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A Short Note on the Notion of Spinoza as Craftsman

I was discussing with my wife this developing idea that Spinoza’s metaphysical work needs to be understood in light of the specific practices and techniques he engaged in as a lens-grinder. I was busy describing to her how physical the act of lathing is, the dynamics of its transformations, and how when one watches it, seeing it, simply thinking of it as an act of grinding, or in terms of the materials used, is insufficient.

She came up with one of those apt analogies, which are particular to her mind, saying something of the order, “Yes, it would be like knowing what clay is, and even understanding what a potter’s wheel might be, but having never seen it in action”. I think that she is very right. We think of Spinoza as a lens-grinder, perhaps see him hunched over a workbench, vaguely picturing his hands cusped, pressing something hard and small against something spinning. Maybe we hear in the background the requisite sound of grinding, something metal on metal. But none of this really is what the picture-of-the-world of lathework provides. There is something potters-wheel-like in the combination of changes faster than the eye can see, amid a stability, a stability that communicates itself both despite and because of change. It embodies, in a very real way, what conceptually can only read as paradox, natura naturata and natura naturans. In it conflict and pressures create forms that rise out of an unformed, and the physicality of “idea” is not so much a theoretical and abstract position, as a real and experienced fact. Perhaps this is what he meant by his “demonstration” of the “eyes of the mind”.

If a philosopher were a full-time potter, it would serve to look to the potter’s wheel and its effects as a source of conceptual inspiration. So with the lathe, the pan and the glass.

I think that if anything, Spinoza’s metaphysics, the equanimity with which he treats the material world, never letting it fall to the inferior position, insists upon a craftsman’s understanding of the world, and what practically must be done. We are mislead, I believe, due to the Idealism that followed after Spinoza, into thinking about Idea even in the case of Spinoza, in an etherial, and not so much an informational sense. Further, the technical, the engined, if guided by Spinoza’s hand, must be understood as craft. If one watches a lathe, and thinks in Spinoza’s terms, one sees the world spin and fix.