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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

Spinoza and Plotinus, some morning thoughts

I ran across a LiveJournal entry that touched on something I have always found of interest, the relationship of Spinoza to Plotinus:

It’s amazing how much Spinoza resembles Plotinus.

Plotinus said that, instead of creation ex nihilo, existence emanated from God.

Emanation ex deo (out of God), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations.

This mirrors Spinoza’s idea that “creation” (so to speak) was necessary because God exists; and that the world is the way it is, and could be no other way, because of the nature of God. And though physical things are contingent (limited by things outside of themselves), God/substance is the only non-contingent, necessary thing, because God is not acted upon by outside agents (there is nothing outside of God). Existence necessarily exists, because of the nature of God, but the modes of existence are contingent.

In Plotinus’ view, it’s the ulimate destiny of contingent things to reunite with the One. I haven’t read anything about ultimate ends in Spinoza’s Ethics, but if I remember correctly, he agrees (kinda) with Plotinus. Not only is it our fate to disappear into God (to become one with the Force!)–a fate which we have no choice about–we should actively assent to it, in order to increase our happiness.

The conceptual parallels between Spinoza and Plotinus have always appeared to me to be significant, as it seems that somehow through Plotinus Spinoza had an inheritance of the “degrees of Being” interpretation of power and truth. One does not know if he received this Neo-Platonic inheritance through Augustine or through an early youth exposure to Kabbalistic thinking that was rife in the religious community at the time, but very few interpreters seem to give it much weight, preferring instead the Cartesian root-stem. But Spinoza vectorial treatment of knowledge and his General defintion of the affects surely demands such an additional analysis. That I know of, only Deleuze (EiP:S, pp 170 -178) gives substantive consideration to this continuance, as he touchily tries to parse out Spinoza’s immanencefrom Plotinus’s emanation, a perhaps vital distinction (dictionary bending, one that always gets me flipping the pages to re-familiarize myself with these two words).

Such a connection proves significant because it bears on “ladyelaine’s” final paragraph here the path to freedom, for Hegel too thought that Spinoza’s position ultimately lead to an acomism, the collapse of all that exists into an non-distinct whole, a Blob of Being, without reflection. Hegel’s view was likely held because reflection was the gem-stone of his personal brilliant crown, the manner by which he pulled himself free, and originally from Spinoza gravity, the analytic that distinguished himself. Spinoza was missing the Reality of the “negation”, but was he? Hegel’s saving of the “soul”, the surety that the human soul was special, made of a distinction that was different in kind from the manner of distinctions that made rocks, and lakes and even sun’s light distinct somehow fails to grasp the grandeur of Spinoza’s treatment of the negation. The negation is indeed Real, but real as a comprehensive expression of the whole, wholeness against which the vectors of knowledge and power leverage themselves as completing. My own conceptions are composed of illusionary negations (distinctions of separation) only insofar as they limit my ability to act. Following Augustine in some way, they are composed of a relative poverty, degrees of privation. And this privation is only resolved through addition, an addition that is both bodily and relatively clear (insofar as).

I believe that a subtle key is that the “active assent” that ladyelaine intuits to be missing from Spinoza, only at first blush only seems absent, because it is everywhere. Every thought Spinoza asserts is an assertion. This is only retarded by imagining that a “person” is at the center of this assertion, instead of being composed by it. ladyelaine elsewhere touches on the difficulty she has in accepting that mind can be ascribed to something that is not a person (here). This of course is an ultimate question. Is it coherent to think of a rock having “mind”? Or, perhaps more tempting, is it coherent to think that a rock has “information”? It seems to me is that Spinoza proposes a unique monist (and material) solution, one that allows us to see that as minds we much necessarily combine with other minds, and (a very signficant “and”) as bodies we must combine with other bodies, forming compositional, thinking and affective wholes (however fleetingly). And, our freedom depends on it.

Related: Becoming Intense and Longitude: Deleuze and Guattari , Deleuze Lecture on Spinoza

The Reality of the Affects: Spinoza’s Plotinian Real

In counterbalance to the points made in the post below, I have the following thoughts which stem from Lilli Alanen’s response to Della Rocca:

In reading Alanen’s response to Della Rocca’s “Rationalism Run Amok” I have a few questions. In particular it is her trouble with the idea that all affects are illusionary.

Here is the germ of it:

So existence is not an all or nothing affair but comes in more and less. But then the conclusion that we with our passive affects exist to a much lesser degree than the eternal and infinite God does not seem very startling. It becomes so only if one, as Della Rocca seems to do, sides with idealist Spinoza commentators in thinking that anything less than full intelligibility, and with it full perfection or being, lacks reality.

Do we really need to draw such drastic conclusions? More to the point: do we need to draw these drastic conclusions?

Here’s a worry: There is, Della Rocca argues, a sense in which passive affects are real and fully intelligible, namely qua ideas in God’s mind. The very same ideas which are confused in my mind are distinct and adequate in God’s. This is just a manifestation of what he calls the mind-relativity of content (p. 19). Does this mean affects are fully real in God’s mind? Hardly qua affects, since God’s mind contains only adequate ideas. So are they unreal after all? I’m troubled by mind-relativity here and have a hard time seeing how adequate ideas in God’s mind could be the same as the confused one in ours?

This is the difficulty that I have. Alanen seems to argue that because our intuition tells us that if something exists to some degree, it can be said to exist completely so. That is, because Spinoza grants that affects are idea-expressions of degrees of being, these affects themselves must be said to exist, fully. But isn’t it Spinoza’s entire point that such ideas and affects in so far as they have being, are already perfect (in the mind of God), and in so far as they don’t have being, are imperfect and inadequate? Because Spinoza makes being itself the vector of inadequacy, I don’t see how one can say that affects actually are (despite our intuition, and experience that they are). The way that Spinoza has set it up seems to be that the predicate of being is entirely linked to the degree of adequacy. By insisting that affects are “real” Alanen is insisting something of the order that “degrees of being are real” has full being, and I am not sure how in Spinoza’s system on could do that.

If I put my question a different way, Spinoza in a famous letter to Jellis, denies the being of “negation”:

As to the doctrine that figure is negation and not anything positive, it is plain that the whole of matter considered indefinitely can have no figure, and that figure can only exist in finite and determinate bodies. For he who says, that he perceives a figure, merely indicates thereby, that he conceives a determinate thing, and how it is determinate. This determination, therefore, does not appertain to the thing according to its being, but, on the contrary, is its non-being. As then figure is nothing else than determination, and determination is negation, figure, as has been said, can be nothing but negation.

Letter 50 to Jellis, June 2, 1674

The negation of which a particular figure is composed, pertains only to its non-being. Would one say then that “negation” for Spinoza must have being? Or even that “non-being” for Spinoza, must have “being”? This seems like a similar kind of assertion to the one that Alanen proposes, and it appears to undercut what Spinoza is attempting to say.

A similar problem occurs in the assessment of the Blind Man in his letter to Blijenbergh (Letter 21, Jan 28, 1665). Here Spinoza wants to tell us that a blind man is no less perfect than a stone is perfect:

“I proceed further to the explanation of the terms “Negation” and “Privation”…I say, therefore, that Privation is, not the act of depriving, but only the pure and simple lack, which is itself nothing. Indeed it is only a Being of reason, or mode of thinking, which we form when we compare things with one another. We say, for example, that a blind man is deprived of sight because we easily imagine him as seeing…But when we consider God’s decree, and his nature, we can no more affirm that of man than of a Stone, that he is deprived of vision…God is no more the cause of his not seeing than of the stone’s not seeing, which is pure Negation”

If one replaces “seeing” with “affect” we see that having an affect is only a negation, a negation which is nothing (has no Being). If we connect up any affective being with the Totality of which it is an expression (that is, remove all its negations and border), the affect disappears, because there is no transition in power or degree of being. That is Spinoza’s point, is it not?

The same thing seems to register on the level of epistemology:

E4p1dem: Falsity consists only in the privation of knowledge…”

What Alanen seems to be want to say is that the “privation of knowledge” is real, the “negation of sight” in a blind man (and a stone) is real, that non-being is real. But this seems to undercut a primary embrace of Being, the idea that Being is a plentitude and that negation is an illusion of perspective, comparison, projected ideas and inadequate ideas. Although she critique’s Della Rocca for accepting an Idealist-type conclusion, one that makes the changes in the world to be mere illusions, she seems accept the very thing that Hegel critiqued Spinoza for failing to see, the Reality of the Negation. Rather it seems, Spinoza has to be taken at his word, that degrees of being are exactly that, degrees of being.

I wonder how she would square her interpretation with the clear comments on Negation and Privation taken above?

Closely Related Post: Negation and the Unseeing Stone


Spinoza’s Letter 21 to Blyenbergh: Negation and the Unseeing Stone

I reprint here part of a letter I wrote to a good friend, as part of our exchange over philosophy. It includes an explication of Spinoza’s influential January 28th letter to Blyenbergh, wherein Spinoza reveals his take towards negation, a passage which Hegel would focus on, as significant for what it asserts, but also what he would claim it does not grasp.

“omnis determinato est negatio”


I think that one of the most important ideas in Spinoza is the way that he treats “negation”, for he makes a distinction between the difference between negation and “privation”. It is rather in that Negation often is conflated with privation, making of it a kind of “lack”, upon which all desire is founded, that much of Modern Philosophy parts company with Spinoza. Instead Spinoza argues for the perfection and completeness of any particular state of the world, at any one point in time. His description of the capabilities of “seeing” (those missing in a blind man, and those missing from a stone), is one of the most illustrative examples of this thought. In his Letter 21 to Blyenbergh, he outlines fairly clearly the difference between negation and privation. It is an extraordinary thought, (not the first time said in history):

 I will proceed to explain further the words privation and negation, and briefly point out what is necessary for the elucidation of my former letter. I say then, first, that privation is not the act of depriving, but simply and merely a state of want, which is in itself nothing: it is a mere entity of the reason, a mode of thought framed in comparing one thing with another. We say, for example, that a blind man is deprived of sight, because we readily imagine him as seeing, or else because we compare him with others who can see, or compare his present condition with his past condition when he could see; when we regard the man in this way, comparing his nature either with the nature of others or with his own past nature, we affirm that sight belongs to his nature, and therefore assert that he has been deprived of it. But when we are considering the nature and decree of God, we cannot affirm privation of sight in the case of the aforesaid man any more than in the case of a stone; for at the actual time sight lies no more within the scope of the man than of the stone; since there belongs to man and forms part of his nature only that which is granted to him by the understanding and will of God. Hence it follows that God is no more the cause of a blind man not seeing, than he is of a stone not seeing. Not seeing is a pure negation.

January 28, 1665

What he means is that a blind man is not missing sightedness, just as the stone is not missing sightedness, only our imaginary comparison of one state of the world to another causes us to say so. Instead each thing (the blind man and the stone) is negated in a particular and determined way. That is to say, limited. The limitation is the nexus of causes that bring it into being, the bordering interactions with other modes of Reality which make it what it is. And what it is is exactly what it can do. Negation simply means having boundaries of the capacity to do.

The thing is, because Substance (or God or Nature) is by essence not limited at all, but infinite, all negation is a kind of illusion. That is, we might see the blind man as limited or determined in a certain fashion, but the blind man is actually a modal expression of Totality, and our drawing of a line around him, making of him a closed entity (which can or cannot see), is only a temporary perspective. If the blind man is standing on a plain of grass (or perhaps more thoroughly, living there) there is nothing that stops us from perceiving it as a blind-man-plain-of-grass assemblage, where “seeing” is only one sliver of any number of possible and complex interactions between parts, (one can glimpse the ecological consequences of such a flexibility, wherein dependence become expression, or inter-expression between environments). Moment by moment, each thing is perfect because it could be no other way; all is a full expression of God/Substance/Nature.

So when Spinoza talks of the non-being of something, that is, just as in the description of the perception of the basket in Joyce (perceiving through what something is not), this non-being is simply a perspective. It is, in a certain sense an imaginative illusion. There is no such thing as non-being, (it has no ultimate bearing on things), because all things derive their power from the fullness of Being itself. Any localized mode of Being (be it a stone or a man or a grassland) is a full expression of God, which is also dependent upon all the negations which constitute it. That is, the causal boundaries which compose any figure by limiting it, actually compose it, in the way perhaps how negative space around a statue might be said to “be” the statue.

So there is a double move in Spinoza. One is that any one particular moment of expression, of a man say (both of his body and his idea), is already perfect because it flows from the Infinite being of God, what we call Nature. The fullness and perfection of each thing is thus guaranteed. But the second move, one that Hegel misses [and I am following Gatens and Lloyd here, who are following Macherey] because he would like to wedge out the soul of a man to a place of importance, is that the negation of any one thing, that is, its actual boundaries which seem to limit it, are veritably the connective tissue to all that is, the assembled source of its power. (It is for this reason that Deleuze characterizes Spinoza’s Theory of Power as “the ability to be affected”. Through the fabric of these “negations” the assemblage of things shows itself to be an incredibly complex thing. Even the simplest thing, a water molecule, through its very limitations, connects to huge things, a tidal wave.


So to return to Joyce’s description of the basket, which is a beautiful one,

[quoted in a previous letter] In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in spae. But temporal or spatial the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

Stephen Dedalus, in The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man

If we keep in mind the way that Spinoza sees the body and the nature of perception, we see how even this description of the basket is superseded by the notion of the perceptive Body itself. Recall, Spinoza says that all perception of “things” (those things outside of us), are actually our perception of our body. All ideas are of our body being in a certain state. A neurophysiologist can describe the brain as being our sixth sense, that which perceives the Body. So, while it may very well seem that we are perceiving a “basket” and doing so by also perceiving its non-being, all that is not-basket outside of it, Spinoza would say that all the while we are only holding ideas about our own body being in a particular state (a state that due to the causal relations between out body and all else, which allows us with clear ideas to act powerfully in the world). The being and non-being of things cloaks the actual changes in power of our own body, as we form ideas of that body in particular states.

This conception of the body as a closed arena of perception, forming ideas only about its own state, leads Spinoza to articulate a theory about the passions and being a passive state. Affects, that is emotional reaction to the world, is part of the imaginary and confused ideas of the world that necessarily make up human perception. In a sense, it is part of our experience of living in time, the way that we compare the world and ourselves to past and future states of being. This is a very subtle and strange thought for me, and one which it took me a long time to understand, and then possibly to accept. The core expression of it is found at the end of part 3 of the Ethics, in “The General Definition of the Affects”:

E3: DOA. Emotion, which is called a passivity of the soul, is a confused idea, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body, or any part thereof, a force for existence (existendi vis) greater or less than before, and by the presence of which the mind is determined to think of one thing rather than another.

Explanation.–I say, first, that emotion or passion of the soul is a confused idea. For we have shown that the mind is only passive, in so far as it has inadequate or confused ideas (E3P3). 

I say, further, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body or any part thereof a force for existence greater [or less] than before. For all the ideas of bodies, which we possess, denote rather the actual disposition of our own body (E2P16C2) than the nature of an external body. But the idea which constitutes the reality of an emotion must denote or express the disposition of the body, or of some part thereof, which is possessed by the body, or some part thereof, because its power of action or force for existence is increased or diminished, helped or hindered. 

But it must be noted that, when I say a greater or less force for existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past disposition of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the reality of an emotion affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

Note, central here is that the Mind, as it moves through pleasures and pains and appears to do so by comparing its current state to other states, past and future, but Spinoza claims that it really is not doing so at all. Instead, the Mind as it thinks is rather affirming in more or less clear ways the force of particular parts of the body, such that that actual affirmation gives those parts, that expression, more reality. This is an amazing thought. We conceive of ourselves having one reality, a fixed baseline of reality, as all things do, passing into various characteristic states. But here Spinoza, because there is only One Reality, that is the reality of Substance, the things which partake of that reality more (that is, express themselves with a greater capacity to act, a greater capacity to be affected), actually are more Real. The coming and going of Pleasure and Pain is the coming and going of the Reality of a thing, even though each state is perfect, because from the point of view of the Totality even the smallest part is a fully real expression of the Whole. Our entire lives are fluctuations of becoming more or less real as persons, as we pass into more or less active states of being, all the while expressing a perfection.

I thoroughly agree with you that our departures over Nietzsche, insofar as we have disagreements, are in the degree of credit that I offer him. There are a few reasons for this for me, the largest of which is that I am, or have been quite Nietzschean in nature, and thus have found Spinoza to be a kind of relief or antidote for this nature-a way of directing it, making its impulses more powerful and more at ease. In this sense Nietzsche gets my razored critique as part of my own self-critique. I also believe that Nietzsche himself requires that I be ungenerous, as this is the way that he conducted his own thought, savagely attacking those he thought close to himself. He would not want to be “given” anything. Thus for me reading Nietzsche generously is somewhat unNietzschean. And lastly I suppose, I am hardest on those that achieve the broadest degree of cultural acceptance, and Nietzsche has been rather thoroughly embraced by an academic heritage, at least on the Continental side, and by culture as a whole. I can think of no other modern philosopher, in spirit, who is so well esteemed (if mis-understood) by non-philosophers; and also not one so credited. Thus my stand against Nietzsche operates as both a stand against myself, and a stand against various instutionalizations of thought, a pronged critique I cannot resist. Spinoza then operates as something new, radical and liberating, in the most pragmatic of senses. I certainly would not to think to have you agree with me in approach, because this is individual, but it is good that you know the motivations of my arguments, and take them for what they are worth for you. Yes Nietzsche can be read as reacting to the “moral climate of his time” (but this makes him a bit reactive and not as active as he might be); and the same can be said of Spinoza, but his tone and method more quiet (perhaps more powerful?). The question of the influence of his own thought, and his pre-mediation of those difficulties is an excellent one. Considering that he was a near-forgotten writer until reanimated after the two world wars, this either reflects his own inflated sense of grandiosity, or his incredible prescience. Probably both.

As to my thought that there is no “negation” in biology, I mean that only in the sense that there is no “non-being” in biological explanations. In genetics in particular, and statistical and population analysis, the idea of “lack” has no place at all. Instead we only have ways of combining, molecular and algorithmic capacities to act, and an inter-relationship between environment, populations and genetic properties which only display what can be done. The genetic material and the conditions which unfold are shown to be expressions of each other, by most accounts that I have read. Specifically I have in mind the work of Maturana and Varela and their biological theory of Life, Autopoiesis, but also general Neo-Darwinian accounts. I have yet to hear any theory of biology which would support a Hegelian view of the world. This is not to say that it is not possible, but only that I have not heard it.