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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: 


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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 Transfigured and reExplained: “Idea” as Information

In two posts I began opening up the notion that Spinoza’s treatment of “Idea” has strong sympathetic correspondences to modern conceptions of information and organization. First in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist? I raised the idea that Spinoza offered something of a Chaoplexic view of organizational development and ontological power, and then in Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe I adopted the general replacement of Spinoza’s “Idea” with an version of Stonier’s “Information” as the basic structuring element of the Universe.

To help with the thought-imagination of some of this it seemed interesting to offer some retranslations of Spinoza’s propositions dealing with “idea”. I had done this before, come out of some discusssions I had with David Chalmers, but I can seem to find them. The grammar does not always work fluently for such a replacement, and perhaps this will confuse the issue for some, but hopefully you’ll get the gist and the new propositions can bring about a change in the staid way “idea” has been conceieved:

Informational Propositions

E2D3: By informational structure [idea] I mean a mind’s concept that the mind forms because it is a thinking, informational thing.

E2D4: By adequate informational structure I mean information which, insofar as it is considered in itself without relation to its object,  has all the properties or intrinsic denominations of real information (a true idea) [verae ideae].

E2p7: The order and connection of informational structure is the same as the order and connection of material expression (things).

E2p11: The first thing that constitutes the actual being of the human mind [mentis] is nothing but the informational structure of a singular thing that actually exists.

E2p13: The object [obiectum] of the informational structure constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

E2p15: The informational structure that constitutes the formal being [formale esse] of the human mind is not simple [simplex] but is, through a multitude of informational structures, a composite.

E2p16: The information of any mode in which the human body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human body and at the same time the nature of the external body. (The ability to to be changed informationally, to be reorganized by work.)

E2p4: The informational structure [idea] of Nature (God), from which infinite things follow in infinite ways, it is capable of only being singular [unica].

E2p23: The mind [mens] does not know itself except insofar as it percieves the information of the changes (affections) of the body.

E2p25: The information of any change (affection) of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition of an external body.

E2p26: The human mind [mens] does not perceive any external body as actually existing except through the information of the changes (affections) of its own body.

E2p27: The information of any affection of the human body does not involve an adequate cognition [cognitionem] of the human body.

E2p32: All information (ideas), insofar as it is related to Nature (God), is wholly real (true).

E2p33: There is nothing in an informational structure that is productive (positive) on accout of which it is called false (confused, untrue).

E2p35: Falsity consists in a privation of cognition, which involves partial (inadequate) or confused information.

E2p36: Partial and confused informational structure follows with the same necessity as adequate (whole) or clear and distinct informational structure.

E2p38: Those things which are common in all things, and which are equally in the part and the whole, can only be conceived adequately.

E2p40: Whatever informational structure that follows in the mind from informational structure that is adequate in the mind is also adequate.

E3p10: An informational structure which excludes the existence of the body cannot be in our mind, but is contrary to it.

E3p11: The information of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains or body’s power of acting, increase or diminishes, aids or restrains our mind’s power of thinking.

Def of Affects IV: Love is a joy (an increase in the power to act) coupled with an informational structure orientation towards an external thing, taken to be its cause.

E4p1: Nothing positive (productive) about false (partial) information is removed by the presence of real (true) information, insofar as it is real (true).

E5p18: No one can hate Nature (God). Dem: The informational structure of Nature (God) which is in us is adequate and perfect. Insofar as we contemplate Nature (God), we act. Consequently, there can be no sadness accompanied by an informational structure orientation toward Nature (God), that is, no one can hate Nature (God). 

E5p35: God loves itself with an infinite intellectual love. Dem: God is absolutely infnite, the nature of God enjoys infinite perfection, coupled with the informational structure of itself, the informational structure of its cause. And this is what we said intellectual love is.

General Defintion of the Affects E3: An affect (emotion) which is called a passive experience [animi pathema] (a pathema of the soul) is confused information whereby the mind informationally affirms a greater or less force-of-existing of its body, or part of its body, than was previously was the case, and by the occurance of which the mind [mens] is determined to think this rather than that.

What Thinking God Means to Spinoza

Thinking God and other Things

“Spinoza did not prove the existence of God; existence is God” – Goethe

Over at Deontologistics we’ve had a nice discussion of his claim that Spinoza committed a philosophical error called “onto-theology” which apparently is the taking of God or Nature or in Spinoza’s case Substance to be a kind of being. This is to say a dog is a being, and a cloud is a being, but Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, it is merely “a” being with unique qualities (one being that it is self-caused, rather than being caused by things other than itself, for instance). I don’t want to cover the discussion there as you can read it if you like, hereBut as a point of interest much of his point rests with the idea that God/Substance for Spinoza must be “a” being because God has both an “essence” and an “idea”, and anything that has one of these must be “a” being (to some minimum degree).

What this gives me to think about, and this is the subject of the post, is that the reason why Spinoza gives God/Substance both an essence and an idea is not to claim that God/Substance is “a” being, but rather to simply say that God is thinkable. And, to great significance, individual beings are not the only thing thinkable. In fact, the way in which Spinoza argues the nature of God and Substance undermines the very notion that thinking is confined to “beings” per se.

So what is it to “think God” for Spinoza? What does it mean for instance that God has an “idea”, that there is an “Idea of God”? And what connection does this have to us “having an idea of God”? It is here, right away, that we come right up against the non-representationalist view of “idea” for Spinoza. Quite apart from much of Cartesianism, and certainly far from the Idealist followings after Kant, to have an idea of something is not to represent it. In fact, as Spinoza tells us, when we are thinking about things in the world we are merely thinking ourselves. So if God has an Idea, and we can have an Idea of God, what does this mean? First off, we know that the Idea of God is not a representation of God. It is rather an expression of God, we might say. And when we have an idea of God this does not mean that we form a representation of what God is like. The last thing that Spinoza has in mind is the notion that we form an image of God, and perhaps it is not even correct to say that we have a “concept” of God (for our concepts of God change, but the adequacy of our Idea of God does not).

The Infinity Within The Boundaries of Our Thought

Part of a clue to this is that Spinoza claims that we can only have an adequate idea of God. Despite all the images and anthropomorphisms, or even atheistic beliefs, we automatically, by virtue of our capacity to think and be, have an adequate idea of God (as – it can be argued – do all things).  Understanding this may be helped by the holism both Goethe and Herder found in Spinoza, that each thing possessed a kind of “intrinsic infinity”. This is to say that while we regard individual things as bound, finite things, indeed within any bounded thing lies an infinity. As his letter 12 claims, this is an infinity of internal magnitudes, but it is also the nature of the infinity of God, that is to say, the Idea of God. In a certain sense, internal to a finite, determined being such as ourselves, lies the very infinitude of God, and the reason for this is because we literally are God, in action (as are all things). So when someone wants to compare God to our finitude and try to imply that God must be “a” being just as we are “a” being, they are looking through the wrong end of the lens. If one really had to choose, it goes the other way: instead, it is much more that we are an infinitude, because God is an infinitude (Hegel knew this well because he claimed that Spinoza actually produced an acosmism). 

So, when it is said that we have an idea of God this simply means that God  is thinking through us by virtue of his/its own ideational expression. In fact the combination of God having an essence and an idea is simply the groundwork for this kind of claim. Our thinking God is the case of our coherent powers of agency, and we cannot help but do so. And in such a case calling God “a” being really goes strongly against Spinoza’s very conception, the point he is trying to get across. 

Perhaps the meaning of this would be made more clear if I use my recent readjustment of Spinoza’s notion of Idea to correspond to the modern concept of “information”. We might say that Nature (all of it) has a kind of totality of Information which we could call the Idea of Nature. And we as natural informational beings, composed of and expressing information in a determined way, as we think about things in the world do so by virtue both of the specific information we are composed of, but also because in certain sense the totality of information is “thinking through us”; our informational structure connects us to the world due to the very informational order of everything. The whole moves through a part (in very complex ways). This is something akin to what Spinoza means when he says that we all necessarily adequate idea of God. We think the Idea of God/Nature/Substance by simply the virtue of being an expression of it.

Spinoza’s argument though makes all of this an expression of Substance, and as such the kinds of things we want to say about finite beings, are not the kinds of things we can say of the Immanent ground. While the cat is “a” being, and the lamp is “a” being, it makes no Spinozist sense to say that Substance is “a” being. God is not a super-quality version of us or other things. It is precisely this usual attempt to think God as a super version of regular things that Spinoza tries as best he can to upend. The reasoning goes the other way. It is the Infinite which opens up what the finite is. As Lessing put it to Jacobi, Spinoza will not prejudice human ideas.

Cybernetic Admixtures Toward Freedom

There is a very good reason why this tension between “beings” and their immanent cause is not resolvable by thinking of that cause as a special kind of “being”.  A good deal of this reason lies with Spinoza’s undermining of just what “a” being is, and in a way what we – as finite beings – are to think about ourselves and the world. What Spinoza ideational epistemology is organized to tell us is that the less that we think in isolated terms, the less that we think of things as separated from us, the less of “a” being that we become. That is, in what perhaps is best called a cybernetic view of human powers, the more that we combine with other things, and do so through our increasingly adequate ideas of their causes, the less that we can say that we are merely “a” being. Rather, “we” are exposed to be a combination of beings, the boundaries of which transpierce what we are. The mutualities which condition our very powers are the things that defy the actual Heideggerian Idealist (optical) notion of “a” being in the first place. I discuss these important differences between Spinoza and Heidegger here: Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr. Heidegger’s notion of beings is necessarily a story of alienation and occlusion, Spinoza’s is combinative and liberating at every turn.

This brings us to one more aspect of the argument that Spinoza is arguing that Substance is a special kind of being, and that is the idea that while each thing in the world is caused by things other than itself, but only one thing is its own cause. It is supposed that Spinoza is putting forth that Substance is just a different sort of “thing”. But because “thingness” itself is what is under revisement in Spinoza, the beingness of Substance is not the point at all. Rather, the emphasis is on the nature of freedom itself.  The principle of sufficient reason for Spinoza, the idea that the explanation of something is key to the nature of its power to act and be, is that which grounds the very ethics of Spinoza’s Ethics. This is to say, as we come to understand the causes of things this is not just an accumulation of knowledge, but rather is a real change in ontological power. This is something that is profoundly missing in so-called “flat ontologies” and is vital to understanding the nature of power and freedom itself.  As we understand the causes of things we come to be in combination with them, forming a mutuality. It is not simply the (optical) Heideggerian question of whether the thing we describe “hides” from us or not, but rather the change in the degree of being, our very power to act and exist, that occurs when we have more adequate ideas in the world. This is the true meaning behind Spinoza’s self-caused idea of Substance. As we approach towards Substance’s own self-determined nature, becoming more like Substance as we go, our very “a” beingness is under transformation. It is this freedom through combination that literally operates our distinctions making valleys and mountains out of what otherwise would be taken to be flat.

Lastly: The Barking Dog and the Dog in the Heavens

“Further (to say a word here concerning the intellect and the will which we attribute to God), if intellect and will appertain to the eternal essence of God, we must take these words in some significations quite different from those they usually bear. For intellect and will, which should constitute the essence of God, would perforce be as far apart as the poles from the human intellect and will, in fact, would have nothing in common with them but the name; there would be about as much correspondence between the two as there is between the Dog, the heavenly constellation, and a dog, an animal that barks.”(E1p17cor, sch)


Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe

Ideas as Information

This is a difficult post to write, particularly because the ideas it addresses are just plain large. And these large ideas have such permeating ramifications, both towards Spinoza philosophy and contemporary Science it is indeed very difficult to do any justice to them. Instead it must be taken as a kind of rough draft, a sketch, of what may be conceptually possible when bringing the philosophical concepts Spinoza employed into contact with the Information. The thoughts here must be taken as provisional conjecture, but this is not to say that I do not find the comparisons offered here to be valid. Rather, I suspect strongly that what Spinoza was talking about, the relationships in the world that he was attempting to systematize, are very much the same ones that Science today talks about when thinking in terms of information.

All this comes into view with Tom Stonier’s radical Scientific proposal that Information is an essential component of the Universe, found in his speculative book Information and the internal structure of the universe: an exploration (1990). I’ll cite at length from his work below to present the core of his ideas about information, but first I need to make a conceptual leap which will make future thoughts of my application of Stonier’s ideas more clear.

Stonier’s abstraction on the left, Spinoza’s on the right:

Matter = Extension

Energy = Conatus (striving)

Information = Idea

I don’t want to justify these equalizations, but rather just let them remain as starting points, at least until Stonier’s vision of information is made more clear. I will say that the first of these seems obvious. What we mean usually by matter is precisely what Spinoza is attempting to describe through the Attribute of Extension. The second of these is both instinctively appealing but also has some difficulties in translation, mostly due to the much debated theoretical role conatus plays in Spinoza’s philosophy. Perhaps though in reading conatus as energy in the specific context of information theory important aspects of Spinoza’s conatus thinking may come into relief. And lastly, most importantly, the third of these, the equation of 21st century information with 17th century Spinozist idea, is the keystone of the entire comparison, and hopefully will reveal as much about what Spinoza was thinking, as about what he was trying to describe.

But now let us present Stonier’s idea that “information” comprises the universe just as much as matter and energy does.

Information is Real

Stonier spends much of his time hewing out a concept of elemental information from the concept of “energy”, leaving “matter” to remain relatively self-evident. It is in particular the way that we are able to see energy as existing in different forms yet to remain an objective measure of how things are composed, that provides the footing for how information is to be conceived. Much of what Stonier argues is that some of our energy descriptions are better handled as information transformations:

Just as there exist different forms of energy – mechanical, chemical, electrical, heat, sound, light, nuclear, etc – so do there exist different forms of information. Human information represents only one form of information..human information itself, maybe stored and communicated in a wide variety of ways and represent many different forms (9)

Right of the bat we have a very important idea, and one that communicates itself quite well with Spinoza’s notion on the limits of human thinking and epistemology. What we commonly refer to as “meaning” which is ever context bound, is only a form of information, just as mechanical energy is just a form of energy. The ideas we have as human beings are not reducible to the meaning of their expression in language. Rather, as Spinoza sees it, the ideas we have are rather best seen as dispositional relations to really only one thing, the whole of the Universe. The ideas we have are informational or organizational states, what Stonier will call “structure”. Let me quote at length what Stonier describes as the “heart of the concept”. I quote at length both because Stonier’s book is not accessible on-line, and also because he does a pretty good job of expressing himself on what he means:

Information and organization are intimately interrelated.

From this axiom we derive the following theorems;

  1. All organized structures contain information, and as a corollary: No organized structure can exist without containing some form of information.
  2. The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  3. An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.

Let us examine the above theorems, beginning with the first. Any physical system which exhibits organization contains information. Information organizes space and time. The definition of the term “information” becomes analogous to the physical definition of the term “energy”: Energy is defined as the capacity to perform work. Information is defined as the capacity to organize a system – or to maintain it in an organized state. As we shall discuss later, it becomes impossible to perform “useful” work without an input of both energy and information. Conversely, all work brings about a change in organization, hence information.

Organization is a reflection of order. A structure or system may be said to be organized if it exhibits order. Order is a non-random arrangement of the parts of the structure or system. Randomness is the opposite of order, keeping in mind that certain forms of apparent randomness exhibit significant order, eg, a perfectly uniform distribution. For this reason, the terms chaos and disorder are preferable. Any quantitative analysis of information must be based, at least in part, on measuring either the order, or the chaos of the system.

Analyzing the information content of a chaotic system is made more problematical by the fact that a system may only appear to be chaotic: That is, such a system actually is responding to a simple algorithm – the apparent unpredictability reflects the fact that trivial variations in initial conditions may have a major impact on the system’s final behavior.

Organization and information are, by definition, closely interlinked. However, they are different: One cannot have a shadow without light, but a shadow and light are not the same thing. A shadow is the manifestation of light interacting with an opaque object. Likewise, organization is the manifestation of information interacting with matter and energy.

It is important to emphasize the conceptual necessity for an abstract term such as “information”. Information is a quantity which may be altered from one form to another. Information is a quantity which may be transferred from one system to another. This is not true, at least to the same degree, for the more concrete terms “order”, “organization”, “pattern”, or “structure”. The matter parallels the difference between the terms “energy” and “heat”. Energy is being capable of being transformed from one form to another, as well as being transferred from one system to another. In contrast, the limitations of the less abstract concept “heat” (a quantity directly perceptible to our physical senses), cannot explain how heating a boiler causes a locomotive to move, or a light bulb to light up in response to the electricity generated by a steam turbine.

Likewise, “information” maybe transformed from one form to another, as for example, when dictating a manuscript: Patterns of sound waves end up transcribed as words on a printed page. It’s easy to understand that the information was transformed via the stenographer and printer, from the spoken to the written word. It is not clear how the oscillating molecules of air comprising the sound pattern end up as apparently unrelated patterns of dye molecules on a printed page. The matter becomes even more mysterious when one eliminates the human intermediaries and speaks into a voice-to-print device. The structure of the phonemes making up a word is not the same as the structure of the printed syllables making up the same word. The information content, however, may be considered the same for both.

Information, like energy, is an abstract quantity. Communications engineers have recognized since Hartley’s time, over half a century ago, that information may be treated as an abstract quantity. What the present work proposes is more than that, viz, that information, like energy is a physical reality.

To be more precise, heat (involving uncorrelated photons in a crystal or randomly moving molecules in a gas) is the product of the interaction between matter and energy. Structure is the product of the interaction between matter and pure information. Energy, in pre-relativity physics, was considered as the more abstract quantity which, when added to matter, manifests itself as structure (organization).

As will be discussed in a later chapter, such a conceptualization of information leads to a different quantitative definition from that of the communications engineers. Such a definition also differs from the standard dictionary definition which defines information as, for example: knowledge, news, or what is told. Dictionaries go on to define knowledge as all that is, or maybe known. Knowing is defined as: recognizing, perceiving with certainty, being aware (of), being acquainted with. There are other, more specialized meanings provided by dictionaries, but the gist is that information is either a form of knowledge, or equivalent to it. Dictionaries define knowledge and information purely in implicitly human terms. This is in marked contrast to the principle that information is a property of the universe – that it comprises the “internal” structure of the universe.

Human information may involve the perception of that “internal” structure. Every time scientists define a constant such as the gas constant, Avogadro’s number, Boltzmann’s or Planck’s constant, etc, they have discovered another aspect of the organization of the universe. Each such discovery represents the human perception of the information contained within physical systems.

Aspects of human information systems, including the terms knowledge, meaning, significance, intelligence, etc will be explored in a future work, Beyond Chaos. The present work is concerned with the physics of information systems – systems whose reality is independent of human perception and which therefore transcends it.

To sum up: All regular patterns contain information. The mathematics of chaos had demonstrated that even apparently highly irregular patterns, may be the product of some rather simple algorithm which underlies the chaos. To the argument that what we are really talking about is “patterns” and “organization”, the answer is that “information” is a more abstract generalization which, in the long run, one needs in order to measure it by some universal measure such as “bits”. It becomes as difficult to measure quantitatively a pattern or a structure in terms of bits without the aid of the abstract concept “information”, as it is to measure in joules the output of light by a lamp without the more abstract concept of “energy”.

Information is an implicit component in virtually every single equation governing the laws of physics. (25-28)

The first thing that needs to be addressed if we are to make a successful comparison between Stoniers concept of information and Spinoza’s notion of Idea is the thought that information can be “transferred”. I think that this is related to the way in which we view energy as some form of primal substance that can be poured into (or drained out of) various containers. I’m not sure how helpful this image is in either the case of energy or information. The addition of energy to a system is a transformative one. The system itself is changed. And I think Stonier is onto this with his idea that information itself, when added, changes the structure of what it is added to. There is, therefore, something of competing images here, images that have to do with how we view the boundaries of things. From a Spinozist point of view, therefore, when Stonier says:

  • The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  • An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.
  • I think it is better said that an organized system has the capacity to improve the organization of (the adequacy of the ideas of) systems outside of it. Information does not pour out of a system, into another, but rather communicates itself, interactively, through the improvement of the organization of things beyond it. In this way the physical object of a book does not “release or convey” but rather through interaction, re-organizes the materiality of the reader. Key to changing the metaphor we use to describe informational relations is to see that when there are such interactions nothing is being passed back and forth, but rather what is involved is the substantive change in the relational capacities of each distinct thing, in the context of something larger than each (be it a larger system, or the Universe itself).

    Stonier in his re-imagining of information uses the concept to address itself to the problem of entropy. He works to show that entropy is not strictly equivalent to “heat” (which is one of its manifestations), a difference that actually marks out the need for an information science as structural changes in matter do not exclusively follow heat changes. As such he places organization and heat at odds to each other (heat, the move towards randomness, works against the move towards organization), but energy and information are actually part of a triangle of universal elements:

    The application of energy expresses itself as heat which causes particles (molecules, photons, plasmons, etc) to vibrate and to move at random. In contrast, the application of information causes particles to be bound into fixed patterns and ordered motion. In that sense, heat may be considered as the antithesis of organization.

    If heat is the antithesis of organization is heat, and by implication, energy the antithesis of information, that does not preclude the possibility that energy and information may interact to provide a mix which might be viewed as “energized information”, or alternatively as “structured energy”. INFORMATION and ENERGY must not be viewed as the opposites of a bipolar system, rather, they must be considered as the two angles of a triangle, with MATTER comprising the third (74-75)

    This is problematic to a Spinoza/Stonier comparison, and I think Spinoza actually helps out here. Stonier wants to see something like a crystal at very low temperature as possessing an ideal of information, a structural coherence with very little entropy (heat). I think that this is a mistake in his visualization. Because I view the conatus as equivalent to energy, actually all things that exist possess both informational structure (what I want to call informational or ideational lean towards the Universe), and also the energy (tendency) to maintain that lean (entropy will be handled at another time). In fact the informational and energy dispositions are mutual expressions of each other. The introduction of heat (randomness) is actually an informational transformation from the outside. Instead of thinking of information as merely the internal structure of a thing, it is both the internal and relationship organization of a thing.

    We can see this on the most fundamental level in examples of “energy” transfer, reconfigured to reflect exchanges of information. Stonier uses the classic of billiard balls: 

    …consider two billiard balls, one red, one white, rolling along on a billiard table at equal speed. The red one is moving in a north-easterly direction, while the white one is moving in a south-easterly direction. Let them meet in such a way, that the collision results in a reversal of direction: The red one now traveling south-east, while the white one travels north-east.

    The question that one may ask is whether the two balls exchanged energy, or whether they exchanged information. Certainly the collision, involving a glancing blow, seemed not to affect appreciably the energy content of the system as a whole. Nor did the energy content of the individual balls appear to be affected appreciably since they continued moving at virtually undiminished speed. What was altered however, was the direction…To restate the question: Is the conservation of momentum a reflection of the fact that the two bodies merely exchanged information? (81)

    Instead of seeing energy as conserved and “transferred” between objects, one can also describe such an interaction as an exchange of information. In fact, I suggest it is not the exchange of information so much as the informational re-orientation of each. The ideas of each ball, its informational properties, has changed through interaction. We can see the foundations of Spinoza’s panpsychism wherein each thing “thinks” (is made of ideas that make a difference in its capacities in the world).

    Stonier himself provides an interesting example of the primary dichotomy he would like to set up between heat and organization, with an implicit tension between energy and information, that if warm-blooded mammalian brains. This is more than a mere exception I would suggest, but rather points to the problem of Stonier absolute contrast between energy and information itself. As he writes of the mammal and heat (randomness):

    Present-day biological systems, with minor exceptions (eg, certain chemosynthetic bacteria), obtain their energy from the sun. Light, as we shall discuss later, is a form of energy with a high information component. In general, biological systems eschew heat – either as an energy input, or as a product. When heat is generated, it is the by-product of metabolic reactions and usually reflects an inefficiency in the system. The one clear exception is the production of heat to maintain efficiency of advanced metabolic systems operating in highly organized environments. To maintain the very high levels of structural information in the system, the changes in entropy associated with changes in temperature must be kept to a minimum. The most advanced information processing system known is the mammalian brain. When the temperature rises only slightly above a critical threshold (as with a high fever), the system begins to fail as the individual hallucinates. A relatively slight drop in temperature, on the other hand, leads to narcosis. Thus even relatively minor (heat-inducing) changes in entropy, change the delicate organization of the system so as to interfere with effective information processing.

    Therefore, in the one exception where biological systems do produce heat and utilize heat, the function of the added heat is not to provide energy, but to maintain a stable temperature so as to minimize externally induced entropy changes. In other words, heat is used to help stabiliize organization – it is the one instance where the controlled application of heat constitutes an input of information. (66-67)

    As I have argued elsewhere when considering Spinoza as a Chaoplexicist, Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?informational increases cannot be seen solely in terms of an internally defined relation, for instance the structure of crystal. Instead they have to be read as edge-riding properties at the border of chaotic distributions. For instance there cannot be any such heat/organization polarity. If the Universe achieve a degree zero state it would not have reached a state of maximum information. Instead, the heat (randomness) use by mammalian lifeforms is not an exception, but an expression of the informational transformations that make up the structure of the Universe. Organization is best not seen in contest with Energy, but rather Energy expressions are necessarily informational ones. Even a purely random, equilibrium distribution is informational. And information increases (what for Spinoza would be increases in the adequacy of ideas) are not expressed sheerly as “structure” but rather the ability to bestride structure and chaos. This is precisely what lifeforms do with “heat”, not eschewing it, but surfing it.

    The locus of this reasoning I believe is found between the two, conflicting theories of Information and its relationship to entropy. Shannon, famously, linked the information content of a message to the surprise factor of its distribution. So if you received absolutely random message (taken to be utterly entropic), its information would be at maximum. Stonier, because he is not dealing with messages, but states, but an absolutely random distribution as the minimum of information structure. Truth be told, the answer lies between these two. A distribution, when seen as a message and measured for information, carries with it its relational capacities found in the reader of that distribution. In keeping with Shannon, the work that must be done in application of informational decoding of a random message is very high, so the message contain maximum information. If one is surprised very little by a message, it is composed of very few differences that make a difference to the reader. Its information is low. With Stonier, a random distribution of gas molecules composes very few differences that make a difference to the observer, so the information is low, but the reader/observer and the system/message have to be taken as a whole. The antithesis between these two perspectives is in their framing. If for instance we were to play a game where the exact distribution of gas molecules in a box near equilibrium state provides clue the game’s aim, suddenly the box is brimming with information, differences that make a difference. In fact, real world information differences, organizational relations that make a maximum of differences in the world, are those that oscilate or rather surf between both Stonier concept of fixed, structural, very low energy information, and Shannon’s very high entropy notion of message information. Maximal information, as lived, rides between this balance between structure and chaos. It is as Spinoza says,  

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

    To use a Stonier example, for a crystal at low temperature to be in a maximum state of information its constellations of elements would have to be in state in which they can effect or be affected in the greatest number of ways, and one is not sure that this is the case. Such a state is not just useful, I would say that it demarks the greatest adequacy of ideas , or informational orientation, as is historically possible. Part of this is because for Spinoza there is such thing as a state that has no information or organization.

    There are additional difficulties to be handled in the equation between Spinoza’s “Idea” and Stonier’s “Information”, for instance the reality of entropy and the ultimately question of whether, or to what degree a “closed system” actually exists, has to be worked through. And there are several other aspects of Stonier’s theory that lend themselves to an elucidation of Spinoza’s thinking, for instance the way in which he re-reads changes in “potential energy” as changes in “information”, the moving of a system into a less probable state. These are things I cannot take up right here, hopefully in the future. It is more that Stonier’s view that information comprises an essential, transformational component of the Universe, just as energy and matter does provides a highly effective backdrop for understanding just what Spinoza means by Idea. What he means by Idea is Information. And it is precisely the distinction between human information and information as an abstraction that best brings out the differences Spinoza meant in both his epistemology and his ontology, the way in which there are distinct limits to what we know, but also that in knowing anything we are changing our informational relationship to both it and the world. Improving the Adequacy of our Ideas is perhaps best seen as improving our Informational organization of ourselves, thinking is position altering. And all things must be regarded as, in some sense, thinking.

    I hope that this presentation has not be unfair to Stonier whose theory and book deserves much better treatment. I am not one who enjoys the detailed summaries of positions, and have used Stonier only as a peering into the possibilities of Spinoza’s thinking, both in terms of what he really meant, and how it might help us understand how things are. But Stonier’s theory is beautiful in its own right worth serious study for what he claims. My Spinozist adaptation is at best provisional.

    A Book that Explodes All Books in the World – Ethica

    …if a man could write a book on Ethics…

    In my recent post, Wittgenstein’s Mysticism: One World or Two?, I wrote on Russell Nieli’s review of James Atkinson’s The Mystical in Wittgenstein’s Early Writings. There Nieli makes the determinative point that Wittgenstein’s so called “Lecture on Ethics” is central to understanding early Wittgenstein’s commitment to a two-world mystical view. The lecture is available here or can be downloaded as a Word.doc here: Lecture on Ethics). This is certainly an interesting claim, and it lead me to read the lecture which I had not considered before. While I am unsure of how much of the ethical position remains in the latter-day Wittgensteinian language game depictions, I presume a great deal of it is intact, since the very same Humean dichotomy between “the relation of ideas” and the “relation of facts” presents itself in Wittgenstein’s Grammatical and Empirical categorization. I write on the problems of such a “fork” and the related is/ought distinction here: A Spoonful of Ought.

    The Explosive Book

    But what really drew my focus was the way in which Wittgenstein seemed be addressing Spinoza’s Ethics directly in his essay. In fact he appears to bring the full force of Hume’s dichotomy directly down upon Spinoza’s text, but, as Wittgenstein is so able to do, in such a way that it has only oblique effect. Look at how he characterizes the possibilities of writing a book that would make a science of Ethics, that is, a book which would make of Ethical truths an objective study and explication.

    And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.

    Its hard for me to deny that Wittgenstein is considering Spinoza at his purest. For while Wittgenstein by virtue of his Hume Doctrine of ideas vs. facts claims that ethical matters can only be approached metaphorically, an echo of his famous tractarian proposition “Where (or of what) one cannot speak, one must pass over in silence”, Spinoza’s book Ethica distinctly avoids almost ALL metaphors and similes, and attempts to speak of Ethics entirely of literal terms. If there was such a book (and there certainly is an attempt by Spinoza to have written one), Wittgenstein tells us that it would “destroy all books”.


    The Cold Wind Between Is and Ought

    Wittgenstein positions Spinoza’s Ethics as either one great confusion (treating things that can only be approached metaphorically, literally, objectively), or as a book that can and has detonated all other books ever written. What is remarkable about this that that in this metaphor Wittgenstein seems to capture something of the excitment that Spinoza enthusiasts feel for the book the Ethics. There is a certain sense in which the Ethics achieves just this, like some logically labyrinthian Borges library, the recursive, interlaced networks of propositions, proofs and scholia works as a time bomb to all other texts. This is the “cold wind” that Deleuze tells us blows through the book, unweaving everything that is woven, so that it can be woven again.

    Wittgenstein stakes the impossibility of such a book as the Ethics upon the well-known, but by him uncited Humean Is/Ought distinction. Questions of “is” (what Wittgenstein calls questions of fact, or questions of “relative value”) can never bring you to questions of “ought” (what Wittgenstein calls “absolute value”). The “good” or “right” in relative terms is always specifiable:

    The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying “This is the right way to Granchester,” I could equally well have said, “This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; “This man is a good runner” simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

    Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value.

    What Wittgenstein has in mind is that there can always be a reference to criteria, and that if we get outselves to criteria we can agree upon, we can then get down to the goodness or rightness of a thing or situation, (or at least the very nature of our disagreement). As I have argued in the above referenced article, there is no pure Is/Ought distinction, and there is always an “ought” that underwrites any descriptive claim. But it is more than this which give Spinoza’s thinking a life over and above the quiet distinctions Wittgenstein is trying to put forth, or rather, the very nexus of the Is and the Ought gives clue to the way that criteria are organized and distributed, the ways in which we come to agree upon criteria in the first place.

    The first point is that Spinoza wholly grants the relative value of things to purposes. In fact any sense of good and bad has to be brought down to the goodness or badness of things to “us” or “me”. In this way anything that is ethically good is pursued entirely out of selfishness itself, the impetus to preserve oneself and increase one’s power and joy. If a kind of action or a kind of thinking is not “good” it means that it is destructive to or weakening to me. And Wittgenstein’s entire matrix of the facts of benefit or harm, and their criteria come into play here. But, there is both an imaginary and a rational dimension upon which the interpretation and communication of these facts rests. And this is: 1). In order to objectively read the world as sense-making we regularly have to take others to be like ourselves, and that because of this there is an imaginary affective bed of mutualities which promote a criteria-less (or at least non-criteria referencing) understanding of “good” and “bad” such that a good thing to another is understood to be a good thing to me based on a primary assumption of sameness. In this way, “This is a good road” may indeed be qualified by reference to all sorts of criteria, but the experience and effect of which is not reducible to such criteria referencing (which does not make it metaphorically good, but only affectively performed and imaginarily understood). And 2). There is a ratio-pramatic consequence of human beings sharing a similar nature and interdepency such that the liberation of another human being possesses an absolute value (non-criteria referencing) of benefit such that liberation is a “good” without qualification (Balibar outlines this expertly, here). Because “man is a god to man” as Spinoza puts it, our selfishness leads us rationally to the realization that when I am helping other person or thing, or environment, I am helping myself – myself under a radical defition. In this way, both on the imaginary level and on the rational level, Wittgenstein’s exclusionary Is/Ought is effectively collapsed at least as an absolute categorial distinction.

    In fact the scientific or at least objective way in which Spinoza presents his edifice of the Ethica contains in terms of content nothing of the book that Wittgenstein imagines (a book wherein is written every single fact in the world), but it does refer to a kind of ontological dimension of such a book. Spinoza’s Substance, God, Nature is very much like the ominscience that Wittgenstein conjures up (without the reflexive anthropomophism):

    Let me explain this: Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

    But instead of propositions that have been written down, there are only expressive states, along the extensional and ideational attributes. This totality of Substance in a sense “knows” all things because all things are an expression of it. But the question is, do any of the absolute value propositions contained in the Ethica stand in relation to, or “on the same level” as, all the statements of fact in the world? To answer this one would have to assess whether any of the propositions of the Ethica qualify as absolutely adequate ideas? There is some evidence to suggest that strictly so, even though the propositions of the Ethica are certainly more adequate than others, marked by their very inter-dependent, logical relations, none of them are wholly adequate ideas due to their finite, linguistic expression. But this does not make them metaphorical either. Instead they participate in and are an expression of the very power of rational, material and imaginary combination that makes up both our factual and ethical world, meant as devices of provoked Intuitional knowledge, the knowledge by which all of us know things. The criteria of their goodness is the very capacity for power, joy and coherence in the first place. Which is to say that they are properly metaphysical. Because the Humean severance between idea and fact is refused at the ontological level, so is the ultimate barring of the Is and the Ought. As such Spinoza’s Ethica indeed could be seen as working to explode all other books ever written, or better yet, all other thoughts ever thought. But because of the limited nature of human knowledge, and the necessarily finite expression of our knowledge (even Spinoza’s knowledge), it acts as an incendiary device with a time-delay fuse.

    As an amusement, one wonders of course whether Wittgenstein’s criteria for a book that would be explode all books in the world itself would be written in the book of omniscience that contains all propositions of fact.

    Some Experiments in Re-translation, “idea” as “information”

    In lead to some of the thoughts on Idea as “information”, here are a few interesting “distortions” of the Spinoza notion of idea. (These are very rough sketches, mostly a simple swapping out to be read for effect, and then later for analysis):


    E1A6: True Information must agree with its correspondent.

    E2D3: By Information I mean a reception [conceptus] of the Mind that the Mind forms because it is a thinking thing.

    E2D4: By Adequate Information I understand information which, insofar as it is considered in itself, without relation to its correspondent, has all the properties, or intrinsic denomination of true information.

    E2P7: The order and connection of Information is the same as the order and connection of things.

    E2P8: The Information of singular things, or ways of being [modi], that do not exist must be comprehended in God’s infinite Information in the same way that the formal essences of singular things, or ways of being, are contained in God’s Atrtributes.

    E2P13: The correspondent of the information constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

    E2P19: The human Mind does not know the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, except through the information of affections by which the Body is affected.

    E2P20: There is also in God the information, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God, in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the information, or knowledge, of the human Body.

    E2P26: The human mind does not percieve any external Body as actually existing, except through the information of affections of the Body.

    E2P28: The information of the affections of the human Body, insofar as it is related to the human Mind, is not clear and distinct, but confused.

    E2P29: The information about the information of any affection of the human Body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human Mind.

    E2P32: All information, insofar as it is related to God, is true.

    E2P33: There is nothing positive in information on account of which it is called false.

    E2P36: Inadequate and confused information follows with the same necessity as adequate, clear and distinct information.

    E3P40: Whatever information follows in the Mind from information that is adequate in the mind necessarily is also adequate.

    E3DOA4: Love is a Joy [a passage from lesser to greater perfection], accompanied by the information of an external cause.

    General Definition of the Affects

    An affect that is called a Passion of the mind, is confused information, by which the Mind affirms of its Body, or some part of it,  a greater or lesser force of existing than before, which when given, determines the mind to think of this rather than that.

    E5P1: In just the same way as thoughts or the information about things are ordered and connected in the Mind, so affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body.

    E5P14: The Mind can bring it about that all the Body’s affections, or images of things are related to the Information of God.

    What becomes clearer, because of what Wittgenstein might say is the grammar of the word “information”, is that there is a conflation that Spinoza performs, particularly with the genitives. The “information of the mind, body or affections” can simultaneously mean “information about the mind, body or affections” and “information which is concordantly expressed in parallel to the mind, body or affections”. This is not understood to be a confusion on Spinoza’s part, but rather is a negotiation of what can be called the two aspects of “sign”, its actionable, dignifying power and its representational power. Information (idea) is always possibly “about” and “of”. It both expresses the state of the mind/body, yet also puts this body into a relation to other bodies (identifiable as a degree of being). This is a fundamental Spinozist point. What turning away from the English word “idea” does, as translation is strained because of distinctions in the use of “information”, is separate out any representationalist picturing from the very act of thinking, which for Spinoza is an act of doing. My idea of dogs, or my dog “Tiger” or my idea of Freedom is primarily information about my body, (but in relation to the rest of the world).

    What makes this informational approach in Spinoza startling is that he couples this calculative, even propositional sense with an affective appreciation of the Body. All thoughts carry the body with them and as such are also felt states of the Body, affects, as it seeks to express itself more Joyfully and Powerfully. Bodies, at least in the human/animal sphere, are primarily joined through an imaginary and affective sharing of what is felt. Information, therefore, organizationally feels, and all calculations must be seen as calculations of the Body as Flesh, historically positioned and conjoined to other feeling bodies. (For more on the affective and still rational potentialities in a Deleuzian/Davidsonian sense, see Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets.)


    Spinoza’s Idea as Information


    E2p13 The correspondent of the information contituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

    A brief thought, which I constantly have imagined that needs to be said, but I have yet to say it fully to myself, and not to others. Is there not something in Spinoza’s notion of Idea (Adequate or Inadequate) which is readily implied by the concept “Information”? In many of the standard views of information we can more clearly see the implication of the thought that all things come in expressions of Extension and Information (Idea). Information would simply be the relations between material expressions. There are perhaps many potential pitfalls in translating Spinoza’s Idea as “information”, the greatest of these is perhaps reducing knowledge to an input/output model (but I sense that it is exactly this model that Spinoza’s theory of knowledge resists). What is most beneficial though, is that phrases like “Inadequate Idea” become “Inadequate information”, quickly making more clear at a glance why falsity is only a privation (of power), that there is no such thing as a completely false idea, (because information, even the most mis-directed, is still doingsomething; it just isn’t doing what you think it is). Talking of Idea as information does much to dispell the thought that Idea is a “representation” as in a picturing, which for Spinoza I don’t think it really is.

    I cannot help but feel that there are several avenues to this understanding.

    1. Chalmers panprotopsychism lays heavy on this possibility.

    2. Bateson’s definition of Information, as “the difference that makes a difference” putting information (Ideas) in a matrix of vectored questions about what difference, how and where?

    3. Understanding the non-representational, “direct realism” character of Descartes’ notion of Idea (Behan, Yolton, Nadler, etc.), from this heritage we get even a deeper sense of the non-representational character of Spinoza’s correction to Descartes. “Sign” as signification and representation. Idea as an action.

    4. Related to 3, seeing the Scholastic heritage of Spinoza’s thinking, the way that he synthesizes a Scotist notion of the formal distinction, for instance, and a Plotinian concept of degrees of being, understood to be degrees of power. (The two alternate proofs, concepts of contingent existence and power, from Ethics Ip11)

    5. An autopoietic idea of recursive organization, from Mantura and Varela’s biology, to possibly Luhmann’s social modeling, both being friendly to an informational conception of organization. (Importantly, see Gould’s use of the term exaptation)

    These are but a few of the potential theories which may dovetail into a translation of Spinoza’s Idea into the concept of Information. If you are familiar with Spinoza, do a bit of an experiment. Each time you read a proposition of his which uses the term Idea, simply re-translate it as “information”. At first it is a bit jarring, like hearing the King James Version of the Bible in another diction. It ruins it. But then, let it sit. I cannot say that it is necessarily a better word because “information” is a heavily laden word in our culture (much as perhaps “idea” was in his), filled with numerous philosophical underpinnings, but it does free up Spinoza’s thought to new understanding.


    Slightly, Re-evaluating Descartes

    The Flexed Lens of Hyperbolic Doubt, as it Imaginatively Focuses the MInd


    Instead of seeing Descartes as the harbinger of the tremendous severing of the Body and the Mind, as philosophy can be thought to have suffered over the centuries that followed, there are more subtle readings that grasp the cohesive project that Descartes attempting, one in which the imagination is seen to play a role in rational understanding. Such a take remains critical, but at a level which is more nuanced in the historical contexts of his ideas, while understanding the breadth of Descartes’ vision of how things cohere.

    An important if prospective conclusion in concert with Descartes’ re-evaluation is reached by Graham Burnett, as he places Descartes’ pursuit of hyperbolic lenses in tentative relation to the use of hyperbolic doubt (I find this connection to be brilliant):

    Descartes’ greatest philosophical success lay, from his perspective, in a systematic investigation of the human mind and the perfection of cognitive operations those investigations promised; that human mind received, via natural light of reason, an instantaneous, clear, and distinct illumination, but only by means of interposition of another hyperbolic focusing device – hyperbolic doubt…

    …In Gaukroger’s reconstruction of Descartes’ psychology [Descartes, an intellectual biography ], a quite elaborate extension of the hyperbolic (lens)/hyperbolic (doubt) analogy would be possible. In Gaukroger’s reading, the imagination mediates between the pure intellect and the realm of the senses, and the experience of cognition inheres in this intermediate faculty, which represents the content of the intellect and the content of the senses both as “imagination.” Where these two map onto each other the experience is that of “perceptual cognition.” As the project of hyperbolic doubt is abundantly imaginative, and as Descartes has insisted that the natural light of reason does not stream down from God but is within our intellects, it would be possible to argue that the imagination plays the role of the focusing of the hyperbolic lens, and receives the light emanating from the intellect, which normally enters the imagination confusedly, quickly distorted by the “blinding” profusion of imagery from the senses.

    Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest

    Compare this conclusion to Augustine’s own Neo-Platonic conception of our own self-knowledge, Augustine whose “Si fallor sum” preceded Descartes “Cogito ergo sum”, and we can see the legs of this approach in relation to an pervasive conception of the divine:

    For we exist and we know that we exist, and we take delight in our existence and our knowledge of it. Moreover, in respect of these three things of which I speak [a trinity of being, knowing and loving], no falsehood which only resembles the truth troubles us. For we do not make contact with these things by means of our bodily senses, as we do in the case of things extrinsic to ourselves…[in] these cases it is the images resembling the sensible objects, but not the corporeal objects themselves, which we perceive in the mind and retain in the memory, and which excite us to desire the objects…

    City of God against the Pagans, Book XI, Chapter 24

    The much defamed “doubt” of Descartes really is not so much a doubt for skeptical doubt’s sake, or even a doubt played as a pretense for the foundation of an augment; it rather acts as a kind of imaginary corrective to sense images and experience itself, a use of the imagination upon the imagination, something that focuses the mind on just what is most sure, under a conception that reason is something that both resides and connects. When seen in this way, the division of mind and the body becomes not only ludicrously joined by the pituitary gland, but also by the imagination itself.

    Descartes Sans Homunculus!?

    One might productively add to this John Yolton’s reconfiguration of Descartes’ project to be one of an immediate Realism, and Natural Philosophy. Here, the scholastic division of the sign’s two parts, that of its signfication, and that of its representation, promises to free up the cliched reading of Descartes as harboring the perverse theoretical imp of an infinity of homunculi buried inside the head. As David Behan points out, scholastic formal signs (ideas) can be read by minds entirely without awareness. Representation, per se, no longer becomes the standard for Descartes’ notion of knowledge. A Few Selections…

    The being of an object of the mind is epistemic; it is (in a phrase that I picked up from Norman Wells) the being of being known. The epistemic rendering of “being in the mind” is an important shift from an attempted ontic transfer of an objects reality to a cognitive transfer. The explication of “existence in the mind” does not only occur in Descartes. Behan calls attention to a passage from William of Auvernue which employs the same language, “What it does mean is that it is in the soul according the mode of the being of the soul, which is cognitive”…

    David Behan interprets Descartes’ brain motions as formal signs. In support of this interpretation, he refers to the scholastic tradition just behind Descartes, a tradition to which Descartes must have been exposed. As Behan explains, formal signs in that tradition are not themselves known, they signify without without or being aware of them. If we read Descartes’ suggestion of brain motions as signs in this way, the supposed need, which commentators are fond of insisting upon, for a code-reader or, as Wolf-Devine repeatedly says, a homunculus, does not arise…

    As a mode of mind, an idea does not…make ‘something other than itself come into the mind’. If an idea represents or if,…the act of cognizing by means of ideas does the representing (the combination of act and idea), in that function, ideas are not ideas as such. That is, in that representing function, they are not modes of mind. I do not suppose that there are any ideas on Descartes’ account that are only modes of mind in the narrow sense I am suggesting. I simply want to distinguish their nature as modes of mind from their nature of function as objectively real. It is this objective reality that is in some cases (e.g. the idea of God, some physical objects) caused by something other than the mind. Ideas as objectively real (or the combination of act and idea) do not play a sign role: they simply are the objects, that which is known.

    There is an interesting similarity in Descartes’ account of brain motions and ideas: both play two roles or have two function. Brain motions are both physical events and signs carrying meaning. The motions become something other than motion. Ideas are ideas and objects, modes of mind and the object known. In this secondary role, ideas are something other than ideas. Brain motions become signs to a mind. Signs must refer beyond themselves. Ideas as objects do not really refer beyond themselves on Descartes’ account: they are the objects known. Thus the relation or function of representation is not a signifying relation, signifying differs from representing. Both are necessary for knowledge and perceptual awareness. To represent is to be that which is represented. The combination of signifying and representing ‘gets the object into the mind’, that is, makes the object known.

    John Yolton, “Response to Fellow Symposiasts” found in, Descartes’ Natural Philosophy

    I think sometimes we moderns, (even we post-moderns), are in the habit of setting up our grand narratives. And in our story about the errors of our historic ways Descartes has come to play the conveniently villanous role that makes any good story worth telling. He plays this role in a curious way though, in particular in the form of the rather easily used and ubiquitous adjective “Cartesian”. We should watch just how satisfying this word is, how simplifying. It is tossed about in Philosophy of Mind and in so many other fields with remarkable reassurance. In regards to it, there is supposed to be a neat and tidy error – some want to call it a irrefutable sounding “categorical error” – which is consistently present in Descartes’ program, and ferreting out this error (or even defending it obstinately) wherever we may find it makes up a very good portion of our philosophical endeavors.

    In such a perspective Spinoza can be of very good use for he represents a turning point just before Idealism took up and swallowed the Cartesian poisoned pill. Descartes severed the Mind from the Body, but Spinoza just would not let him. I do think that there is much to be said for such a broad brushing of philosophical history on the West, and even for the very useful distinctions which underpin it. But I also suspect that Descartes’ thought holds within itself much more subtlety and tension that is otherwise granted. Representation simply does not hold such a privledged, and pristine place in Descartes’ thinking about knowing. And in this way, Spinoza’s thought, in relation to Descartes, is perhaps more complex and sympathetic than we otherwise might suspect.

    This does not make Spinoza’s thinking “Cartesian” – that adjective again ! how it works something like the words “Communist” or “Racist” – for I am not even sure how frequently we can be assured that Descartes is entirely “Cartesian”; but it does make the connections between the two thinkers more imbricated than a simple comparison of a position of Attributes affords. I suspect that in the grey penumbra of Descartes, somewhere in Descartes’ conception of the blind man’s cane, for instance, in the folds of his treatment of the Imagination, and in the signifying, homunculus-defying aspects of Idea, there are sweet-spots of affinity between the two that may be good to trace.


    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