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Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca’s Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes’ thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)

 

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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.