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A Few Random Thoughts…Spinoza, Descartes, Latour

Descartes philosophized laying in bed, it is said, and Spinoza did so at the work bench where he ground lenses during the day. A difference in affects of philosophy.

Genevieve Lloyd says in her “Male, Metaphor, and the Crisis of Reason” that female designates the undifferentiated, and that the male designates the de-gendered soul to be appropriated by (male) Reason, while female designates that which is marked by gender (sex), by virtue of its alignment with the Body. One wonders, is Spinoza’s Substance to be read as feminine (perhaps here is where Schelling tries to grasp him)? Plotinus’s move of the One (Hen) is a quick shuffling from “male” (progenitor) to “female” (engendering) in a single line (Ennead V ii, 1).  She also says that Descartes was caught up in the analogy of motions of the mind (no doubt conflating physics and mentality). Is this why Spinoza thinks of the agency not as a motion, but as a shift in Being, and not an act of Will? Is all transparency masculine? Is there not a transparency of body? Are Latour’s black boxes female holes in the materiality of the body? Is it not the case that instead of a world of black boxes we have orbs of transparency?

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Spinoza, Infinite Substance, and Kabbalah Influence

Math Unto Infinities of Different Sizes and Badiou

I’ve been looking into the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s ontology and epistemology, and been having some discussion with Eric Schliesser with whom I agree: Spinoza is a skeptic in terms of a stable, mathematical knowledge of nature via mathematical thought and operation. This of course is rather counter intuitive considering the heavily rationalistic interpretation of Spinoza in the last century, and the rather strong circumstantial evidence of his more geometrico form of his Ethics, which seems to announce the primacy of mathematical knowledge.

There is also a timely subject matter to these questions, at least in these circles of blogged conversation, as Badiou’s Cantor-inspired Set Theory framing of Being runs right up against and perhaps turning upon the onto-epistemic standing of maths in Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from any critique that Spinoza might offer Badiou’s Being a la maths, there is the provocative historical fact that Cantor’s Set Theory was heavily influenced by early study of Spinoza, in particular his position on kinds of Infinity and questions of divisibility. Spinoza represents a kind of Ur-figure in the concepts Badiou make central, so getting a firm grasp of Spinoza’s differences seems contemporaneously a significant thing to have.

The Door of Heaven and Spinoza’s Early Influences

But in this post, given my personal context, I simply want to post a significant passage on the connection between some of Spinoza’s most elementary ideas, and the thesis that Spinoza was strongly influenced by concepts found in the Kabbalah and the Zohar. Long have I noticed the similarities, and have even come upon other sources outlining them, but it seems that it is a fact/thesis that often get forgotten – some of Spinoza’s most significant contributions to philosophy, not to mention his involute and sometimes sublated Neoplatonism, are best reflected in the ideas found  in this religious thinking. It is good to provide a googable link and easy reference for those who have not thought about it much.

The best Spinoza interpreters continued to link the great philosopher with the doctrines of the authentic Kabbalah, especially those of the Zohar. One of the most important among them was Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, a German Jesuit whose book Der Junge de Spinoza/ is still a classic hardly ever matched by more recent publications. Dunin-Borkowski has a full chapter called “Kabbalistische Wanderfahrten” (Kabbalist travels). A subdivision of it reads (pp. 176-90): “Der Ursprung der Mysticism-Kabbalah und die Urkeime des Spinozismus” (The origin of Mystericism-Kabbalah and the first germs of budding Spinozism). The author stresses that “a higher form of cognition of all finite things, a cognition of God and the light of eternity in the Kabbalah as well as in De Spinoza appears as the highlight of Ethics“. According to him, there was a highly developed older and intermediary type of Jewish mysticism prevailing beside the Kabbalahin the thirteenth century, and the Talmudists had already conceived the existence of mediators between God and the Universe. From these mystics, he concludes, an infinitely long and slow but almost straight evolution leads, through the ideas of the (kabbalistic) sephiroth and the neoplatonic emanations, directly to the basic concepts of the natura naturans and the first links of the natura naturata  in Spinoza’s system. Dunin-Borkowski, in contrast to Heinrich Grätz, the well-known historian of Jews in Germany, calls the sephiroth in the Sepher Jetzirah (Book of Creation) of the Zohara “highly advanced evolution of the secret philosophy of the Talmud, a groping for a link with secular science, an important transitional work pointing to the speculation of the oldest gaonitic religious philosophers. The concept of the En Sof, the Endless or Boundless one, Dunin-Borkowski continues, dominates the Zoharto the same extent as it will later be prevalent in Spinoza’s mind. And here we encounter exactly the same determinations which by so many thinkers and scholars consider a fundamental clevage between Judiasm and Spinozism. God (the En Sof) cannot be designated by any known attributes. He is best called Ayin (the undeterminable). Hence, in order to make His existence known to all, the Diety was obliged (or, what amounts to the same thing, wishes) to reveal Himself at least to a certain extent. But the En Sof, being boundless, cannot become the direct creator, for he has neither will, intention, desire, thought, language nor action, attributes which belong only to finite beings. The En Sof, therefore, made His existence known in the creation of the world by the ten sephiroth, which flowing directly from Him, partake of His perfection and infinity.

These substances or emanations are parts of one another, as sparks are part of the same flame; yet they are, at the same time, distinguished from one another, as are different colours of the same light…The pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar  have become of the highest significance for Spinoza. For there the sephirah “wisdom” forms a perfect unity with the crown and the En Sof. “They are like three heads which, actually, form only one. Everything is connected and linked together in the one whole (the universe). Between the Universe and the Ancient One (God) there is no distinction at all. All is One, and He is all – without distinction and separation.He who describes the sephiroth as separated from one another, destroys God’s unity’.

But Dunin-Borkowski has made another important discovery. The concepts of the Kabbalah were first transmitted to young Spinoza in a rather palatable contemporary version, i.e. Abraham (Alonzo) Herrera’s famous book Door of Heaven. It was written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew by Isaac Aboab. This work, which dealt with Kabbalistic philosophy, was a favorite sourcebook of Baruch’s noted Talmud teachers, Saul Levi Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. In 1678 (one year after Spinoza’s death), a Latin version appeared under the title Sha’ar Hashomayim  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”Hashomayim “>seu Porta Coelorum. In quo Dogmata Cabbalistica Philosophorum proponuntur et cum philosophiae Platonis conferuntur.

Herrera himself had already died in 1639, and young Baruch absorbed the contents of Door of Heaven just during those most decisive years of mental development when the imprint of new ideas of strongest and everlasting in every budding intellectual. He read, of course, the book in its Hebrew version, the language he mastered best up to his death (despite his somewhat clumsy Latin publications and Dutch letters).

According to Herrera, there is on original substance with an infinite extension. Outside it, there are only divine modiwhich are all encompassed in that original substance, the En Sof, even in the potentialities. Thus, there is a created (finite) and a non-created (infinite) State of God, i.e. both God in His proper sense and the Universe; but God is and remains the immanent cause of all things, and the “Universe is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God”. Therefore, we find in the “Lexicon Cabbalisticum” (a chapter of the Door of Heaven) the unequivoked statement: “the acceptance of this unity is part and parcel of the faith of every genuine Israelite; we must believe that the Infinite manifests Himself in all His modi through the unity” (my italics). There is one substance, Herrera stresses, with infinite properites. It is determining itself by a multitude of infinite beings which are, however, nothing but its modifications. God is One and Many at the same time – one in so far as He is infinite; many in so far as He determines Himself in His attributes and modi. These modi cannot exist nor be understood without the Divine One inherent and indwelling in them. Everything is one in God(my italics). Dunin-Borkowski reaches the following conclusion: “Especially the first five treatises of the book [Herrera’s Door of Heaven] explain that only blind prejudice can overlook this source of Spinoza’s.

“Spinoza and Kabbalah” by Henry Walter Brann,  in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings (2001), edited by Genevieve Lloyd

If Spinoza had read The Door of Heaven  it was likely before the age of 15, but really the Kabbalah was a prevalent conceptual touch-stone at this time due to messianic stirrings in the political realm. In any case, as I see it, Spinoza’s Kabbalistic influence seems likely, and it is noteworthy that Brann reads the Kabbalistic impulse, along with its mathematical preoccupations, as part of the attempt of mysticism to come to grips with the power of science. In a certain sense Spinoza’s system can be seen as an extremely rigorous, scientific and literal radicalization of both the religious impulse of the Kabbalah, but also its political force (an immanent unity towards a freedom through communication, an offspring of Renaissance revolutionary conceptions of civil transformation). In a more particular view towards the question of the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s system, the Kabbalistic influence of an insistently Infinite and unbroken Substance helps interpret the power of Spinoza’s seemingly anti-mathematical stance in his letter 12 to Meyer, wherein he declared mathematics imaginary in origin. Perhaps we get a glimpse of just how Spinoza conceived that it is through the Intellect that we see any quantity as infinite and undividable into finite parts, despite our ability through mathematics to divide quantities with incredible facility and clarity.  Additionally, Spinoza’s pantheism, (the issue under which the Catholic Cantor most firmly staked his objection of Spinoza), understood as a position taken upon mathematical infinity and set=making itself, may help provide the most robust correction to Badiou’s mathematical ontologies.

Spinoza’s “Spring Pole” Lathe: Experience to Metaphysics and Back

Spinoza’s Practiced Knowing

I mentioned in my recent post on the likely design of Spinoza’s grinding lathe that the dynamics of the Hevelius’ spring pole lathe may be tied to Spinoza’s ideas of Substance and the modes, such that one would be able to see how the epistemo-kinetic experiences Spinoza had during his many hours, days and years of lens grinding on such a lathe may have bore influence upon his metaphysical conceptions.

Here I want to take up this intuition, and perform the appropriate visualizations that would allow us, if for a moment, to picture what Spinoza’s body went through in communications with his device. In this way we might place ourselves, materially and affectively, in a relationship to his ideas, such that reading them alone in text would not allow (even if this goes against what one could argue is Spinoza’s rationalist program of understanding). That is, in short, one hopes to understand through body and affect what ideas Spinoza thought at the most abstract of levels, through their causal origins; for we can follow what Spinoza wrote, “experience can determine our mind to think…of certain essences of things” (Ep. 10), and assume that a similiarity of experiences may determine us to think of a similarity of essences. If we attain the experiences Spinoza underwent which determined him to think of certain essences (in his terms), this I believe can provide clarification to the same thoughts reached through his geometric pedogogy alone. 

The Horizontal and the Vertical: An Initial Philosophical Platform

Further below is an illustration of the tension dynamic of a spring pole lathe, as taken from Hevelius (second diagram). But first in order to follow my thinking here I want to insert a most revealing point made by Gatens and Lloyd in their critique of Hegel’s critique of Spinoza. As they point out, Hegel, while in great praise of Spinoza, felt that he did not embrace the full reality of the “negation”, Hegel’s personal contribution to the progress of philosophy and mankind. Spinoza’s description from Hegel’s point of view simply collapses into an acosmism, an undifferentitated whole of Substance, leaving no specific reality for either rocks, lakes or most importantly Man. In examining Hegel’s objection, Gatens and Lloyd introduce the vectoral notion of verticality and horizontality. It is suggested that Hegel’s problem is that he is only thinking of the “vertical” relationship of the modes to Substance, their individual, expressive relationship to the Totalizing whole. I quote at length here from the two authors because it is a very good paragraph, as they make an extremely important point:

Hegel’s critique of Spinoza thus focuses on the relation between individual mode and Substance. His complaint is that Spinoza cannot coherently articulate that relation without collapsing the infinite mode back into Substance; Substance remains undetermined, undifferentiated, while the individual mode is merely negative. But this is to miss the other dimension of Spinoza’s treatment of the finite modes -their mutual interaction, in which the determining force of Substance is mediated through the whole interconnected network of modes. Hegel’s critique of Spinoza is oriented, as it were, to the vertical relation between Substance and individual mode, rather than to the horizontal relation in which finite modes act on and are acted on by one another. Here, along the horizontal axis of finite modes, the claim that determination involves negation can be seen not as a repudiation of finite individuals but as an insight into their interdependence (71)

– Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings, chapter 3 “Re-imagining Responsibility”

Gatens and Lloyd are making clear the a key emphasis Spinoza places on modal expressions, as real, when included in our own constructive and immanent projects of freedom. I would graph out the differentiation that they find in Spinoza in this way:

I would parenthetically add to Gatens and Lloyd’s point that the reason why Hegel is thinking solely about the verticality of the modes is that the binary of individual/God, (or individual/world) is one of the primary schemas of the intersubjective investigations and inculcations of European Christianity. The salvation of the soul, through its relationship to an all-encompassing God, (via various institutional mediations), was the essential dogmatic concern, and this lengthy heritage necessarily brings the philosophical focus back to this binary difficulty: how does the individual soul return to God. Hegel, because he sees man at the apex of history, primarily must read the problematic in terms of a vertical dynamic, the individual vs. the whole. But Spinoza, because he is not burdened by the primacy of man or his reflective powers, allows another dimension of analysis which Hegel cannot see: that of the horizontal. The institutional mediations of the State, Church, Family and their imaginary relationswhich simply interpose themselves as aids to an essential verticality, are by Spinoza exploded out to the ultimate horizontal limit: the infinite expression of the modes. And the imaginary status of their mediating ideas become proliferate and constitutive vectors of power, degrees of freedom, across the field of Being (if one could put it that way without too much obfuscation).

Heveliuss Selenographia (1647) Spring Pole, Foot Pedal Lathe, illustrated

Spinoza’s Lathe

I want to return to the assumed spring pole, foot pedal lathe (pictured above), to get a much more concrete, affective sense of the vertical and the horizontal in Spinoza, and how the practices of Spinoza’a lens grinding may have helped construct his metaphysical conceptions. One must recall that Spinoza spent hours upon hours at such work lens work. To grind, polish and re-polish a lens could take several days, much of it in non-stop and highly repetitive, one might even say meditative, action (Auzout in 1664 records a time of 15 days for a single objective lens). So let our attention be called to the internal dynamics depicted above, found in focus of the dotted yellow frame. Here one should picture Spinoza seated or standing at length, his foot rhythmically pushing down a vertical tension from the spring pole at the ceiling. The vertical rising and falling motion forms a kinetic warp which not only works to orient the body spatially to the height of the room, connecting consciousness from the floor boards to the ceiling, but also creates and punctuated temporality, a timed ratio to the work. Transverse to this warp is the weft of horizontal action. The oscillations of the grinding form are pulled across the body by the push and pull connectionsof the foot the ceiling pole, and distinctly lateral to the focus of concentration. Again and again for hours these up-down, left-right actions literally weave a room of fluctuating conscious attentions, in which the craftsman necessarily embraces the lived experiences of the space, aware that whatever precise spotlight of focus he may have, it is merely a part of much larger, wider degrees of perception. Against Hegel’s fear of an individual’s collapse into the undifferentiated, the agentized craftsman becomes the draw-string of every quarter of the room, a focal point of at least two vectors action, from which and to which he is a differentiated, yet interconnected and expressive part. The melding of the craftsman and his tool is more than a metaphor. It is an experiential and metaphysical certainty.

Within this dotted frame of loomed space, at its center is a rotating circle. It whips at varying speeds in response to both the intensities of the leg, and the limits of the spring pole above, in a concentric motion. It is no secret that Spinoza had great love for the circle as a diagramed exemplar of the relationship between the modes and Substance (Ethics 2p8s, pictured below), but also as an ideal of vision and the actions of optical focus (Letter 39 to Jelles, March 3rd 1667). Here, for hours on end Spinoza would stare determinitively as a rotating circular form which remained both fixed (stable in its ratio), and changing, expressing in both the consummation of the vectors of the room’s actions. One cannot help but think that such concentrated attention upon the spinning form would leave at least a conceptual imprint upon the philosophical craftsman, especially as he considered the modal expressions to be causal interactions immanent to the whole, just as internal rectangles can be considered immanent to the properties of a circle (his diagram below). It is most suggestive to see that the rotating circular form becomes a bed of friction and idea, producing realized changes in the material of glass held in Spinoza’s sensing hand.

from Ethics 2p8s
The Turning Lap

To carry our instructive analogizing further, one must look closer at the actions immediate to Spinoza’s attention as he worked his glass into the required shape.

In the scalloped metal form likely an abrasive would be applied to aid in the grinding, the light blue arrow above represents the hand’s actions upon the circular rotation. The horizontal and vertical tensions are vortexed into an oscillating circularity. There a recipe of frictions and intelligenced experiences interact to bring about an ideal result. What Antonio Negri calls the “concrete…unique terrain of reality, [the] fruit of the paradoxical determination [a metaphysical dilation of unity and multiplicity]” (The Savage Anomaly, 127), the modal “surface of the sea”, occurs here, in the turning scalloped dish, a product of the cybernetic expressions of a room, a mechanism, and man, in which the craftsman’s hand performs a living shore of perceptual action.

The Sublime Tool

If this notional leap from mechanism to conceptual metaphysics seems too great, too fantastic, I believe that this is because we do not have a strong enough sense of the bodily, affective, imaginary foundational means of immanent abstract thought, something that Spinoza’s own metaphysics works to make more clear. Further I believe we must adjust ourselves from thinking of Spinoza merely in terms of propositions and proofs, though the rhetorical form of his work certainly at first or even second glance invites us to think of him in this way. Richard Sennett for instance in his recent pragmatic and near-poetic book, The Craftsman (2008), perhaps gives us a bridge for thinking about craft and abstraction as part of one constitutive process. He invites us to understand how human progress and freedom comes by thinking through one’s tools, how tools help frame our questions and solutions. In fact this is very much how Spinoza has conceived of abstract thinking itself, as he followed Descartes’ analogy found in the 8th rule of the Regulae : just as how a blacksmith’s tools had to be originally made by simpler tools themselves, so too simple tools of the intellect are needed to make other, more complex tools of the intellect (On the Emendation of the Intellect ). In a certain sense, one needs something that hammers in order to make a hammer:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. For, in order to work iron, a hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labor and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, with small expenditure of labor, the vast number of complicated mechanisms which they now possess. So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments, or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds till it reaches the summit of wisdom.

But is our reading of Spinoza’s metaphysics anything more than simply a coincidence of horizontal and vertical vectors in the lens-grinding lathe, and Gatens and Lloyd’s horizontal and vertical spatialization of his metaphysics in defense against Hegel? Is this conflation merely accidentally bolstered by the analogy of ideas to be taken read tools in Spinoza’s very early work? I think there is much more to this than that, and that aside from the notion of the horizontal and the vertical there is a multiplicity of core principles that seem to stem from Spinoza’s unique, and one must say classed, artisan experiences. In particular we must understand that Spinoza, unlike Descartes, was through and through a practiced craftsman, an artisan by trade and value, who repetitious and refining practices which he took rather seriously must have influenced his guiding conceptions of Mind, Body, Idea and Power. In fact, it seems that it is a tooled notion of idea and body that I believe informs his vital definition of the power of the body, a defintion which will reconceptualize any of our instrumental approaches to material augment of the human body or mind:

Whatever 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 many 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.

– E4p38

Think on how this expressive yet instrumental numerical notion of power can be found within the most elementary experiences of tool use, as Richard Sennett tells us about the wonders of the flat-edged screwdriver:

…in its sheer variety this all-purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities: it, too, can expand our skills if only our imagination rises to the occasion. Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime – the word sublime standing, as it does in philosophy and the arts, for the potentially strange. In craftwork, that sentiment focuses especially on objects very simple in form that seemingly can do anything (195)

The Craftsman, Chapter Six “Arousing Tools”

I believe that Spinoza’s lifelong craft experiences with the lens-grinding lathe (among so many other simple tools) had a lasting effect on his conceptions of Mind and Body, and their necessary unification. The grinding lathe, with its intimate, indeed cybernetic, interweave of body, mind and material construction, its concentric use of the spinning semi-sphere, must have struck Spinoza as sublime in the sense that Sennett tells us. There is the evidence of Spinoza’s resistance to the sophisticated, semi-automated designs of his brilliant and wealthy neighbors the brothers Huygens ( EP 15/32 ) which tells us that Spinoza was quite hesitant to leave behind the interface of the machine with the understanding and felt hand. But it is more than this. It seems that the grinding lathe leaves its conceptual, kinetic trace all the way up through to the most abstract, and most radical of conceptions. In fact there is the very real sense in which we may read Spinoza’s Ethics (as it exists both in idea and extension) as a tool which can affect and be affected in the greatest number of ways. 

Picturing Work and the Work of Picturing

Once we have a vivid sense of the kinds of material engagements Spinoza had concerned himself with, his bodily practices of concentrated creation and refinement, we get a better sense of how Spinoza conceived of his own Rationalist, propositioned philosophical aims. From there we can place ourselves with the lived historical space of the man who lived at the cusp of our modernity, and feel something of the material and pragmatic focus of his articulations of freedom. Below is Spinoza’s rented room in Rijnsburg where he lived roughly from age 29 to 31 having fled the upheavals of Amsterdam, perhaps with concern for the return of his tuberculosis from remission. It is today’s Spinozahuis museum. As mentioned before the wood turners lathe depicted there is NOT the kind of lathe Spinoza would have used, but if you look to the upper center left of the photo you can see a hypothesized spring pole, the vertical vector of his practice. It is not known if Spinoza’s later rooms in the village of Voorburg, where it is thought that he did his most concentrated grinding work, were of this size, but the combination of the Rijnsburg room and Hevelius’s illustration gives us I believe some determinative sense of the internal dynamics of Spinoza’s lived experiences as a craftsman and thus as a thinker; they directs us to the material and conceptual causes that may have privileged Spinoza treatment of the Mind and Body over his predecessor, Descartes. There is much that divided these two thinkers from each other, but perhaps even more than joined them. Each was concerned with lens-grinding, optics and the improvement of the telescope, but only one of them was a practiced maker of lenses and instruments. Only one of them touched the glass.

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, Spinozahuis

Hevelius's Spring Pole Lathe, from the Selenographia (1647)

 

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle