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Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination

[click on photo for larger image]

The above is the scheme of Spinoza’s implicit theory of a prophetic imagination, come from his letter to Peter Balling (17), where a father writes about his premonition of his son’s death. The pertinent description from which this is drawn I quote:

To take an example like yours, a father loves his son that he and his beloved are as though one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the affections of the son’s essence, and what follows; and the father, through the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, because necessarily the father’s soul from the son’s ideal essence, and with the affections of the same, through this, to what follows he must participate (as I have demonstrated elsewhere at greater length). Next, since the father’s soul participates ideally in this – in the things which follow from the son’s essence – he (as I have said) can sometimes imagine something of what follows from his [the son’s, implied] essence as vividly as if he had it before his eyes…

nempe, pater (ut tui simile adducam exemplum) adeo filium suum amat, ut is et delictus filius quasi unus idemque sint. Et quoniam (juxta id, quod alia occasione demonstravi) filii essentae affectionum, et quae inde sequuntur, necessario in Cogitatione dari debet idea, et pater, ob unionem, quam cum filio suo habet, pars memorati filii est, etiam necessario patris anima de essentia ideali essentiam filii, et ejusdem affectionibus, et iis, quae inde sequuntur, participare debet, ut alibi prolixius demonstravi. Porro, quoniam patris anima idealiter de iis, quae essentiam filii consequuntur, participat, ille (ut dixi) potest interdum aliquid ex iis, quae ejus essentiam consequuntur, tam vivide imaginari, ac si id coram se haberet…
I’ve discussed this letter before [How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead? and Spinoza and the Caliban Question to name two posts], quite frankly, if fascinates me, and it seems its ideas are often neglected in serious discussion of questions of the role of the imagination and the knowledge of the essences of external things. I was listening to Daniel Selcer’s “Singular Things and Spanish Poets: Spinoza on Corporeal Individuation” today, which I recommend for anyone interested in a slightly Deleuzian and highly literary appreciation of Spinoza’s notion of what constitutes an individual. Selcer’s treatment of “individual” as anything produced as a singular effect by a multitude (something to be appreciated by ne0-objectologists), set off another foray into the ideas of this curious letter, which I read in support of some of his thinking. (The lecture, as well as many other wonderful Spinoza papers just given on Spinoza and bodies, is found here). 
I thought it best to scheme it out, if only for later reference – and perhaps in posting it others will find it interesting, or may even be able to correct it with a better understanding. Sometimes I have a weakness for diagrams and schemes, as they anchor points in the mind so that it can do related, more inventive work along the way. Hopefully some will enjoy the map.
What is most troubling or difficult about the prophetic imagination is that it is far from clear just how to read the becoming “one and the same” of the father and the son (quasi). In many respects this simply falls into the imitation of the affects which foregrounds socialization itself, as found in the Ethics [treated quite thoroughly by Balibar, Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion]. It is a purely imaginary projection, the seed of conflict and excessive binding, needing to be leavened by power of rational unity. To be sure, Spinoza is covering something of the same grounds here (the beloved to the Father seems a passionate connection).  But this is no mere fantasy, but rather the real (though imaginary) prophetic experience of a future affective state. (It should be noted that Peter Balling externalized the affections of his son, heard his son’s future groans and did not feel pains or difficulty of breathing himself.) This imaginary relationship has epistemic traction. Spinoza is at pains to propose a dichotomy in which the ideational source of this imaginary event provides a real knowledge (if confused) of the future. Thus, just what the traction is it seems, must be found with the real participation of the father in the essence of the son, an implied merging of the two, or at least assemblage or mutuality (something I am tempted to read as cybernetic).
Under the question of the knowledge of other essences (or their affections that follow) it is significant that this portend comes from the ideational side of one’s own expression. That is, it does not come from the affections of one’s own body (which Spinoza’s dream of the Scabrous Brazilian is supposed to represent). It comes instead from the idea of the affections of another person’s body, casting into doubt just where one’s own “body” ends, and other’s begins. To a point of near contradiction, some idea follows from one’s own essence which, due to love and union, necessarily is of the affections that follow from another’s essence. This is something which one would presume could only occur if the two of you formed a single essence in some shape or form. Perhaps there is another answer to this, but this is all that I can see.
Another note worth talking about in brief is that I have been under the running theory that Spinoza contracted his tuberculosis from his own father (or step-mother), both of whom I hypothesize died from the disease [discussed recently here: Was Tuberculosis the Condition of Spinoza’s Emendation of the Intellect? and originally here: Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion]. If this is the case then the image of the “union” of the father and the son, and the idea that there are affections that might follow from the each of them certainly would grow more vivid. Indeed, Spinoza may have felt his very love for his father wove itself into the mutuality of their shared physical fates (as I most tentatively argued, Spinoza seemed to abstract into idea his own symptomatic, affection pathways in the first paragraphs of the Emendation).
The question is, does this letter (and my possible schematization of it) represent a confusion of Spinoza’s theories of body, idea and imagination, or does it possibly shed greater light on some of the more difficult passages in his thinking. I suspect the latter, especially in the sense that I have long held that Spinoza’s view is cybernetic, one in which knowing things intimately breaks down the boundaries between self, world and others, all the while retaining causal distinctions as concrete and distinct. In the letter to Balling Spinoza seems to, closer than at any other time, touch on the very mechanism of mutuality and its real, physical and mental effects. And that he does so in the context of arguing a prophetic imagination, this makes it all the more curious, and possibly engaging.

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

How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Actions of Calculation

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

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

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

Spinoza and Plotinus, some morning thoughts

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

It’s amazing how much Spinoza resembles Plotinus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Buttle Principle

A Beetle in the gears of knowing and the notion of the Press of the Mind

Wittgenstein has a beautiful and striking analogy which he folds into his (No) Private Language argument. He compares any fact checking one would do in using a so called private language, to attempting to check for an error by buying several copies of the same edition of a paper. Such a process is cursed by its reflexivity. This analogy is specific to the example of an imaginary table of terms who’s check is only in the imagination:

If the mental image [recollection] of the time-table [for the departure of trains] could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (As if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what is said were true) (PI, section 265).

There are a few problems if we attempt to take this analogy as a knockdown argument for why one cannot have a recursive sense of rule-following and justification. Wittgenstein wants us to know that “justification consists in appealing to something independent”. You might have the feeling that you have remembered a train-time table right, but you cannot justify this feeling unless you appeal to some other, independent criteria (in which for him independent does not consist in another moment of recollection or thought process). Put another way, one can believe that one is following a rule, but one doesn’t know if one actually is until one is checked by an independent process. What seems to be missing from this appeal to outside criteria is that our memories, and our use of them, are not at all like a bunch of copies from the very same press (ones in which, if their are errors, they will simply be reproduced endlessly as the same). If there is a “press” of the mind, it is much more like one which is in print all the time, and one can watch the results of taking one “edition” as correct, and make provisional adjustments if a set of beliefs fail. That is, if one follows only one’s memory, and one misses the train, one might question if there were a better way of finding out when the train would be there. But checking by glancing again at the physical time-table may help with one’s accuracy, but not categorically so. For instance, how one read that time-table anew might not jibe with one’s strong recollection. One might make sense of this by reasoning that one saw it wrong this time, or that the time-table must be out of date, or even some rather odd conspiracies of the world, and one might choose to simply trust one’s memory all the same. There is no easy, conceptual way out to what is “independent”.

[One could say that checking the truth of a report by looking at the multiple products of a process, only occurs when the truth is of an nature where doubt is necessarily cast, where it is not readily believable.]

This is related to what can be called The Buttle Principle [I give immense credit to my wife here for pointing out the concept, and naming it]. Terry Gilliam’s movie Brazil  opens with the bureaucratically automated typing out of the name of a man to be arrested. A beetle body lands on the typewriting mechanism and changes the printing process of a name of a terrorist from “Tuttle” to “Buttle”; in totalitarian justice the wrong man, an innocent shoe repairman, is arrested, tortured and executed. It becomes the “accident” which drives plot of the entire wistful and humorous critique of modern society. But now, given the metaphor of a printing press and editions of knowledge text, just where would the change from T to B lie? For instance, if you did as Wittgenstein parodies, after seeing in the small print of a newspaper that you, Buttle, were wanted for murder, it might do very well to check several copies of the newspaper to make sure it is so. Did a beetle simply fall into the mechanism at just that one moment of pressing the very copy one has in one’s hands? Suddenly (as is often the case with many of Wittgenstein’s otherwise convincing analogies) what sounds so ridiculous at first, when examined closely in real-world possibilities, is less so. 

One might ask, would the (mis)typing of the name “Buttle” in the movie Brazil  be part of the same press of an edition of knowledge? More exactly, are the given processes by which the name “Tuttle” had been inscribed in the system (an officer’s report, an original secretary’s typing), and the one where the name “Buttle ” is inscribed, to be understood as distinct or homogeneous? And in coordintion, would recalling again and again a train time-table in your mind really be simply running off more copies of the same edition of a newspaper? Would there be any sense of checking one aspect against another (what if you recall now that the time you thought that the train arrived was actually the date of your anniversary)? How much would all this self-referential conception of knowing be approaching what Wittgenstein called “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it” (section 271)? And when such a wheel turns, what is turning with it?

What is of interest here may be that the mechanism of inscription from the film is indeed tracking an alphabetized, rule-following procedure when it is “interrupted” by the fallen beetle. The name Buttle appears in a long string of T’s. To quote from the screenplay. :

The TECHNICIAN gets up and balances a chair on top of his
desk. He climbs up onto it attempting to swat the BEETLE
still buzzing about the room just out of reach. Beneath
him an automatic type-writing machine rattles away
compiling a typed list of names under the heading
“Information Retrieval, Subjects For Detention &
Interview”. The machine is being fed from a spool of paper
which is being rhythmically chopped by an automatic
guillotine which neatly leaves each name on a separate
sheet, with the title above each name, each sheet
following its predecessor into a holding basket. In CLOSE-
UP we see the names on the sheets of paper building up in
the holding basket: TONSTED, Simon … TOPPER, Martin F.
… TROLLOPE, Benjamin G. … TURB, William K. … TURNER,
John D. … Every name begins with T.

Do you think that the government is
winning the battle against

On yes. Our morale is much higher
than theirs, we’re fielding all their
strokes, running a lot of them out,
and pretty consistently knocking them
for six. I’d say they’re nearly out
of the game.

The TECHNICIAN is tottering on one leg on the chair on the
desk as he strains to swat the BEETLE. Swish, swash, oops,
WHAP! Gottcha!!

But the bombing campaign is now in
its thirteenth year …

Beginner’s luck.

The BEETLE’s career comes to a halt … squashed flat on
the brilliantly clean ceiling … or has it? As the
TECHNICIAN clambers down from the rickety heights, the
BEETLE’s carcass comes unstuck from the ceiling and drops
silently into the typewriting machine which hiccoughs,
hesitates and then types the letter “B” and hesitates and
then continues so that the next name is BUTTLE, Archibald.

The TECHNICIAN fails to notice this and the machine
continues smoothly TUTWOOD, Thomas T. … TUZCZLOW,

What I suggest is that there indeed is a component of justification (though justification is not reduced to it) which indeed is like checking several copies of the same edition, a self-editing proof, whereby one could internally look at the inscription stages of “Tuttle” and the context of one copy of “Buttle” and say, there is an error there.  I believe that this is the case because even in intersubjective conditions the appeal to something “independent” only ends up being the causal nature of the world. That is, a group of people sharing criteria still have no “independent” appeal for their means of justification, other than the causal results of following them. (What is the ultimately “independent” criteria which is available to the totalitarian system of justice, concerning Mr. Buttle’s innocence?) As a consequence, part of the mechanism for justification is also the internal sense of cohesion betweencriteria events, the special rational character with which beliefs stick together and support each other. Buttle just should not be in the T’s.

In a certain sense, me checking whether I remembered a train schedule right by turning over my own recollections, is like the totalitarian beareucracy in Brazil checking over whether they arrested the right man. If indeed they did pay attention to the internal discrepancy of texts, the Tuttle to Buttle shift, and be self-critical to it, they might have an additional explanation for the constitutive pleas of innocence by Mr. Buttle. The wheel that so turns is always connected to the world, and it is experienced as having its turnings caused by events in the world. The recursivity of an internal cohesion, though not sufficient for intersubjective justification, plays as a grounding for its possibility. The “independence” is always relative to a dependence, which in the end is causal. And coherent self-reference is always open to self- (and therefore other) critique.

This calls to mind another analogy of the printing press, one used by Spinoza to explain Descartes “proof” of God.

For example, if someone were to ask through what cause a certain determinate body is set in motion, we could answer that it is determined to such motion by another body, and this again by another, and so on to infinity. We could reply in this way, I say, because the question is only about motion, and by continuing to posit another body we assign sufficient and eternal cause to this motion. But if I see a book containing excellent thoughts and beautifully written in the hands of a common man and I ask him whence he has such a book, and he replies that he has copied it from another book belonging to another common man who could also write beautifully, and so on to infinity, he does not satisfy me. For I am asking him not only about the form and the arrangement of the letters, which which alone his answer is concerned, but also about the thoughts and meaning expressed in their arrangement, and this he does not answer by his progression to infinity.

(Letter to Jelles (40), March 25 1667

I hope that you notice the comparison in printing press analogies. We have in Wittgenstein the “absurd” notion that if we only referred to our own sense impressions and our beliefs about them, we would be like someone who is looking again and again at multiple copies of the same edition of a newspaper. And we have in Spinoza the notion that if we simply refer to the recursivity of actions of the proliferation of copies of a book (rule-followings?), we really have gotten nowhere in answering the larger question for an “independent” (conceptually distinct) cause of their production. The causation, either in the case of a self-referential series of experiences which attest to facts of the world, or a proliferation of rule-following expressions taken as shared criteria which produces formal justification, is “the world” experienced as causing both our experiences and our beliefs, and the experiences and beliefs of others. And writing, as an inscription, is understood to be an affective process. That is, both our experiences and our beliefs cause and condition the inscription process itself. Part of having beliefs is understanding that self-regulation and critique takes in account The Buttle Principle. That is, our experiences of a fact may indeed be the result of non-intentional error (the “beetle” in the system). As such, their cause can lie within physical causation, and ignored. All the same, the The Buttle Principle also allows that errors can be re-inscribed back into the intentionality of the system (Buttle must be guilty if the system finds him so, the train must be late since my memory never fails me). In this way cohesion can, as an autonomic sense of “right”, overide any Intersubjective Critique or Reality Principle that might serve as a correction. This is part of the ballast that subjectivity provides to social forms of knowing.

For Spinoza, if one could encapsulate, this causation ultimately resides in an immanentive expression of a totality which is taken to be vastly causal, which from our perspective is bootstrapped largely through affective (Joy rather than Sadness) and imaginary (picturing what makes us more powerful) means. For Wittgenstein it is much more a case of an immanence of organization which bubbles up, games stacked on games, as criteria become shared and communicated, part of this dependent/independent differential which helps create the “public” nature of language. In the middle, I believe, the two meet.

It should also be of a happy note that the beetle of Terry Gilliam’s film conflates the Ungeziefer of Kafka’s Gregor’s subjectivity, and Wittgenstein’s own Beetle in a box. One could say, two isometric reflections of the same phenomena.



The “Glassy Essence” and a Rorty Reflection

Richard Rorty, in his very influential Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, argues that since the time of the Greeks, Western philosophy has been dominated by one over-riding metaphor, that the mind forms a mirror which reflects with more or less accuracy that which Real. This is a superb critique of philosophy, partly because it subsumes many otherwise diverse arguments and positions within a much wider scope, allowing us to see their own relations to each other. The Picture of Reality notion of truth is a significant one, one that pervades some of the most sophisticated of theories of the Mind and Knowing, and I am in favor of much that follows from Rorty’s critique.

But I was at the lake today, sitting with my wife, staring across that water plane, and I was thinking heartily, if absently, about the nature of reflection. The sun was showing itself on the dark, muddy green surface, in patches. There would be halos of it, which my wife pointed out, where the water seemed to ripple out, as if for no reason. And the rest would remain dark. I said, that must be where the lake has grown shallow, and the breeze stirs it up, just so to catch the light. I think she agreed. So the lake as bespotted with light lay there, shimmer in this kind of expressive way.

We sat for a while, eating our sandwiches, watching the light show, and suddenly the breeze kicked up. Across this perfect skin spread a wave of glittering light, just near the shore, spreading out in an incredible patten, like a harp stroke. At the same time one could read the “shape of the wind” and also the hidden topography of the unseen bottom of the lake. The two unvisibles meet in an ephemeral sheen.

Now it occurred to me that if indeed the metaphor of reflection has dominated philosophical thinking for more than two thousand years, it is not just the kind of reflection we think of with the perfectly clean mirrors of our machined age (and our “mirrors” are very good now). It had also to be the reflection of natural phenomena, in particular the kind of which we saw today.


Different from the now long abhorred “transcendental” aims of using the mirror to see beyond itself, the mirror trope tells us things about our relation to things other than some conceived Real (or Divine). When the breeze passed over the lake, I was as much fascinated with what was revealed “below” as the print of the wind itself. And the sun’s reflection was not the point. What was revealed was much more local, much more contingent and unexpectant. I came in contact with the lake’s bottom and the breeze, through this reflection.

We see this trope of reflection all the time, as we watch the world being reflected across the faces (and bodies, and we could even say words), of those we interact with. I say “reflected” (but not necessarily represented). For just like the sheen of a passing gust on the surface of a lake, so too an effect, perhaps a cry-out in a room, passes across the surface of others. Through this we come to learn and coordinate ourselves to what others are experiencing, and we can “see” the invisibles of breeze. There is nothing transcendental about this, but there is something revealing.

It is this substantial knowing of what is hidden and effects otherwise unseen that is captured in the notion of reflection. Reflection is something that we in a kind of mother’s milk understand and experience as causal and triangulating, bringing our world into coherence. So a forest of downed trees reflects the storm that passed.

If we see the world through others, it is not because those that are very still and seemingly clear have transcended our contingent place, but rather because our community with them, as a materiality, is experienced as being connected to both us and it. Even the most cloudy of us concretize the reality of what is near, and carnate our most dense human affective possibilities. If we are mirrors, we are affective mirrors, and it is the material sheen of our felt textures (even our thoughts have textures and speeds) which communicate our states to each other, such that “image” and “representation” is no longer a sufficient trope.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he ‘s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.


Skepticism refuted in Under Ten Minutes

Philosophy is part performance (as much as it would like to purge every element of the contingent from its expression). Without the performative of bodies, and affects of words, images, metaphors, analogies, meanings would circulate airlessly. Convicition is performed, and Peitho was a goddess.

Watch Randy Helzerman “disprove” skepticism using Davidson’s notion of a Principle of Charity like a rapier, and see the whole thing cohere. Impressive.

As a secondary, more philosophical note, I find it interesting that as the skeptically deprived subject is “drained” of substantive belief, he becomes a determined thing, something indistinguishable from a “taperecorder”, not at all unlike Spinoza’s concept of our own “spiritual automaton” status. It would merely be an automaton with whom we could not communicate. Something out of the order of our Form of Life.

Foucault’s Tortured Text, and the Ars Erotica

I recall that despite Chomsky and Foucault’s famous disagreements, Chomsky admitted that Foucault did have some very signfiicant ideas, but he was at a loss to explain why he expressed them as he did. There is something in this. There is form which characterizes Continental expression, which perhaps even more than its conclusions, rankles those who long for clarity. Foucault, in a way, at the level of form, expresses the very aspect of the Real that he argues for, and it is this more than anything else, I would suggest, that qualifies his rejection, by some.

Foucault’s Ars Erotica in the Field of Knowledge

In reading Foucault as a sociologist, one has to come to grips with his other projects, some of which can be summarized as “philosophical,” and even more broadly as “writerly”. The aims here is to briefly contextualize Foucault’s critique of Western epistemologies of sex within a larger world project, that of turning knowledge itself into pleasure, and beyond that, pleasure into pleasure-for-its-own-sake. It is through Foucault’s contrastive analysis, the comparison between Western scientia sexualis and a largely Eastern ars erotica, that Foucault seeks to subsume Western attempts to identify, categorize and discipline sexuality, within a more complete and totalizing view of Power as pleasure. It is in this philosophical move, brought about through textual imbrications (opaque vocabularies, serpentine sentence and thought structures taking up specific historical reference points), that Foucault presents in form, the very thing that he reveals in content.

To recapitulate, Foucault operates from an understanding of how pleasure has been handled differently in past societies. One of these ways he presents with contrastive force is the erotic arts, ars erotica. In this approach to pleasure, truth is supposedly made subservient to pleasure; in the ars erotica it is through techniques that bring pleasure, that truth-as-pleasure appears:

In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice, and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered a relation to the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself (57)

As manipulations, positions taken and stagings are performed, as excitation is heightened by initiates, the ars erotica of the East and of the lost past, achieves a self-evident and self-redeeming “truth”.

Following this model as hidden template, there is for Foucault–with his acute nose for pleasures taken–in the historical movement from the traditional hierarchies of the Catholic Church and the confessional offices of the priest, to the investigative, enlightened, positivistic pursuits of the Western scientist, a move marked by the indelible pathways of pleasure production. Enlightenment processes, far from holding pleasure down, were simply making new forms of pleasure (ways of discussing and particularizing what did not historically exist before). Thus what Foucault recognizes is that in the 19th and 20th centuries as scientists took over for priests as confessional recipients of “truth”, they invented ways of pleasuring, multiplying them in discourse. Instead of finding out ‘sins’, observers were identifying perversions, repressions, symptoms, clinical hysterias, etc.; and in their tracking down the elusive excesses of sexuality, and seeking to express the “truth” that is hidden and resistant in pleasure itself, this very process was developing is own pleasure in Power. It was quietly an ars erotica:

And we must ask whether, since the 19th century, the scientia sexualis-under the guise of its decent positivism-has not functioned, at least to a certain extent, as an ars erotica. Perhaps this production of truth…multiplied, intensified and even created its own intrinsic pleasure…We have at least invented a different kind of pleasure: pleasure in the truth of pleasure (70, 71)


in short, the formidable “pleasure of analysis”…constitutes something like the errant fragments of an erotic art that is secretly transmitted by confession and the science of sex. Must we conclude that our scientia sexualis is but an extraordinarily subtle form of ars erotica, and that it is the Western, sublimated version of that seemingly lost tradition (71)

Putting aside the critical possibility that Foucault has romanticized this “lost tradition,” and simply projected it upon the history of the scientific West, (for that would point to the “truth” of his descriptions, and not their internal coherence), what is the consequence of turning truth in pleasure to pleasure in truth? 

The overarching result is that despite, or possibly because of, the increasing individuality of Western society, (emphasis on the self as an agent of choice, increasingly detached from traditions), the pleasure of Power, the subtle ars erotica of the investigative scientia sexualis can be seen by Foucault to be manifested upon the social body itself, a centerless circulation of effects, staged through manipulations and techniques of examination and inscription:

[an imagined interlocutor suggests of Foucault]…at bottom, when you point out phenomena of diffusion, anchorage, and fixation of sexuality, you are trying to reveal what might be called the organization of ‘erotic zones’ in the social body (151)

to this Foucault adds importantly that such zones are literally organized on “bodies, organs, somatic locations, functions, anotomo-physiological systems, [in] sensations and pleasures” (152); this is as if to compose a material super-body (the linking of bodies to bodies through knowledges), that is both socially constructed and physical. The ars erotica of the past which worked to give illuminative pleasure to a person, or a couple, the kama sutras of individual sexual excitements, become for Foucault the imagined Tantric excitations of an entire social body, wherein pursuits of truth becomes practices that produce “erotic zones” on that social body, such that the pleasure and power is held by no one. The transcendent effects of sexual disciplines, become the transcendent effects of the discipline of sexualities.

This leaves the final question of Foucault’s style, and the possibility that he is enacting the very circulation of pleasure effects he claims to uncover in both the “lost” ars erotica and Enlightenment scientia sexualis. As Foucault pauses over historic manifestations of power (symptoms), orbiting them with a slightly opaque discourse of combinative mental effects, is he not presenting the very indiscernible pleasure that knowing, locating and excitation entails? What Foucault reveals is an eroticized view of the world, but also of text, (one might say epistemology and texuality as sexuality), wherein in our attempts to master either the discourse or the phenomena, we implicate ourselves in the pleasure of knowing.


Work Cited

Foucault, Michael. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. Vintage Books Edition. New York: Random House, Inc., 1990.