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Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

More on the Balling Letter

This is a follow up on the train of thought I began two days ago on the subject of Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling where Spinoza brings up the curious notion of sharing in the essence of another person, and even the result that one could have phenomenological experiences of future events: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination. I wanted to really explore just how Spinoza is using or conceiving of the imagination as a wayward point between events of the body, and events of the mind, as it seems that this is most important to determining the value of Spinoza’s comments, in particular how they might reveal just how he conceived of the importance of the “imitation of the affects” and also our general capacity to know (and/or participate in) the essences of external things.

Spinoza displays some inconsistency in how he treats the imagination (and even the concept of order, discussed here: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order), throughout his work. And the problem of the standing of the “imagination” in 17th century thought is not something unique to Spinoza. By and large though I think we can assume that what Spinoza means by the imagination is what we commonly mean by phenomena, that is our experiences of things either being present to us, or our ability to conjure them up apart from their presence. Largely these are just what we would call our “experiences” in general. So when Spinoza and Peter Balling are talking about either a waking dream of a diseased slave or the sounds of an ailing child groan, these are hallucinatory effects which are not different in mechanism than the effects we experience when we perceive the world.

Spinoza early on takes these experiences of the imagination to be best seen as products of the body, and as sources of confusion. We do not understand their causes, and they kinda of erupt out of our ignorance, seemingly at random. They are the products of external bodies interacting with and stimulating our own body. Most importantly, it is this tendency towards randomness (in terms of their meaningfulness) that Spinoza is most concerned with, the way in which our phenomenal experiences occlude and confuse, something which Spinoza attributes to their bodily source. You can see this in his Emendation where he claims that the effects of the imagination are only caused by bodies, but it is interesting that when it comes down to it Spinoza himself seems a bit confused on how to classify them by their source in the body. Instead it is merely their tendency towards (apparent) randomness and also our passivity towards them and the world which distinguishes them from products of the Intellect. In this sense explanations of our experiences which turn to our body alone, due to our ignorance of causes, tend to create passive states to be contrasted with the workings of the Intellect which are activities of our being:

Thus we have distinguished between the true idea and other perceptions, and we have established that the fictitious, the false, and other ideas have their origin in the imagination, that is, in certain sensations that are (so to speak) fortuitous and unconnected, arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions. Or if you wish, you may here understand by imagination whatever you please, as long as it is something different from the intellect, and the soul has a passive relationship to it. It matters not how you understand it, now that we know that it is something random, and that the soul is passive to it, while we know how we may be delivered from it with the aid of the intellect [84].

Emendation of the Intellect

In this way our experiences are seen as simply the receiving of motions from external bodies, and our bodies become something of a “picture making machine” (citing the end of Willa Cather’s story “Paul’s Case“). But by the time of Spinoza’s writing of his letter to Balling in 1664, perhaps some six years after the Emendation (if we are to believe Mignini), Spinoza adopts a dual possible source for effects of the imagination and our experiences. They can come either from the states of our body, or from the Intellect. In fact, Spinoza regards a whole class of imaginary effects as near automatic traces of the ideas we form in the Intellect:

The effects of the imagination arise from the constitution either of body or of mind. To avoid all prolixity, for the present I shall prove this simply from what we experience. We find by experience that fevers and other corporeal changes are the cause of delirium, and that those whose blood is thick imagine nothing but quarrels, troubles, murders and things of that sort. We also see that the imagination can be determined simply by the constitution of the soul, since, as we find, it follows in the wake of the intellect in all things, linking together and interconnecting its images and words just as the intellect does its demonstrations, so that there is almost nothing we can understand without the imagination instantly forming an image.

Letter 17, To Peter Balling, July 20th 1664

Apart from the take in the Emendation, here the imagination actually “follows in the wake of the Intellect” and distinct from the opinion that it tends towards randomness in meaning, its images and words (!) are interconnected just as (one presumes, in a way similar to) the intellect’s linking of its proofs. It should be noted that Spinoza is reasoning from “experience” itself here, and not making a deductive determination, but it is clear that he has at the very least shifted his stance away from the significantly passive and randomesque sources of the imagination some years back. And even more evocative, the very concept of linked and interconnected images and words strongly calls to mind the linchpin proposition 13 of part II of the Ethics, wherein the order and connection of ideas and (extended) things is said to be the same. There is nearly a third “order and connection” going on here.

How Can The Imagination Have Two Sources?

This aspect of the letter actually has troubled me quite a bit. In fact any place Spinoza argued that there is either a bodily source or a mental source for an event I felt a deep objection arise in me that Spinoza’s parallel postulate strictly forbids any such ultimate distinction. As you can see from the diagram posted above, the order and connections of the bodily state expressions of an essence run necessarily parallel to their ideational expression; and Spinoza precludes the idea that one side of the parallel can have causal effect on the other. So any bodily state, when taken as the causal source of an event, must also have its parallel ideational state which additionally the causal source of the same event (read as an ideational expression). What determines whether one uses the bodily state as the causal source or not is whether the event is read as either a physical expression, or as an ideational one. But all events are necessarily both. So when Spinoza says in the Emendation that the imagination (those events) are bodily in nature, this can only mean that he is already speaking of them as physical (putting some strain on the future of the parallel postulate). By the time of writing of letter 17, the effects of the Imagination are dichotomized, but at first blush this is not at the level of description. Instead it seems rather for Spinoza there are kinds or classes of effects of the Imagination. Delirums and dispositional judgments spring from bodily constitutions, and in this case, prophetic imaginary experiences which spring from the mind or the constitution of the soul.

What are we to make of this supposedly confusion of the parallel postulate wherein some experiential events are predisposed to be explained through a physical causal chain, and others through an ideational one? And what are we to make of the causal difficulties involved in the notion of the imagination “following in the wake” of the Intellect, or even that such wake-following possesses its own order of expression? I think the answer lies within the kinds of relevant causes that get swept up in either chain of explanatory force. That is to say, while we may presume that the parallel postulate holds and that there is a causal chain of each kind flowing backwards for any one event, which chain we chose depends on both our access to information about that chain, but also what each explanation would reveal. And in the case of our experiences of our interactions with things external to us, indeed each chain gives us a different method of self-analysis and world orientation which is in some sense linked to the ontological lean each event has towards the world itself. Spinoza wants to say something of the effect, there could be two seemingly similar imaginative effects, waking dreams, but understanding one might tell us more about ourselves (if we take it to be the product of the physical states of our body), and the other might tell us something more about the world, something external to us, (if we take it to be the product of our ideational state and our relational juxtaposition to other things in the world). You can see this in the way that Spinoza justifies that Peter Balling’s hallucination would indeed be prophetic, born out of the love and literal union of the father to the son:

[continuing from the passage just cited] This being so, I say that none of the effects of the imagination which are due to corporeal causes can ever be omens of things to come, because their causes do not involve future things. But the effects of the imagination, or images, which have their origin in the constitution of the mind can be omens of some future event because the mind can have confused awareness beforehand of something that is to come. So it can imagine it has firmly and vividly as if such a thing were present to it…

The Logic of the Future

What I propose is that the dichotomy Spinoza uses is one quite natural to us. In lieu of the medical common place at the time, thickness of blood, we moderns need only replace “low dopamine levels” or “damage to the cerebral cortex” to see that physical causal explanations of our experiences and judgments gain their traction from the way in which those experiences fail to shed light upon the world. The meaningfulness of those mental events, in that they fail to reveal the world (for others or ourselves), drains away, and is recouped through a physical explanation. In Spinoza’s letter, a fever explains a hallucination when the vision does not seem to derive from events in the world. Physical dispositions explain those that are too morbidly or aggressively predisposed, when those mental events seem out of joint with what is going on. To take another example, “its the drink speaking” is a regular dismissal of the “truths” spoken by a drunk person. The recapture of explanatory force at the level of the physical is accomplished by understanding better the way in which physical causes are operating. One might cure a fever to ride oneself of delirium, or abstain from alcohol to avoid overly emotional outbursts (or take lithium to avoid depressions). Key though to Spinoza’s dual cause interpretation is that given that mental events lack traction in the real world (seemingly), such imaginary effects will simply seem to the person experiencing them to verge towards “random”. A cloak of ignorance covers much of the causal chain, leading to confusions.

There is another path to explanation, the path to order and sense-making, and it is to this that Spinoza sets up his alternate explanation of a waking dream. Imaginary effects, in that they follow in the wake of the Intellect actually can reveal the world itself – and in this case even indicate something of its future. Spinoza predicates this upon what he calls “participating” in the essence of another person (or perhaps more correctly, in the affections and ideas of another person), something he calls a union and a becoming as if one and the same, via love. For clarity sake I diagram out the two causal explanations of waking dreams below:

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I think that there is more than our ability to interpret waking dreams at stake in these descriptions. In fact I think we have clue to the very picture of the world Spinoza holds as it underwrites all of his epistemic arguments for how we do and do not know things in the world. But first I would like take up the very notion that we might have premonitory imaginary experiences. This is something that strikes us as sheer superstition, and it is hard for us to accept that the quite sober Spinoza would indulge in such a fancy. But I think I can appeal to some very real, in fact everyday experiences which may clear up just what future-vision may be for Spinoza, or perhaps why he holds the claim that he does: that things of the Intellect involve things of the future. The first of these is obvious, the sciences indeed are, based on acts of intellection, quite predictive. But it is more than this, for Spinoza is talking about an outright hallucination of a future event, so much so it is as if the event is happening right in front of you. Do we have any instances of this sort we can draw on? The most instructive one I believe is the example shared by Spinoza and Wittgenstein, discussed here: Understanding in a Flash and the Mastery of Technique. This is when a mathematical series is being expressed and that there is a rule that is being followed in the succession of numbers. It don’t think it is too much of a stretch to refer to what Wittgenstein called “characteristic accompaniments” as effects of the imagination which are not understanding itself, but rather seem to come in the wake of understanding. If I say aloud “2, 4, 6, 8…” it is not out of the question that you might have an auditory hallucination of the sound “1o” in anticipation of the next number. This in fact would be an albeit confused but still imaginary premonition of a future event, even if I happen to stop at the number 8. In fact we get a glimpse at what Spinoza means by the “wake of the Intellect”. In some sense this power of anticipation through imaginary phenomena expresses our grasp of a situation is what Spinoza is appealing to when trying to explain how Balling’s vision differs from his own. And most importantly, the foundation of this difference is the participatory relationship the father has with his son’s essence, the literal union of the two.

How Adequate Are Our Ideas of External Things?

Much has been debated about the way Spinoza conceives the adequacy of our ideas of external things, and in this questions about just how adequate the ideas of Science are. Spinoza is restrictive to the value of abstractions (of which much of Sciences seems to be composed), and mathematics (which he calls both a product of, and an aid to, the imagination in letter 12). Spinoza’s theory of Common Notions introduced in the Ethics simply is too bare to do the weight of carrying  the whole load of how we gain knowledge about states of the world. Indeed I side with others such as Michael Della Rocca and Eric Schliesser who, for different reasons, renounce that completely adequate ideas could be held about things external to us, insofar as they are taken as separate things. And I think core to the issue of adequate knowledges is Spinoza’s Letter 17 notion of participating in the essence of another person to strong ideational effect. There seems to be an undercurrent of participation in essences between Spinoza’s intuitions about how we hold ideas of other things i the first place.

Most readings that seek to resolve the difficulties of how adequate our knowledge of external thing is turn to either our necessarily adequate knowledge of “common notions” (supposedly ideas that are common to both ourselves and external things) or to the infinite modes like “motion and rest”, which in turn are taken to be common to all things. And Spinoza towards the end of his unfinished treatise on the Emendation gives us a good hint at how we should think about these very “real” things, things we must train our Intellect to:

As to the ordering of all our perceptions and their proper arrangement and unification, it is required that, as soon as possible and reason demands, we should ask whether there is a being – and also what kind of being – which is the cause of all things so that its essence objectified is the cause of all our ideas [ut  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”ut “>eius essentia obiectiva sit etiam causa omnium nostrarum idearum]. Then our mind, as we have said, will reproduce [referet] Nature as closely as possible, for it will possess the in the form of thought the essence, order and unity of Nature. Hence we can see that it is above all necessary for us always to deduce our ideas from physical things, i.e., from real beings, advancing, as far as we can, in accordance with the chain of causes from one real being to another real being, neither inferring something real from them nor inferring them from something real. For in either case the true progress of the intellect is interrupted.

But it should be noted that by the series of causes and real beings I do not here mean the series of mutable particular things, but only the series of fixed and eternal things. It would be impossible for human limitation to grasp the series of mutable particular things, not only because they are innumerable but also because of the infinite number of factors affecting one and the same thing, each of which can be the cause of the existence or nonexistence of the thing. For the existence of mutable particular things has no connection with their essence; that is (as we have said), their existence is not an eternal truth.

But neither is there any need for us to understand their series. For the essences of particular mutable things are not to be elicited from their series or order of existing, which would furnish us with nothing but their extrinsic characteristics, their relations, or, at most, their circumstances. All these are far from the inmost essence of things. This essence is to be sought only from the fixed eternal things, and at the same time from the laws in these things as well as in their true codes [veris codicibus] so inscribed, which govern the coming into existence and the ordering of all particular things [99-101]

The Emendation of the Intellect

In such a passage our modern scientific gaze turns to these “true codes” and “laws” which govern particular things, and we ask ourselves just how Spinoza conceives that we can know these laws within his framework of knowledges. And how are we to conceive of the passing from one real thing to another, without falling into abstraction? What does it mean for us to identify what kind of being is the cause of all our ideas so that we hold the essence of something in our mind, as the source of our own ideas of a particular thing? What I suggest is that Spinoza’s letter 17 notion of “participation” in an essence is precisely the relation that Spinoza is thinking of here. There is for Spinoza a genuine transformation of the self, through the power of its ideas, when it comes to perceive and think about particular things external to it. And I would suggest that this transformation involves the literal becoming other than itself, or rather, forming a mutuality with the object known such that the inter-relationship expresses a new essence: 


[click on photo for larger image]

In letter 17 the father is said to necessarily have an idea of the affections of the body of his son due to the degree of their union so as to have become one and the same. They have achieved a kind of identity which at the ideational level anchors the adequacy (or at least the greatly increased adequacy) of his idea of his son’s affections, so much so that the future of the son’s illness leaves a trace in the imagination of the present. That indeed a new essence is achieved through the father’s love could be argued in two ways, following two of the definitions of what makes any composition of physical parts an “individual”. The first is that any fixed ratio of a communication of parts achieves individuality, and there is no reason at all why one would not admit any cognitive inter-relationship between a knower and a known as just such a communication of parts (however mediated). The second is that Spinoza defines as an individual anything combination of causes which produces a singular effect. In the case of the father’s premonition, at least as Spinoza qualifies it, it is the union of the two, closely related to the level of essences, that produces this imaginary event, establishing this union itself as an individual. But I suggest further, participation in the essences of other things external to us is the FUNDAMENTAL mode of our knowing anything about anything in the world, and this is due to the fact that any particular modal expression shares its status as an expression of Substance with any other modal expression. If there are laws (and codes) which govern the expression of any two modal forms, these two modes are necessarily participating in the essences of each, at the very least through their sharing of the governance which brings them into being and order.

The Participatory Ontology of Knowing

But something more is meant by “participation” by Spinoza in this letter, in particular how it is due to the deep love of the father for his son. In the Ethics “love” is relegated to the order of the passions, a complimentary psychological part to hate, each echoing back into the other. Here in the letter to Balling instead love is seen as the source of a deep ideational union between two persons, and a kind of prophetic power of epistemological imagination: a father that can foreseen his son’s death, however confusedly. In the Ethics Love is defined as the increase of perfection accompanied by the idea of an external cause, and in this sense the father loves his son because he regards the son as the source and cause of his own increases in perfection and joy. I have always taken this phrase “accompanied by the idea of an external cause” to be a reprovement for the human tendency to select out only ONE cause for the complexity of relations which compose our mental and physical events. Indeed the beloved is “a” cause of our increase in joy and active perfection, but what makes this a passive relation is the exclusion of all other causes, the entire matrix of intimate connections which for Spinoza go all the way up to God-Substance, and all the way into our own individual states, which have brought about this change. What distinguishes Spinoza’s participatory love from just this sort of passion, at least so far as how he exemplifies it (and notice he speaks of an ideal relation, and not necessarily the Balling experience), is that it creates a participation in essence which connects one’s own ideas with the affections of the other person. And implicitly, I would propose, such a love-paricipation must involve all the common notions, the mutuality of human nature and the infinite modes as determining and shared expressions. One has, at least potentially, ideas of all these mediating things in just the same way that one has ideas of the affections of the son.

If this line of thinking is to be embraced as underwriting knowledge for Spinoza, that is, degrees of participation qualified by the degree of adequacy of one’s ideas, the degree of one’s being, and even the strength of intellectual love, then Spinoza’s principle of the “imitation of the affects” has to be reconsidered or at least put into juxtaposition with the participation in essences, due to love:

 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…

Such a proposition puts the imagination front and center in the processes which allow us to achieve social bonds, not only with other humans but with almost all things in the world; (I argue this at some length here: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV) The question always is, How can mere processes of projective imagination gain any ground on which such imagining and experiencing the world through others actually proves efficacious and informative. When Spinoza says “If we imagine a thing like us” is there a concrete, or real “like us” which makes this process gain traction and ultimately real? If we take up Spinoza’s Letter 17 musings on the prophetic, and if we grant that essence participation is fundamental to the access of at least some of our intellectual activity and awarenesses, it would seem that the imitation of the affects is an imaginary expression “in the wake of” real intellectual, ideational unions, unions which vary by degrees of adequacy and being. The question is not whether we can have adequate ideas of external, particular things, but rather how adequate ideas express themselves in varying degrees of our occasions of cybernetic union with things in the world. It is for this that Spinoza wants us to concentrate on “real beings” which constitute our very combinative participation with those things we know, use and ultimately love.

Revelation in the Wake of Intellect

Lastly, this would suggest, that if our world being – quite in contrast with Heidegger is not a “thrown-into-ness” of alienation – is one of a necessarily participation and overlapping, boundary-defying mutuality of expression, in which our knowing of things is to some degree our being them (Campanella), then our imaginations may very well be capable of producing phenomenal presentations of our futures, however confusedly, in much the same fashion that Peter Balling foresaw his son via participation. Additionally, it is my suspicion that Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian slave was no mere random eruption of the physical states of his body, as he would have it, but likely an expression, however mitigated, of the actual relations of Spinoza to the Jewish community back in Amsterdam, and the slave trade discussed some here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question.


Spinoza “Following the Traces of the Intellect”: Powers of Imagining

How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

My discussions with Eric Schliesser on the issue of a skepticism towards mathematical (and empirical observation) knowledge have continued (my recent post). Between us has raised the subject of just what Imaginary Knowledge is for Spinoza. I think that this is an important point for anyone studying Spinoza’s epistemology, and it occurs to me that the fascinating letter to Peter Balling contains some very important distinctions on this front, at least some worth posting. As I expressed to Eric in private correspondence, I take as exemplary of Imaginaray knowledge Spinoza’s thought that we imagine the Sun to be much closer to us than it actually is:

Similarly, when we look at the sun, we imagine it about 200 ft. away from us, an error that does not consist simply in this imagining, but in the fact that while imagine it in this way, we are ignorant of its true distance and the cause of this imagining– E2p35sch

For Spinoza I think, imaginary knowledge is really phenomenological experience, that is something akin to what he calls “thinking in pictures”. It is the way that we “picture” the world. And when we picture the sun as being only about 200 ft away (I’m not sure who does picture it that way), we are in a state of confusion. Spinoza actually is borrowing this example from Descartes’ La Dioptrique, Sixth Discourse, where Descartes explains the phenomena as a product of the brightness of the Sun and the shrinking of the pupil. No doubt Spinoza has Descartes’ explanation in mind when he qualifies this imaginary knowledge via the combination of the sun’s essence and our own body’s essence, a causal relationship of which we can remain ignorant:

…For we imagine the sun so near, not because we do not know its true distance, but because an affection of our body involves the essence of the sun insofar as our body is affected by the sun (ibid.)

While I agree with Eric’s claim that Scientific/Mathematical knowledge cannot give us access to the essences of external things, I do think it a mistake to not see that such knowledge in fact works to increase our awareness of the causes of things, and thereby increase our agency in the world (a primary Spinoza aim). In fact in Spinoza’s example he relates what he takes to be a fact about the size of the Sun, giving it a diameter of 600 times that of the Earth. Clearly Spinoza regards the latter figure as more correct than the former (and the even more correct answer, apparently, is that the Sun is 109 earth diameters). Spinoza is contrasting these two knowledges of the sun. It makes little sense at all say that both knowledges of the sun are merely “imaginary”.

What we can say is that if we picture the sun 200 ft away, and we picture  the sun to be 600 earth diameters, both are forms of imaginary knowledge (as Spinoza’s incorrect diameter figure may attest). Imagining the world to be a certain way, phenomenologically, is key to our ability to find our way around in it. Imagining is a good thing.  But what must be accounted for is the difference between the powers of imagining it one way (200 ft away) and another (109 earth diameters). This is not just a difference in “usefulness” (which itself must be qualified and explained), but an increase in our ability to act in the world – knowing the size and distance of the sun actually allows us to do such things as send probes into space. In my view, any of these increases in the capacity to act, however they manifest themselves in imaginary or phenomenological experiences, must be understood as Ideational increases in adequacy (admitting with both Eric Schliesser and Micheal Della Rocca that we can never have completely adequate ideas about the external world).

Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

So, of what does this difference of pictures consist? An important clue to what Spinoza means by “imaginary” and its relationship to the intellect can be found in his letter to Peter Balling in 1664, a copy of the full text is included at the end of this past post: How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?. I will address the usual reading of the letter in which Spinoza responds to his friend Peter Balling’s account of a premonition he hauntingly received of his very recent son’s death. A certain “rasping” he imagined, a difficulty in breathing apparently long before his son took mortally ill. This is really a striking letter for Spinoza theorizes about the different sources of imaginary experiences, retelling his own account of a waking dream; but also for our purposes how he in this letter reasons that the imaginary follows the intellect exposes why picturing the Sun one way is better than picturing it another way.

Spinoza suggests to Balling that there are two sources for imaginary experiences. There are dispositions of the body, for instance how a fever might compel a hallucination, and then there is the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione] which may produce imaginary experiences of a different power; a power even perhaps capable of foresaging the future. I think that there are some significant problems with such a dichotomy of sources as the parallel postulate and also the definition of the soul as the idea of the body pretty much make such split extremely difficult imagine or justify (a problem perhaps to be resolved with an appeal to levels of conscious awareness or to shared ideas); but we may by-pass that for the moment. What is key is that Spinoza tells Peter Balling that indeed, because his soul partook in the very essence of his son’s soul by virtue of his very powerful love, making them literally and ontologically One, he was able to imagine his son’s future, however confusedly. In short, the father’s confused premonition of his son’s breathing actually is born out of an ideal, for Spinoza, intellectual relationship. And as such his imaginary experience held or expressed a certain power.

However skeptical one might be of such an extreme example, in his explanation Spinoza provides the very framework by which we can consider what imaginary knowledge is. To put it briefly, the phenomenological picturing of the world, how we experience it to be, bears a dependent relationship to our ideational states and thus our relationships to others. Spinoza says that the imagination follows the traces of the Intellect:

We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione]; for, as we know by experience, in all things it follows the traces of the Intellect [vestigia in omnibus sequitur], and its images and words out of an order, just as the demonstrations of the Intellect, it organizes, so one after another it connects; so that I submit that there is hardly nothing to discern [intelligere] by which the imagination will not, from a trace [vestiglia], form some image.

Aside from the Balling issue, here we have a key connective between the images of the imagination and the ideas of the soul. The way that we phenomenologically experience (or even in fantasy dream up) the world follows the traces of the Intellect.  We can also read a certain parallel between the physiological sources of the illusion that the Sun is 200 ft away (as explained by Descartes) and the physiological sources of a fevered hallucination in the letter to Balling. In each there is an illusion which involves a certain ignorance of the causes of its production. In the case rather of the picturing of the Sun’s accurate size and the father’s premonition of a death, Spinoza reads the imaginary event as following the traces of the Intellect, the connections of our ideas. When we ideationally understand something about the world, there is almost nothing which we understand which will not produce a produced image.

Again I think Spinoza is a little inconsistent in his theory of two sources, but we have here the groundwork for understanding why one image of the sun is superior to another. The scientific calculation and observation of the sun and other celestial bodies, using the entia rationis which are maths, help composes a sequence of related and dependent ideas, upon the traces of which the imagination will form images. The real, rational processes of intellectual progression which composes scientific explanation of the sun and much else allow a more productive imagination of how the world is.

The Actions of Calculation

But in keeping with Eric Schliesser’s thesis that scientific observation or mathematical calculation can never produce the very essences of external things, and that Nature cannot be adequately rendered in, or reduced to, a mathematical language, Spinoza tells us that an ens rationis should not be confused with ens reale. That is to say in another way, the semiotic impact of a difference in thought which constitutes its ontological force, is not to be confused with whatever it is supposed to be describing or referring to. When I am rationally calculating as a mathematician or a Scientist I am changing my ontological lean towards the World (Substance, Nature), gaining or losing degrees of Being with the coherence of my thought which connects me to others and the world, providing traces for imaginings, but I am necessarily not describing the World precisely or absolutely adequately as it is. My actions as a finite being are always connective and collaborating, but not subsuming.

Put far less opaquely, the rational work that we do as we link our more clearly conceived thoughts to each other (in whatever field), is to construct an armature upon which we are better able to imagine or phenomenologically experience the world. The web of our more adequate ideas composes the traces upon which our more powerful imaginings are built. This can be said to be the case whether in terms of ideology or physical fact. It is not that we are to dismiss the imaginary or phenomenological, but rather to build the most far-reaching and connective imaginations/experiences possible. And it is here that we receive our explanation for what Spinoza likely meant in Letter 12 when he called Number an “aid [auxilia] to the imagination” all the while identifying it as an ens rationis. What is an aid to the imagination (which strives to imagine that which increases the body’s power of acting – E3p12), is that which allows its images to be related to the greatest number of causes. Because the imagination follows the traces of the intellect, the more adequate our ideas, the more powerful our imaginings. And in a very real sense, the imagination of the sun being 200 ft away is related to a greater number of, one might say, constituent causes than the image of the sun being 109 earth diameters.

More thoughts on the powers of Imagination in Spinoza’s framework: Spinoza and the Caliban Question and Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Spinoza and State Torture and Other Unfeeling Things

Eric asked a very important question in response to my post on Spinoza, Cybernetics and Chaoplexity. I repost my answer if for no other reasons that it sketches out in its links significant ramifications of the theoretical interpretation of what an affect is, and the role of empathy in social consciousness. Additionally, the idea of a hidden imitation of God prescription of State Torture by Spinoza of course would be highly provocative. The post is a little scatter shot, but is meant as a resource nexus, perhaps as a knot for further discussion.

Eric asks of Spinoza’s theory:

“So as an ideal, we would feel neither pleasure or pain connected with an idea of an external cause?

Wouldn’t, then, our capacity for empathetic relations be eliminated?”

There are several ways I can think to answer this question, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to really sink into this with the respect that it deserves and will have to rely upon past posts for explanation (feel free to question more deeply if you would like).

The Reality of the Affects: Della Rocca and Deleuze

First of all, there is debate among Spinozists whether in fact affects exist at all for Spinoza. M. Della Rocca, one of my favorite writers on Spinoza thinks that they do not (while Deleuze thinks that they do). I wrote on Della Rocca’s position in this post, Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

And here is Deleuze on What an Affect is, some of the clearest explication he ever produced on Spinoza, lecture Cours Vincennes – 24/01/1978.

Here is Lilly Alanen’s rebuttal to Della Rocca: Spinoza’s Reason and the Reality of the Affects

I personally feel that both Deleuze and Della Rocca have it wrong on the question of “representation”, each in different ways, and I am not convinced by Alanen’s rebuttal. I questioned Della Rocca about both Deleuze’s position and the role of representation in his explantions. If I recall correctly he told me that he regards Deleuze as fundamentally wrong on the question of the reality of the affects, and that he is not as commited to the idea that ideas “represent” as he once had been.

Two Paths to the Social

Second of all, and pointed towards the question of empathy, Spinoza argues that there are two paths towards social order. The first is imaginary and based upon the empathy (and valuation) that binds, producing both affinity bonds between persons and emnities (which are also bonds). The second is a path of reason, which which does not rely explicitly on feeling the same as others, but rather in realizing the mutuality of benefits and uses that holds persons together in support.

Balibar remains unsurpassed in explicating these two braids of social reasoning, and I provide both a brief summation and a PDF copy of the argument that Balibar puts forth here:

Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

Spinoza and Unfeeling State Torture

Thirdly, the issue of empathy does have some extra-theoretical consequences for Spinoza I believe, in particular that Spinoza prescribes a be-like-God path to freedom, wherein God is a being that has no affects of any kind.

I have argued before that Spinoza actually provides something of a template for State Torture, in that a Totalitarian State manifests something of the same relationship to its enunciative citizenry as Substance does it its living modes (at least one can find homologies):

Spinoza’s Logic of Affects and an Ontology of Torture

I find this quite interesting, as far as I know, no one has argued this point before. (I would love to hear if others have come across it.)

Pure Affective Production and Social Making

Lastly though, as I tried to express in the post on Cybernetics and Chaoplexity, affects in Spinoza are to be read as transitions in power, bodily juxtapositions between thresholds. As such, the social world (including human and non-human actors) are ever in affective communication. And if indeed Spinoza is arguing against empathy, it is the common empathy of valuation, whereby one projects essential good/evil ascriptions to objects or events based upon our empathetic investments in others.

What Spinoza is calling for, at least in the Chaoplexic framework of the answer, is the severing of the physical affectio/feeling affectus from the additional idea of external causes (as essentialized), such that the affect itself provides a material progressive path when combined with our other breadth thinking.

The path is not all that different than that advocated by Buddhism. There is indeed a causal chain of effects, but the mind’s inordinate ascription of the power of cause to external events such that the mind is forced to hop here and there in reactive, ping-pong ball fashion, is the very thing that causes suffering. It is just that Spinoza’s argument extends more deeply into the social fabric, into the weavings of our mutual investments.

It seems to me that if we allow the intra-threshold pursuit as central to Spinoza’s vision, what he is prescribing is not a path of empathy (though certainly imagining others as ourselves is core to social reality), but of affective construction, of learning how to let affects speak without their simplified and attendant explanations, such that as streams between fixity and turbulance, they braid into each other.

Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

Recently though I have been reading Michael Della Rocca’s essay, “The Power of an Idea: Spinoza’s Critique of Pure Will,” and despite my embrace of its conclusion as to the radically anti-Cartesian nature of 2p49, something of its intermediate conclusions troubled me. I may not fully understand the position, or it may be simply that I understand it, and disagree with it slightly.

It is Della’s Rocca’s conclusion that all modes of thought are indeed only those of ideas, and thus, of representations that confuses me. I do understand how he uses this principle causal reading of Spinoza to deny any possibility of a mental x (non-representational, will) determining a mental y (idea). But for me the difficulty arises with the nature of affects themselves, for while Spinoza certainly has argued that there is no will which determines which ideas we hold, it seems rather that the ideas that we hold indeed do determine the affects we have, and these affects are to be understood as “modes of thought”. I will go over this point a few times, so feel free to skip the examples.

What struck me was his exclusive reading of modes of thought so to be “fully reduced” to ideas was this kind of argumentative aim, as he writes, “I would also show, more generally, that there can be no item in thought, and thus no states of desire, hope, love, etc. that do not reduce fully to ideas” (Nous, 220).

I am unsure of just what he means to say, “states of x” are “fully reduced to ideas”. Is he reading an affect of Joy or desire to be an “item in thought”, even though it is defined as a transition that is “accompanied by”, and presumably not identical with, an idea? I might tend to agree that “representational content does all the causal work in the mind” for Spinoza (ibid), but something seems amiss here; if one is to fully describe Spinoza’s theory of the affects this something seems to be an account of the very degree of perfection of the ideas themselves. For the degree of the perfection of ideas determines the affect one has, and the very transition from one degree of perfection as a bodily power affirmation, (as found in the definitions of Joy and Sadness) should be considered a mode of thought, and perhaps a non-representational mode at that: for love itself apart from what is loved (Joy), represents nothing. In fact 2ax3 it would appear makes just this kind of distinction, an affect taken to be mode of thinking which is not its necessarily accompanying idea.

So we see the possible non-representational nature of affective modes of thought in a few places.

First, Spinoza in his attempt to deal with volition apart from desire presents representation-type model, (2p48s: “by will I understand a faculty…not the desire by which the mind wants a thing or avoids it”), gives his affirmations of a triangular example which he cites [the relationship between the ideas of a triangle and the angles therein]. Yet, in his General Definition of the Affects, he presents a very different kind of affirmation, that which is affirmed in examples of inadequate thought; here it is not some rational entailment as to the nature of the idea to itself (triangle/right angles), but of the body a degree of force of existing, or perfection. This affirmation of a degree of perfection seems to be a non-representational mode of thought, that is, it is only “born out of an idea” orta ex idea (for instance in the definition of the affect of Confidence), but remains distinct from that idea. We see this same distinction between the idea and the transition itself marked out in the definitions of Love, “Love is a Joy [an increase in perfection] with the accompaniment of (concomitante) an idea of an external cause”. What an idea affirms, that is, the mode of its thought, seems of paramount importance. In the instance of love, what is being affirmed as represented, is the idea of an external cause, but what is being affirmed (non-representatively) is the very power of the body to exist, in a specific degree. The question is, is “affirmation” necessarily representational (and not say, expressional).

For Spinoza, the modes of inadequate thinking are componented as to what they affirm, and what they represent. For instance, if I think I am saddened by a man betraying me (Hate), this is an affirmation of the belief that he is the cause of my sadness, (thus the idea is taken as a true representation of the causal explanation as to my state); but also by this very idea the Mind acts to affirm a weakening force of the body to exist such that it does exist to a lesser degree. Is this affirmation a “representation”? Spinoza says that it is a kind of representation, that is, it is something that “indicates or expresses” indicare vel exprimere the constitution of the body. But the very transition itself into a less real state, the feeling of sadness coming out of the idea which “constitutes the form of the affect”, does not seem a representation as we take the word.

This may of course have consequences for the nature of consciousness, that which “determines the mind to think this rather than that” (General Definitions of the Affects). Spinoza writes at 2p18s, defining Memory as “the certain connection of ideas involving the nature of things outside the body” and that this connection is the connection of the “affections of the human body”. Thus there is a kind of shadow parallel postulate which mirrors the parallel postulate of 2p7. There is the order and connection of ideas and things which is the same at the adequate level; but there is the order and connection of ideas about the nature of external things, and the affections of the body which are the same at the inadequate level. Of this second order, we think of an apple when we hear the word “apple” because the affections of our body are such that these have coincided, the hearing and the seeing. Presumably, this is also because in each affection, we have had the affect of joy, in that the Mind has affirmed in our body a greater degree of existing, transited (transito) to a greater perfection of being. These are two “orders” so to speak, the order of causal explanations provided by the Intellect’s ideas (2p18s), and the order of the affections of the body which produce the affirmations of the body, and affects via inadequate ideas. Both orders are modes of thinking, but how essentially representational, I am not sure. The first affirms and negates conceptually (as in the case of triangles), the second through its inadequate ideas “indicates or expresses” the degrees of being of the body, whose shifts (states of Joy, Sadness and Desire) do not seem represented.

This is the same fundamental tension which exists in the way he wants to talk about the will (voluntatem ). On the one had, it is a faculty (facultatem ) of presumably ideational affirmation and negation (2p48s); and yet he still wants to define Desire (Cupiditas) by its strivings, impulses, appetites and volitions (volitiones), which are as manifold (varia ) as with the constitution (constitutione ) of each man that is manifold (hominis…varii ), taking as their objects the very bodily states themselves; that is to say, volitions follow the order of bodily affections (Definition of the Affects, I). The faculty of voluntatem which rests with the affirmations and negations of ideas, and the inadequate production of volitiones result in two kinds of affirmations, and two different notions of representation. One affirmation occurs at the ideational level with adequate ideas, such as one does when discussing the ideas of triangles, (a triangle and not a circle), with no reference to the body at all, and one that occurs at the seemingly non-representational affective transition, “born of” inadequate ideas/images which indicate a degree of being of the body, affirming that, through the order of its affections.

What makes an idea=representation equivalence confusing is that Spinoza would like to distinguish ideas from images (“fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”), yet each can be taken as a representation. What Spinoza privileges as a true idea, what I would read as “an idea insofar as it is an idea” (2p49) isn’t really a representation in the usual sense, that is, it is not an idea about the nature of an external thing (that is, it does not literally re-present it). The intellect, insofar as it affirms or negates, understands things through their first causes, it explains them (2p18s). Thus, the intellectual Idea of God or Substance explains modal reality, but does not represent it, except perhaps in the most Scholastic of senses.

Axiom 3, Ethics Part II: There are no modes of thinking, such as love, desire, or whatever is designated by the word affects of the mind, unless there is in the same Individual the idea of the thing loved, desired, etc. But there can be an idea, even though there is no other mode of thinking.

I think key to reading 2ax3, on which Della Rocca’s interpretation rests, is understanding that when Spinoza writes “There are no modes of thinking, such as love…unless there is the idea of the thing loved,” he announces that the affect of loving (Joy), is a non-representational mode of thinking (already admitted by the axiom as distinct) which is concomitant to a representational, affirming mode of thought (inadequate idea) regarding an the external thing. That is, the affect arises out of the idea, but is distinct from it.

I agree with his thought, “Spinoza claims that because an idea cannot be conceived without a certain affirmation, and because that affirmation cannot be conceived without the idea, it follows, given Spinoza’s conception of essence (2def2), that affirmation pertains to the essence of the idea, and that the affirmation is identical with the idea” (Nous, 202). But we must distinguish between adequate and inadequate ideas. It is the particularity of the affirmation which marks it as such. The rational affirmation that is involved in the Intellect’s understanding through first causes, is not the same affirmation involved in affects as passions, though the latter can be explained through the former. Spinoza views all ideas, insofar as they are in the mind of God, as true. That is, what they affirm and negate constitute their essence. But in instances where we are not thinking of triangles, but inadequately of external objects, what is being affirmed is not the ratio of angles unto a conception of triangles, but a power of the body, an affirmation which is largely, if not entirely unconscious.

As I look closely at 2p49, affirmations (including the affirmation of the degrees of power of the body to exist) exist because they are involved by ideas (involvit ) insofar they are ideas. This quatenus idea est, can only mean as far as I can tell, ideas as opposed to images, adequate ideas as opposed to inadequate ideas, ideas as they are taken to be in the mind of God. The difficulty with strictly equating this aspect of affirmation (that of an idea insofar as it is an idea) with belief, is that it would be at the level of strictly true belief. As one passes from the strong notion of adequate ideas, to the weaker notion, what is being affirmed, by Spinoza’s definition of affect and inadequate idea, has changed. The affirmation (and negation) which at the level of adequate ideas would constitute true belief, at the level of affects is an affirmation of the body’s capacity to act. Indeed, having ideas of any sort is a kind of belief, an affirmation. But what is being affirmed seems for Spinoza to slide along a gradated, asymptotic line, at whose pinnacle adequate ideas as explanations of the causes of things, affirm and negate the internal particularities of those ideas; but insofar as they are not (true) ideas, they produce a non-representational change in the body’s power. These affective affirmations of the body may be said to be “enfolded by, wrapped by” adequate ideas which involve them involvere, but are they “reduced to” those ideas, for their effects remain modally distinct, as expressions?


I am thinking of a description of affects I once found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza, one which made me think deeply about the restrictions Della Rocca was placing on mental action; it lead me to my close reading of Della Rocca’s line of thought. Deleuze writes, explaining the fundamental difference between an idea and an affect:

“Thus we start from a quite simple thing: the idea is a mode of thought defined by its representational character. This already gives us a first point of departure for distinguishing idea and affect (affectus) because we call affect any mode of thought which doesn’t represent anything. So what does that mean? Take at random what anybody would call affect or feeling, a hope for example, a pain, a love, this is not representational. There is an idea of the loved thing, to be sure, there is an idea of something hoped for, but hope as such or love as such represents nothing, strictly nothing. Every mode of thought insofar as it is non-representational will be termed affect”

(Cours Vincennes – 24/01/197eight)

Deleuze, whatever one makes of him, reads affects as essentially non-representational modes of thought; this seems to answer at first blush Della Rocca’s position “…this argument rule[s] out other modes of thought not ultimately ideas or representational states” (Nous, 220). This depends on what he means by “ultimately”. It would also depend on what one means by “representational content”. For, in his essay he seems to often take as identical in meaning, idea and representation. Yet as Spinoza distinguishes between idea and image (2p49s), and Della Rocca understands image to be the means by which the mind represents an “external state of affairs” (Nous, 210; via 2p17); just how “representational” are the affirmations of adequate ideas, for they are not representing external states of affairs (alone), but rather are explaining them. It seems rather, what is taken as “representational” in the usual sense, for instance the idea of a frog, that frog there, insofar as it makes me think of this or that, feel this or that, is merely for Spinoza an image, and not an idea proper.

I think this disjunction in what representation means can be seen in the way that the different kinds of affirmations are approached by Spinoza. Those of triangles and the such, by the intellect, involve no reference at all to states of the body itself, even though, all ideas in the Mind are supposed to take as their object the Body as it actually exists, an object in fact constituted (constituentis) by that state of the body (2p13). When discussing our ideas of triangles (and what they are supposed to represent, if we take such ideas to be fundamentally representational), there is no mention at all of the actual object of those ideas, the human body. Spinoza does not, in fact cannot say with any sense, “the idea that the two angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is affirmed because the body is in actual state x, which forms the actual object of this idea of the mind”.

The conflation of image representations and idea representations seems to undermine the thought that there can be no “interaction between…ideas and any non-ideas” (Nous, 223). While I certainly agree that there is no room for a Cartesian free will as an explanatory cause of belief in ideas, what does not seem supported by Spinoza in that he takes representations (inadequate ideas) to be unconscious affirmations of the body which give “rise to” shifts in perfection, transitions which are not representational in character. In the end, Spinoza actually seems to invert Descartes, and makes what we commonly take as “will,” the products of consciousness and choice, a non-representational, ontological effect, caused by largely representational states (inadequate ideas, images of external states), and these inadequate representational states in turn to be further caused by Intellectual affirmations and negations, which in the mind of God are less “representations” in the common sense term, as immanent expressions of modal states of the world, as ideas.

Key becomes the question, are the risings and fallings of degrees of power of the body to exist (and act), those transitions to and from perfection, to be considered “modes of thought” or of some alternate category, neither extension nor thought. There seems no room in Spinoza’s ontology for this third category.

I wonder if I have misunderstood a vital component of Della Rocca’s argument. I can certainly see how it makes clear the very nature of Spinoza’s radical refutation of Descartes, but I feel that some of his uses of “representation” go too far to adequately capture what Spinoza means by affect.


Michael Della Rocca is in my mind the clearest expositor of Spinoza living, and teaching at Yale. Highly recommended, his Represenation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza.

Closely related posts: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order ; Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens ; Wasps, Orchids, Beetles, Crickets