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The Cone of Plotinus: Ontologies of Profusion and Particularization

I believe it is helpful when understanding how Plotinus viewed the degrees of Being, how the problem of how the production of the Many from the One is to be resolved (referred to here), it is helpful to picture to two, end-to-end comes often used to illustrate conic sections, above. For Plotinus uses two kinds of complimentary images. The first is that the Hen (The One, The Expressed) is comprehensive. It is the kind of totality which even transcends numericity, not even having Being predicated of it. It stands as a kind of outer limit, the widest circle which contains (gives birth to) all that is within it. In this way, most simply put:

1. The Hen is completely empty, so empty it overflows, producing something other.

2. This is the Nous (mind) which is born of looking at the Hen, in a kind of mirroring contemplation which constitutes its existence, producing a varigated Being.

3. And through this perfect mirroring gaze it achieves the productive capacity of the Hen, and produces the Soul.

4. The Soul is an activity which does not merely abide, but compelled to motion produces her opposite, sensation.

The movement is towards the particularized. The Hen has all things moving through it, perhaps in a Deleuzian vein we can call these intensities, though it is perfectly empty. From this are narrowings of hierarchies of existence, which can be viewed as if the upper mouth of the cone were heading towards it point. And the very end of this process is “matter” which may be said to have no-being, in the sense that it exists merely as a privation of the One, the absence of Being, something that Augustine took up in his analysis of Evil as a privation and that can be seen in Spinoza’s epistemology where falsity consists in privation.

A diagram to clarify these relations:

Plotinus’s heirarchy of Being is more famous than his thinking of any unity at all as a kind of profusion. In a wonderful analogy he compares the activity of the soul to that of a mirror. In this way we can say that the ultimate profusion of the One/Expressed (Hen), acts as something like both a great descending circle (the upper half of the diagram), but also as a kind of central point, that radiates out, growing weaker as it goes, as light would, until it reaches its outermost limit in a darkness (matter), which exists merely as a privation. In this sense anything that has being has it to the degree that it expresses/reflects the totality of the One, its activity consisting of what fills it. And in this way as well, matter serves as both an infintesmal point (the very nexus of the two cones), which does not exist, but also as an outer ring where the radiation of the Hen does not reach.

How did it come to be then, and what are we to think of as surrounding the One in its repose? It  must be a radiation from it while it abides unchanged, like the bright light of the sun which, so to speak, runs round it, springing from it continually while it abides unchanged. All things which exist, as long as they abide in being, necessarily produce from their own substances, in dependence on their present power, a surrounding reality directed to what is outside them, a kind of image of the archetypes from which it was produce; fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence. (5.1 [10].6 27-37)

But one must consider light as altogether incorporeal, even if it belongs to a body. Therefore, “it has gone away” or “it is present” are not used of it in their proper sense, but in a different way, and its real existence is an activity. For the image in a mirror must also be called an activity: that which is reflected in it acts on what is capable of being affected without flowing into it; but if the object reflected is there, the reflection too appears in the mirror and it exists as an image of a colored surface shaped in a particular way; and if the object goes away, the mirror-surface no longer has what it had before, when the object seen in it offered itself to it for activity. (4.5 [29] 7.33-49)

These analogies of light and reflection, along with the hierarchies of Being risk becoming highly abstract, uninteresting, arcane structurings, if we take them as simply esoteric truths. But the hierarchies of Being are not just ontological strata, they are guideposts for how an investigating thinker should think of their own position in the world. They entail a phenomenology of projects that each person should engage in, the vision that oneself and one’s consciousness too is hierarchical. Part of this prescription is to the way that we “see” other objects, in particular how we binarize ourselves into subject/object relations. Plotinus’s analogies of light are more than analogies in that they invite us to see that any object that we orient ourselves toward is necessarily in existence through the same sharing of the field as we. Plotinus presses us to collapse the subject/object binary.

This is captured in his dichotomy of “looking at things” and “looking with light”. One might look at things in the world and never notice that light that illumines them, but if one learns to look “with” the medium, one participates in the very processes of illumination and is no longer captured by the illusions of particularization, the largely assumed cut-off nature of things.

One thing is an object of vision for it, the form of the sensible object, another is that by which [i.e. the light] it sees the form of it [the sensible object], which [the medium] is also an object of sensation for it, while being other than the form [of the sensible object] and the cause for the form of being seen and is concomitantly seen both in the form and with the form; for this reason the light does not yield a clear sensation of itself, because the eye is turned toward the illuminated object; but whever it [i.e. the light] is nothing but itself, it sees in an immediate intuition…This then is what the seeing of Intellect is like; this sees by another light the things illuminated by that first nature [i.e. the One or Good as the sun of the intelligible universe], and sees the light in them; when it turns attention to the nature of the things illuminated, it sees the light less; but if it abandons the things it sees and looks at the medium by which it sees them, it looks at pure light (5.5 [32]. 7.2-8; 16-21).

Such an investigative approach allows one to trace out the continuities which exist between oneself and what one investigates, something he compares to the radii of lines from the center of a circle, only apparently detached from one another:

[The One] is contemplated in many beings, in each and every one of those capable of receiving him as another self, just as the center of a circle exists by itself, but in every one of the radii in the circle has its point in the center and their lines bring their individuality to it. For it is with something of this sort in ourselves that we are in contact with god and are with him and depend upon him; and those of us who converge towards him are firmly established in him (5.1 [10]. 11. 9-15)

I do not really view this rather spiritual-sounding account to be spiritualized at all, but rather aimed at the concrete dynamics of power itself, the way in which things vividly express themselves in what for us is the most realized terms. If nothing else these metaphysics must prove themselves pragmatically, as means to find connections between parts which help us explain and read the world (and ourselves).

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How Sad is the Weeping Willow?: Human Projections and the Powers of Objects

The Powers of an Apple

Larval Subjects in his debate with the Kantians over at Perverse Egalitarianism draws on what he sees as a Spinozist distinction, what he calls the “metaphysical” and “value”

Considered metaphysically, the apple is value neutral. It just is what it is, much like Yahweh in the Bible. Metaphysically, if the apple is ripe this doesn’t make it “good”. Likewise, considered metaphysically, if the apple is rotten this doesn’t make it bad. The ripeness or rottenness of the apple is purely an outcome of physical cellular processes that are, in and of themselves, value-neutral. When we wish to understand or know the apple, these processes are what we are after. Nature, then, is in and of itself a kingdom without ends or purposes.

The value of the apple only emerges in relation to bodies. If I say the apple is bad, I am not making a claim about a property of the apple as such, but a claim about how a property of the apple relates to me. The apple is bad because these properties produce a highly unpleasant set of sensations in my body when I eat it. In this respect, the “badness” of the apple is a secondary property of the apple. Were no one to exist, the apple simply wouldn’t have this property. (the rest)

I have to say that though the elements of this distinction are found in Spinoza, it would be wrong to decide this as merely the difference between metaphysical and valuational aspects, for if Spinoza had any tractional point, it was that valuations themselves reflect real metaphysical changes in power. Epistemological changes are ontological changes, and vise-versa. Part of the problem I have with their debate, and Larval Subject’s approach in general, is this tarrying with the “thing-in-itself” and all our supposed attempts to attach “properties” to it. (In general, I do not find the concept of properties very helpful, and I suspect it is beneficial to see that Spinoza spoke of “modes” which are ways of being, ways of expression. The ideas are closely related, but the “picture” of each directs our investigative attention in different directions.)

I order to discuss the nexus of the metaphysical and valuation, it seems important to state that the valuations we make of things in the world reflect/express real world conditions, and as such when we make a valuation claim upon an object in the world, we are also making a claim about its powers to bring that object into the relations that make that claim substantive. This is to say, the distinction that Larval Subject makes here, ultimately turns again to the metaphysical states of the objects we investigate. While we may feel more comfortable saying that the “The apple is red” is an objective statement referring to properties of an apple, because we take those properties to be expressions of the capacity to enter into the relations that give talk about its color its strength, a statement like “The apple is bad” also in some sense expresses the metaphysical powers of the apple to combine with us and our value system.

Spinoza-influenced and father of Deep Ecology, Arne Naess, who unlike me prefers talking about properties, has an interesting take upon the Gestalt of properties, one that at least levels the property playing field (like attached):  

Gestalt thinking combined with nominalism results in saying that the subject/object dualism is simply a projection of subjective states of consciousness on the outside world. But the joyfulness, liveliness, threatening size, dejectedness, gravity, or solemnity of a tree are properties of a tree on par with tallness, weight, and chemical structure. More precisely: the properties refer to situations or states of the world (Nature) which have gestalt character. The chemical or physical tree is an abstraction referring to elements, subordinate gestalts of the total gestalt.

If A says “The tree is mournful” and B says “The tree is jubilant” there is no contradiction as long as “the tree” is not meant to characterize the same gestalt, but only elements (identified through social conventions: pointing to “the tree,” mapping it, touching it etc).

“Reflections on Gestalt Ontology [click here to dowload]” Arne Naess

Not Properties, Profusion

For my part, I think that when one speaks of the world in an immanentist fashion, such as the one that Spinoza is advocating, it is much better to speak of the profusions of an object, rather than its properties. The attempt to talk about apples and suns as if nothing else in the world existed is, I think, a (perhaps cherished) philosophical mistake. It is a bit like talking about the properties of the number 5 if no other numbers existed. All properties are relational if the world is an expressive thing. Spinoza’s point is that our ideas about the relations can be more or less powerful, more or less free.

I suggest that when we think of the properties of thinking, if we turn our mind to the idea of profusion offered by Plotinus we can be getting somewhere. Plotinus’s thinking is often equated with emanantism, but he careful to qualify his gradated thinking of being away from a simple, ocular emanant model (even arguing against the use of the term). Here he draws on non-visual analogies for the power of profusion, something that we can apply all the way down to subjective valuations:

All things which exist, as long as they abide in being, necessarily produce from their own substances, in dependence on their present power, a surrounding reality directed to what is outside them, a kind of image of the archetypes from which it was produce; fire produces the heat which comes from it; snow does not only keep its cold inside itself. Perfumed things show this particularly clearly. As long as they exist, something is diffused from themselves around them, and what is near them enjoys their existence. (5.1 [10].6 27-37)

So how sad is the weeping willow? Well, if we follow the usual philosophical tendencies we would want to say, not sad at all. We only project the sadness upon the tree which by accidents of nature produces something of the gesture of melancholy. And down this path we find ourselves trapped in our own heads, along with the rest of the Idealists, as we find that anything we want to say about things in the world are somehow only “inside” us. What a Spinoza-inspired reading would tell us is that yes, we do project and anthromorphize the willow tree, but the invocation of sadness within us is a real power of the willow, given our historical circumstances. It may be an imaginary relation, but as such it is a fully concrete determination. In fact, the powers of sadness within the willow tree, its profusion of being, very well may lead to its success as a species, as human beings work to propagate its organism through bitter-sweet poems and plantings by ponds. I think that when discussing the powers of a body one always has to keep in mind that even the most subjective-seemingly projections are, at least from a metaphysical perspective, best taken as a power of the body to act (affect) in specific conditions, and as such must also be taken to be expressions of the very objective kernel of what the thing is, part of its profusion, ultimately understood to be the profusion of the world itself.