Frames /sing

kvond

Tag Archives: Conatus

Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?

In reading through Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warefare (aspects of which I have already engaged, here), there are pockets of useful summation that one runs into in his narrative that simply call for investigation. I’m going to have to pass on an elaborate presentation of the ideas of Cybernetics and Complexity, but Bousquet provides excellent, essential cartography. In particular is his emphasis that Cybernetic thinking from the 40s, 50s and 60s concerned itself with a borrowing of the concept of “entropy” from thermodynamics, organization processes of “negative feedback” in pursuit of system homeostasis, with a concentration upon system “control”. Systems were seen as hermetically closed loops which worked inwardly to organize themselves to fight off entropy, noise, confusion, and establish an unending homeostasis which required no fundamental change in their own internal structure. The most basic form of the system was one that was able to note internal deviations from system “norm” which promoted external actions which would affect either a change in the environment or within, which then directed the system back to where it was before disturbed.

For some concerned with the philosophy of Spinoza there are immediate prima facie correspondences here, enough to suggest that Spinoza seems something of a proto-cyberneticist. Spinoza’s stoic-like internal regulation of one’s own thinking processes, especially on the order of the avoidance of “confused” ideas, along with his doctrine that the conatus (essential striving) of a person or a thing was a driving force to preserve itself against outside destruction, seem to hold true to a cybernetic framing of the question of epistemology and power/control. Add to this that cybernetic models were of a distinctly linear mathematical nature (marked by the additive property of cause), and that at times Spinoza seems to treat causes in the same linear fashion (for instance the idealized assertion that two men of the same nature, when combined produce a new body twice as powerful), suggests deep conceptual ties been Spinoza’s self-regulating bodies of conatus continuation and early information theory, cybernetic concepts of the control of “noise” and pursuant homeostasis. (There is of course the signficant difference in the concept of entropy itself, as Spinoza reads all degradation as caused by external influence, and not natural to any system itself.)

To this comparison of affinities we also have to add a significant metaphysical homology, something that struck me as rather surprising. I have long emphasized that Spinoza’s onto-epistemology partakes in an unusual though very distinct way in the Neoplatonic model of Being as read in degrees. This is to say, things do not simply have Being or not, but rather have degrees of Being. And, as I also emphasized, Augustine was probably the greatest purveyor of this Neoplatonic doctrine, taken from Plotinus, through the Christian Middle Ages to post Renaissance thinking. In such a view, “evil” is under a non-Manichean, and one wants to stress, non-Dualistic definition. Evil was simply the absence of good (and not a force in its own right).

Historical Digression: Handled briefly so as to give a sketch of the historical ground we are covering, the Augustianian, Neoplatonic position is perhaps best expressed in his Enchiridion. There  the ontology of the Good is equated with Being (an argument also found in the City of God  XI, chap. 9, where the relative non-Being of evil is also briefly stated. As with Spinoza so many centuries later, the question of the Being of evil becomes one merely one of privation:

CHAPTER IV. The Problem of Evil

12. All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good. But nature is not supremely and immutably good as is the Creator of it. Thus the good in created things can be diminished and augmented. For good to be diminished is evil; still, however much it is diminished, something must remain of its original nature as long as it exists at all. For no matter what kind or however insignificant a thing may be, the good which is its “nature” cannot be destroyed without the thing itself being destroyed. There is good reason, therefore, to praise an uncorrupted thing, and if it were indeed an incorruptible thing which could not be destroyed, it would doubtless be all the more worthy of praise. When, however, a thing is corrupted, its corruption is an evil because it is, by just so much, a privation of the good. Where there is no privation of the good, there is no evil. Where there is evil, there is a corresponding diminution of the good.

One can see the correspondence between Augustine’s Ne0platonic “privation” and Spinoza’s theorizing on falsity, wherein the “Good” has been transposed into issues of truth; in the Ethics the gradated Being resolution of traditional dualisms has taken on its most systematic character. As Spinoza writes, ultimately echoing Plotinus’ radiating conception of Being (Enn. 3.2,5; 4.5,7):

E2p33 There is nothing positive in ideas whereby they can be said to be false.

Proof: If this can be denied, conceive, if possible, a positive mode of thinking which constitutes the form [forma] of error or falsity. This mode of thinking cannot be in God [E2p32], but neither can it be conceived externally to God [E1p15]. Thus there can be noting positive in ideas whereby they can be called false.

E2p35 Falsity consists in the privation of knowledge which inadequate ideas, that is, fragmentary and confused ideas, involve.

Return to Our Main Point: What is interesting is that Bousquet brings to our attention that Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, actually subscribed to an Augustinian concept of evil as well. That is to say, he regarded informational “noise” as that which a cybernetic system fought to overcome, understood as the absence, or non-recognition of order (pattern). When a cybernetic system fails it is due to a confusion resultant from an inability to read clearly the pattern of the events outside of it. And Wiener felt that cybernetic systems not only described thermostats and computer negative feedback loops, but also human beings and social systems.

The passage Bousquet evocatively cites is this:

I have already pointed out that the devil whom the scientist is fighting is the devil of confusion, not of willful malice. The view that nature reveals an entropic tendency is Augustinian, not Manichaean. Its inability to undertake an aggressive policy, deliberately to defeat the scientist, means that its evil doing is the result of a weakness in his nature rather than of a specifically evil power that it may have, equal or inferior to the principles of order in the universe which, local and temporary as they might be, still are probably not to unlike what the religious man means by God. In Augustinianism, the black of the world is negative and is the mere absence of white. (190)

The human use of human beings: cybernetics and society

One can see an immediate base similarity of project, in which the scientist looks to make clear and distinct the noise of the world, presumably by ordering his/her own ideas and internal organization as best that he/she; this, coupled with Spinoza’s own significant ontological tie of ordered and clear ideas with self-affirmations which render real changes in power in the world seems to place both Wiener and Spinoza within a world of potentiating noise and confusions, in which systems of every sort create islands of relatively more self-acting, clearer idea’d, internally coherent workings. The internal patterns of recursive coherence are those which recognize and order themselves amid a general pattern producing world. And there is ever the sense that the patterns, the coherence, the rationality is already out there. In Bateson, this is the “pattern that connects”.

But There Are Other Aspects of Spinoza

This is the way that Spinoza is often read, as the devoted, internally turned Rationalist. Neglected though is an entirely countervailing second aspect of Spinoza’s thinking. His Letter 12 skepticism towards mathematics, which he relates to products of the imagination (often overlooked), exposes a general distrust of ANY finite, localized expression of the universe, especially on the aspect of “control”. This is to say, Spinoza is ever suspect of the human mind/body’s ability to direct itself in the world, and as such, this skepticism yields to distinctly non-linear, non-equilibrium prescriptions which go far beyond Cybernetic science presumptions.

As Bousquet tells it, it is the realization that negative feedback isn’t the only primary organizing principle in systems. Indeed if a system is ever going to be able to adopt to environments which themselves are changing, it must have the ability to rewrite and change its own internal interpretative relations. And in order to do so they must be able to move from equilibrium pursuit (that ordered Good), to other equilibrium states. In fact in a certain sense the more semi-stable states a system is able to move into, the greater the chance it will have the flexibility to adapt to expected (unwritten yet) events. In short, one might want to say in a dangerously rhetorical way, a bit of “chaos” has to be introduced into the system. It is here where the conservation oriented, evil noise fighting cybernetic model gives way to Chaos theory and Complexity theory, fused into what has been called Chaoplexic thinking.

Positive feedback loops are those of a kind that do not push the system backdown to a homeostatic state, negating the effects of some outside perturbation. Instead they excite the system and work to produce more external events which, in what could be a vicious cycle, stimulate the system into further action. Positive feedback loops are those which can be self-extinguishing, as they throw the system forward into states from which it might not ever be able to return.

Now one can definitively say that just such mad chases are what Spinoza most often theorizes against. The burn-out amplifications of the imagination are just the kind that produce violence and hatred among peoples, and, as Spinoza artfully worked to show, these hatreds are logically linked to loves as well. Love and hate each can produces amplified destructions of reverberation. But if we look closer, is it not the case that negative feedback closure is also what Spinoza sees as insufficient? And, can we not agree with some systems theorists, that it takes a combination of negative-feedback groundings, and positive feedback exposures, flights, in order to produce a viable and self-preserving system? And, at the most fundamental level must we not also admit that for Spinoza behaviors and conditions of rationality are themselves positive feedback in their nature: rationality and clear understanding tends to produce more rationality and clear understanding (however contingently contextualized). What I suggest is that Spinoza’s cybernetic model of clearer self-organization amid a potentially threatening environment of noise is tempered (or one should say spiked) with an alternate Chaoplexic embrace of positive feedback amplifications, and that these amplifications help us read out some of core prescriptions in Spinoza’s advisement.

I feel a turn to an excellent diagram offered in Linda Beckerman’s informative essay “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” will be of some help in uncovering the non-linear thinking of Spinoza. The diagram along with some of her explication hopefully will show the numerical, as well as still determinative aspects of chaoplexic organization, such that Spinoza skepticism of finite systems/expressions may dovetail with such thinking.

In explanation of the diagram Beckerman writes in a passage so clear it is worth quoting at length…

3. Bifurcation

3.1  Non-linear systems have the capacity to exhibit multiple stable states. This is illustrated in Figure 1 in what is termed a bifurcation diagram. The far left hand side of the diagram represents systems that are mono-stable and upon perturbation will eventually settle down to a single static or steady state condition. Just to the right of this region, the system “bifurcates”. This merely means that there are two states available to the system. For one range of perturbations and conditions, the system will settle down to one state and for another range of perturbations and conditions, it will settle down to another state. As we progress towards the right, each branch splits, and then each branch further splits resulting in a rapid increase the number of stable states. On the far right hand side are those that are Chaotic. Chaotic systems appear to have an infinite number of potentially stable states. But they never settle down to any of these for long and are therefore considered to be unstable…

3.3 Systems that are mono-stable or in steady state are so stable that any perturbation causes them to snap back to their stable state, leaving no opportunity for adaptation. Change requires “surgery”. An example of this would be a nation that solely uses attrition warfare to achieve its aims, regardless of the perturbation and underlying conditions (e.g. nature of adversary) causing them to go to war.

3.4 Figure 1 also shows an opportunistic region for adaptation. It is opportunistic precisely because there are so many states available. Many non-linear systems can be caused to bifurcate repeatedly merely by increasing the magnitude of the control parameters (see section 4). The most opportunistic portion is that immediately preceding the chaotic region (referred to as the “Edge of Chaos). The difficulty is the danger that a high amplitude perturbation (input) or change in system configuration (number of interconnections) could push the system into the chaotic region.

What I would like to put into immediate juxtaposition to such a Chaos-oriented framework is Spinoza’s famously suggestive numerical, and physical equation of “the Good”, where the Good is understood as “useful”…

E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

Hopefully you can see clearly how deviant this axiom of use is to the perturbation-shrinking model of negative feedback elimination. Indeed, much more suitably does Spinoza view of the enhanced body seem to reside – not in some fixed, closed off organization – but actually in the twilight region so described above in the diagram, the place between rigid stable states and pure chaos. Once in such a mathematical and determinative sweet-spot too much a deviation, either towards stability or toward turbulence, reduces the number of ways a body can effect and be affected. Only in the wave-line is this ideational maximality found, and one could say that for Spinoza it is this aesthetic line – caught between a hubris of excessive control and a reckless amplitude of destruction – that constitutes the proper, which is to say living, positive feedback loop.

It is Spinoza’s skepticism both towards finite expressions of knowledge, and also towards the human being’s capacity to become self-determined, that ever directs any individual outward, towards the surface of its interactions. But not only outward, where the border between self and world, self and other is ultimately broken down and reconfigured, but so breadthwise, across the horizontal of explanations. It is Spinoza’s pursuit of the maximization of interactive powers that undermines any primary subject/object, or subject/world concerns. Instead, it would seem, that all our interally directed, cybernetic-like orderings, all our reductions of informational “noise” must also then turn back towards the very interface that composes them, to the living line of a multiplicity of possible states.

Valuably Bousquet notes that the passage from Cybernetics to Chaoplexic thinking has been characterized as the move from concerns of “control” to those of “coordination”, what has been called the “coordination revolution”. Bousquet cites Arquilla and Ronfelt who put the case in the context of military theorization. No longer is the ultimate thought for the control of all events internal to a network or system, but rather in terms of the loosely configured relatability of elements:

In these and related writings, we see a trend among theorists to equate information with “organization,” “order,” and “structure”—to argue that embedded information is what makes an object have an orderly structure. As this trend has developed, its emphasis has shifted. At first, in the 1940s and 1950s, information theorists emphasized the concept of “entropy”—and were thus concerned with exploiting feedback to improve “control.” Now, the emphasis has shifted to the concept of “complexity”—and this has led to a new concern with the “coordination” of complex systems. Control and coordination are different, sometimes contrary processes; indeed, the exertion of excessive control in order to avoid entropy may inhibit the looser, decentralized types of coordination that often characterize advanced forms of complex systems. What James Beniger called the “control revolution” is now turning into what might be better termed a “coordination revolution.” Entropy and complexity look like opposing sides of the same coin of order. About the worst that can happen to embedded information is that it gives way to entropy, i.e., the tendency to become disorganized. The best is that it enables an object to grow in efficiency, versatility, and adaptability (148)

In Athena’s camp: preparing for conflict in the information age John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt

The reason for this is that, in perhaps a rediscovery of many rule-of-thumb warnings against excessively directed control, if one too strictly links internal elements within a finite system, the very improvements of the system when under stress might actually lead to the catastrophic collapse of it. Instead of tightly organized linkages, loosely based, more chaotic and therefore flexible relations are desired. Bousquet citing John Urry:

In loosely coupled systems by contrast there is plenty of slack in terms of time, resources and organizational capacity. They are much less likely to produce normal accidents since incidents can be coped with, so avoiding the interactive complexity found within tightly coupled systems. In the latter, moreover, the effects are non-linear. Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster. And sometimes this results from a supposed improvement in the system.

Global complexity  John Urry

At the risk of having steered too far from our course, the genuine skepticism over finite, linear, rationalistic, internally directed and corrective, often hierarchical organizations, shows itself in the truism of how such linearity can switch into non-linear collapse, blindside to the episteme of the system itself. Instead a skepticism towards rational systems in general directs our attention between towards horizon creating interactions themselves, towards the notion of co0rdination and agreements, out towards an aesthetic of mutual bodies forming a crest of living, self-producing edge-of chaos complexification.

If it is so that Spinoza possesses such a non-equilibrium appeal, where is it to be found? Is it enough to invoke his defintional awareness of the usefulness of numerical interactions? Does his skepticism towards mathematics and any finite division of magnitudes establish a non-linear bent, enough to quell the dominant linearity of his age with Newton just around the corner? Is there a radical non-equilibrium pursuit that balances out the conservatism of his conatus doctrine? I think there is. And it falls to the entire directionality of the Ethics, in particular the acme psychologies of the fourth book, and at last the passing into Intuition of the fifth book.

This is the determinative passage I feel. Spinoza is an interesting writer, for as he is often times at such pains to draw out and weave concepts into an extensive web of taken-to-be luminous clarity, pages and pages of definition, proof, axiom, proposition, all interlinked. His very best stuff can be expressed gnomically, small statements whose interpretation is that upon which everything else turns:

E5p2 If we separate out aggitations (commotiones) or affects (affectus) from the cognition (cogitatione) of an external cause, and we join them to other cognitions, then Love and Hate, toward the external cause, as are the vacillations of the soul (animi fluctuationes) arising from affects, are destroyed (destruuntur).

Carefully consider this proposition in the context of the Cybernetic/Complexity dichotomy. It subsumes the whole of Spinoza’s quantifiable psychology of the preceding fourth book. It is the very cognitive temptation to give wholesale systemic valuation (“good”/”bad”) to external events that Spinoza has called into question. To put it into cybernetic terms, when the human body/mind system passes away from a state of equilibrium (moves to a condition of greater or lesser power), the credit is inordinately attributed to an external event. That external “cause” is given the valuation of good or bad given the changes in the system. When the experience is negative, that is, a breakdown of the internal coherence of the system experienced as Sadness, the system steers itself away from such events, back to equilibrium (risking a fixed, conservative stasis induced by fear). But when it is experienced as positive, that is, an increase in the internal coherence of the system experienced as happiness, then a positive feedback loop ensues, and the system steers towards the amplification of such events, promoting their increase (risking runaway dissolution).

Spinoza’s psychology is based upon moving clear from either of these determinatives, each of which are governed from an inordinate assessment of the power of an external cause. He at first directs the eye inwards, in a cybernetic-like valuation. It is not in the nature of the external event (alone) that the passage from one desired or undesired state has occurred, but rather in the very orders of our bodies and minds. We were predisposed to be affected a certain way, but it is our cognitive tendency to attribute the cause of these changes to some external thing that ultimate weakens our self-determination and freedom.

Compellingly, once this internal self-check is conducted separating out the affect from any one-to-one dichotomization of some state of our bodies/mind and some state of the world, the affect itself, the very feeling of the body in change is to be joined to other cognitions besides those of the thought of some overt external cause. I find this fascinating because Spinoza is advocating a kind of turning the body and its feelings over to the very interface with the world, wherein the world is seen as a great screen of causal effects. This is to say, our affects continue to distribute themselves across our bodies (minds), but they do so in a broad-spectrum fashion that invokes the edge chaos sweet-spot of Beckerman’s diagram. One can see this I believe in Spinoza claim that the fluctuations of the soul are “destroyed” in this process of opening up and cognitive awareness. This is not for him a passage into a conservation of the Self, so defined apart from the world, a falling back into an equilibrium of maintanence, but rather an expansion. The oscillations he has in mind are the oscillations of Love and Hate, the way in which loves generate fears and conservative retrenchments of the self against the world. And hates open up into flights that can disintegrate into turbulent chaotic flow. Instead there is an aesthetic place, between the two. It is a kind of equilibrium of perpetual growth, or the openness to a complexity of states that defies the equilibriums of the past, a literal opening up of the finite to the Infinite. A rift of becoming. Because the affect itself becomes separated out from its distinct (and false because partial) conscious interpretation, the affect exists almost as pure bodily thinking, or put another way, thinking purely through Joy (transitions towards perfection, power, freedom).

Thoughts Tending Towards Deleuze and Guattari

This is I think what Guattari and Deleuze called the Body Without Organs. And while for some it makes difficult sense to see where Guattari and Deleuze can find common ground with the sobriety of Spinoza, I believe it is here, in the intermediate, where the BwO meets Chaoplexic edge that the two/three find their home. And while Spinoza’s aesthetic setting seems closer to “stable” and D&Gs closer to chaos, they are operating in the bandwidth, in proximity, as each takes Joy as its compass heading. What Spinoza provides is a careful analytic of the powers of Cybernetic organization, at the level of epistemology and psychology. Indeed the rewriting of internal codes, the reorientation of cognitions toward each other, within the understanding that the affects of our body serve as material guide, is essential to seeing that Spinoza’s Rationalism is ever an A-Rational theory of growth, a search for the line of complexity that is ever re-inscribing anew the boundary between self and world.

Advertisements

The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness

  

 

Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

 Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

John 7:6

Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?

274.

The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

– Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

 Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

Raphael With Hands

The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus – Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand – the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

“Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word “intercession”]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

Paradise Lost. III 171-173

But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

That it shall never end, so when begin

The father in his purpose hath decreed,

He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

III 184-187

 *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  – Acts 1:7]

Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

Each act is rightliest done,

Not when it must, but when it may be best.

 IV 475-476

How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

Read more of this post

Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza

An Ecology of Persons

I would like to take this opportunity to delve into Morten Tønnessen‘s essay,  “Umwelt ethics,” [download here] (Sign Systems Studies 31.1, 2003), which I could only afford to mention in passing in my post Umwelt, Umwelten and The Animal Defined By Its Relations. I suggested then that Tønnessen had not provided a rigorous connection between Uxeküll’s notion of Umwelt and Næss’s Deep Ecology ethics, but rather gave us a fine juxtaposition. It could be said that Tønnessen gives us a topographical study of the ethical landscape confronting those that want to argue for a moral authority when treating environments and other species. I also suggested that such a landscape could be well-aided by the kinds of ethical arguments provided by Spinoza’s ontology/epistemology (explicitly), and the normative epistemology of Davidson. Here I would like to pursue more of the former rather than the latter, but I do believe that they are well connected, conceptually.

Key to understanding Spinoza’s gift to this question I believe comes from the way that he treats human relations. Much of environmental ethical argument is bent toward shaping moral framing out toward a much broader sphere, thinking about how the reasons why we treat other women/men/children well also apply to ecological questions. Spinoza has an advantage here, for largely we do not have the problem of how to get out of the human-realm (moral reasoning), and into the natural realm (brute forces) – humans do not form a kingdom within a kingdom, as he says. In fact, Spinoza’s treatment of ethical questions (and we do need to watch how we move lexically from ethical to moral and back) among human beings is at core an ecological question. Human beings are for Spinoza resources. One does not waste  the possibilities of combining with other persons, and the freedom of other persons is necessarily a contribution towards our own freedom. Because the human realm is shot through with utility reasoning the bridging towards a utility of environments forms a much more natural aptitude for analysis and moral positioning.

But let me step through Spinoza here as an entry point into Tønnessen’s article, for he does a very good job of laying out the priority of questions to be answered. What really is at stake is the ultimate question of how to resolve the islanding tendencies buried in the phenomenological heart of J. von Uexküll’s notion of Umwelt.

This difficulty – and I am only now coming to grips with the literature – has largely been attempted to be answered either on the functional, or semiotic level. Some combination of a network of functions (for instance various “functional cycles” between the organism and the environment), and then more, their semiotically distilled expression, serve as a sometimes loosely proposed nexus between what von Uexküll apparently conceived of in much more isolating, organism-bound, apparitional terms. Umwelten  are supposed to give rise to a kind of shared Umwelt, or an interface called a Semiosphere, which is seen to connect up all these treatening-to-be  solipsistic bubbles of informational life. (Previously, here and here, I have proposed an alternate resolution which involved disbanding the phenomenological core of the idea altogether, and redefining the organism in terms of an Exowelt, composed of the very differences that make a difference. These following arguments dovetail with this notion.) Tønnessen feels well the difficulty of von Uexküll’s phenomenology and seeks to give us a platform from which to view these bubbles of experiential outer world, not only their epistemological connections, but also their moral footing. And to do so he turns to the work of Hoffmeyer.

Now I have not read Hoffmeyer’s discussion of bioethics, and rely mainly upon the aspects brought up by Tønnessen himself. So this critique has to be taken as internal to this particular essay, and runs the risk of repeating points that Hoffmeyer may have prodigiously made or rigorously countered. Nonetheless, I want to trace out the ground that is raised in “Umwelt Ethics,” for I sense that Tønnessen turns to Hoffmeyer to alleviate something of the pressure put on by the difficulties of a phenomenological world view.

“Code-duality” and Dual Attributes: Where is the seam?

Tønnessen discusses Hoffmeyer just about at the vital point of clarifying what a moral subject is, via the influence of Jon Wetlesen, himself oriented strongly towards a Spinozist implicit definition of a subject:

Hoffmeyer’s justification of the attribution of moral status is inspired by the Norwegian philosopher Jon Wetlesen, for whom Spinoza’s definition of subjecthood acts as a point of departure. According to Spinoza (1951: Pt. III, Prop. IV), “everything, in so far as it is in itself, endavours to persist in its own being”. Wetlesen (1993) argues that all non-human individual organisms and supra-individual wholes that resembles moral agents by showing self-determination, or striving, can be regarded as subjects with a moral standing. Hoffmeyer’s equivalent of the Spinozean perseverance is his own concept code duality (Hoffmeyer 1993: 165). Organic code-duality, a property common to all living beings, can be understood as the semiotic interplay between the analog (cell) and digital (DNA) versions of a living being (cf. Hoffmeyer 1996: 44).

I’d like to discuss this link to Spinoza with a bit more richness, confronting as directly as possible Hoffmeyer’s guiding principle of code duality in terms of Spinoza’s position. I think we can get something very productive out of this. First of all, as is obvious but perhaps needing to be said, all things, that is, every single body in composition expresses itself with a conatus for Spinoza. If we are to use Spinoza’s notion of the conatus  as an ethical signpost we are going to have to be rather explicit in the justification our claims that distinguish strongly between the animate and the inanimate, or the organic and the inorganic. For Spinoza, in somewhat fine panpsychist fashion resembling Augustine’s best panpsychic moments, conatus  pervades the entirety of Being. Anything that exists exists because it is striving. (Perhaps Wetlesen takes this whole-hog, but it is good to make this point quite explicit.)

More interesting is Hoffmeyer’s notion of  “double coding” which he specifies with reference to analog and digital cell ontologies. We must ask, if we are to make a Spinozist critique, is there an homology in Spinoza to “double coding”? The most obvious connection of course is Spinoza’s assertion of two Attributes, thought and extension, wherein digital coding is taken as Ideational expression, and analogical coding as Extensional. I’ve tried to trace down the fundamental thought in Hoffmeyer’s idea of dual codes, and it seems that he is most interested in the differential between the two, using the DNA code of an organism as placed in relation to the supervenient meta-code of analogical spatiality:

Every single crocodile embodies both the essence of being a crocodile, “crocodileness” (the message handed down to it through the genetic material), and the elements that make it one particular crododile. The second message is a kind of meta-message supervenient to the bloodline’s digital message. The crocodile is an analogue code in the sense that it enters, among other things, into a mating semiosis which, in principle, involves a good many crocodiles (through competition, etc.). Ostensibly, the message is transmitted by the fertilized egg cell the crocodile once was, but it also involves the egg cell’s spatial interpretation of another message, the digitally coded message that, at one time, lay tucked away inside the crocodile egg’s own genome. And, as the mating semiosis runs its course, this message is received – and interpreted – by other members of the same species. Generally speaking an organism convey’s a message about its evolutionary experience (45)

Signs of meaning in the Universe, Hoffmeyer and Haveland

Spinoza distinctly would refuse both supervenience and meta-status for the Attribute of extension, for he argues that Idea and Thing are in strict parallel, each expressing themselves with “the same order and connection”. So, one must question from a Spinozist point of view: by what measure is the spatial said to supervene upon the digital? In fact, I suspect that here Hoffmeyer is constructing a differential between separate layers or registers, for the spatiality of the crocodile (in Spinozist terms, its extensional expression) is not expressive just of its DNA, but rather of the digital state of all its cell structure. And the DNA molecular “code” is not expressed by the crocodile as res, but rather in the very spatial configuration of its very molecules. If I am understanding Hoffmeyer and Haveland correctly, it seems that, in Spinozist terms, they are selecting out the Ideational expression of DNA, and the Extensional expression of a Crocodile, across domains, and putting them in hierarchical relation to each other. One might as well take the molecular spatiality and the digital state of the crocodile and cross-weave them back. In any case, while the double coding that Hoffmeyer suggest is quite revealing, and an interesting take upon the Mind/Body, Meaning/Form dualities, it is but a cross-section of interpretation. A Spinozist would want to see a fuller picture, embracing both Attributes at any particular register.

It is enough to say though that such Double Coding would not select out only organic processes from all other expressions of Nature, for under Spinozist lights, all things are of dual codes, expressed in Thought and Extension.

The “Positioning” of an Imitation of the Affects

Tønnessen continues on with the benefits of a Hoffmeyer approach, careful to note how the ethics being built from dual-coded theorizing differs from Umwelt thinking in that it incorporates species specific, genomic Umwelten of a kind:

In conclusion (Hoffmeyer 1993: 173), “all living systems deserve to be considered as moral subjects, but some of them more so than others”. As a parameter that might eventually be used for grading among moral subjects, he suggests semiotic freedom, i.e., the level of richness or depth of meaning that a being is able to communicate. Hoffmeyer (1993: 172; cf. 1996: 139) attributes true subjectivity, and, consequently, moral status, at the individual level to all animals possessing a complex nervous system. Primitive organisms, on the other hand, such as amoebas or mealworms, are moral subjects only at species level. A premise for this judgment is that human beings are “perfectly capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172). In Hoffmeyer’s interpretation, this means that we are capable of identifying with “umwelt-builders in the broadest sense of this term, i.e. even species of lower level organisms lacking neural systems but which, qua species, nevertheless create a kind of (genomic) umwelt through their evolutionary incorporation of ecological niche conditions into the future” (Hoffmeyer 1993: 172) [Footnote: As this passage exemplifies, Hoffmeyer departs from Uexküll’s understanding of the Umwelt concept. In an Uexküllian setting, it makes no sense to talk about “genomic Umwelten”, since each and every Umwelt is in fact the privilege of the subject in question. Consequently, although evidently founded on biosemiotics, Hoffmeyer’s ethics cannot be regarded an Umwelt ethics.]….

This is where it gets very interesting for we enter the realm of Spinozist ethical theorizing that departs from mere conatus claims of moral standing. All animals with complex nervous systems are afforded such a standing due to their ability to “[identify] with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics  of nature” (bolding the important concepts). Here we come right up to the braiding of Spinoza’s principle of the imitation of affects and my own thinking of Exowelten. To repeat the vital Spinozist proposition that we are imaginatively, and affectively connected to all human others through our projection of “sameness”:

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.

 

 [If one wants an in-depth reading of the sociological and political consequences of this proposition, see Balibar’s treatment of the reasoning behind sociability: Here] But let us remain at the bio-logical level. It is important that the seemingly implicit experiential/ideational sameness within human beings that Spinoza posits, in Hoffmeyer becomes a positional one (with these two positions not being mutually exclusive to each other). What distinguishes the moral subject here, is the ability for the organism to read another organism as positioned as it might be in. I would go further, and more explicitly say: the ability for the read organism to be affected by the same differences in the world, that is, in terms of my thoughts on Exowelten, to share differential nodes, the same points as organs of perception. This capacity is, at the highest levels of human rationality, expressed as Triangulation: the ability to read through the assumed coherence of another’s beliefs and those causal relations, the coherence of states of the world. But this capacity is primarily an affective  capacity, to which the depths of one’s organic coherence read the states of other things, objects, beings in the world, such that the causal powers of the world itself come into greater clarity.

Importantly, by stretching his criteria beyond the mere nervous-system-endowed animal, out to genomic expressions of organisms, the breadth of reflective capacities can be contributed to a far greater number of phenomena, something that Tønnessen notes. But with significance he raises the question of just what importance code-duality plays in this “same position in the bio-logic” definition of moral standing, in particular, why should our identifications be restricted by Hoffmeyer’s description:

…To Hoffmeyer’s credit, his criterion for deciding which entities we are capable of identifying with is so vague that it allows for a certain flexibility. This vagueness, or flexibility, however, is not mirrored in his conclusion. If we are capable of identifying with any entity that might occupy positions similar to those we occupy ourselves in the bio-logics of nature, then why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm? And, more generally: if interpretative processes are to form the basis of attribution of moral status, why should code-duality be considered the relevant property? In what way is organic code duality related to the actual well-being of a creature or a living system, in the same sense as self-determination or perseverance is?

This raises a very important question of just what are the evolutionary and epistemic benefits of reading in two terms, Thought and Extension? This is to say, if we agree with Spinoza and all things express themselves in Thought and Extension, in what manner is the gain of focusing our attention upon one or the other?

Triangulation and the Internal of Cause

Donald Davidson has an elementary answer to this question, but we have to translate out of, and down from, his attempts to parse out the explanatory power of mental causation, (that is, or attribution of causal properties to beliefs and reasons), from physical causation.

[Mental concepts] appeal to causality because they are designed, like the concept of causality itself, to single out from the totality of circumstances which conspire to cause a given event just those factors that satisfy some particular explanatory interest. When we want to explain an action, for example, we want to know the agent’s reasons, so we can see for ourselves what it was about the action that appealed to the agent…The causal element in mental concepts helps make up for the precision they lack; it is part of the concept of an intentional action that it is caused and explained by beliefs and desires…

“Three Varieties of Knowledge”, (216-217)

When reading the behaviours of other persons as behaviours,we necessarily attribute to them all sort of mental predicates such as “he desires, she wants, she fears, he hopes, they think…” which help us isolate the important internal states which allow us to sensibly make use of those behaviors as significant. In fact, as we make these projective attributions, it is not just that the agent we are reading who becomes clear (under a normative framework), but also and more importantly, the world itself. By making mental-causal attributions “within” the agent, events in the world “outside” the agent are also selected out as significant  because the agent and I are regarded as somewhat the “same”. This sameness can be understood as a kind of internal, affective/ideational sameness: I would feel/think the same things if I were like that; or, and more importantly, I would feel/think the same things if I were in the same “position” (Hoffmeyer’s denotative standard for moral subject).

But one must not stop at the rational belief level of attribution to fully understand the pervasiveness of Triangulation, the way in which the internal states of others reveal for us the character of external states of the world. In fact, I would go further and say that the “double code” that Hoffmeyer presents is primarily the heuristic difference that an reader makes upon another organism (or even a field of consistent boundary conditions):

Are the most important events going on Inside the organism/field, or Outside in the world that we share?

Those events when read as internal  are understood as mental, while those read as external are understood as physical, with the understanding that a relevant interal events are signficant in how they confirm or deny pre-existing internal/external orientations the reader has already established with aspects of the world. Ultimately, this is how differences in the world become Organs of Perception.

Why not a Mountain?

So Tønnessen is dead-on when he asks, “why not a mountain, or an individual mealworm”? It is precisely so that a blade of grass might present some significant inside (mental) interpretant, as may an entire field of grass. And yes, a sudden splitting of a mountain face, or the soft curve of its erosion wear might prospectively direct us to its internal coherences to isolate what is causally significant. “Was it a faultline crack, or a meteor that struck?”, just as we might ask, “Was he mentally unstable, or was he coerced?”. These are homologous questions. Mountains too have a semiosis  of internal consistency, and only the acclaimed need for a subject-center Interpretant prevents this from becoming obvious.

The statement will be made: Well, you can project your anthropomorphisms onto mountains and ponds all you like, but they themselves are not Triangulating, not reading states of the world off of the internal states of other things/beings!

To this I would want to assert that these projections are not just anthropomorphic but come from the affective organization of our body plans down to a fair ancestral level. The animism is not just a retarded vestige to be thrown off, but rather makes up some of the most powerful capacities to organize ourselves in the world and to communicate with it. In a sense, it forms the contrapuntal base rhythm of our perceptions and rationalized descriptions, something whose slow, essential musicality must be harmonized with, or quietly, somatically altered, if we are to experience coherence in our views. Secondly though, I am unsure how one would decide upon which external factors a mountain or a pond is responding to when we epistemically project onto its semiotic states of coherence. Sun’s light might be warming a rockface, but just so is the atmospheric condition allowing it. Are bacteria “triangulating” when they quorum sense: some thoughts here: Davidson’s Triangulation and the Swarm. I would say that the internal coherence of any one organism or field registers significant differences out beyond it in the sense that its Exowelt meets with ours, sharing nodes. And which of those nodal features, whether they be primary difference that make a seemingly direct difference between the internal states of the organism/field, and ourselves, or secondary ones, which may be inferred from the former, is something that plays itself out in pragmatic terms. This is to say, the very coherence that is maintained in an organism/field is not composed of one-to-one mappings of internal-event-aspect/external-event-aspect, and that the very causal constellation of external events can be said to be expressed in the internal response coherence.

In this way, human beings are very good at telling us what they are responding to in most circumstances, and in reasoned discourse this results in them telling us what they “know”. But knowing goes very deep into the organism/field, far below what we can say, and “what” we know in our very coherence has no delineated correlate.

The “Ontological Niche”

Tønnessen then, upon returning to a less than satisfying and phenomenologically informed concept of Umwelten, raises the concept of the ontological niche, something approaching my Exowelt correction to the same. By virtue of Uexküll’s criterion of the “function cycle” a division is made between animal and plant, those that have an Umwelt and those that have merely a Wohnhüllen

Phrased in modern terminology, Umwelten can be attributed to protists, bacteria and animals (including the animal that does not want to be an animal, i.e., man), but not to plants and fungi (Uexküll, Kriszat 1956 [1940]: 111). Instead, they have Wohnhüllen, which the objects of Umwelten are replaced by meaning-factors. These must, along with Umwelten, be understood as a category of individual phenomenal worlds.9 While only Umwelt-carriers take part in functional cycles, plants and fungi, as well, partake in contrapuntal relations, i.e., subject-object-relations characterized by a mutual correspondence between the two entities. There are at least two kinds of contrapuntal relations: Relations between two meaning-utilizers (e.g. a flower and a bee, or a predator and its prey), and, more generally, relations between a meaning-utilizer and a meaning-carrier or meaning-factor in its phenomenal world (e.g., an eye and the sun). Functional cycles can be regarded as special cases of contrapuntal relations. The known phenomenal world, therefore, consists of Umwelten and Wohnhüllen that, through the interconnectedness that the various contrapuntal relations result in, comprise what we call nature. In this intricate web — of life, of semiosis, of world — we occupy an ontological niche.

The ontological niche of a being can be defined as the set of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in at a given point of natural history. [Hoffmeyer (1996: 140): “The character of the animal’s defines the spectrum of positions that an animal can occupy in the bio-logical sphere, its semiotic niche”.] The ontological niche of a being delimits the “area” that this being occupies in the phenomenal world. Simultaneously, through its ontological niche, the phenomenal world of a being is intertwined with other phenomenal worlds, thus integrating this being into the society of phenomenal subjects…

As I have argued, there is no way in which to make a categorical distinction between the two contrapuntal “meaning utilizers” and “meaning-carriers,” though we can assume a differential. At times it is best to focus on the binary rhythm between the eye and the sun, but then at other times to see that this binary is expressive of other coherence-field relations (the sun “carriers” its participation in a “utilization”). In any case though, as the contrapuntal rhythm weaves a primary mat of life (including its inorganic forms), it is the Ontological Niche (for me Exowelten) determinations which give life to the very substance of our coherent thoughts and communications, the way in which regularly read and affectively inhabit a diversity of forms whose internal (field) states reflect and express states of the world. And it is our mutually enfleshed  sharing of nodes in the world which privileges any organic or inorganic state, as important. It is because of this that the very musicality of connection between the internal parts of the world to other external parts of the world, is what is at stake in the very maintenance of the coherence of our thought and capacity to speak to each other. The resource is in the very affective and dexterous capacity of others (other things, other beings) to feel and report back upon what condition the world is in.

Total Umwelt and Biosphere Split

In his essay Morten Tønnessen steers somewhat clear from Hoffmeyer’s wider embrace in order to return to the rich heritage of Umwelt-thinking, and he tries to heal any solipsistic phenomenological drag from the concept by postulating various zones of “total Umwelt” expression. These are still phenomenological states, but simply totalized by some measure. Personally, I don’t see the advantage of returning to Idealism’s internal preoccupation and anchoring, something which ever must return to the notion of a subject. Yet, Tønnessen also extracts from von Uexküll the important idea that the animal and its Umwelt are inseparable. While this still leaves us on the wrong side of the ledger, Tønnessen transfers from a terminology of “Tier-Umwelt-monade” to a more comprehensive “bioontological monad,” which he reads as couterpart to the biosphere:

A different type of abstract phenomenal entities can be termed total Umwelten. By a total Umwelt, I understand the sum total of the manifold phenomena appearing in the Umwelten of a particular group of subjects. An example that is mentioned by Uexküll (1928: 181) is the total Umwelt of a species…Noteworthy, according to Uexküll, the subject and its phenomenal world are not separate entities, but, as illustrated by the functional cycle, together make up one unit. One could call this belief ontological holism. To signify this unified entity, Friedrich Brock (1934) introduced the term “Tier-Umwelt-monade”. However, Uexküll’s ontological holism is not restricted to Umwelt-carriers, and I therefore suggest to replace Brock’s term with the more general expression bioontological monad…The phenomenal counterpart to the biosphere, i.e., the sum total of all living beings of Earth, is the known phenomenal world. Taken as a bio-ontological entity, it represents the inseparable whole of life and world. In lack of a better designation, it might be called the bio-phenomenal sphere.

By my thinking the very concept of monad existence must entail the nexus points of differences that make a difference in the world, as those terminus differences become organs of perception for the animal/plant/being/field. It is not enough to simply posit whole internal worlds which grow in size supposedly connected to whole bio-physical states outside of them. Rather, the very connections between organism and world must count as part of that recursive boundary. The bioontological monad is constituted by, and inconceivable as operative without, the differences that make a difference it its terminus limit (and which it shares as terminus limit with other things).

Morten Tønnessen ends his essay with a careful consideration of Deep Ecologist Arne Næss’s eight bio-ethical principles. Only the with first of which will I concern myself:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent worth). These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes…

His response to this first point is worth quoting at some length because it has many of the factors we have discussed:

According to Næss (1993: 198), the first point in the deep ecology platform “refers to the biosphere, […] individuals, species, populations, habitat, as well as human and non-human cultures”. Næss also mentions landscapes and ecosystems. Given an Uexküllian framework, all of these must be understood as bio-ontological entities. A culture, for example, can be defined as a certain common-Umwelt that allows for a certain total Umwelt. The fact that the flourishing of human life rests on the flourishing of concepts should result in political and cultural tolerance. As for ecosystems and inhabited landscapes,one could probably reach a bio-ontological definition by way of the concepts of contrapuntal relations and total Umwelt. A habitat might be regarded as the subjective space, or perhaps Heimat (home), of an individual or population.

The reason why it makes sense to regard all semiotic agents, i.e., bio-ontological monads, as moral subjects, is that in respect to these entities, our actions make a difference. Only for semiotic agents can our actions ultimately appear as signs that influence their well-being. In capacity of meaning-utilizers, all semiotic agents, be it the simplest creature, are able to distinguish between what they need and what is irrelevant or harmful to them. As Kull (2001: 361) says: “Everything alive has needs per se, not so the lifeless nor the dead”. Wherever there is semiosis, there are needs, and even though actual moral treatment is also a question of practicability, attribution of moral status is a principal one.

But why regard higher-level bio-ontological entities as moral subjects? Because a living being is not an isolated incident. In a profound sense, a subject is what it relates to. The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about. The individual self branch off into the society of phenomenal subjects and into the phenomenal world, it is already social, already worldly, already more-than-individual. You cannot really value a subject without at the same time valuing the web of contrapuntal relations that it takes part in.

One can guess where my quarrel with this reasoning lies since I read as “semiotic” much further down then the author grants, and this is due to the substance of the last of his three paragraphs: “The contrapuntal relations that it takes part in do, largely, define what being this subject is all about.” If we follow Spinoza’s notion of conatus with which we began our discussion, Kull’s point at to “needs” evaporates or is at least severely challenged. Sedimentation preserves itself against what is irrelevant or harmful through its very coherence until over come. This is not a mere theoretical side-step. It is the very stabilized contour of avoidance and perseverence that turns a meaning-carrier into a meaning-utilizer. If we accept that even rock sedimentation layers strive to persist, then they too have “needs” (however qualified, however dim), and if rock sedimentation layers form part of the contrapuntal music of our own reading capacities of the world, by what measure do our own defining contrapuntal relations which take part with such rhythm, exclude them from some place of importance? Change the music and change the person. This is not to say that one should not cut into rock formations in order to build train tunnels, but one should do so knowing that one is making a cognitive, resonant, musical change.

Last to end, Næss’s claim in point one, that the values of non-human things are independent from human purposes defies Spinoza’s utility approach to an ecology of persons (and world). In fact, it is the very usefulness of non-human things, not just as appropriations, but as participations, which should drive us towards their care. Only a rich concept of purposes and utility can nurture the epistemic responsibilities and capacities of the human species.

[See Morten Biosemiotic Weblog: Utopian Realism]

Davidson Fast and Loose With Conceptual Schemes?

 

Daniel over at SOH-Dan picks up on quote from an older post of mine, Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?, and provides some interesting information. I had quoted from Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality  (Floris van der Berg), an comment made by a Wittgensteinian:

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27,)

This has bearing of course on any Davidson/Spinoza connection we might foster, so it is of interest that Daniel reports that in Stuart Hampshire “Davidson in Conversation” recordings, Davidson actually quite easily speaks of other conceptual, irreducible frameworks. And Daniel is even kind enough to provide us with an extensive quote from the hard to find material:

I certainly think that we have more than two ways of conceiving reality. I often sound as if I think there are just two, natural science and psychology or something, but, no, there are a lot of natural sciences, and they have different ways of describing things, perhaps irreducibly different…. I don’t know how you’d count potential conceptual schemes, so I don’t see that one should boggle at them [like Spinoza did].

There are some worthwhile exchanges in the comments section, and we certainly see that Davidson has different sense of conceptual scheme than Spinoza had of Attributes (hence where Spinoza “boggles”, Davidson merely muses). More compelling than this is that we touch on the morality issue. Thornton notably points out that all situations might be said to be described morally. Daniel and I both agree that there is a moral or ethical component already buried within Davidson’s notion of psychology. And this is precisely where I find the strongest Davidson/Spinoza connection, the way that mental states as coherent and epistemic expressions necessarily carry with them a triangulating and thus charitable force. My suspicion has been that Spinoza buries in the category of the conatus the traditional Augustinian third form of “amare” (esse, nosse, amare: natural, rational, moral) also expressed as “will”, a third Attribute. The implicate presence of the moral/ethical within Davidson’s and Spinoza’s monism is something that I think Thornton importantly, if accidentally, does touch on.

Some Rough Thoughts on the Conatus – Spinoza

Michael at Complete Lies asked in a comment on my last post for Spinoza’s take on the conatus, so I thought I should post my brief response over here as well. Perhaps this has some interest for others as well:

The conatus is really central Spinoza’s telling of the world, though perhaps not with the kind of centrality that Schopenhauer would wish. Each and everything in existence has conatus, a striving, which as Spinoza describes it makes up something of its essence as a thing in existence. With almost Neitzschean Will to Power force (sans the implicit normalization of domination), each thing does all it it can to persist, pursuing its Joys, avoiding its sadnesses. But because of modal essences (the essence of “real objects” in Graham’s metaphysics) do not have existence predicated of them, that is, because they are not their own cause of existence, they relie upon the external causes of other things, and concordantly those conatuses as well. So existence becomes a mixed rationalizing, but still Machiavellian game of power negotions with other conatus-driven bodies and minds.

But, this is not a Hobbesian world where there is a primal state of war, “all against all,” which human beings rise up out of by virtue of a mythical contract, because a conatus that has come into existence has done so already in harmony with a cooperation of a mutuality of causes, it is dependent in its finite existence. You can see this same metaphysical fact in Spinoza’s political theory, and the concept that the human affects are organized through the imagination of others. Even strife among human beings, their most powerful negative projections upon each other, are already occurring in a social field wherein each person sees this enemy in some fundamental way “the same” as him (if only the same as a competitor).

For this reason, much as what happens on the metaphysical level of the dependency of strivings upon other strivings, this happens on the social level, a mutuality of conception both supports destructive warrings, but also of course the capacity to find agreement and align.

 

Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?

Tim Thornton’s Question

In Floris van der Burg’s excellent study of the conceptual similarities between the work of contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson (a favorite of mine) and Baruch Spinoza, in which he fruitfully uses each philosopher to critique the other…Davidson to apply the linguistic turn to Spinoza and Spinoza to re-articulate the largely unstated metaphysical bias of Scientific materialism in Davidson, I found a powerful footnote and it has been tugging on me since I read the book over a year ago.

Van der Burg is exploring Davidson’s un-Spinozist collapse of metaphysical Substance into matter, while retaining a conceptual dualism, the mental and the physical which corresponds to Spinoza’s Attributes of Thought and Extension. Mentioned in passing is a criticism put to Davidson by a Wittgensteinian friend of the author:

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27, Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality, Floris van der Berg)

The Hidden Third Attribute?

This remark is I believe far more cutting than it would seem at first glance, for it extends beyond Davidson, revealing the very architecture of Spinoza’s re-division of a Scholastic inheritance. When the question is turned to Spinoza, in light of a comparison to Campanella’s Three Primalities discussed here in my last post, we see that Spinoza has turned one traditional division of Being, what both Campanella and Augustine called Amore, into a conatus driven, epistemologically grounded, expression of power (and not a conceptual Attribute). For Spinoza, modal essences (conatus) are striven in two Attributes, across epistemic states of relative power and Being. Tim Thornton’s Wittgensteian question opens up the very nature of the distinction Spinoza is attempting to make. There is a sense in which Spinoza has taken the third Attribute of Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore [to be, to know, to love] (transfigured in Campanella as potentia, sapientia, amor), and displaced it along a vector which distinguishes the modes. It can be argued that buried in this transfiguration of amore are the distinctions that allow Spinoza to turn his ontology into an Ethica. This is an interesting move from three to two, in particular because Spinoza tells us that there are not only Two Attributes, but an infinite number, only two of which our intellect can discern. What is the result of this transformation, in particular in view of Thornton’s question?

It is my intuition that by restoring the trinity of concepts as primalities of Being, in an analytic maneuver, the full constitutive relationship of rationality and the imagination that we find in Spinoza’s arguments toward sociability (part IV of the Ethics), (and Davidson’s ethical advisment that prescription proceeds description), are recast in a panpsychism of sense (the void of the lower orders implicit in Spinoza’s architecture of Being are made more explicit: is the relative passivity of trees due to their holding of inadequate ideas?). Tim Thornton’s question to Davidson, though designed to point to conceptual pluralism, opens up the possibility of an Attribute of the moral.

Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore, come from the base questions What? How? Why? in The City of God (xi, 26) and corresponding to the classical categories of the Natural, the Logical, and the Moral (vii, 4), in Spinoza and Davidson, are played out through a dualism of concept, in history, for Spinoza in Extension, Thought and Joy. The question remains, what are the metaphysical commitments that lie beneath this play of history, even for Davidson, who wished to shrug off the metaphysical. And does the trinity of concepts then enliven even further Spinoza’s panpsychism of supposedly sensing, imagining, ideating confused bodies, in continual assemblage?