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Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Spinoza and the Rights of Entities

In a brief response to my comment to Graham’s attempt to dichotomize all of recent philosophy into either “radical” or “conservative” forms, he claims that Spinoza is the “arch” radix reductionist:

As for Spinoza, he’s an arch-radix philosopher. You can’t say that there’s one substance and still do full justice to individual entities.

While I sincerely appreciate the future opportunity to have Graham cash out the promise that this will be explained, and I suspect that such a explanation would trade on the concept of “full justice”, from my point of view this claim comes from a very pale reading of Spinoza’s notion of Substance and the modes (Graham risks perhaps a Hegelian misreading of Spinoza’s metaphysics, thinking only vertically and not horizontally, suggesting something of an acosmism.) If Graham means by “full justice” complete autonomy of “individual entities” it would strike me (as it does) that he has retreated into a position that simply gives up the requirement for descriptive, rational explanations, the stuff of philosophy and metaphysics. Entities are autonomous simply because we grant ourselves freedom from the having to explain them, they come into being and then change for no identifiable reason at all (which is thus far is the state of Graham’s theory of causation, at least at the level of the inanimate, those “individual entities” in the greatest need of justice).

(It is interesting that if indeed Spinoza is an “arch” radix philosopher his metaphysics did not make Graham’s top ten seven list of radix philosophies.)

Aside from this, the idea that Spinoza’s metaphysics does not grant full nobility to any modal expression (what he calls “objects”) would have to take into firm account that for Spinoza the modes are that “by which God exists and acts”.  So to say that individual entities are “nothing but” Substance is to not fully grasp the fully concrete authority of modal expression. Without modal expression, God neither exists nor acts. Any “individual entity” is fully rightful in its place in the world. To say that this tea cup here is “nothing more than Substance” (the kind of reduction that Graham seems to imagine that Spinoza has archly performed), is to fail to see that the tea cup is a fully concrete expression of its individual essence, an essence which is particularized and unique in expression (matching Graham’s retreating essences of objects). The big difference is that it is not the sole cause of its existence, it is not autonomous, as it necessarily depends on external causes to bring it into, and to keep it in existence.

To put it roughly (I could draw closer correspondences):

1. Spinoza’s modal essences = Graham’s Heideggerian retreating essences.

2. Spinoza’s extensional expression of an essence = Graham’s real objects in tension with their qualities, composed of inner parts.

3.Spinoza’s ideational expression of an essence = Graham’s Husserian Intentional objects, composed of qualities and accidents.

If Spinoza is failing to grant full rights to entities, I can’t see how Graham does either for they divide up the pie in homologous ways. The only strong difference that I see is that Spinoza explicitly puts forth how these two, the inside and outside of objects, their mental and extensional aspects are related to each other.

“Objects, Objects every where, and all the boards did shrink…”

Graham does respond to my claim that he has simply adopted a metaphysics of two mirror world objects, telling me that these objects can indeed touch each other, across their mirror realms:

They’re not just “doubled in a mirror,” they’re of two different kinds: real objects, and intentional objects, and though two objects of the same kind cannot make contact, two objects of different kinds can. 

Unfortunately, as yet, I cannot tell how he imagines that this happens, other than simply stating that it does, especially on the inanimate level where a representationalist conception of knowledge is more than cumbersome. If he posits a complimentary Hume world and a Malebranche world, and then claims that elements in the Hume world literally touch elements in the Malebranche world, or some such equivalent, the entire claim that these are not isolated mirror worlds rests on precisely the enumeration of the nature of this “touching”. I have a feeling that he has a thing or two up his sleeve and he is waiting until it is more formulated, for he seems quite confident that he can answer the question with some detail. 

Returning to the original point though, the idea that Spinoza has made the modes “nothing more than Substance” (if this is what Graham is saying) would strike me as a deep misreading of even the claims of Spinoza. It would be like saying that for Spinoza natura naturata  is nothing more than natura naturans, an imprecise interpretation that I believe Malebranche also made on the fly when D’Ortous De Mairan begged him to save Europe from Spinozism, which was threatening to take all the miracles out of Christianity.  Such a reduction is explicitly foreclosed in Spinoza’s metaphysics.

I certainly look forward to Graham’s critique of Spinoza which should prove a satisfying groundwork for us finding greater agreement. I would suggest though that failing a rigorous theory of causation, not having defensible reasons why something is they way it is in the world, does not just have the benefit of saving the entity from the possibility of “reduction” (simply, explanation), giving it perhaps the illusion of the “right” to be what it is, to hide from every eye;  it has the very real negative consequence of making an island of it, and imprisoning it from any knowledgeable path towards its own freedom. Any explanation of a condition does not simply pigeon hole something, it also empowers the described if it can be knowing of its causes. The kind of “reduction” that Spinoza makes, insofar as he makes one, the claim that “I” am but an expression of Substance, is precisely the kind of reduction which minimizes none of my status as an “entity” but which directs my attention to the external causes which have made me what I am, and the exact nature of my dependencies. Because it shows me to be dependent, and not perfectly autonomous, it gives me the opportunity to change the nature of my dependencies to the degree that I can, and be given real  freedom, through the imperative that I choose my alliances to other things and persons powerfully.

When there is little explanatory framework, it is the just possibility of this freedom that is cut off from me as an object in the world. Questions of cause are inevitably linked to questions of agency, and Spinoza grants agency to all things. Absolving the question of contact and cause into the poetics of a sensuous realm’s “thin film eaten away over time” as if a time bomb ready to explode, or alternately, it being  “ruptured by distant signals” as Graham so beautifully does in his essay “On Vicarious Causation” actually has the reverse effect of what is intended, in denying objects the justice they require, a path of self-determination in terms of the power to act in the world: the answer to such questions as “How does one get one’s thin film eaten away in the best, most productive fashion?” or, “How does one most benificiently subject oneself to the rupture of distant signals?”


Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

The Backbone Concept

Graham Harman posts a brief summation of his thinking about the lasting historical heritage of a natural dichotomy in philosophy, occasionalism vs. skepticism. I can’t tell, maybe this was something of a response to my last post on his attempted complementary reading of Hume and Malebranche. If it is, it does not address the error of Malebranche and then Reid which produces this dichotomy of matching errors; but it does provide an interesting tracing of this split into contemporary philosophy (to some anticipated consternation of Kantians who thought Kant effectively changed the location of the Sun, for the better).

But Graham’s appeal to occasionalism brings to mind something larger, the difficulty in how much of a theistic philosophical metaphysics can or should be taken into non-theistic contexts. Graham for instance wants to describe the world as an occasionalist, wherein the explanatory feature of such a theory from the past is “God”. He seems to feel that all that remains is for someone to overcome the fear of blasphemy that contrained someone like Malebranche, and adopt the theory sans God, that is, sans explanans.

To my ear though, taking the explanatory feature of “God” out of occasionalist thinking (and many other Medieval to 17th century philosophical explanations) could be compared to taking the actual vertebra out of the organisms of the classification Vertebrates. It leaves something of a non-functioning organism of jelly. Impressive as a loose assemblage of visera. We see the conceptual organs all there laying in a puddle, but why can’t it lift itself or walk?

I think that as we examine and appropriate philosophies from other centuries, in particular theories that turn to a comprensive concept of God as an explanatory force, there is a danger of thinking that we can remove for ours own use all the non-theistic elements, as if they were the “real” philosophy, now stripped of their superstition. Part of this tendency (and one can see it when people talk about Descartes’ theory of Mind in a contemporary sense), comes from our experiences from science. It seems to us properly atheistic moderns that “God” was a kind of superfluous idea tacked onto real  physical explanation, something Occam’s Razor can simply shave off. Thinkers of the past were something like closet atheists, or immanent underdeveloped atheists. Aside from the distortion this brings to the history of Science itself such that we no longer understand what scientific theories meant to those that invented them, (Newton was after all a devoted Alchemist), in the conceptual jigsaw-puzzle realm of philosophy to take out the “God” part of a metaphysical explanation often does not often leave behind a functioning, coherent theory of the world. There is no residing “physical theory” lying beneath the “theistic theory” which structured the concepts organizing the metaphysics of Medieval, Renaissance and 17th century thought. One cannot simply peel away the layer of God, exposing the bones of rationality, for the concept  of God made up much of those bones.

This does not mean that one has to remain a theist in order to make use of strong influences from these centuries, but it does mean that one has to account, piece by piece, for the full explanatory function that the concept of “God” served in any such theory. One cannot simply subtract the “God” out of Augustine’s theory of a world of semiotics, nor even the “God” out of Descartes’ theory of cognition and Substance, and certainly not the “God” out of Malebranche’s occassionalism without a severe restructuring of coherent interrelations of concepts, and a restoration of the explantory power of the theory itself,  in replacement terms of its most dynamic concept. Philosophy is not science (and science is probably not even science).

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Let the Nuptials Commence

Malebranche and Hume as One

I have posted several comments in critique of, and at times in synthesis with, Graham Harman’s admittedly provisional theory of Causation, partly because it is so damn alluring, so to speak. It practically begs to be questioned for the very boldness of is claims to explain the weirdness of caustion. Here I examine the final pages of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” because it was thesethat defied me a bit, for it seemed that somehow I had missed just the precise kind of connection that Graham proposes, having understood generally what he was outlining.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

David Hume

David Hume

Two Sides of a Misunderstanding
Below I post from the informative conclusion from Graham Harman’s essay, one in which he seeks to bring Hume and Malebranche into complementary contact with each other in such a way to explain the nature of the result he is after. He seems to feel that if we simply let go of Malebranche’s fear of blasphemous atheism, his occasionalism fits hand and glove with Hume’s empiricism and somehow they would work to explain each other:

Hume and Malebranche face opposite versions of the same problem. Although Hume supposedly doubts the possibility of connection, note that for him a connection has actually already occurred: he is never surprised that two billiard balls lie simultaneously in his mind, but doubts only that they have independent force capable of inflicting blows on each other. In this sense, Hume actually begins with connection inside experience and merely doubts any separation outside it. Conversely, Malebranche  begins by assuming the existence of separate substances, but doubts that they can occupy a shared space in such a way as to exchange their forces – leading him to posit God’s power as the ultimate joint space of all entities. Like Hume, we can regard the intentional agent as the vicarious cause of otherwise separate phenomena. The tree and its mountainous backdrop are indeed distinct, yet they are unified insofar as I am sincerely absorbed with both. But more than this: when the parts of the tree fuse  to yield the tree with its single fixed tree-quality, I too am the vicarious cause for the connection of these sensual objects. Even if I merely sit passively, without unduly straining eyes or mind, it is still for me that theseparts have combined. Here, a real object (I myself) serves as the vicarious cause for two or more sensual ones. In the inverted case of Malebranche, we cannot accept the pistol shot of the deity as our vicarious cause, since no explanation is given of how God as a real object could touch other real objects; fear of blasphemy is the sole protection for this incomplete doctrine. Instead, just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one (220)

Graham has indeed identified an important nexus in the split between Idealism and Empiricism, and even brought forth suitable candidates for each school of thought. The problem of course is that I can’t see how he connects these two complimentary visions of the world, but rather leaves them floating there as two mirror reflections which simply do not touch.

One sees this in the paragraph before where he treats the accidents of sensuous objects in our mind. Due to the amphibious quality of accidents of sensuous objects, both belonging to the object and not,  they are the means by which one object able to somehow connect to, and fuse  with other sensuous object in our mind, crossing over whatever buffer had restrained them before:

“Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

This presumably is happening within the Hume side of the equation (though we will see that it might fit better within Malebranche’s representationalism); yet it should be noted, it seems that here it is not human beings or their minds that are doing the fusing, but that it is the sensuous objects themselves, dangling their red lanterns in our mental street, are doing this. Sensuous objects through the power of their allurements, produce the fusion.

This is inner action is for Graham equally complimented by an occasionalist reality of real objects whose parts are not encrusted to it from the outside, (thus creating that sensuous object), but rather whose parts are on the inside  of them, composing them:

“A real object, too, is formed of parts whose disappearance threatens its very existence. The difference is that the parts of a sensual object are encrusted onto its surface: or rather, certain aspects of those parts are fused to create it, while the remainder of those parts emanates from its surface as noise. By contrast, the parts of a real object are contained on the interior of that object, not plastered onto its outer crust.” 

And how do these real, internal parts cohere together so as to make an object? One presumes through each of them, each part holding an accident-driven fusion of their own inner, sensual objects such that they come in contact with other parts. I.e., inside each extrinsically organized object are other extrinsic parts (the occasionalism of Malebranche); and outside each sensuous object are “parts” which are the qualities and accidents which compose it in the perceptual space of an asymmetrical relation, the Intention-as-a-whole, which is a real object. These internal relations are intrinsic to an object (and at least in the first paragraph quoted, marked by a possible Humean explanation).

What is left behind is the very mechanism which actually connects these two, perfectly positioned but unassailable worlds. What is it that makes the sensuous objects which dangle their accidents in order to produce a fusion/connection with other sensuous objects (a processes exemplified by metaphorization), have traction? What makes one fusion of sensuous objects in our mind more powerful, or better than another? What causes the actions or states of a senuous object (is Graham satisfied with the bundling of qualities)? 

An Answer: The Cleaving of Malebranche and Hume

An answer to this proposed marriage between Malebranche and Hume worlds seems obvious. One has to begin from a place in which both the mental inner activity of objects (the sensuous combination of vicars), and the material, real object combinations, are part of one  expressive relation. That is, the insides and outsides are already powerfully and significantly connected, from the beginning: there is no fundamental split into realms.

In order to see how this is philosophically possible or even likely I believe we need to look at is the first half of Graham’s dichotomy, Malebrache. In particular, it is the extensive Malebranche/Arnauld debate that proves pivotal to explaining how contemporary and creative philosophers like Graham can end up with two halves of a mirror without any connection between them. (I follow here the excellent exposition of the debate written by Steven Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas (1989)).

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

As Nadler points out it was in their dispute over just how to interpret the concept of “idea” principally in relation to the philosophical innovations of Descartes, that eventually lead to modern philosophy reading “Idea” as a mediating form between the mind and the world, producing the concordant “veil of ideas” problematic that characterizes much if not all of Idealism, including it seems, its distant descendant Object-Oriented Philosophy.

To put it most briefly, Nicolas Malebranche argued that for Descartes, and properly for philosophy, ideas were indeed mediating representations, literally objects before the mind:

The word idea is equivocal. Sometimes I take it as anything that represents some object to the mind, whether clearly or confusedly. More generally I take it for anything that is the immediate object of the mind. But I take it in the most precise and restricted sense, that is, as anything that represents things to the mind in a way so clear that we can discover by simple perception whether such and such modifications belong to them. (Rech. Eclaircissement III: OC III, 44; LO, 561, as cited by Nadler, 61)

Under such a conception we can immediately see the framework for Graham Harman’s vicars, and even the possibilities of his synthesizing, fusing accidental lures. Malebranche though makes a significant distinction when thinking about ideas: they are quite distinct from “sensations”. Sensations leave us only circulating  within the bare parameters of our soul, with no way out. It is ideas are the very intelligibility, the God-given capacities of representation, through which we are able to pierce through our sensations and connect to the intelligible world. So we see from the start that, far from a simple fear of blasphemy, not only is it God that keeps objects in contact with each other in Malebranche’s occasionalism of change, it is divine intelligibility which also allows us to break through the sensual world, the very same sensual world that Graham Harman is trying to connect to the outside world. When you take away Malebranche’s God, not only do objects not connect to each other, but souls do not connect to the world.

As he characterized the debate,

What is the issue at hand? Mr. Arnauld insists that the modalities of the soul are essentially representative objects distinct from the soul, and I maintain that these modalities are nothing but sensations, which do not represent to the soul anything different from itself(Repose V; OC VI, 50; Nadler 82 ).

Antoine Arnauld, a French Roman Catholic theologian, on the other hand argued (with some inconsistency) that ideas were not representations distinct from our sensuous perceptions, not mediating forms of some intelligibility kind, but rather were actions of the mind in direct perception of the world. As Arnauld summed his understanding of Malebranche’s position, we can detect the roots of Graham Harman’s problem of connection:

At first, he [Malebranche] supposes that our mind does perceive material things. The trouble is only in explaining how: whether it is by means of ideas or without ideas, taking the word ‘idea’ to mean a representative entity distinct from perception. After much philosophizing on the nature of these representative entities, after having marched them around everywhere and having been only able to place them in God, the only fruit that he gathers from all is not an explanation of how we see material things, which alone was what was sought, but rather the conclusion that our mind is incapable of perceiving them, and that we live in a perpetual illusion in believing that we see the material things that God has created when we look at them, that is to say when we turn our eyes towards them; and meanwhile seeing, instead of them, only intelligible bodies that resemble them(VFI, 229, cited in Nadler 89 )

Contrary to this, for Arnauld the mind did not look on and stare at mental objects, intelligible bodies distinct from our sensations, but rather ideas were the very workings of a mind connected already to the world, a position which Steven Nadler calls “Direct Realism”. As Arnauld writes, he makes no distinction in kind, but onlly in relation, between a perception and an idea (a distinct that Malebranche maintains as one of kind):

I have said that I take the perception and the Idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, insofar as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation, the word idea, the later(VFI, 198; Nadler 109 )

There are not two different entities here [perception and idea], but one and the same modification of our soul, which involves essentially these two relations; since I cannot have a perception which is not at the same time my perceiving mind’s perception and the perception as something as perceived (VFI, 198 )

Nadler then traces how it was Thomas Reid, a Scotish contemporary of David Hume, who then (mis)characterized all of philosophy stemming from Descartes as lumpedly conditioned by Malebranchean mediating “ideas” between the mind and the world, adopting Malebranche’s veil of ideas (or “palace of idea” as Arnauld called it) interpretation of Descartes theory. Reid saw himself as the first to break from a philosophy that had been thus plagued by the problem of skepticism,

Modern philosophers…have conceived that external objects cannot be the immediate objects of our thought; that there must be some image of them in the mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they are seen. And the name “idea”, in the philosophical sense of it, is given to those internal and immediate objects of our thoughts. The external thing is remote or mediate object; but the idea, or image of that object in the mind, is the immediate object, without which we could have no perception, no remembrance, no conception of the mediate object (The Philosophical Works of Thomas Reid, 226, cited by Nadler 8 )

“Des Cartes” system of the human understanding, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal system, and which…is not generally received, hath some original defect; that this skepticism is inlaid in it, and reared along with it (Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Chapter 1, section 7; 1764, Glasgow & London)

Through the bottleneck of Reid’s historical interpretation the very possibility of Arnauld’s or Descartes’ “Direct Realism,” which would feature ideas to be read as actions of the mind and not mediating representations, become lost to Idealism’s Representational Cartesianism, of which Husserl remains a positive exemplar.

The Solution: One World, One Process 

My point to Graham’s Hume/Malebranche compliment of each other is that the very dichotomy that Graham finds himself split over, is of a historical creation, in particular one that imposes a separation of worlds, realms or objects, but one that may not even have traction in Descartes its reported origin. Key to a way forward, when considering the transmission of the Idealist problematic, is the kind of direct realism that Arnauld favored, one in which ideas of the mind are taken to be the actions of the mind engaged in perception. Actions of the mind are distinguishing in such a way that they face both outwardly and inwardly. They are unto the horizon of the object/body recursively defined as “ideas” (or semiotic differences), but also understood to be directly caused through interaction with the world.

Arnauld’s reading of ideas though is still tainted to some degree with the essential notion of idea as representation, a picture or image of reality, a functional difficulty which would remain a problem of the Idealism what would inherit Reid’s characterization. And Arnaud is not really consistent on this matter. While he got it right that for Descartes ideas should be best seen as actions of the mind already directly engaged with the world, what was needed was a metaphysical vision in which the kinds of connections that bind objects together in the real world “out there” were the very same kinds of connections that were going on when mental actions were taking place, binding us to the world, connecting that is “out there” to what is “in here”.

And this is exactly the connection between inside and outside that Graham is seeking to establish, although perhaps the best that can be done within the Idealist framework is simply place Hume and Malebranche on two sides of the same miror, such that they cannot touch. But it seems more that Graham has not only adopted Malebrache’s occasionalism of objects, but also places himself well within the heritage of Malebranche’s “palace of ideas” theory of cognition, robbing each of them of their explanatory lynchpin, the very thing each was designed to fortify…God. One is left with objects that do not touch or change with any explanation, and mental objects which serve as representations, but whose means of connection to the world remains opaque.

It turns out though there wasa philosopher who proposed that Ideas were just that, not representations of the world, but actions of the Mind (in my view, making them semiotic). And because his metaphysics was a metaphysics of panpsychism, our internal events were necessarily already external events, all things had an inner life of mental action (precisely what Graham is seeking to connect in his theory of vicarious causation). This philosopher of ideas as mental actions (what he characterized as affirmations of aspects of the body which manifested a degree of power, reality or perfection), was perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the generation that followed the birth of that philosophy, at the cusp of a breaking wave into modernity….the marano, ex-communicated Jew and maker of telescopes Baruch Spinoza.

Each perception is already a belief, it does not come into the human mind neutral, but is an action of the mind, and thus the organism, the object. Each perception, or even imaginary conjuration, is a material change in the ontological sinews which connect that object/body to all others, and expresses both the internal relations of that body, and its causal links to the world. One does not have to pierce  through the veil of ideas or even of sensuous vicars, to get to the world, because one is already part of the world, and each mental action is a change in one’s position in it. There is no veil. There is only strength of action.

Conclusion: We Follow the Body, not the Object

Now to be fair, whereas Malebranche  wanted to separate out ideas from sensations because sensations were the animal half of us, and his intelligibility of ideas was meant to carry us beyond the inner limits of our animal bodies. This is the opposite of where Graham wants to go. His vicars, his representations drip with the sensuous. Their very animal richness is that he suspects provides the link between their internal object nature and real causation (though the mechanism of this link remains as yet unexplained). In a sense it is the presence of the sensation, the way that it supersedes the ideal “essence” of the object that it helps construct, that joins the real body to other bodies. It is this priority in Graham’s philosophy, the way that sensation may clue toward the connection itself, that I believe will break through the mirrored universes of objects he has set up. It is my hope that the great tension between his cornerstone discovery of dual objects (Heidegger/Husserl), and the firm desire to give rightful place to all things which are not objects per se, (qualities/accidents), and create a non-human-centric metaphysics giving rights to even the smallest of things, will produce a rift which will force an abandonment of the concepts of mental action as essentially an act of Representation, and isolation/severance/retreat as a fundamental pre-condition of all ontology. The key, I believe, is recognizing the nature of the connections that already exist, a cognizance which empowers, and not looking to pierce through barriers which produce the illusion of dis-connection. Every wall necessarily is a link.

The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

Spinoza as Seer

In a sense, if we are to understand Spinoza’s optical influences we have to come to at least consider what seeing, or more helpfully, perceiving meant for Spinoza, for behind any optical conceptions Spinoza had lies the very act of actively engaging the world. Much as Descartes worked from definitive values of what clear perception was, wrestling with both empirical experiment and mathematical analysis, so too Spinoza held core positions on what clear perception involved, and these factors into the nature of Spinoza’s break with his precursor. It has become my running thought in this research that if we can generalize, Descartes’ model of clear perception involved the hyperbola’s capacity to refract rays come from a single point on an object, to another co-ordinate point on the surface of the back of the eye, and that importantly this point fell upon the central axis of the hyperbola, a mathematical line which expressed, or was the locus of, the human freedom of Will. This point of focus was – at least in the accounts of vision where Descartesis in praise of the hyperbola and the remarkable representational accuracy of the eye – the fulcrum of a naturalized embrace of narrow focus, frontal clarity.

The hyperbolas central point of focus as a model of clarity

The hyperbola's central point of focus as a model of clarity

This seems to be contrasted in Spinoza with an emphasis upon the multiplicity of visual axes that a spherical lens affords (Spinoza’s optical letters are talked about here: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters ). Spinoza was privileged enough to be familiar with thinkers who argued that spherical aberrationwas over-emphasized as a problem, and he seemed to hold that there was also a problem of “hyperbolic aberration” (my term), that is the inability of such lenses to focus rays cleanly to any points peripheral to the exact center-line of vision. Whatever one is to make of the impact such aberrationwould have had on telescope construction, it is plain that Spinoza’s view of a model of vision was panoramic, that is, anything that had clarity in the center, was clear due to its place within the context of the clarity of all that surrounded. Instead of a vague and confused border of “confused images” which only “serve” the central crispness (Kepler), because Spinoza felt that we looked with the Mind and not the eyes – something that Descartes also argued but withthe burden of theological-theoretical commitments to a free faculty of Will – Spinoza holds that ideal vision embraces the tableau, the scope of things. The hyperbola’s acute focus, as Spinoza understood it, just did not provide the convincing analogical force of what clarity would mean. I think it safe to say, neither thinker, Spinoza or Descartes, had a sure enough idea of what exact effect spherial aberration had on telescopes nor how refractionproduced its images, and it was their different notions of mental claritywhich governed their arguments for ideal lense shapes, filling in the blanks of what was known.

a modified diagram from Spinozas letter 39 designed to bring out the capacity of spherical lenses to focus peripheral rays

a modified diagram from Spinoza's letter 39 designed to bring out the difference between spherical and hyperbolic lens focus as it pertains to peripheral rays

Within this overview of differences, it is worthwhile to consider my guiding assumption of this research: that Spinoza’s experiences as a lens-grinder and instrument maker (not to mention his social standing having come from an artisan class) decisively gave him a craftsman’s appreciation of perception, one that reflects itself in his metaphysis. To get a firmer grasp on what a “craftsman’s appreciation of perception” is, I turned to Richard Sennett’s book on the subject, The Craftsman. There he writes adroitly on the nature of craftsman perceptions, thinking processes and environments, in particular the relationship to tools and on-site difficulties. This has been of great value. In his sum of craftsman perceptions he turns to “cognitive dissonance’ theory to help explain how the craft perception functions. This strikes me to be of use in pointing out just where Spinoza and Descartes seem to optically diverge. Below he discusses the nature of “focal attention” (he mentions two examples he has discussed previously, the house the philosopher Wittgenstein designed and had built, in which he infamously had the ceiling height of a room changed 3 cm, just as the worksite was being cleaned up; and Gehry’s explorations into the processes of forming titanium, designed for the rippling skin of his Bilbao project).

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

The capacity to question is no less or more a matter of investigating the locale. Neurologists who follow the cognitive dissonance model believe the brain does something like image in sequence the fact that all the doors in a mental room are locked. There is then no longer doubt, but curiosity remains, the brain asking if different keys have locked them and, if so, why.  Questioning can also occur through operational success…This is explained neurologically as a matter of a new circuit connection being activated between the brains different regions. The newly active pathway makes possible further parallel processing – not instantly, not all at once. “Questioning” means, physiologically, dwelling in an incipient state; the pondering brain is considering its circuit options (278-279).

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

It is not my intention to claim that Spinoza holds a proto-cognitive dissonance theory, though there are some signficant and suggetive correspondences (a social dimension to agreement, determintative conditioning and holistic forces in judgment). Rather, I would like to put it the other way around, to use Sennett’s point about the nature of focal attention to shed some light upon Spinoza’s difficulty in accepting Descartes notion of an ideal crystal clear center of vision. If we simplify, we could say that Descartes was concerned with identifying and constructing means of “clear and distinct” perceptions or thoughts which would define idealvision (mental and otherwise). His engagement with the hyperbolic lens is at least analogically connected to his engagementwithhyperbolic doubt, each designed to focus the mind on a central clarity. What Sennett’s appeal to the craftsman experience of Cognitive Dissonance does is help expose a rift in the very center of focus which Descartes hopes to at least rhetorically stabilize. Focal Attention may be best understood as an irreconcilable line of fragmenting possibility and dys-clarity, and not the consummate moment-after experience of veritability. Modelsof the mind which have most thoroughly drawn upon the visual metaphor for truth mostly have taken the clarity of a perception as the exemplar of correspondence. I see two dogs, and I know that they are twodogs and this clarity is established against a figure-ground constrast. But a Cognitive Dissonance approach seems to suggest is a much finer grain look at what perception is. That is, when our focal attention is turned from this thing to that thing, this aspect to that aspect, it is not clarity which guides our view, but dys-clarity, a fuzziness of the possible and the incomplete. The eye may apprehend the distinction between a figure and the ground but it does not stop there; it continues to trace the significance of relation of elements that both compose the figure, and distinguish it from its context. The processes that give birth to a single distinction carry on in a relational, distinguishing manner. This destabilization of the center, and its resolution through its coherence with a whole, I believe is expressed in several ways in Spinoza thinking.

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

But first a short defintion of the concept

Cognitive Dissonance: “the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions.”

Spinoza and the Trace of Consciousness: the grain of wood

Sennett is concerned with the experiences and perceptions which guide the craftsman through his work, the careful notice of differences in materials, possibilities and designs, how a hand passes over wood grain or the mind might connect one part to another part. It is the waythat the mind glides over difficulties and solutions. Taken in its visual state, it is the way that the eye focuses upon this or that, leading itself across the bed of differences. And it is my intuition that Spinoza’s lived practices with craft that gave him a distinct sense of what it means to perceive and distinguish.

What is necessary is to establish just what it is that lies at the center of focus, if it not a crystalline clarity. And there are two selections of the Ethics which I have in mind in response to the Cognitive Dissonance lead. The first is Spinoza’s maxim concerning what it is that we imagine to be the case. It is important to realize that when Spinoza talks about the imagination, he means a confluence of both sensory experiences, and the beliefs we form about them, so much so the latter cannot be separated out from the former. The ideas we hold – or more properly, the ideational states we are in – determine our imaginary, phenomenological experience of the world.

Spinoza writes in part 3 of the Ethics, proposition 12:

The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting.

This is the key proposition on which Spinoza will found our imaginary relationship to both to the world, but also to others. Through the mind’s force of positive imagining, it brings coherence to our body’s relationships, and thus improves our ability to act more freely (as our own cause). He continues to explain in the demonstration:

Hence, as long as the mind imagines those things that increase or aid our body’s power of acting, the Body is is affected with modes that increase or aid its power of acting, and consequently the Mind’s power of thinking is increased or aided.

In Spinoza’s view, though our relationship to the world may be imaginary (that is, we may not fully understanding the causes and effects involved), if we imagine a relation which improves our power to act, we will experience Joy (defined as an increase in this power, DOA 2), and thus the Mind will tend to continue to imagine in this fashion. Any imaginary improvement, if it results in Joy, is also an improvment in the power of thinking, and thus there is an imaginary, though non-optimal, path to greater power and freedom.

Hopefully the rough connection to Cognitive Dissonance theory will be seen. There is a tendency in perception and belief which determines the mind to think in a more coherent fashion. When there is dissonance – that is, a disjunction between one’sown ideationaland physical states and the states of the world – the imaginary value is to resolve this. In a sense, the imaginationis guided by the resolution of a center of dissonance, bringing the body into concert with its own powers as far as it understands them. (I leave aside the ladder of rational, causal understanding.) 

For Spinoza there is a cohering balast that centers the processes of imaginary experiences of the world. This is reflected in the most characteristic experiences of consciousness, the passing from one thought to other, as if in a chain. When Spinoza presents his General Definition of the Affects, he radically asserts that our chain of thoughts, most generally, are the result of the Mind affirming one state of the Body or another, such that each affirmation leads either to an increase or decrease of the power to act. These changes are the result of affects which express the adequacy of the ideas which compose our mind:

E3: General Defintion of the Affects: An affect, that is called a Passion of the mind is a confused idea, whereby the Mind affirms concerning its Body, or any part thereof, a force for existence (existendi vis) greater or less than before, and by the presence of which the mind is determined to think of this rather than that.

Exp: I say, first, that an Affect or passion of the mind is a confused idea. For we have shown that the mind is only passive, in so far as it has inadequate or confused ideas. (E3P3)
I say, further, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body or any part thereof a force for existence greater [or less] than before. For all the ideas of bodies, which we possess, denote rather the actual disposition of our own body (E2P16C2) than the nature of an external body. But the idea which constitutes the reality of a passion must denote or express the disposition of the body, or of some part thereof, which is possessed by the body, or some part thereof, because its power of action or force for existence is increased or diminished, helped or hindered.
But it must be noted that, when I say a greater or less force for existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past disposition of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the reality of an affect affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

There are two significant aspects of this definition I would like to point out. The first is the ateleological view Spinoza takes toward these kind of ideational affirmations of the body. The mind does not arrive at its present affirmation state through a comparison of a present state with a past one, but rather makes of its present existence a repeated and continual “concrescence” (to borrow wrecklessly from Whitehead’s wordsmithing). Any perceptual grasp of the world, insofar as it involves a shift in degrees power and Joy, can be seen as coming from a comprehensive grasp in a sphere of understanding. To put it another way, if we adopt the cognitive dissonance model of perception and belief holding, the running line of potentiated dissonance which guides and centers our focal points of attention becomes repeatedly resolved in the affirmative embrace of a perception/thought/state of the body, made in context with the whole. Clarityarrives not due to the crispness of an axis of perception, but due to the resolution of that line within the panorama either of the visual tableau, or the ideas we hold. Seeing something clearly, thus, is fundamentally a connective and comprehensive apperception.

The ultimate perception is, as Spinoza argues, the perceptual Idea of God, one whose scope and speed of embrace brings clarity to all other affects and imaginations. From the 5th part of the Ethics:

P13: The more an image is joined with other images, the more often it flourishes.

P14 The Mind can bring it about that all the Body’s affection, or images of things, are related to the idea of God.

The second aspect of the General Defintion of the Affects I want to point out is that the chain of thoughts which make our everyday consciousness are not centered upon a Will which controls them, but rather are an expression of the ideas that make up our MInd; thus our ideational states determine the line of imaginary and cognitive processes which include our visual perceptions (clarity of perception cannot be the model of knowing), yet only insofar as these are understood as affirming our physical states. There is no center of vision nor of judgment. Rather there is the confluxof repeated changes in the power to act, something that reveals itself not in binary of Being and Non-Being, but along a gradated spectrum of Being, wherein the power one has is a function of the degree of Being one has.

All this proceeds too fast, for I have not properly connected Spinoza ateleological, affirmational understanding of perceptions and thought-chains to the kinds of curiosity and tensions that arise even the the smallest of conscious distinctions. What a Cognitive Dissonance model of perception and belief provides, I have suggested, is the idea that there is a fissure at the center of the eye’s focus, and that this rift is only closed through the coherent orientation to our experiences at the edge of that rift, in relation to all that lies at the margins. Any philosophical view that in a binary strictly equates focal clarity with Being, and all else with Nothingness or Non-Being, does not fully appreciate the recommendations that a metaphor of visual experience would provide; for at the very center of the eye, if we follow Spinoza’s thinking, lies not the undoubtable truthof one proposition, or the pure assurance of an object seen, but rather the living line of the electric destablized possibility for greater Joy or freedom. Perceptions are a body’s forward lean. In Spinoza’s terms, this line is the shore-point of our realized power to act, and thus occurs along the affects we experience, as they are expressed in both the ideas that make up our mind, and the states our body is in. The very center of focus is our fluxuations in perfection and Joy.

Descartes not Representational Despite His Love of Lens

Now at this point really I would like to take the opportunity to make clear that I have for the sake of contrast been unfair to Descartes, for by and large when he seeks clear thoughts he does not have in mind a clarity which operates independently of other understandings. He, like Spinoza, sees a global and connective sense in truth, one which puts any clear perceptions of the world in the context of the natural dispositions of the Intellect and our soul’s relationship to God. His use of skepticism and doubt is likely at most pedagogical. There has been too much groping at what has become a cadaver of Descartes’ notions of Ideas, without notice of the living relationship such concepts hold in his overall natural science and theological scheme. Nadler, Yolton and Behan (his new piece “Descartes’s Semiotic Realism” forthcoming), all have worked to show that most of our modern conceptions of Descartes’ Representationalism are ill-considered, forwarded by a chain of deformations: first Malebranche, then Reid, and lastly to great effect, Rorty. Much of what we rail against as invidiously “Cartesian” is not really something Descartes would champion. I think the arguments of Nadler et al are very well taken, and expose a tendency of philosophy, for all its sophistication, to organize itself around oppositions simple to grasp. And thus it does us some good to look closer at the forefather of the great Substance divorce between the Mind and the Body.

This is a strange thing to say, considering that much of my contrast between Spinoza’s view of perception and Descartes’ view seems to rely upon representational models of what is known. Spinoza objects to the representational notion of clarity, what he calls “falling into pictures” because he feels that representation simply is inadequate to express what happens when we hold ideas about the world. As I have presented it, Descartes seems too seduced by the visual metaphor of a center of vision becoming clear, a ring of focus, which then can be traced down an ancient heritage of an Ocular philosophy of Presence, where the revealing aletheia of Being stands out from the confusions and negations of Non-Being, playing out the 1s and 2s of dialectical Greek counting. But I would put forward that Descartes is only drawn in this direction against, or at least in tension to, a more comprehensive understanding of perception, one in which the Mind “sees” in a very unrepresentational way, with the “mind’s eye” (a phrase that likely Spinoza takes from Descartes). It is my sense that only Descartes theological commitments to the soul and its freedom of choice expressed through the judgments of the Will which force Descartes away from what he would otherwise be more comfortable with, into an account of vision which emphasize visual clarity along a central axis of focus. It is the need for a localizable edge of judgment, most amenable to an analogy of the otherwise blurred field of view, overdetermined by an essential binary of clear and unclear, which pulls Descartes back into pictures. We see this in the development of his Dioptrics away from the non-representationalistexplanations he begins with.

Descartes’ Blindman

The greatest example of Descartes non-representational concept of mental “seeing” is his analogy of a blindman who sees the world through the use of two sticks, literally feeling the world into accurate appraisal. But first, like Spinoza, Descartes warns us not to fall into pictures. Here he points up the semiotic stimulations of our thought. It is not on the basis of resemblance that we come to know or sense things:

…it is necessary to beware of assuming that in order to sense, the mind needs to perceive certain images transmitted by the objects to the brain, as our philosophers commonly suppose; or, at least, the nature of these images must be conceived quite otherwise than as they do. For, inasmuch as [the philosophers] to not consider anything about these images except that they must resemble the objects they represent, it is impossible for them to show us how they can be formed by these objects, received by the external sense organs, and transmitted by the nerves of the brain…instead we should consider that there are many other things besides pictures which can stimulate our thought, such as for instance, signs and words, which do not in any way resemble the things which they signify (forth discourse, trans. Olscamp)

And then here Descartes draws on the very physical modes of sensing, or seeing through a stick:

It sometimes doubtless happened to you, while walking in the night without a light through places which are a little difficult, that it became necessary to use a stick in order to guide yourself; and you have then been able to notice that you felt, through the medium of the stick, the diverse objects around you, and that you were even able to tell whether they were trees, or stones, or sand…(first discourse)

…just as when the blind man of whom we have spoken above touches some object with his cane, it is certain that the objects do not transmit anything to him except that, by making his cane move in different ways according to their different inherent qualities, they likewise and in some way move the nerves of his hand, and then the places in his brain where the nerves originate. Thus his mind is caused to perceive as many different qualities in these bodies, as there are varieties in the movements that they cause in his brain…(fourth discourse)

Descartes figure 18, Dioptrics

It is Descartes conception of light that the tendency of rays communicate themselves without movement, instanteously across space, just as a blindman’s stick seems to. When rays connect to our eyes, Descartes understands our sensing to be that of connective stimulation. When we see objects, we are seeing like a blindman, with sensations directly transmitted to our nerves. He compares a blindman holding two sticks to the baton centers of vision of each of our eyes, emphasizing that the image itself is not what is directly communicated to the Intellect through the nerves.

 So you must not be surprised that objects can be in their true position, even though the picture they imprint upon the eye is inverted; for this is just like our blind man being able to sense the object B, which is two his right, by means of his left hand, and the object D, which is to his left by means of his right hand at one and the same time. And just as the blind man does not judge that a body is double, although he touches it with two hands, so likewise when both our eyes are disposed in this manner which is required in order to carry our attention toward one and the same location, they need only cause us to see a single object there, even though a picture is formed in each of our eyes (sixth discourse).

The eyes using the two batons of central rays of light

[These citations discussed some here: Descartes and The Blind Man’s Cane ]

It would seem that there is within Descartes thought a primary distinction, as Yolton and Behan argue, between signifying and representing; the stimulations of the senses communicate themselves directly through the nerves in a signifying process not based on essential resemblance. The problem is that such a signifying mode of interpretation does not favorably present itself to the requirements of an Individuated and free action of the Will. Where, and before what would the signification process end…the pineal gland? This puts Descartes in tension with himself, as the analogy of visual clarity, embodied by the pursuit of hyperbolic focus in lenses, pulls him back toward representationalist notions. I don’t at all believe that Descartes holds such a representationalist idea of knowledge, but rather suspect that it is only the independence of the freedom of the will which again and again forces its intrusion, under an auspices of directed and establishing clarity. The resting place of hyperbolic doubt, the cogito, assures a clear focus relation on which all relations can be reconstituted, owing to God. 

Conclusion: Spinoza and Craft

What makes this most interesting is that because Spinoza objects to Descartes at the most radical level of the Will itself, denying the rationality of such a theological vestige (Ethics, 2p48s records the critique of boththe will and representation), he remains unencumbered by the need to take from vision a strict Being/Non-Being binary of optical focus and blurring, center and margin. Instead he draws on, if we can be bold enough to assume it, another luminous analogy, that of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonism, the notion that light radiates in a sphere (put forth by Kepler), and that it expresses itself in gradations of ever-weakening power and cohesion, understood as degrees of Non-Being and power. Spinoza positions himself in the Augustinian, Plotinus line of thought which makes of evil a privation, but he does so at the epistemological, yet by virtue of his parallelism, still bodily level, where the degree of the adequacy of our ideas result in real, affectual experiences of the fluctuations of our power and perfection. Instead of a center of vision which affirms a crisp focus of assured clarity, Spinoza’s center of vision is the breaking wave of the affirmation of our own body’s power, its capacity to act, understood within the context of the full scope of tableau of what is “seen”. As our eyes, fingers, ears, mind flits from thing to thing, we are constantly in states of imagined increases of pleasure and power, owed to the coherence of causes and effects. While central clarity may help incise distinctions of importance, these distinctions only grow meaningful and distinct in the full context of the margins.

It is my sense that Spinoza gained something of this metaphysical insight, in addition to the great variety of sources we might name, from his experiences as a craftsman. His patient polishing of propositions not only reflect in form his careful polishing of lenses, but the content of his thought I believe express the sensitive, non-representational experiences of judgment that come from working with materials, designs and tools in a comprehensive fashion. Spinoza’s refusal to admit Descartes Substance divorce of mind and body perhaps came from his bodily experiences of shaping and sensing glass under tension. While Descartes spent much of his time in mathematics and theory, informing and confirming his hypotheses at times through experiments, he lacked hands-on knowledge of what mechanical construction and application required. In a sense, his vision was mechanical, but his hands were not. One cannot help but realize that Spinoza’s cybernetic turnings of the grinding lathe (either with his off-hand or by foot pedal), communicated a complex of sensations and judgments far too subtle and rapid to place the crown of knowing upon a independent and freely functioning Will. Instead, as the lathe was tensioned in a flux of speeds and grits, and his eyes caught the traces of changes, as his hand holding the torquing glass blank felt the moment to moment consequences of his lathe’s turning – in one great curcuit – he necessarily understood the shore of perceptions within a comprehensive and assembled bodily whole of communications. The coherence that a craftsman brings betweeen his own hands, the limits and possibility of tools, the variations and states of material, amid a continuous, creative line of “dissonance”, a hole in the center of the percieved, non-absolute differentiations of grades, their deviations in form, doubtlessly expressed itself in Spinoza’s own embrace of the union between body and mind, and the careful consideration of the moment to moment changes in the body’s capacity to act.