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Tag Archives: Mental Vision

Spinoza’s Eyes of the Mind and the Grinding Form

Three References to Sight

Still, we sense and experience ourselves to be eternal. For the mind no less senses those things that through thinking it grasps, than those it has through memory. For the mind’s eyes, by which it sees and observes things, are demonstrations themselves…

Ethics, 5P23s

We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought]Ethics, 2p48s.

…after I have come to know the nature of vision and realise that it has the property of making us see one and the same thing as smaller at a distance than if we were able to see it near at hand, we infer that the sun is bigger than it appears.

The Emendation of the Intellect

To follow up on yesterday’s thinking, these are the three substantial references to mental vision in Spinoza which one must come to terms with if we are to understand the effect the grinding of lenses and the making of optical instruments had upon his thinking. Spinoza speaks very little about light, in terms of an explanatory metaphor, and when it takes up the idea of vision, it is in very selective ways.

Considering the first two quotations above, we see his firm resistance to any “picturing” of truths, something he relegates solely to the experiences of the imagination. Thinking, or having a truth thought, is not to be understood in any sense of having a picture of the world (and he distances himself either from Descartes, or popular conceptions of Descartes in this passage). But when considering the second of these, see still understand that the Mind, expressed in the succession of ideas of which it is composed, actually senses. We sense, and the Mind senses (both sentio ). But if we follow the pairs, “we” sense and experience, although the mind “senses and observes”, giving clue to the shift Spinoza is thinking of. In our collective sensing, we passively experience the world, but in our intellection, we observe the world. (Yet part of the process of intellection, as Spinoza conceives of it, is the realization that we are not distinct from it.)

I am still caught by the notion that the demonstrations or proofs of propositions are literally the eyes of the mind (remember the apodictic connecton between logical demonstration, and a craftsman’s demonstration: what “showing” means). I recall a study that I read on Plotnius, and the author was talking about how or why we read philosophers of the past. He suggested that as one submits themselves to their architecture of arguments a subtle, perceptual shift happens. The world, our very perceptual experience of it, alters. This is how Spinoza conceives of his propositions and proofs operating. They are not so much seen as indefatigable statements that secure a fact, (although most certainly he conceives of them as correct and true), they are meant much more as a interaction, a pedagogy, which alters one’s experiences of the world, promoting intuitions which will grant greater freedom and greater capacity to act. They are cybernetic combinations. I have used that world before, but intentionally so, because Spinoza defines a body as a communication of parts. For Spinoza, I believe, the parts of the Ethics, combine in a useful way with the parts of our Body-Mind, to produce an interaction, a communication, which empowers the person, in assemblage. In a sense, the conatus that gave rise to the Ethics, the conatus that preserves the Ethics in print and discussion, combines with the conatus that preserves the reader, to produce One, collective, meditative, thinking and acting body. The material dimension of this must be understood.

If one is to draw from the lens-grinding analogy, a lens is ostensibly made by grinding a glass-blank in one’s free hand, against a metal (copper or iron) form or lap, which holds the curvature that is desired. The off-hand either drives the spinning of the lathe so that it spins something like a potter’s wheel. (Or this can be accomplished with a foot petal, leaving the off-hand free.) As one drives the metal dish in concentric revolutions, it clearly manifests a changing, yet fixed state, turning but stable. Against this metal form, upon which abrasives of various grits are poured, the glass is pressed, until it gathers the shape desired. The fineness of the grits and processes of polish are made in stages.

This is something how I imagine Spinoza’s Ethics was to work. The first armature of arguments for Substance, and then continuations on to knowledge and power, are meant to grind down the rough edges. This is where the greatest resistance comes I believe in many readers. The propositions seem to lack application, and may appear to indulge in terminology that grates. Yet, the work progresses to grades of increasing finesse, until the human emotional condition is addressed, and then the glass is given a subtle polish, in hopes of increasing its speed and capacity.

The propositions and the proofs exist to be ground upon. One tests one’s mind against them, pushing against their rigid character, and their tight cross-reference. It is not so much that one proposition is right, and convincing, but rather that their very atomic, veined fabric is meant to be engaged in, as one presses against its spinning form. The hardness of the material and its ideational webbing wears away the rough edges of the mind, and suddenly you are seeing something, however mutely, or blurred. This is how I imagine that Spinoza thought of his text, and why he used the geometrical method for his master work. He was not thinking to convince, but rather to engage, to cause the mind to “sense and observe” in a different manner.

How Platonic this may sound, the meeting of a Form to rough material, but the dynamic, material character of the form itself denies any transcendence. The interaction is seen as an aid, but also as a combination. Here the third quotation from the top of the page comes into view. By acquiring knowledge about the nature of vision, we come to see differently. We come to see the sun as further away, such that we can act more freely in regards to it. We sense and observe in a continuity. The propositions and proofs that we have pressed ourselves against have polished us, not because there is perfect vision, but because there is better vision, a vision that is understood as material.

If we compare this “mind’s eyes” notion to Descartes’ “mind’s eye”, from which it likely drew influence, we detect a radical difference:

Rule Nine: We must concentrate our mind’s eye totally upon the most insignificant and easiest of matters, and dwell on them long enough to acquire the habit of intuiting the truth distinctly and clearly.

The Regulae

Like Spinoza, Descartes wants to promote an intuition, the capacity to see clearly with great immediacy. Yet Descartes imagines a mental vision that is closely focused on what is before one. Whether this be a small, causal relation, or an indubitable fact, Descartes wishes to build surety upon surety. Spinoza though wants mental vision to be comprehensive and vast. Any close comprehension moves very quickly to a totality of perceptions, from which all else gains clarity. The over-arching Coherence is that from which individual distinction and merit comes from. And it is for this reason that his optical conceptions were based on the notion that vision requires a wide-view clarity of focus, refining both the center and the borders. And it was for this reason that he composed his Ethics vastly, not so that he could cover every base, but so engagement with it would produce a symmetrical, whirling, grinding curvature of the mind, one that could focus all events, as best as possible, yet ever with a view to the expresssion of the body, as a body. And part of this final understanding is that not only are we formed by the things we are ground against, in the frictions of our living, but we are ever in communication with them. And I suspect Spinoza wants to say, in telling us that demonstrations (of every kind) are the eyes of the mind, that because of this, our organs of “sight” extend far beyond us, into the infinity of affects and motions that communicate themselves to us, each along a tensioned, discerning line of power.