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Tag Archives: Peter Balling

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

How Far Can We Imagine the Sun to Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clues from Balling’s Prophetic Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Actions of Calculation

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

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

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

The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza

Radical Experiments With Spinoza’s Metaphysics of Body

There has always tugged at me a kind of vast and unexplored consequence of Spinoza’s defintion of a single “body” or “individual,” especially when seen in context with his general expressionist ontology. It is that Spinoza defines a body so simply, given in a matrix of the world understood to be one great co-relational thing (modes transitively determined by each other, modes immanently determined by God/Substance). I want to draw out some of the implications of Spinoza’s defintions of a body (none of which have I ever seen talked of), implications that in part lead me to the notion of Conjoined Semiosis which I have forwarded in my last two posts.

Spinoza defines a body most clearly in the Ethics at 2p13a2d

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies.

 It is nearly an elegant defition and the second portion of it has really three operative parts. Bodies are moving “so as to preserve unvarying relation of movement among themselves”. In the Latin edition the phrase is ut motus suos invicem certa quadam ratione communicent, and is translated by Curley as “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner” which is quite a bit better. There is,

1). a communication of motion

2). a recursive, or at least horizoned, reflexive closure (communicating to themselves)

3). a fixed ratio

In his earlier Short Treatise  he says it even more succinctly:

Every particular corporeal thing [lichaamelijk ding] is nothing other than a certain ratio [zeekere proportie] of motion and rest.

[I discussed some of the other implications of this defintion here: The “Corporeal Equation” of 1:3: What Makes A Body for Spinoza? ] Now though I would like to draw out a particualr thread of thought. What immediately comes to mind is perhaps what Spinoza envisioned, so many billiard balls moving in motion in the world, bouncing all about, and when any number of them seem to fall into a fixed ratio of movement such that their communications upon each other seem to perpetuate this ratio of movement, this becomes an “individual”, a “body” proper. We can see it, and perhaps it is not far from how we roughly think about bodies that perserve themselves over time, a certain kind of continuity and closure of movement.

When Ratios Transpierce

But there are several aspects to this definition which expand it beyond what we might regularly take to be its described. Firstly so, the entire Extensional expression of Substance, in all of its modes at any one selection of time already seems to meet the definition. That is, the entirety of modal expressions in some transitive way communicate their motions to each other in a fixed manner…the ratio of motion and rest does not change on the whole. From the point of view of the entirety, any one “fixed ratio” is only an expression of the greater ratio of expression. Further, any parts which do not seem to be communicating their ratios to each other, is only a matter of perspective, thus, there is ever a perspective from which any combination of bodies, however disparate, are in communication with each other, if only from the point of view of the whole. In a rather Taoist-like sense, all things are connected to all other things.

When thinking about the human body there is a natural tendency to give it priority, though in Spinoza’s ontology this is not granted in any strict sense. So we must apply this notion of “individual” to our body as well. Part of this tendency of priority is to read the human body in the context of the whole expressive body of Spinoza in a kind of nesting, Russian Doll sort of way. The ratio of motion and rest which is preserved recursively in the human organism is simply an expression of the higher order whole, which has a subsuming ratio. The fixed ratio of our bodies is real, but attached to, or part of an entirety. It is not so much that that this is an alien concept to us, for instance any equlibrium of energy that our bodies maintain, swimming against entropy, might be said to reflect a general law of a conservation of energy in the universe.

But in theme of Conjoined Semiosis this is what I want to point out. The notion bodies defined as a communication of ratio preservation does not only function in a lower to higher order wherein our human body maintains its ratio in the shadow of the great, over-arching ratio of physical expression. And it is not only that our ratios of physical preservation then causally bump, skin to skin, into other ratios in preservation, whether they be bowling balls or puppies. It is that the ratios of preservation, as identified, are perspective dependent (under the idea that what separates out my ratio from yours is a delination which can be changed). More importantly, the border of my body (which is a real, modally expressed border for Spinoza) holds no priority over reading where a ratio begins and ends. And lastly, this “dissolve” of boundary does not simply function from part to whole, but also must exist in intersections across the borders of our bodies. It is not the case that our bodies only participate as wholes in larger groups of bodies, but also that the bodies of which our own bodies are composed, must participate in communications across our own boundaries. Again, the illustration from the last two posts:

There are two conceptual allowances for this in Spinoza’s philosophy. The first is that the human body ratio has no priorty over the communications of its parts. That is, parts of the human body can logically of course participate, while still maintaining their role in the human body fixed ratio, in still other ratios which intersect it (a subset of its parts can also be part of a set of another ratio in communication). The behaviors of a benign parasite for instance can participate in the ratio of my own body parts, have its motions and rest be subsumed in that ratio, and still participate in the fixed ratio of motions of the parasite gene population in the County I live in. This would make them in my view Semiotically Conjoined. The second of these is, due to the non-priority of the boundary of the human body, determinative effects upon the body cannot be reduced to surface to surface contacts. Because the human body is immaent to the field which expresses it, all parts that lie adjacent to it’s surface, are also produced by that field, and there is no reason why the events that occur within the human body are expressed only in the vector of its ratio. It is much more likely that because the identification of the ratio itself is contingent to perspectively, events within the human body can be equally measured by another trans-piercesive boundary (a benign parasite might turn destructive, the other parts of the human body being merely part of the environment of the population of parasite genetic expression).

I would say as well that something in Spinoza’s treatment of essence, in particular human essence, might demand just such a Conjoined Semiosis as per normal, for instance his thought,

For if, for example, two individualsof entirely the same nature are joined are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man then, there is nothing more useful than man E4p18siii

It is not at all clear how two men could share exactly the same nature, or whether this sameness 0f nature acts as an asymptotic limit (suggesting that their connection is somehow a Conjoined Semiosis, or that the new individual that they compose is possibly an overlap of their two natures). When two men agree and work together (heaven forbid they be a man and a woman), no matter how powerful their agreement, there is the sense that merely the divergences of their histories provide a separation of their natures (essences). One could see that the two men could form one new body or individual, for whatever length of time, if their motions remain in co-relative communication across their boundaries, but insofar as each man experienced himself separately (perhaps only flittingly as they joined together to row a boat), their two bodies would mostly be more of overlapping natures.

And then there is Spinoza’s letter to Peter Balling, wherein he comforts his friend, a father who had had a premontion halucination of his child’s death. There he explictly speaks of the soul as merely participating in the essence of another human being:

And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

A father and son are not it would seem of exactly the same nature, but the deep entrenchment of their attachment has lead in Spinoza’s mind to a kind of intermingling of essences, such that through the power of the father’s love something of the son’s future might be involuntarily imagined. I would say that each of these descriptions provide that Spinoza may have held the thought of Conjoined participation between two material bodies, at least as an aspect of what it means for two bodies to combine together.

The Endurance and yet Vectorization of “Body”

But I want to draw this out even further. If any bodies in a fixed ratio of a communication of parts is an individual, why would not the select neurons of our brains, when we are in a discussion, (perhaps in combination with our other transmitive body parts and the air molecules that carry our words) constitute a single body? (What of all the extensional manifestions of classes of race or gender, which form assemblages with parts human and parts non-human alike?) It is not for Spinoza that the bodies themseleves must be perserved, but only the ratio [in concordance with a theory like Autopoiesis]:

If from a body, or an individual thing composed of a number of bodies, certain bodies are separated, and at the same time a like number of other bodies of the same nature take their place, the individual thing will retain its nature as before, without any change in its form [forma]. (E2p13, Lemma 4, axiom 3)


The human Body, to be preserved, requires a great many other bodies, by which it is, as it were, continually regenerated (E2p13, post4)

Necessarily it seems that out of the plethora of possibly found “fixed ratios” of communication that can be found, no matter how brief in existences, (or disparately spread) our bodies must be shot through across our otherwise considered to be natural boundaries. In fact, on the question of temporal endurance, the “fixed ratio” [certa ratione] can also mean “a certain” or “a particular” ratio, making an occasionalist dream-world of any number of vectorial objects, cutting through the boundaries of other objects. One need only find a ratio of commuications and no otherwise assumed boundary would preside. Such an approach of course would only be of a limited perspective, but Spinoza’s metaphysics makes of any modal expression a fully concrete determination of effects, and this would include the determinations which flow from any discovered trans-piercing corporeal ratio. Any inside/outside delineation must I would think be cut across by other inside/outside delineations. 

The second important conceptual opening in Spinoza’s treatment of bodies, in particular the human body, is that what a body knows is only a product of its interior, recursive movements.

The human Mind does not know [cognosit] the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, accept through Ideas of affections by which the Body is affected, E2p19

This flows from,

The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body,  or a certain mode [certus modus] of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else, E2p13

One presumes that what holds for the human Mind and Body, holds for all bodies, since all bodies are an expression in parallel with ideas, the object of these ideas being the states of extension. What follows from this is that any body which preserves a ratio in a communication in parts, to some degree has Mind (an ideational ratio coherence), and that this Mind, following 2p19 above, only “knows” of its Body through the ideational expressions of the affections of its parts. Which is to say, the Mind of any corporeal ratio (however primative) only knows of the world outside of it through the affections of its material expression, and only knows of its own material state through the ideas of that expression. There is a fundamental cognitive closure to any hypostated ratio’ed communication.

The consequences of this are that if some of the semiotic elements that make up the human body are themselves elements in other cogntive bodies, the states of these elements (in Spinoza’s terms, affections) are read in at least two different cogntive orderings. That is to say, the other elements which make up the rest of a semiotic relation of parts in the human body, serve as part of the environment for the transpiercing body. This perhaps goes some way to explain the illusionary status of the affections from the perspective of God or Substance (somthing that vexes many interpreters of Spinoza). Though certainly Spinoza did not imagine his metaphysics put to this bent, what Conjoined Semiosis shows is that the meaning of an affection of semiotic elements in one body, the very same events, will have a different meaning in the transpiering body, given a different compositional whole. It is not just a change in the adequacy of ideas in a particular human mind that changes the ontological status of the affections of its body, but the affections themselves are likely, perhaps necessarily, according to the structures that Spinoza offers, already invested in Conjoined fashion to other bodies which run across its form.


There can be no doubt that Spinoza did not picture his metaphysics of objects in this way, for instance his proposition seems to rule out any conceptual invariance of inside and outside. There are many examples of this, but perhaps this is the most precise and consequential:

No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause, E3p4

But I can find no logical preclusion of a pervasive and rather animate Coinjoined Semiosis by which any body, including our own, is semiotical invested in the closed networks of other sense-making cognitive wholes, some of them quite vast and enduring, some of them quite local and ephemeral. In any case, this additional, vectorial analysis the otherwise assumed Natural borders of our bodies, speaks to the richness of what it means to be affected. It might as well add to the existential restriction upon the adequacy of human ideas, for it would not just the case that we cannot hold adequate ideas because we are restricted to a small experiential speck of the Universe, forever in our nature dependent upon things we do not fully understand, or even that what does causally affect us is somehow ultimately hidden from us by a kind of outside, external shadow, but also that many of our internal experiences of disturbed cohension come neither from “outside” or “inside”, but across the two, as what appear beyond us has tidal effects on our sense making parts, pulling us as if from within (both to greater epiphanic openness and conjunction, and toward paranoid self-purgings and external projections of hatred).

And would it be too far to go to say that this Conjoined Semiosis is what is logically behind the otherwise troubling, seemingly Parallel-postulate-defying distinction that Spinoza makes, that there are effects of the imagination that come from the Body, and those that come from the Mind, one of which can be prophetic [all events that occur in the body necessarily must also occur somehow in the mind, should they not]?

Effects of imagination either from the constitution of a body or of a mind, originate (translation own).

Effectus imaginationis ex constitutione vel coporis vel mentis oriuntur (letter to Peter Balling).

Are effects of the imagination which come from the constitution of the body to be explained as the disturbance of the body’s own semiotic elements under the mind (the cognitive whole) of another, which we experience as tearing, a lessoning of powers and coherence (Sadness); and imaginative effects that come from the mind, are come from the mind of a greater participation, or at least are formed in a cybernetic union of parts and bodies, bringing together what is so conjoined?


A related line of thinking: Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identification

How Long was Peter Balling’s Son Dead?

Within Reason: A LIfe of Spinoza

I have to say that reading Margaret Gullan-Whur’s biography of Spinoza is such a mixed experience. It is so well-researched, stuffed with details, and those details so creatively composed that I find that page after page I turn to the endnotes in the back to run through her sources, opening up new ways of seeing material that has long rested in a single frame of reference. And I don’t really mind her very speculative tendencies, something which no doubt has bothered many readers who want to keep their personal “Spinoza” intact, for it is her speculative that allows her to open up the new material. But I have to say, along with this speculation comes the quite evident fact that she plain does not like the man she had studied, or, if she does like him, she has irrepressible drive to “humanize” him, that is, to impress upon him every character flaw she can find hint of (or, if I was more reckless, perhaps make him in the image of some very memorable male figure in her own life). One need only look to her interpretation of Spinoza 26 to Oldenburg, which is pretty much plainly filled with glee and enthusiasm over a meeting with Huygens, to see how deeply she will insert values of arrogance and resentment into a historical Spinoza. I am all for remaking Spinoza for too often he becomes more like a Personage rather than a person, but Gullan-Whur seems strained to find a particular kind of person. Be that as it may, I have to recommend the wonderful biography to anyone serious about building a clearer picture of the man, his world and his life.

The Death of a Son

As an example of what I find fascinating is the way that Gullan-Whur is able to re-contextualize material that felt pretty well settled in my mind. I take for instance his letter to Peter Balling (letter 17). I had always, as had many, taken this letter to be prima facie a letter of consolation to a mourning father. Spinoza’s reported waking dream of the Brazilian and his thoughts on prophetic knowing and immortality that follow were to be seen in the light of Peter’s recent loss of a son, probably to the plague. I don’t know if the research or interpretation is original to her (she cites only official records, and no article), but challengingly Gullan-Whur points out that there is only one record of the death of a son of Peter Balling:

Peter Balling’s omens could have concerned things other than his little boy’s death (which may not have been recent: the only record of the burial of a “child Peter Balling” is for 16 October 1661), since one “Pieter Balling”, living on the Burghwal opposite the Swan Brewery was buried  on 23 December 1664, in an emergency graveyard in the grounds of an old monastery, fourteen guilders being paid for the beir and boat-cover used for his brief obsequies (152).

Of course the original, widespred interpretation of the Balling letter remains quite possible. Deaths were very frequent at this time, and Balling may have had several other children who died. The sense that Balling has been spooked by his auditory premonition of his son’s rasping still can be in order, as the plague was in full-bloom in July of 1664 when Spinoza writes to him, and Peter’s death just five months later becomes a kind of tragic fulfillment. But what this tidbit of historical evidence does is inspire a closer look at the letter, the possibility to see it in another light. Nowhere does Spinoza’s words specify a recent death, and if Balling is recalling a premonition and fulfillment Read more of this post

Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy

Spinoza as Merchant: New Reflections on Old Biographical Material

Below I exerpt significant passages from the very valuable translation of “Mercator et Autodictus” written by A. M. Vas Dias and W. G. van der Tak in 1932, filled with primary source material ubiquitously used. These selections are as to the kind of trade that Spinoza’s family business might have engaged in. Nadler follows this text for instance in concluding that the Spinoza name traded in dried fruits, but in looking at the evidence there does seem room for additional inferences, including the trade of Algerian oils and pipes, and the possibility of Canary Island or Brazilian sugar.

Mercator et Autodictus

Found in the notarial archives of Amsterdam:

A deed dated July 15th, 1631, passed before notary Daniel Brendan (register 941) containing the statement of two porters that on May 27th and June 18th of that year, they, acting upon the request of couriers of Amsterdam and sheriff Hendrik Hudde respectively, carried goods to the Weighing-house from a certain warehouse on the Prinsengracht in which miscellaneous merchandise as stored, such as sugar, brazil-wood and candied ginger, of which warehouse Philips Pelt and Michael d’Espinosa kept the keys.

 To nr.2a (Notary archives of Amsterdam register 942):

To this deed we are told that a shipment of fifty small casks of raisins which Michael should have recieved from Malaga [Spain] according the the bill of charge, did not arrive in good order. Besides learning that Michael must have traded in dried citrus, we also hear that he was living on Vloolenburg in 1633. 

Now we give two other deeds in French, passed before the notary Benedict Baddel:

in the first, passed on July 20th, 1651(register 967 folio 304), Michael D’Espinosa grants a power of attorney to Jacob Boeve, merchant in London, to institute legal proceedings to regain possession of goods, belonging to him, that had been seized by the English Admiralty as coming from Portugal. The goods consisted of pipes as small casks of Algerian oil.

The registries of the notary Baddel mention two more deeds in Dutch (registers 964 and 970):

…the first, passed on November 27, 1651, contains a statement by Simon Rodrigues Nunes at the request of Michael D’Espinosa, that at the house of Julian Lanson, also merchant in Amsterdam, he requested payment of the latter’s share in the expenses made in the reclamation of the ship “Prince” that was seized by the English on its way from the Canary Islandsto Amsterdam; the expenses referred to had been advanced by Antonio Fernandes Carvejal in London.

Febuary 15 1655:

…the honourable William van Erpecum, about forty years old, and Jarich Jelles, thiry-five years old, both merchants within this said city, well known to me, said the notary. And the request of Simon Rodrigues Nunes, also a merchant within the same city, they attested…they made the following purchases and received from the requisitionist, namely the said Van Erpecum, five casks of long raisins at twenty-eight guilders a hundred, and the said Jarich Jelles twenty-seven casks also of long raisins at twenty-seven guilders a hundred.

“Jelles dealt in spices and according the the deed [NAA 975] he did buisness with Portuguese Jews from whom he bought raisins. Michael De Spinoza also traded in dried fruits.”

The evidence points toward an interesting matrix of potential trade practices. The record of 1633 does indicate that Michael Spinoza traded in raisins, and in 1655 we have the suggestive record that Jarich Jelles did as well, keeping some continuity across two decades of business. Yethere we have as well a record of trade in Algerian oil and pipes, and an interesting piece of evidence that Michael held the keys to a warehouse that was filled with Brazilian trade items, notably the cash crops sugar and brazil-wood. The authors take this to be proof of Michael’s trustworthiness, but there would seem to be more than this. There is additional evidence that Michael Spinoza traded in sugar, as he attempted to re-acquire the goods of the ship “Prince” seized by the English. This ship came from the Canary Islands which had for the last century or so been dominated by the effective and mostly brutal economies of sugar production. By the 17th century though, sugar production dramatically had dropped due to Brazilian sugar expansion, and its primary export had been replaced by the sweet dessert wine, Malvasia, meant for both American and British consumption. Yet, the Canary Islands were on the trade route to the Americas, so a ship coming from there destined for Amsterdam likely and predominantly carried the Brazilian sugar (or brazil-wood), or even still Canary sugar. Evidence for additional Canary Islands, sugar-trade relations are found in Spanish Inquisitional records:

Gullan-Whur, citing Israel Revah’s “Spinoza et le Dr. Juan de Prado” (1959), writes of this:

An echoing description was given to the Inquisition by Captain Miguel Pérez de Maltranilla, a day after Fray Tomás’s. The captain, visiting a Canary Islands physician convalescing from leprosy in Amsterdam, stumbled upon a discussion group at the sick physician’s home, where he distinguished two men “who had abandoned the Jewish religion” from two other, allegedly practicing, Jews (who should not, of course, have been “under the same roof or come within four cubits”) of Benedictus or De Prado (90).

The obscure citation is usually used to draw out the fact that Spinoza may have been still connected to issue of Hebraic religiosity after his ban from the community, and important possibility. But here I want to add it to his possible Canary Islands and sugar associations. In 1659 Spinoza was in the house of a Canary Island physician [Nadler reports elsewise, that the man is merely visiting a physician, perhaps Dr. Reinoso, and not a physician himself, and Klever simply identifies him a “chevalier”; Gullan-Whur reads the man himself as a physician, noting that the Leper’s hospital was by the city wall on Vloyenburg; the argument could procede either way]. Whether Spinoza knew him through his past trade practices, or through the nature of the “discussion group” (or both), or simply through the house owned by a name of the same name, Guerra, is of course undecided.

Apart from general knowledge of Spinoza’s doings and concerns, the reason for looking closely into this is that Spinoza’s personal connection to colonial exploitation may have had a bearing upon either his renunciation of mercantile wealth, or on his personal politics later to be voiced in two treatises. Sugar embodies in many ways the pitfalls of affective indulgence and the systematic, brutal control of others.

The Waking Nightmare of Sugar, “Physician Heal Thyself”

This may be no more than a fancy, but we have a curious record 5 years later in Spinoza’s life of the possible impress of the leperous-physician event. The notable merchant and collegiant Peter Balling’s son has died (whether the death was recent is in question), Spinoza writes to comfort him as to how a father may have somehow presaged his son’s death, in an auditory hallucination. Spinoza tells of a waking dream he had in the Winter of Rijnsburg, where a “scabby Brazilian” stared him hauntingly in the face:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same Ethiopian appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified), – Letter 17, July 20th 1664.

Politically sensitive readers such as Antonio Negri have taken this dream to represent a extraordinary fracture in Spinoza’s System, one that will break off his writing of the Ethics, and a turn toward the requirement of a Theological-Political Treatise. While I will refrain from such a grand, but perhaps attractive interpretation, I will suggest that there are certain correspondences between Spinoza’s dream, his no doubt powerful sympathies for a mourning friend, and our record of the likely spiritual-tinged meetings at the house of a physician from the Canary Islands.

For one, the visiting man [a physician or otherwise] is leprous, as would seem the Brazilian figure is. Sugarcane historically had dominated the slave economies of both Brazil and the Canary Islands, so conflating the two seeming fitting. In addition, more symbolically, the disease of leprosy is the New Testament disease par excellence, symbolizing man’s fallen state. If the man himself was a physician, the image of a physician that cannot heal himself certain recalls the proverb from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus begins his public ministry. It worth quoting in full, since one wonders if the passage was on the minds or on the lips of any of those Christians who may have been in attendance. (Spinoza is in the company of Dr. Reinoso who may be an attending physician):

14 And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through all the surrounding district. 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written,


20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'”

24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff.

Let me diverge from my main point for a moment, as the writing seems to be heading this way. This passage from Luke contains several elements consonant with Spinoza’s situation, which in what may only be a marvelous coincidence flow together in figuative ways. Here is marked out the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and the violent rejection of him by his own home town. Clearly, this too is the place where Spinoza found himself in 1659, upon reflection. We also have the healing of lepers, and for Spinoza, a physician who is struck with leprosy. And lastly, there is the “Old” Testament imperative to release the captives, a command that Jesus saw himself fulfilling. To return to our main point, is it too much to assume that Spinoza’s relating of this dream is something more than simply comforting and interpreting the apparition experience of a bereaved father (I long have accepted this general reading)? Is it beyond likelihood to expect that Balling and even Jelles were at this or other meetings at the house of this diseased man [physician]? What stories of disease, both in politic and in body, were being told about the Spanish owned island? Was the Canary Inquisitional burning of a London Crypto-Jew in effigy the year before talked of? The subject of slavery? The recent seizure of Dutch Brazil?

We cannot tell if any of these connections were consciously made by Spinoza, either in the reading of his own dream, or in decision to relay it to Peter Balling as a comfort, but there is an outline to be traced between Spinoza’s possible association with the sugar trade, the events in the home of the Canary Islands physician, and the haunting figure of a scabrous Brazilian. To my ear, there is oddity to Spinoza’s insistence that the Brazilian floating before him “he had never seen before”. I would think that there would have been few chances to have seen such a figure. Is this assertion simply to enforce the purely imaginary characteristic of the apparition, whose “cause was quite different”? Perhaps. Or, this was a denial of a sorts, as the story is most curious, too much so to dismiss it as only an example of the kinds of tricks the mind can play upon us. He knows him to be a Brazilian, despite later calling him, perhaps generically, an Ethiopian. Dare we risk a dream-interpretation in the conflation of the diseased sugar slave, and the diseased Canary doctor (and the ostracized Jesus), a participating “in the ideal essence” Despite Spinoza’s disavowal? Perhaps that is all we have left. But I am tempted to imagine that indeed Balling had been at the “group discussion” and at some level Spinoza’s family had participated in the sugar trade either of Brazil or the Canary Islands, two “facts” that worked themselves into Spinoza’s dream and perhaps his sense of personal mission.

Spinoza and Diamonds

A last bit of evidence and conclusion taken from Vaz Dias’ report concerns the diamond and jewel trade, and the possibility that Spinoza had turned his mercantile business to include this source of weath. In the record of Spinoza’s arrest of the brother Alveres, a trader in jewels, and the holding of a bill from the diamond family Duartes, the authors write:

The Alveres brothers, alias Nunes, dealt in jewels and came from Paris around 1641 to settle on Uilenburg in Amsterdam in the house called “de Vergulde Valck”. Their business was of doubtful solidity, also in other respects. Through Gabriel Alveres they were related to the Duartes, to which family also belonged Francisca Duarte, known as French Nightingale, who was aquainted with with Pieter Cornelisz. Hooft and is considered a member of the so-called “Muider-circle”…The circumstance that not only the Alveres brother but also the witnesses Manuel Duarte and Manual Levy traded in jewels, leads us to wonder if Spinoza was also involved in this trade.

There is no doubt that the Duarte family was immensely wealthy due to trade in diamonds, and art, in fact Constantijn Huygens’ Sr. and Christiaan visited their home rather regularly for their mutual love of music. I do not know the precise relationship between the young Manuel Duarte (23) and the famed Diego, but it is perhaps significant that Spinoza’s Latin teacher, the book and art seller Franciscus Van den Enden, had strong art trade relationships to Antwerp through his brother’s shop there, where the Portuguese marano Diego Duartewasone of the most prominent dealers in both art and diamonds. The likely nexus for these two strands is Diego’s son Gaspar Duarte, the high-profileartcollector and diamond merchant of Amsterdam. How Spinoza came to hold a 500 guilder bill from a Duarte jewel-trader, likely as some form of payment, is obsured, but these circles are tighter than one might assume at first glance. At least circumstantially, Van den Enden’s brother must have known Diego Duarte as Franciscus likely knew Gaspar Duarte in Amsterdam, and Van den Enden’s student ends up holding the bill of jewel merchant Manuel Duarte.

Addendum, August 10: There is one final hint that maybe gem-dealing had been in the family business for some time. In December 1650 Michael Spinoza was appointed administrator of the Synagogue Pawnshop-Loan Office (Gullan-Whur adds that there was a note in the Book of Agreements: “That it may be to his benefit!”). Because gems must have formed some substantial part of the deposited, some aspect of gem dealing and associations with other gem dealers, would seem a natural conclusion. The early date of this appointment would place such dealings as lasting to the Spinoza family. 

Addendum, August 27: Spinoza Sr. had a record of dealings with a substanial diamond dealer as early as 1641, Lopo Ramires. As Jonathan Israel describes:

Lopo Ramires (David Curiel), a leading Dutch Sephardi merchant of the first half of the century, regularly remitted sugar, diamonds, dye-woods and spices from Portugal to his brother who lived during the Truce years at Florence and who shipped Italian silks and red coral to Lisbon. The red coral was for re-export on the Portuguese East India galleons to Goa where it was exchanged for diamonds, both Lopo and his brother being major diamond dealers as well as general merchants (Empires and Entrepots, 423).

Addendum, September 3: Spinoza’s possible sugar relations are slightly made more likely in that in 1659 that he was noted to be frequently in the company of the tobacco merchant Pacheco. Tobacco and sugar as commodities went hand and hand.

[Additional discussion of related ideas on Spinoza’s dream here: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]

[Speculation as to the diamond trade and Spinoza’s lens polishing: Spinoza and the Caliban Question ; A Possible Influence of Diamond Polishing on Assited Lens-grinding ]

Spinoza and the Caliban Question

The Power of Liberative Imagination in Spinoza, the Calibanic Art

Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.


Political Theorist, and at one time imprisoned Spinozist, Antonio Negri calls it the Caliban Question. And I think it is perhaps the greatest question of all, in regards to the full applicability of Spinoza to modern times. What is the Caliban Question?

For Negri, the Caliban Question is the search for the positive role of the imagination in the architecture of Being which Spinoza presents. This is a difficult thing to assess, for the great weight of a Rationalist interpretation of Spinoza tugs at us with pendulous force. We feel that we may have freed ourselves up from it, only to be dragged down again as we encounter the rather obvious and plainly stated descriptions against the imagination, wherein Spinoza repeatedly calls it confused, and lessor. The Caliban Question is, What room does Spinoza make for imaginative processes which lead towards the liberation of humans? What good does the imagination have?

branching off this line of thinking: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Caliban of course is the slave of Prospero, from Shakespeare’s Tempest. He is a “moon-calf”, a deformed and dark human offspring of the witch Sycorax by virtue of which he thought himself to be King of himself, and inheritor of the island to which Prospero had been shipwrecked. Prospero, by virtue of his learning and knowledge is himself a sorcerer, and by these powers he has enslaved this primitive boy-man as a retribution for an attempted rape of his daughter, attempting to people “this isle with Calibans”. Comical Caliban, in more recent post-colonial studies has been taken as an emblem of indigenous and childized, magical society.  And Caliban’s alliance to the two, Stephano and Trinculo, charmed by their celestial liquor, symbolizes a fundamental if mystified revolutionary spirit, the impulse to throw off an oppressive tyrant. To put it in short, the Caliban Question is the question of affective empowerment through an imaginary relation.

How to Make Tools Without Tools

Spinoza himself puts the position of the imagination within a process of intellection, taking up the interesting Cartesian analogy of trying to smith a hammer without a hammer. Here the question is raised of how the intellect is able to bootstrap itself up from non-intellective capacities. Implicit is that there is something of tool before proper “tool” and there is something of intellection within imagination:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. (5) For, in order to work iron, hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. (6) We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. [31] (1) But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, complicated mechanisms which they now possess.

The Emendation of the Intellect

But the question remains, whether we are discussing the invention and production of tools, or of logical means, what exact role does imagination play in such a progression? One may very well accept the ultimate reduction of the world to a sub specie aeternitatis view of Ideas and Extension, but really at some point the imagination of the world as orderly, of tools being able to do one thing or another, is implicit in a rational and cohesive view of action. Imagination cannot solely be a bad, retarding thing. Or, to position the question another way, there must be gradations of clarity or efficacy within imaginary thinking as well: Caliban must be granted a path to liberation while still being, or even by virtue of himself being, a Caliban.

Hammer tools - Spinoza


Negri’s Caliban: Spinoza takes a five-year break from his Ethics 

Negri, because he is at most interested in the political liberation effects of Spinoza’s philosophy, wants to isolate and ensure this locus of a positive imagination as it is found in Spinoza’s total picture of the capacities of human beings, (and he brings this argument to bear in chapter 5, “Interruption of the System” of his The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics ). As some have, he focuses on the mysterious five year break Spinoza took from writing his magnum opus Ethics, from 1665 – 1670, during which Spinoza turned himself from the most abstract Ontological and Epistemological considerations of Substance and God (Books 1 and 2 of the Ethics), to treat the much more concrete and practical issues of Theology (Biblical hermeneutics, in particular as they are used to legitimate and organize power), and Politics (how that power is so organized). Negri’s point is that Spinoza has been forced by circumstance and the limitations of his top-down abstractions, to embrace the concrete conditions of a modal and historic time, the phenomenal and real surface of a profundum sea. In short, Spinoza pulled his head out of eternity, and turned his analytical gaze to matters of his day, the facts of human power.

The historical circumstances of Spinoza’s break were these:

1. In March of 1665 the English set out in War to limit the Dutch domination of sea-faring world trade. It was in the basis of this trade the Spinoza’s home community in Amsterdam was becoming a proto-capitalist world economic force, straining the limits of Royalist political forms. After several early successes by the British, the war would become quite bloody and fierce. Eventually the political ramifications would lead to the imprisonment of Spinoza’s epistolary British friend and secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg.

Screenshot 2022-08-29 163421

2. Plague, come 1663, hit northern Continental Europe. In its first year nearly 10,000 died in Amsterdam, 24,000 in the next year. By 1665 it had swum the channel to London. Early that summer, a thousand deaths a week were reported in the city, by August it was 6000 a week. 200,000 cats were killed. Houses were sealed, the gates of London closed. It would drive the scientifically minded Royal Society in London to stop meeting (1666), as the wealthy took sick, or fled to country estates. In the winter of 1664 Spinoza himself for a few months would leave the village of Voorburg because its size and proximity to The Hague had made it unsafe.

 Sabattai Zevi

3. There was a strong messianic tide in the air. Christian millinarians were disappointed that the year 1656 – a number derived from the book of Daniel and a calculation of the date of the flood – had passed and the Jews had not converted to signal the time of Second Coming. In Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh beth Israel had reported a decade earlier that some of the lost tribes of Isreal had been discovered in the New World, indicating that the messiah was approaching. Sabattai Zevi, a Smyrna Jew born on an auspicious date, come to be an inspirational Cabbalist, in Jerusalem in the Spring of 1665 declared himself to be the Messiah, and announced that the day of Redemption would be June 18th, 1666. Religious fervor over this figure and the date spread across Europe. Eschatologically minded Christians took this Jewish activity and expectation as a sign that the end days were near.

Screenshot 2022-08-29 153057

(1664 comet, drawing and observations of Matasaburou, a 12 year old boy in Japan)

4. In early December of 1664 the (in)auspicious appearance of a comet in the sky set the tone for propheticized and earth-rending changes, and remained in the sky well into the next year. Christopher Wren and John Wallis among others set to testing out their theories as to the nature of comets, while in widespread fashion most understood the comet as harbinger of the disasters. (Anecdotal to fears, Robert Knox tells of a rebellion that broke out in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at mid-night on Dec 21, when the “fearful blazing star” was directly over head. The rebellion lasted more than a week, until the tail turned its direction.)

One has to picture the degree of social crisis occurring at nearly every level of exchange and expectation. Imagine thousands upon thousands dying in our major cities, particularly in the quarters brimming with poor. See that letters themselves, between scientists and philosophers, were being heated and ironed, so to take the disease out, as it traveled from elsewhere. Un-visible death creeps through every association and acquaintance, and families and friendships are disintegrating. Reports of the brutality/bravery of Dutch navy men reached both shores, as invisible shipping lanes spread across the channel are being fired upon, those tenuous threads across the Atlantic stretched taut all the way down to Brazil, a place of “primitive” and mythologized wealth, a balancing point for new opportunity and cultural redemption – the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam being the fathers and sons of a recently inquistioned people. Spinoza was part of a ring of exchange, as he haply kept correspondence with Oldenburg in London, scientists sharing and combating over their startling new theories and mechanisms. Knowledge circulated with relative freedom from Italy to Paris to The Hague to London and back, passing through veils of secrecy. But now all this potential connectivity was threatened and stamped by death, and the friendship with Oldenburg would not survive the war, plague and publishing in warmth. Every opening for others was also a breech. The messianic fervor of both Christians and Jews should not be underestimated. It expressed viscerally the ambitions of an expected, and then yearned for deliverance. As plague wiped out the the city centers, focusing on the poor, and as Royal forms of governance strained, the eschatological, the coming of an “event” to trigger it all, was ripened into a hung fruit. How startling the comet of the winter of 1664 must have seemed, in retrospect! I bring the drawing from a Japanese boy’s diary to suggest the global semiotic force of its presence. Such a light, no matter its interpretation, confers on every eye, each evening of long nights, an interpretive imperative. The most distant planets were just being glimpsed in glasses of the kind that Spinoza was polishing. Now a body was burning across the sky, filled with empty signification. The prophetic fulfillments of Zevi Sabbatai, the Jewish occult assurance of a date of Redemption, surely stirred the volatile mix deep, deep, bringing together history, biblical fact and historical cataclysmic in a single star. The condensation of all these forces, fears and transitions, before death’s door must have shaken even Spinoza’s quiet soul to the bone. Spinoza’s turn to the matters of the day, how social reality was produced, was a kind of philosophical triage.

The moon-calf’s isle full of noises: Spinoza writes a letter to console a Father who lost his son

Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?

Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.

I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.

At this time of coming war, the not-yet-comet, horrible city-plague and messiah expectation, Spinoza’s good friend Peter Balling’s young son suddenly succumbed to pestilence (for controversial thoughts on the timing of the son’s death, see here). It is one of the few glimpses we have into Spinoza’s tenderness, for his letter to Mr. Balling (letter 17), though answering questions of metaphysics, is tinged with the personal and heartfelt. Balling was one of Spinoza’s circle of Amsterdam Cartesians with whom he had grown close a decade before, and Balling had just finished translating some of Spinoza’s work from the Latin.

It is upon this letter that Negri’s research into the substance of imagination lights, for in it we have the sensitive treatment of a most human and most imaginative event. Peter Balling, knowing well Spinoza’s arguments against the imagination, tells Spinoza of a hallucinatory experience, one that disturbingly binds him to his son now dead. We know of the contents of Balling’s description from Spinoza’s response.

Spinoza begins by telling Balling that his prophetic experience of his son’s groans were merely of the imagination:

With regard to Omens, of which you make mention in telling me that, while your child was still healthy and strong, you heard groans like those he uttered when he was ill and shortly afterwards died, I should judge that these were not real groans, but only the effect of your imagination; (tran. Elwes)

We might at this point see that Spinoza is going to say that these hallucinated groans are to Spinoza merely imagination, a confused play of the mind upon itself. But this will not be the case. For really Spinoza finds degrees of truth in all knowing, even imaginary knowing. And here he will a distinction which says something in particular about kinds of imaginary influences. First Spinoza cements his conclusion that indeed these were imaginary effects. They were not direct perceptions gained through the senses:

for you say that, when you got up and composed yourself to listen, you did not hear them so clearly either as before or as afterwards, when you had fallen asleep again. This, I think, shows that the groans were purely due to the imagination, which, when it was unfettered and free, could imagine groans more forcibly and vividly than when you sat up in order to listen in a particular direction.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

A Brazilian Caliban: the dream opens itself up

Spinoza then makes a rather interesting, if discordant, diversion. He means at the surface of it to explain that he too had experienced a play of the imagination which forcefully maintained itself, superimposed upon the world, when one thing or another was not being stared at. But the content of this dream, and its persistence, the jutting presence it seems to have in the letter, makes of it for the psychologically minded, a cypher:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same negro appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified).

We can see the imposition of the black and scabby Brazilian negro. It is easy now in our time of critical reflection to understand that the figure, though Spinoza had “never seen” him before, embodies much that is projective in the wealth and organization of Amsterdam and European crisis. (Spinoza is from merchant’s family which traded primarily with colonial Brazil.) The Brazil. The locus of some of the lost tribes of Israel, the slavery of humanity on whose trade fuels a new and possibly democratic liberation in the United Provinces, a diseased figure which speaks to the plague, a persistent intruder in Sense itself. Spinoza turns to this memory in empathy with, and not just an illustration of, Peter Balling’s premonition. There suggests a grand kind of synthesis here. The most personal and the most economic and cultural. A son one has always known, slave one has never met. But how is it to gain footing?

Spinoza makes an important distinction, one that I think is requisite by the very nature of his bi-Attributive metaphysics (perhaps though in violation of a postulate of an infinite number of Attributes):

Effects of imagination either from the constitution of a body or of a mind, originate (translation own).

Effectus imaginationis ex constitutione vel coporis vel mentis oriuntur.

Spinoza wants to have Balling see that the dream of the Brazilian Caliban is perhaps somehow fundamentally different than his own premonition of his son’s illness and death. At this point in the letter to this effect Spinoza brings up the kind of hallucinations which characterize the effects of the imagination brought on by the condition of the body. First he mentions the delirium caused by fevers. Next he mentions how a constitutionally “tenacious” man or woman tenacem imagines “nothing but quarrels, brawls, slaughterings, and the like”. These are effects that are supposed to flow from physical effects. In contrast to this physical arisal, there is the logic of imaginary progressions, spreading out in a web of expanding associations and tracings:

We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the character of the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione ], for, as we know by experience, it follows the traces of the Intellect in all things, and arranges its images and words, just as the Intellect arranges its demonstrations and connects one with another; so that we are hardly at all able to say, what will not serve the imagination as a basis for some image or other.

Spinoza, in his dichotomy of causes, will set up a distinction as to which effects of the imagination are possibly prophetic of the future, and those which are not. The distinction is simple, if ever impossible to support as pure. Effects which proceed from the body can have no prophetic glimpse, those that proceed from the mind/soul, can, in a confused way, have a presentament of the future:

This being so, I say that no effects of imagination springing from physical causes can ever be omens of future events; inasmuch as their causes do not involve any future events. But the effects of imagination, or images originating in the mental constitution, may be omens of some future event; inasmuch as the mind may have a confused presentiment of the future.

He goes further, characterizing just what it was about Peter Balling’s hallucination what may have made it prophetic, and it is based on the concept of union and love:

It may, therefore, imagine a future event as forcibly and vividly, as though it were present; for instance a father (to take an example resembling your own) loves his child so much, that he and the beloved child are, as it were, one and the same. And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

The prophetic capacities of Peter Balling causally stem from his loving and shared essence with his son. There is for Spinoza a very real sense in which participation in another person’s force of existing can make of you both One Thing, and by virtue of this synthetic and truly cybernetic understanding of shared essence, the imagination can operate as an, albeit confused, but still forceful and productive means of understanding and liberation. Just how Spinoza aims to delineate that his own hallucination of the Brazilian Caliban, wanting of freedom, as a participant in the forces which helped enslave him, as a merely bodily effect of the imagination, one does not know. Perhaps this distinction only is a residue of his need to privilege his friend’s intimate hallucination. Or perhaps he himself could not fathom the ideational sharing he might have with a distant and dark figure whom “he had never met”. The question remains open.

But Spinoza then will set out, as if a diagnostician of imaginative phenomena, several pragmatic restrictions which serve to curtail too rampant an application of this prophetic principle:

Again, as the soul of the father participates ideally in the consequences of his child’s essence, he may (as I have said) sometimes imagine some of the said consequences as vividly as if they were present with him, provided that the following conditions are fulfilled:

I. If the incidence in his son’s life be remarkable; II. If it be capable of being readily imagined; III. If the time of its happening be not too remote; IV. If his body be well constituted, in respect not only of health but also free from all cares and troubles which could outwardly trouble the senses; [V.] It may also assist the result, if we think of something which generally stimulates similar ideas. For instance, if while we are talking with this or that man we hear groans, it will generally happen that, when we think of the man again, the groans heard when we spoke with him will recur to our mind.

Negri and Spinoza

Negri  grasps hold of this affirmation and does not let go. The Reality of the Imagination, the constitutive partaking it has with the essences of things, the fact that all of the social Real is shot through with imaginary forces, and that these forces concretely and causally make up the forms of our social domain, is the hinge-point on which Negri turns Spinoza’s critique of imagination, to a imaginative project of liberation. It is possible, indeed historically necessary, to imagine, and perhaps phenomenologically experience, a liberation in order to bring it about. And this occurs as part of cybernetic sharing of persons in a single form. In a sense, if the future is not too far out, and the event is imaginable and distinct enough, and the body is in good enough health, a prophetic, if confused capture comes into play.

Making the cat speak: the negotiation between the knowing imagination and the oppressive powers of knowledge

open your mouth; here is that
which will give language to you, cat: open your
mouth; this will shake your shaking, I can tell you,
and that soundly: you cannot tell who’s your friend:
open your chaps again.


I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island;
And I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god.

Negri conducts a rather thorough analysis of a diachronic and synchronic braid of arguments in Spinoza’s interruptive Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the result of which is the conclusion that Spinoza is caught in the embrace of necessarily imaginative historical concreteness of the human condition. Imaginative effects are those which constitute modal reality, in particular those effects which serve to bind the social whole. The imaginary telling of the nature of the world and its laws is a necessary over-determination of the Real determination of causal explanation, manifest in a phenomenal expression which is distinctly affective. I quote here at length to finish off the point:

In other words, the problem consists of the special nature of the effects of the prophetic imagination, of the paradox of an essential nothingness that produces historical being and certainty. This is the moment when the critical function becomes phenomenological. The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate being by molding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of the human operari. Therefore, two levels can be identified: a first, static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the ethical constitution of the world.13 The political raises the theological to the level of truth. And here the problem of “false consciousness” is posed in modern terms! We must now, therefore, follow this process that, through a powerful operation, raises illusion to the level of truth; we must examine and differentiate its internal truth and falsity. The instrumental paradox of the “libertine” critique of religion is accepted here (imagination is illusion) in the inverted form that really constitutes it (and illusion constitutes reality). But the Spinozianin version of the constitutive function evades the skeptical danger and every skeptical temptation. Constitutive activity, in fact, is not a simple political function, it is not double truth; it is, rather, ontological power. Revelation’s lesson is undoubtedly “ad hominem” an illusory sign of a hidden truth, but it is the operative character of illusion that makes it real and therefore true (chapter II, pp. 43-44)  

The potential for ideological critique in this position is immense, but in this thread of thoughts I am not so much interested in the political, as important as it is. I am interested in the figure of Caliban himself. Where does he stand in this cross-fire of imaginative effects, the universal primative cast in a permanently comic and revolutionary position? Or, what does Spinoza make of his dream? Could it come solely from bodily effects? (And problematically for Spinoza’s distinction, since all bodily effects are paralleled by ideational effects, how does such a division maintain itself?) So how long does this figure linger over our focus upon his arguments? In what manner did the dream (winter of ’62) and its recollection (summer of ’64) foreground his break with the Ethics and his endeavor to concretize his theories in historical form? And as comet, war, plague, messiah, personal deaths and distant colonies invade upon the civility of a productive Europe is not the imagination itself the locus of any move towards freedom? How much did Spinoza imagine the possibilities and needs of his Ethics as he returned to it in roughly in 1670, and took on the nature of the affects and appetites of men, and their unliberative powers?

What I want to question here how much each of us are a Caliban, a moon-calf who hears the sounds of our island, and is taught not only a language of means, but also of oppression. That the condition of our means is one of mystification, an over-determined vision of how things are. And that though Spinoza argued and believed that clear and distinct thought were the best means of a liberation, imaginary participation in shared substance may be the primary means of progressive increase in the power to act. Ever to ask, who endowed our purpose with words. It is interesting that while Shakespeare traces out the historic conditions of a succession of powerful takeovers by means of knowledge: Sycorax of the island, the King of Naples over Prospero, Sycorax over the moon, Prospero over the sea, Prospero over the island, placed in Caliban is the liberative force itself, made comic and absurd, the acknowledgement of a certain passivity and dependence which gives birth to alliance. And it is the same dependence which for Spinoza links the most brutish thing to the “rest of the rock”. There is a place, I believe, between a father’s shared premonition of his son, and a community’s prophetic glimpse of its own future.

When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.

For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.