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Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune

Some Reflections on Letter 32

Descartes in 1640 reports to Constantijn Huygens, “You might think that I am saddened by this, but in fact I am proud that the hands of the best craftsman do not extend as far as my reasoning” (trans. Gaukroger). And as Graham Burnett translates, “Do you think I am sad? I swear to you that on the contrary, I discern, in the very failure of the hands of the best workers, just how far my reasoning has reached” (Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest, 70).

The occasion is the wounding of the young, brilliant craftsman Florimond De Beaune on a sharp piece of glass, as he was working to accomplish the automated grinding of a lens in a hyperbolic shape on a machine approximating Descartes’ design from La Dioptrique. This at the behest of Descartes himself:

His wound to the hand was so severe that nearly a year later De Beaune could not continue with the project, a project he would not take up again. Descartes’ craftsmanless, all-turning machine could not be achieved. It is as if its “reason” had chewed up even the best of earth’s craftsman.

Compare this to Spinoza’s comment on Christiaan Huygen’s own semi-automated machine, in letter 32 to Oldenburg. (One wonders if he may even had had a now infamous injury to De Beaune in mind.) Descartes seems to write callously to Christiaan’s father in 1640 [following Gaukroger’s citation], 25 years later Spinoza writes soberly about the machine of the son:

…what tho’ thusly he will have accomplished I don’t know, nor, to admit a truth, strongly do I desire to know. For me, as is said, experience has taught that with spherical pans, being polished by a free hand is more sure [tutius] and better than any machine.

Issues of class play heavily into any attempt to synthesize the rationality of a mechanism with the physical hands [and technical expertise] of the required craftsman to build it. What comes to mind for me is the same Constantijn’s Huygens enthused reaction to the baseness of the youths Rembrandt and Lievens in 1629, when he discovered their genius. As Charles Mee relates and quotes:

Unable to have Rubens, Huygens evidently decided to make his own Rubens, and he saw the raw material in Leivens and Rembrandt. He loved the fact that this “noble pair of Leiden youths” came from such lowly parentage (a rich miller was still a miller after all): “no stronger argument can be given against nobility being a matter of blood” (Huygens himself had no noble blood). And the fact of their birth made the two young men all the more claylike, so much more likely to be shaped by a skilled hand. “When I look at the teachers these boys had, I discover that these men are barely above the good repute of common people. They were the sort that were available for a low fee; namely with the slender means of their parents” (Rembrandt’s Portrait ). 

The standing of the rising Regent riche had to position itself between any essentialist noble quality of blood, and the now stirring lower merchant and artisan classes, whose currencied freedoms in trade and mobility were testing ideological Calvinist limits. Leveraging itself as best it could on rational and natural philosophy, a philosopher-scientist-statesman was pursuing a stake in freedom and power, one that rested on the accuracy of his products. In this way it seems that Descartes’ – feigned? – glee over De Beaune’s injury, insofar as it embodied a superhuman outstripping of remedial others, manifests this political distancing to a sure degree. De Beaune was no ignorant worker, for his high knowledge of mathematics made him much more “technician” than craftsman, (in fact de Beaune had proposed the mathematical problem of inverse tangents which Descartes would not be clear on how to solve (letter, Feb 20 1639), and it was his Notes brièves and algebraic essays which would make Latin editions of Descartes Géométrie much more understandable to readers). Reason and rationality could in the abstract certainly in some sense free even the most economically and culturally base kinds (at least those with a disposition to genius), but in fact savants likely imagined that their lone feats of Reason actually distanced themselves from the “hands and limbs” on which they often relied.

Seen in this way, Spinoza’s sober view of Christiaan Huygens machine perhaps embodies something more than a pessimism of design, but rather more is a reading of the very process of liberation which technological development represented for a class of thinkers such as Leibniz or the Huygenses. The liberation of accuracy and clarity was indeed a cherished path, but perhaps because Spinoza was a Jewish merchant’s son, excommunicated, because Spinoza understood personally the position of an elite [his father had standing], within a community itself ostracized though growing with wealth, a double bind which he relinquished purposively, any clarity was necessarily a clarity which connected and liberated all that it touched. It was inconceivable to have dreamed a rationality so clear that it would distance itself from the the hands that were to manifest it. Perhaps Spinoza keeps in his mind the hand of De Beaune.


Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens



Something that has always tugged on me in the effort to understand Spinoza. No commentator I know of has made much of the ideas implicit in Spinoza’s means of survival. In fact it strikes me as dramatically under studied. He was a lens grinder (in fact it is assumed that he died an early death from the glass inhalations of that work). If one thinks about what lens grinding is, it is the shaping of a material thing, glass, according very precise mathematical ideas (calculations), the result of which is the change in the idea (representations) that are produced by that lens. In a sense, the lens holds the analogy whereby the material expresses an idea, whose product is a representation. The better the math, the clearer (literally), the image. Spinoza lived at the rise of the use of the camera obscura (Hockney), and it was the master painter Rembrandt who lived down the street in his childhood neighborhood.In the age of representation, that is just after Descartes, when ideas will be thought of clear and unclear representations of reality, Spinoza had a priviledged position. He actually was a grinder of a mechanism of representation, so he understood both the ideational and the material aspects of what makes representations happen. In this way, he is not interested so much in the Cartesian theatre, that is what he calls “fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”:

Spinoza wrote:

We must investigate, I say, whether there is any other affirmation or negation in the Mind except that which the idea involves, insofar as it is an idea…so that our thought does not fall into pictures. For by ideas I understand, not the images that are formed at the back of the eye (and if you like, at the middle of the brain), but concepts of Thought [or the objective Being of a thing, insofar as it exists only in Thought]

Ethics, 2p48s.


The pictures made, the imaginary images that supposedly occur to us in our Cartesian theatre, are really of less interest to Spinoza. And perhaps this is because he was a lens grinder. What he imagines is that if we get more adequate ideas, not our pictures will become sharper, but the lens itself will become more capable of acting, more Joyful, more expressive. In a sense perhaps, as a lens grinder, Spinoza was a first primative computer programmer, to return to your illustration, in that he took a program (a mathematical formula) and programmed a piece of material (glass), so as to produce some capacity of informing action. He imagined though, that the ideas that were important were not those that were supposedly projected at the back of the head (in a Cartesian world), to be viewed by an abstract will, but were the very ideas which constituted the material organization of the body, in a kind of mobius loop. That is, like a program, the ideas we hold shape, and express our very construct, and end up producing our very affective experience of ourselves and the world. While we spend much time looking the the Cartesian movie show, and thinking about just what is going on there, what it means, I think Spinoza wants us to spend more time thinking about what it means to be, and what it feels like being, a lens. An interesting turn on Plontus’ analogy of the Mirror and light. The very least, I think that being a lens grinder convinced him of the absolutely material, and parallel manifestation of any idea.