signficantly important for Spinoza, but it was the preservation of a mode of interaction which really concerned Spinoza’s focus. That all the bodies that compose and individual could conceivably be replaced, without that individual being considered as changed (as for instance we know of nearly every cell of the human body), is something that Newtonian physics would not enumerate. It is within this conception of preservation that I think Spinoza’s mechanical conceptions have to be framed, in the entirety of an effect between bodies, the cohesiveness of the modal expression.

One need only turn to something like Autopoietic theory (both those of life by Maturana and Varela, and suggestively of social forms by Luhmann) to see a lineage given from Spinoza’s Lemma 4 description:

The defintion of a living thing understood to be a self-producing machine:  “An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.” (Maturana, Varela, 1980, p. 78)

On the difference between “organization” and “structure”:  “…[I]n a toilet the organization of the system of water-level regulation consists in the relations between an apparatus capable of detecting the water level and another apparatus capable of stopping the inflow of water. The toilet unit embodies a mixed system of plastic and metal comprising a float and a bypass valve. This specific structure, however, could be modified by replacing the plastic with wood, without changing the fact that there would still be a toilet organization.”
(Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 47)

Where Lies Spinoza’s Physics?

Spinoza’s immanent connection between physics and metaphysics in a turn toward a decisive ethics, is one in which any outright mechanics must be understood beyond simply A causes B, and the appropriately precise mathematical calculation of what results. If Spinoza’s physics (and even its relationship to Descartes who preceded him, and Newton who followed him) is to be understood, it is this recursive relationship between parts that has to be grasped, the way in which parts in communication can be analyzed in two ways, along a differential of events internal to a horizon, and events external to that horizon, interior and exterior, even with a view to the conceived totality. It seems that it is this replaceable nature of body-parts in composite that qualifies Spinoza’s physics as interpretively distinct, and what allows it to place within the domain of cause not only questions of material interaction, but also psychology and belief, and ultimately social values of good and bad. 

What it seems that Spinoza was most concerned with in his assessment of a physics is the kinds of concrete reactions which ground our selective ability to usefully distinguish one thing from another, a usefulness that ever trades on the community of rational explanations with share with others. The result of this physics is an ultimate ground upon which we can and do build our own mutual body of social wholes, our own physics of decisions and distinctions. Physics both ground and distinguish us for Spinoza, always suggesting an anatomy of joined, contiguous parts; it is an anatomy that guides the effortless butcher’s knife that ideally, knowingly, seldom would need sharpening.

Simple or Compound: Spinoza’s Microscopes

Smaller Objective Lenses Produce Finer Representations

A very suggestive clue to the kinds of microscopes Spinoza may have produced is Christiaan Huygens’ admission to his brother Constantijn in a May 11 1667 letter that Spinoza was right in one regard, that smaller objective lenses do produce finer images. This has been cited by Wim Klever to be a sign of Huygens making a concession to Spinoza in a fairly substantial question of lensed magnification:

After some disagreement he had to confess in the end that Spinoza was right: “It is true that experience confirms what is said by Spinoza, namely that the small objectives in the microscope represent the objects much finer than the large ones” [OC4, 140, May 11, 1668]

Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, Wim Klever, “Spinoza’s Life and Works” (33)

And this is how I have read the citation as well, not having access to the original context. But some questions arise. Does this admission allow us to conclude that Spinoza was specifically making compounded microscopes, the kind that Huygens favored? Or are “objective” lenses to be understood to be lenses both of single and compound microscopes. What makes this interesting is that if we accept the easiest path, and assume that Huygens is talking about compound microscopes, then there may be some evidence that clouds our understanding of what Huygens would mean.

Edward Ruestow tells us that be believes that Christiaan Huygens in his 1654 beginnings already had experience constructing microscopes using the smallest lenses possible. If so, Spinoza’s claim regarding compound microscopes would not be new to him (or his brother). Ruestow puts the Huygens account in the context of the larger question of the powers of small objective lenses:

It was not obvious in the early seventeenth century that the smaller the lens – or more precisely, the smaller the radius of its surface curvature – the greater its power of magnification, but smaller and more sharply curved lenses were soon being ground as microscope objectives, at first apparently because, with their shorter focal lengths, they allowed the instrument to be brought closer to the object being observed. The curvature of a small cherry ascribed by Peirsec to the objective of Drebbel’s microscope was already a considerable departure from a spectacle lens…

Whatever the intial reason for resorting to smaller objective lenses, however, it was not such as to produce a continuing effort to reduce their size still further. (A lens, after all, could come too close to the object for convenience.) In 1654 a youthful Christiaan Huygens, already making his own first microscopes or preparing to do so, appears to have ordered a lens as sharply curved as a local lens maker could grind it, and it may indeed have been a planoconvex objective lens with which he worked that year whose curvature, with a radius of roughly 8mm, was still to that of Drebbel’s (i.e. to the curvature one might ascribe to a small cherry). Fourteen years later, however, Christiaan was inclined to lenses with a focal distance of roughly an inch, and he pointedly rejected small lenses as objectives – primarily it seems, because of their shallow depth of focus…In 1680 members of the Royal Society were admiring a biconvex lens no more than one-twentieth of an inch in diameter, and Christiaan Huygens, now with a very altered outlook, would write that the perfection of the compound microscope (of two lenses) was to be sought in the smallness of its objective lens. He claimed at the end of his life that the magnification such instruments could achieve was limited only by how small those lenses could be made and used [note: On the other hand, he also recognized that there was an absolute limit for the size of any aperture, beyond which the image become confused.] (13)

[Ruestow footnotes that the 1654 microscope described as constructed by Christiaan above, is thought by J. van Zuylen is rather the Drebbel microscope purchased by Christiaan’s father, Constantijn Sr.]

The Microscope in the Dutch Republic, Edward G. Ruestow

Not only is Huygens’s turn around described, no doubt fueled by his own famed success with the single lens, simple microscope, just after Spinoza’s death, but also Ruestow suggests that Huygens indeed already knew what Spinoza’s claimed, that smaller objectives indeed do make larger magnifications, his objection being not that the magnification is inferior, but simply that the depth of field makes observation problematic. It is unclear if Ruestow’s reading of the 1654 for is correct, so we cannot say for certain that Huygens had this experience with smaller objectives, but it is interesting that Ruestow cites the same year as his concession to Spinoza, (1668, “fourteen years later” without direct citation), as the year when Huygens makes clear what his objection to smaller objectives is. This raises the question: Is the “confession” in context part of an admission of the obvious between Christiaan and his brother, something of the order, “As Spinoza says objectives represent objects with greater detail, but the depth of field is awful? (Again, because I do not have the text I cannot check this.) 

Or, does Ruestow make a mistake? Is it not letters written 14 years, but only 11 years later, when Huygens in his debate with Johannes Hudde seems to have readily accepted the possibility of greater magnification, but makes his preference in terms of depth of field. As Marian Fournier sums: 

Hudde discussed the merits of these lense with Huygens [OC5, April 5, 10 and 17 1665: 308-9, 318, 330-1], who declined their use. He particularly deplored their very limited lack of depth of field. He found it inconvenient that with such a small lens one could not see the upper and underside of an object, a hair for instance, at the same time. The compound microscope had, because of the much smaller magnification, greater defintion so that the objects were visible in their entirety and therefore the compound instrument was more expedient in Huygens’ view (579) 

“Huygens’ Design of the Simple Microscope”

It is important that Hudde is not only championing smaller objectives, he is attempting to persuade Huygens that the very small bead-lenses of simple microscopes are best. Hudde had this technique of microscopy from as early as 1663, perhaps as early as 1657, and he taught it to Swammerdam. In the context of these letters, apparently written just as Huygens and Spinoza are getting to know each other in Voorburg, Huygens’ 1668 brotherly admission reads either as a distinct point in regards to compound microscopes, or signifies a larger concession in terms of his debate with Hudde. There are some indications that Hudde and Spinoza would have known each other in 1661, as they both figure as highly influential to Leiden Cartesians in Borch’s Diary. And Spinoza was a maker of microscopes, as Hudde was an enthusiast of the instrument even then. It makes good that there would have been some cross-pollination in the thinking of both instrument maker’s techniques in those days, but of this we cannot be sure. 

Against the notion that Spinoza has argued for simple microscope smaller objectives with Huygens is perhaps the compound microscopes achieved by the Italian Divini. Divini, in following Kepler’s Dioptice, realizes a compound microscope whose ever descreasing size of the objective increases its magnification. I believe that there is good evidence that Spinoza was a close reader of Kepler’s (see my interpretation of Spinoza’s optical letters: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters ). If Spinoza was making compound lenses, and he had argued with Huygens that the smaller the objective the better, it seems that it would have been the kind of microscope described below, following the reasoning of Kepler, which he would have made. 

First, Silvio Bedini sets out the principle of Divini’s construction: 

Divini was an optical instrument-maker who established himself in Rome in about 1646 and eventually achieved note as a maker of lenses and telescopes. In a work on optics published in Bologna in 1660 by Conte Carlo Antonio Manzini, the author describes a microscope which Divini had constructed in 1648, based on Proposition 37 of the Dioptrice of Johann Kepler. This was a compound instrument which utilized a convex lens for both the eye-piece and as the objective was reduced so were the magnification and the perfection of the instrument increased (386).

Then he typifies a class of microscope of which Divini was known to have constructed with this line of analysis:

One form consisted of a combination of four tubes, made of cardboard covered with paper. Each tube was slightly larger than the previous one, and slid over the former. An external collar at the lower end of each tube served as a stop to the next tube. The ocular lens was enclosed in a metal or wooden diaphragm attached to the uppermost end of the largest tube. The object-lens was likewise enclosed in a wooden or metal cell and attached to the bottom of the lowermost or smallest tube. The rims of the external collars were marked with the digits I, II, and III, in either Roman or Arabic digits, which served as keys to the magnification of the various lengths as noted on each of the tubes. The lowermost of the tubes slid within the metal socket ring of the support and served as an adjustment between the object-lens and the object. The instrument was supported on a tripod made of wood or metal. It consisted of a socket-ring to which three flat feet were attached (384).

 And lastly he presents an example of this type, which he calls Type A:

(Pictured left, a 1668 microscope attributed to Divini):The socket-ring and feet are flat and made of tin, and the cardboard body tubes are covered with grey paper, with the digits 1, 2, and 3 inscribed on the collar tubes. The lowermost tube slides with the socket-ring for adjustment of the distance between the object-lens attached to the nose-piece in a metal cell, and the object. The ocular lens is enclosed in a metal holder at the upper end of the body tube. It consists of two plano-convex lenses with the convex surfaces in contact. The original instrument had a magnification of 41 to 143 diameters. The instrument measured 16 1/2 inches in height when fully extended and the diameter of the largest body tube was 1 1/2 inches. A replica of this instrument, accurate in every detail, was made by John Mayall, Jr., of London in 1888 (385-386).

“Seventeenth Century Italian Compound Microscopes” Silvio A. Bedini

 This 16 1/2 inch compound microscope indeed may not have been the type that Huygens’ comment allows us to conclude that Spinoza built, but it does follow a Keplerian reasoning which employed the plano-convex lenses that Spinoza favored in telescopes, one that imposed the imparitive of smaller and smaller objective lenses. It is more my suspicion that Spinoza had in mind simple microscopes, but we cannot rule out the compound scope, or even that he was thinking about both.

Futher, Spinoza’s favor of spherical lenses and his ideal notion that such spheres provide a peripheral focus of rays (found in letters 39 and 49), seems to be in keeping with the extreme refraction in smaller objectives in microscopes, although he attributes this advantage to telescopes. More than in telescopes, the spherical advantage in conglobed, simple lensed microscopes, would seem to make much less of the prominent question of spherical aberration. But in the case of either compounds or simples, the increase curvature, and minuteness of the object lens would fit more closely with Spinoza’s arguments about magnification, and Descartes’ failure to treat it in terms other than the distance of the crossing of rays.

An origin of Spinoza’s “cones of rays” explanation, Letter 40

[addendum: in addition to these thoughts, the influence of a more recent source, James Gregory’s Optica Promota (1663) has to be considered]

Kepler and How Spinoza Viewed the Eye and Light

As a point of reference it is important to locate the origin of Spinoza’s phrase “cones of rays” found in his letter 40, since implicit in this phrase is likely the conception of light and refraction which would help us make sense of his objection to Descartes. This phrase has a history of what seems a bit of interpretive confusion, for instance, that expressed by Alan Gabbey in his Cambridge Companion to Spinoza article, “Spinoza’s Natural Science and Methodology”. Here professor Gabbey quotes the phrase as if it embodies the locus of Spinoza’s befuddlement:

Spinoza explained that light rays from a relatively distant object are in fact only approximently parallel, since they arrive as “cones of rays” from different points on the object. Yet he maintains the same property of the circle in the case of ray cones, apparently unaware of the importance of the “[other] figures” [the famous “Ovals of Descartes”] that Descartes had constructed in Book 2 of La Géométrie to provide a general solution to the problem of spherical aberration [Ep 40].

I have already pointed out that Spinoza indeed was not “unaware” of the “importance” of Descartes’ figures (since he was intimate with the debate over that importance), and that part of Gabbey’s difficulty may stem from a weakness in translation, or not taking into account Spinoza’s familiarity with Hudde’s Specilla circularia: here. Spinoza, all the same, is constructing an argument that seems to shift parameters. In Letter 39 he speaks of the capacity of spherical lenses to focus parallel rays to an (approximate) point of focus opposite, along an infinity of axes, and now he tells Jelles that this capacity is to be understood not for parallel rays, but for “cones of rays”, which is more accurate to what is actually occurring. Where does Spinoza get his conception of “cones of rays”?

I believe it is found in Kepler’s Paralipomena to  Witelo (1604), a work I am beginning to suspect holds some of Spinoza’s resistance to Descartes. Descartes called Kepler his “first teacher” in optics, so when there is a divergence between the two, Kepler and Descartes, one may perhaps look to Kepler as a source for other resistance to Descartes’ conclusions. (It is a mistake to assume that solely in terms of temporal advancement, all of Descartes deviations from Kepler are corrections, for in some ways Kepler held views antecedent to our better conceptions on the nature of light.) In letters 39 and 40 Spinoza is critiquing Descartes explanation of how image size is produced in telescopes, and he finds in Descartes’ explanation some delinquencies which give undue favor to the hyperbola. Where Spinoza likely draws his conception of “cones of rays” is where Kepler is discussing the manner in which images are formed in the human eye:

Now in order to approach closer to the way this picturing happens, and to prepare myself gradually for the demonstration, I say that this picturing consists of as many pairs of cones as there are points in an object seen, the pairs always being on the same base, the breadth of the crystalline humor, or making use of a small part of it, so that one of the cones is set up with its vertex at the point seen and its base at the crystalline (though it is altered somewhat by refraction in entering the cornea), the other, with the base at the crystalline, common with the former, the vertex at some point of the picture, reaches to the surface of the retina, this too undergoing refraction in departing from the crystalline. And all the outside cones come together at the opening of the uvea [pupil], at which space the intersection of the cones takes place, and right becomes left..

…[now speaking of a single cone of those cones of rays] Thus those rays which previously were spreading out in their progress through the air, are gathered together now that they have encountered in to the cornea, so much so that any great circle described by those rays upon the cornea, which in their decent touch the edges of the opening is wider than the circle of the opening of the uvea; however, these rays, all the way to the opening of the uvea, are so strongly gathered together through such a small depth of the aqueous humor, that now the edges of that opening are trimmed of by the extremes, and by that decent they have made illuminous a portion on the surface of the crystalline humor, if indeed they all have first arisen at a point at a certain and proportionate distance (which is pecular to each eye, and not just the same for all), they fall approximately perpendicularly, because of the similar convexity of the cornea and the crystalline humor. (trans. Donahoe, 170)  

Included in this reference is also the obvious fact that for an object to be seen, light from all its points must be gathered. It is part of Kepler’s picture:

Spinoza writes: “…in order to see an entire object, we need not only rays coming from a single point but also all the other rays that come from all the other points. And therefore it is also necessary that, on passing through the glass, they should come together in as many other foci.”

Because Spinoza is arguing that the hyperbolic lens – designed to receive rays solely parallel to its one axis – is insufficient for the variety of angles at which light arrives, the question of parallel or coned rays does not seem germane to his argument. His emphasis in the original description seems meant to be in terms of axes, assuming a “mechanical point” of focus definition. (Whether it is ultimately germane to contemporary telescope construction is another question.)

It must be noted, though here is both a most significant implication of the cone of light having a spherical (wave?)front, something ungrasped by Descartes but captured later by Huygens, in the text that follows as Kepler closely describes this action of cones of rays in the eye, he emphasizes the “hyperbolic posterior surface of the crystalline” (171), possibly disturbing the cohesion of Spinoza’s purely spherical ideal of light refraction. If indeed Spinoza is taking Kepler’s description as his source, this gives us to consider how Spinoza might mean the inexactness of the construction of the eye (letter 40). In what way can the eye be considered imperfect, and is there a Kepler source for this notion?

Spinoza writes: “And although the eye is not so exactly constructed that all the rays coming from different points of an object come together in just so many foci at the back of the eye, yet it is certain that the figures that can bring this about are to be preferred above all others.”

There is an antecedent to this in Keplers’ description of the action of rays as they come from cones at angles oblique to the axis of the cornea:

All the lines of the direct cone [a cone whose axis is the same as the axis of the cornea and crystalline] are approximately perpendicular to the crystalline, none of those of the oblique cones are, The direct cone is cut equally by the anterior surface of the crystalline; the oblique cones are cut very unequally, because where the anterior surface of the crystalline is more inclined [aspherical], it cuts the oblique cone more deeply. The direct cone cuts the hyberbolic surface of the crystalline, or the boss, circularly and equally; the oblique cone cuts its unequally. All the rays of the direct cone are gathered together at one point in the retina, which is the chief thing in the process; the lines of the oblique cones cannot quite be gathered together, because of the causes previously mentioned here, as a result, the picture is more confused. The direct cone aims the middle ray at center of the retina; the oblique cones aim the rays to the side

…so the sides of the retina use their measure of sense not for its own sake, but whatever they can do they carry over to the perfection of the direct vision. That is we see an object perfectly when at last we perceive it with all the surroundings of the hemisphere. On this account, oblique vision is least satisfying to the soul, but only invites one to turn the eyes thither so that they may be seen directly (174). 

Here Kepler seems to be making the exact same point as Spinoza, with an additional hint towards the necessity of the oblique in Spinoza’s concern. The construction of the eye, in so far as its lenses are aspherical, it is retarded its capacity to handle the focus of cones of rays oblique to its single axis. This first calls our attention to the limits of human vision (in individuals and in plan), and then suggests that Spinoza’s point is one of practical application in terms of lenses: that in aiding human vision and constructing telescopes, the symmetry of spherical lenses is preferred for magnification, handling a greater variety of angles of incidence through its infinity of axes.

This does not of course establish the veracity of Spinoza’s argument, but in locating a likely origin for Spinoza’s conception, we at least place Spinoza’s argument within the context of a larger view, to be weighed with all other anti-hyperbolic (Cartesian) positions  of his day (Hudde, Huygens). As I have said, it is my sense that Spinoza derives more than this from Kepler’s account of light. More posts to follow.