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Spinoza, Infinite Substance, and Kabbalah Influence

Math Unto Infinities of Different Sizes and Badiou

I’ve been looking into the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s ontology and epistemology, and been having some discussion with Eric Schliesser with whom I agree: Spinoza is a skeptic in terms of a stable, mathematical knowledge of nature via mathematical thought and operation. This of course is rather counter intuitive considering the heavily rationalistic interpretation of Spinoza in the last century, and the rather strong circumstantial evidence of his more geometrico form of his Ethics, which seems to announce the primacy of mathematical knowledge.

There is also a timely subject matter to these questions, at least in these circles of blogged conversation, as Badiou’s Cantor-inspired Set Theory framing of Being runs right up against and perhaps turning upon the onto-epistemic standing of maths in Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from any critique that Spinoza might offer Badiou’s Being a la maths, there is the provocative historical fact that Cantor’s Set Theory was heavily influenced by early study of Spinoza, in particular his position on kinds of Infinity and questions of divisibility. Spinoza represents a kind of Ur-figure in the concepts Badiou makes central, so getting a firm grasp of Spinoza’s differences seems contemporaneously a significant thing to have.

The Door of Heaven and Spinoza’s Early Influences

But in this post, given my personal context, I simply want to post a significant passage on the connection between some of Spinoza’s most elementary ideas, and the thesis that Spinoza was strongly influenced by concepts found in the Kabbalah and the Zohar. Long have I noticed the similarities, and have even come upon other sources outlining them, but it seems that it is a fact/thesis that often gets forgotten – some of Spinoza’s most significant contributions to philosophy, not to mention his involute and sometimes sublated Neoplatonism, are best reflected in the ideas found  in this religious thinking. It is good to provide a googlable link and easy reference for those who have not thought about it much.

The best Spinoza interpreters continued to link the great philosopher with the doctrines of the authentic Kabbalah, especially those of the Zohar. One of the most important among them was Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, a German Jesuit whose book Der Junge de Spinoza/ is still a classic hardly ever matched by more recent publications. Dunin-Borkowski has a full chapter called “Kabbalistische Wanderfahrten” (Kabbalist travels). A subdivision of it reads (pp. 176-90): “Der Ursprung der Mysticism-Kabbalah und die Urkeime des Spinozismus” (The origin of Mystericism-Kabbalah and the first germs of budding Spinozism). The author stresses that “a higher form of cognition of all finite things, a cognition of God and the light of eternity in the Kabbalah as well as in De Spinoza appears as the highlight of Ethics“. According to him, there was a highly developed older and intermediary type of Jewish mysticism prevailing beside the Kabbalahin the thirteenth century, and the Talmudists had already conceived the existence of mediators between God and the Universe. From these mystics, he concludes, an infinitely long and slow but almost straight evolution leads, through the ideas of the (kabbalistic) sephiroth and the neoplatonic emanations, directly to the basic concepts of the natura naturans and the first links of the natura naturata  in Spinoza’s system. Dunin-Borkowski, in contrast to Heinrich Grätz, the well-known historian of Jews in Germany, calls the sephiroth in the Sepher Jetzirah (Book of Creation) of the Zohara “highly advanced evolution of the secret philosophy of the Talmud, a groping for a link with secular science, an important transitional work pointing to the speculation of the oldest gaonitic religious philosophers. The concept of the En Sof, the Endless or Boundless one, Dunin-Borkowski continues, dominates the Zoharto the same extent as it will later be prevalent in Spinoza’s mind. And here we encounter exactly the same determinations which by so many thinkers and scholars consider a fundamental cleavage between Judiasm and Spinozism. God (the En Sof) cannot be designated by any known attributes. He is best called Ayin (the undeterminable). Hence, in order to make His existence known to all, the Diety was obliged (or, what amounts to the same thing, wishes) to reveal Himself at least to a certain extent. But the En Sof, being boundless, cannot become the direct creator, for he has neither will, intention, desire, thought, language nor action, attributes which belong only to finite beings. The En Sof, therefore, made His existence known in the creation of the world by the ten sephiroth, which flowing directly from Him, partake of His perfection and infinity.

These substances or emanations are parts of one another, as sparks are part of the same flame; yet they are, at the same time, distinguished from one another, as are different colours of the same light…The pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar  have become of the highest significance for Spinoza. For there the sephirah “wisdom” forms a perfect unity with the crown and the En Sof. “They are like three heads which, actually, form only one. Everything is connected and linked together in the one whole (the universe). Between the Universe and the Ancient One (God) there is no distinction at all. All is One, and He is all – without distinction and separation.He who describes the sephiroth as separated from one another, destroys God’s unity’.

But Dunin-Borkowski has made another important discovery. The concepts of the Kabbalah were first transmitted to young Spinoza in a rather palatable contemporary version, i.e. Abraham (Alonzo) Herrera’s famous book Door of Heaven. It was written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew by Isaac Aboab. This work, which dealt with Kabbalistic philosophy, was a favorite sourcebook of Baruch’s noted Talmud teachers, Saul Levi Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. In 1678 (one year after Spinoza’s death), a Latin version appeared under the title Sha’ar Hashomayim seu Porta Coelorum. In quo Dogmata Cabbalistica Philosophorum proponuntur et cum philosophiae Platonis conferuntur.

Herrera himself had already died in 1639, and young Baruch absorbed the contents of Door of Heaven just during those most decisive years of mental development when the imprint of new ideas of strongest and everlasting in every budding intellectual. He read, of course, the book in its Hebrew version, the language he mastered best up to his death (despite his somewhat clumsy Latin publications and Dutch letters).

According to Herrera, there is on original substance with an infinite extension. Outside it, there are only divine modi which are all encompassed in that original substance, the En Sof, even in the potentialities. Thus, there is a created (finite) and a non-created (infinite) State of God, i.e. both God in His proper sense and the Universe; but God is and remains the immanent cause of all things, and the “Universe is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God”. Therefore, we find in the “Lexicon Cabbalisticum” (a chapter of the Door of Heaven) the unequivoked statement: “the acceptance of this unity is part and parcel of the faith of every genuine Israelite; we must believe that the Infinite manifests Himself in all His modi through the unity” (my italics). There is one substance, Herrera stresses, with infinite properties. It is determining itself by a multitude of infinite beings which are, however, nothing but its modifications. God is One and Many at the same time – one in so far as He is infinite; many in so far as He determines Himself in His attributes and modi. These modi cannot exist nor be understood without the Divine One inherent and indwelling in them. Everything is one in God(my italics). Dunin-Borkowski reaches the following conclusion: “Especially the first five treatises of the book [Herrera’s Door of Heaven] explain that only blind prejudice can overlook this source of Spinoza’s.

“Spinoza and Kabbalah” by Henry Walter Brann,  in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings (2001), edited by Genevieve Lloyd

If Spinoza had read The Door of Heaven  it was likely before the age of 15, but really the Kabbalah was a prevalent conceptual touch-stone at this time due to messianic stirrings in the political realm. In any case, as I see it, Spinoza’s Kabbalistic influence seems likely, and it is noteworthy that Brann reads the Kabbalistic impulse, along with its mathematical preoccupations, as part of the attempt of mysticism to come to grips with the power of science. In a certain sense Spinoza’s system can be seen as an extremely rigorous, scientific and literal radicalization of both the religious impulse of the Kabbalah, but also its political force (an immanent unity towards a freedom through communication, an offspring of Renaissance revolutionary conceptions of civil transformation). In a more particular view towards the question of the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s system, the Kabbalistic influence of an insistently Infinite and unbroken Substance helps interpret the power of Spinoza’s seemingly anti-mathematical stance in his letter 12 to Meyer, wherein he declared mathematics imaginary in origin. Perhaps we get a glimpse of just how Spinoza conceived that it is through the Intellect that we see any quantity as infinite and undividable into finite parts, despite our ability through mathematics to divide quantities with incredible facility and clarity.  Additionally, Spinoza’s pantheism, (the issue under which the Catholic Cantor most firmly staked his objection of Spinoza), understood as a position taken upon mathematical infinity and set-making itself, may help provide the most robust correction to Badiou’s mathematical ontologies.

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?”