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The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

Some Considerations of Objecf-Object Oriented Philosophy

Recent engagement with Graham Harman’s “Object-Oriented Philosophy” as it stems from Brentano and Husserl, stirs in me a terrible disagreement (I use “terrible” in the Greek sense). It comes from the “picture” that for me lies behind phenomenological preoccupations with the object, and I think also is core to Heidegger’s, at least rhetorical, notion of hiddenness (dear Sophocles, your Aias  meditation on Time!)…this is the intensely visual metaphor for how the mind works, and thus how we are to orient ourselves philosophically towards the imagined “object”, philosophically equated with Being. The entire heritage in my view suffers from this essentialized orientation to the object, the thing that reveals itself only in part.

In a soon to be published text Graham Harman quotes to some effect Husserl’s object orientation in Logical Investigations:

“every intention is either an objectifying act or has its basis in such an act.” 

“whether I look at this book from above or below, from inside or outside, I always see this book. It is always one and the same thing, and that not merely in some purely physical sense [which plays no role in Husserl’s philosophy- g.h.], but in the view of our percepts themselves. If individual properties dominate variably at each step, the thing itself, as a perceived unity, is not in essence set up by some over-reaching act, founded upon these separate percepts.”

As I have argued elsewhere (linked far below), and found in my research into Spinoza’s optical theories and practices, this modern conception of a picture of consciousness as somehow oriented towards the object, in a sense, being composed by its object, is something that has its modern origin in optical metaphors drawn from the rise of dioptics, the science of the lensed refaction of rays. The transition from the Perspectivist tradition which matched linear rays from points on an object to points in the back of the eye, to the philosophical meditation on what it takes to have “clear and distinct” ideas (Descartes), led us to understand consciousness itself as oriented towards a central clarity, a clarity which, however obscure the borders, as the object of the mind composes a kind of “truth”. Under such a view it is the very nature of consciousness to be somehow defined by this centrality, this clear picture, and the obscure boundary spaces do nothing more than “serve” this center (Kepler, Descartes).

The “Clear and Distinct” Center

As just suggested, Descartes is responsible for bringing to the fore this notion of consciousness through a pursuit of the “clear and distinct” idea. It is important to note that this phrasing comes directly from dioptrics where it carried a specific meaning. In an age wherein refraction was barely understood (the law had just been identified), the quality of glass incredibly fogged and bubble-ridden, and methods of glass grinding unsettled and under continual invention, an image in a lens that was “clear” (clare) was one which was bright, and one that was “distinct” was one which, if bright enough and the properties of the glass and curve optimal, all the parts could be made out. A bright idea was one that struck one with obviousness, a distinct one one that struck with detail, that is, as being sufficiently differentiated. When looking through a microscope a “clear and distinct” image was a good image. In keeping with his preoccupations with the future science of the dioptrics of microscopes and telescopes, Descartes felt that mentally the “clear and distinct” idea was the focus of mental perception, just as the clear and distinct image is the focus of visual perception. Emotions and sensations were indistinct quite often. A pain might be very “bright” (obvious) but indistinct as to its cause or nature.  

 

In my studies I find, following Graham Burnett’s inspiration, that Descartes’ hyperbolic lens, designed as it was to bring a central object into view as clearly and distinctly as possible, was related to his hyperbolic doubt, which was meant to help focus the mind on the most bright and disguishable ideas. In both Descartes hyperbolic lens and imagination, it is the visual center of consciousness which stabilizes truth. It is the object of one’s eye and mind. I argue that Spinoza’s objection to the efficacy of Descartes’ optical hyperbolic lens contains also an objection to the notion of a central clarity, a clarity that works to anchor the mind to truth.

The Dissonance Hole

Now back to the inheritors of a concept of consciousness which finds at is center an (object) clarity. These are the phenomenological sons of Descartes’s preoccupations with the optical metaphor. To this inheritance I would like to raise a deeper question than simply exposing a central metaphor (and its possible contingent relationship of the validity of arguments that depend on it: chose another metaphor, like for instance how Plotinus uses sound, and possibly end up with different conclusions). I want to suggest that if one attends to consciousness itself, and looks to the very center of consciousness, one doesn’t find a stability there at all. In fact, there is hole at the center of vision.

Richard Sennett’s recent, and thought-provoking The Craftsman  includes the importance of this “hole”:

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

Pay attention to the dissonance that lies at the center of one’s attention. As the eye plays over the surface of an object, the gaze is not upon the “object” but at the living line which erupts out of the sense of it.  If we take up Husserl’s book, we don’t even have to look at its inside, outside and bottom. We merely need to look at its cover. The eye flits across it, an electric line that traces out the variations of its color, its choice of title typeface, its wear on a corner, its color that reminds us of a dress we saw. Yes, we are “seeing” the book, but it is an eruptive book. These are not accidents to the essence of the book, but rather are produts of our engagment with it. But more than this, the “book” is not a center of our consciousness, it is is not the “object” of our consciousness, or even intentionality. In fact there is no object at all which is the focus of our altering gaze. But it goes further than even this, for if the living line does erupt from the book, we understand that the book itself is present to us as a ground of sense for which this line depends. It is not that the book is somehow constructed out of these in some “over-reaching act” but rather that the book already serves as a ground, an under-reaching ground. The dissonance of our awareness depends upon an awareness of consonance. And this consonance is not though made up of the object of the book either, for the book is perceived as a book against (or in coherence with)  a vast array of other boundary perceptions and beliefs (I see that it is a book because that is a table, and I am in a room, and “I believe that writing exists, that there are authors” etc.). Not only is the “object” not at the center of our gaze, but neither is it the whole of the sense from which we do derive our center. Our awareness is a breadth. We say that we are “looking at the book” or “thinking of the book” as a kind of short hand for mutitudnal effects which are only understood as layers or degrees. And we also “picture” (retroactively) a stability of what we are looking at, paying less attention to what it is that we are attending to (a living line of dissonance, and a counter-boundary of outer sense) .

Intentional and Other Objects

When “object-orientation” concepts of Being flow from this notion of central apparition (and also for Heideggerians necessary hiddenness), the full sense of what the mind does, what consciousness is, I think gets lost. I have not read Graham Harman extensively (only an unpublished essay, a lecture listened to, and some informative comments), but I cannot help but have the sense that there is something of a central clarity conception of consciousness that he has taken from the sons of Descartes. What is interesting to me though is that tool orientation, a craft understanding of consciousness, actually is what calls our attention to the very hole at the center of vision. A craftsman is the one that focuses on the eruptive amid an organized sense, plan or workability.

So when we consider what Graham Harman takes to be the “object” of philosophy…

1. Intentional objects (such as phenomenal trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their accidents

2. Real objects (such as real trees) exist in uneasy alliance with their qualities

3. Real objects are deeper than the phenomenal qualities that emanate from them in relations

4. Intentional objects are unreal but are made up of real moments

This fourfold of accidents, relations, qualities, and moments can be restated in cosmologically more interesting fashion:

1. The tension between an intentional object and its accidents is precisely what we mean by TIME

2. The withdrawal of a real object from any relation is what we call SPACE

3. The duality between a real thing and its own real qualities can be called ESSENCE

4. A merely intentional thing’s possession of genuine qualities can be called, in a Husserlian sense, EIDOS

I feel that we need to ask how much of this falls back upon the essentialized notion of central clarity, the idea that our minds should be directed (philosophically) towards the focus upon “intentional objects” or “real objects” (or the interplay between them); how much does this direction rely upon a mistaken over-simplified “picture” of consciousness, and the historical inheritance of conceptions derived from Descartes fascination with refraction and the correction/enhancement of vision? It seems that when we realize that it is rather the “accidents” of an object that actually compose our intentionality, the eruptive semiotics of a dissonance that flows out from a ground of sense-making, the game of recapturing the buried “essence” of an object, the “real” object, apart from its intentionality loses its footing. It is the accidents themselves that connect us to the object, the flash of light across a surface that redirects our orientation to the object and causes us to care about it in a new way, to encamp it with a cathexis of our informing affects, and understand the world differently through these connective effects. When the intentionality of consciousness is understood not directed towards a clarity, an object (however present or hidden), but rather towards the breakdown of that object, not through an attention to the regain of an eidos behind it, but through a bodily reconfiguration of ourselves in orientation to the world itself wherein there is no accident for each accident signifies, then we understand the mind much more as an activity rather than a representation device (an important step I feel). It is in this constant re-vectorialization of the self through reporting others and a world that gives knowledge its uumph, its power and freedom. I am unsure how far Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy deviates from my thoughts on this, for we share a distinct interest in the post-human, a sense that flat ontologies should be in some ways deepened, and would work toward a cybernetic understanding. I look forward to a continual and edifying communication with Graham Harman’s writings, in particular the coming book on Latour, Prince of Neworks. These thoughts come out of what for me was a strong sense that he yearns for a solidity behind (or in front of) the orientation of philosophy, a solidity which he reads as “depth”, yet an anchor point which by my brief reading takes its cue from a tradition that pursues a central clarity in what for me are misleading metaphors of vision, a tradition which works to stablize and centralize the human self (soul) which he looks to de-centralize.

In addition to this, as a last remark, there is in modern philosophy a tendency to think in irreducible dyads, that is: How do we get from here (let us say, that intentional object) to there (the real object); or how do we get from here (a true proposition) to there (a state of the world); or how do we get from here (thoughts in my mind) to there (thoughts in your mind); or most generally, how do we get from here (the self) to there (the world). This binary thinking which haunts much of representational analysis is a continuation of the primary problem of much of theology, how to get the soul back to God. All kinds of mediating paths are offered to what is imagined to be a fundamentally binary relationship (we expect the mediations to vanish). Many of these philosophical conundrums disappear when the dyad turns into a triad (and not a Hegelian triangle), that is, when the A/B line becomes a triangle of orientations. This is part of Latour’s philosophy of the “same”, but also central to Donald Davidson’s triangulation. It is not self/world, but self/self/world. I think part of the problem of thinking in terms of mind/object-essence dyads is that the triangle does not become properly emphasized. What happens when we find a fissure at the center of consciousness is that the third term (be it another informing person/object, or a causal state of the world) comes into view to help consolidate the fissure, bringing it into a clarity which then erupts. The fullness of a philosophy should be directed towards the necessity of the third term in any binary preoccupation, the way in which the third completes the sense. Not Object-Oriented Philosophy, but Oriented Object Philosophy, perhaps.

As Plotinus tells us:

If they are two, the knower will be one thing, and the known the other, and contemplation (theõria) has not yet made this pair akin to each other (õieiõsen) (Enn. 3.8.8). 

For thoughts related to these:

1. A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza

2. The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

3. Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters

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A Look Back for a Moment, The Hole of Spinoza’s Vision

Right now I’m busy composing my Cabinet article, a result of this width of research I have done. Part of this process is looking back at my various conclusive essays to see where I have gotten. There is one that really struck me as a signficant reduction of the kinds of philosophical conclusions that can be drawn from my study of Spinoza’s optical endeavours, in particular pointing out how deeply he diverged from Descartes who preceded him. I repost it here for anyone else’s pleasure, for I read it again this morning and was really moved by its import (sometimes it is like that, one forgets what one wrote):

here: “The Hole at the Center of Vision”

Comments are of course appreciated kvdi@earthlink.net

 

Spinoza’s “Spring Pole” Lathe: Experience to Metaphysics and Back

Spinoza’s Practiced Knowing

I mentioned in my recent post on the likely design of Spinoza’s grinding lathe that the dynamics of the Hevelius’ spring pole lathe may be tied to Spinoza’s ideas of Substance and the modes, such that one would be able to see how the epistemo-kinetic experiences Spinoza had during his many hours, days and years of lens grinding on such a lathe may have bore influence upon his metaphysical conceptions.

Here I want to take up this intuition, and perform the appropriate visualizations that would allow us, if for a moment, to picture what Spinoza’s body went through in communications with his device. In this way we might place ourselves, materially and affectively, in a relationship to his ideas, such that reading them alone in text would not allow (even if this goes against what one could argue is Spinoza’s rationalist program of understanding). That is, in short, one hopes to understand through body and affect what ideas Spinoza thought at the most abstract of levels, through their causal origins; for we can follow what Spinoza wrote, “experience can determine our mind to think…of certain essences of things” (Ep. 10), and assume that a similiarity of experiences may determine us to think of a similarity of essences. If we attain the experiences Spinoza underwent which determined him to think of certain essences (in his terms), this I believe can provide clarification to the same thoughts reached through his geometric pedogogy alone. 

The Horizontal and the Vertical: An Initial Philosophical Platform

Further below is an illustration of the tension dynamic of a spring pole lathe, as taken from Hevelius (second diagram). But first in order to follow my thinking here I want to insert a most revealing point made by Gatens and Lloyd in their critique of Hegel’s critique of Spinoza. As they point out, Hegel, while in great praise of Spinoza, felt that he did not embrace the full reality of the “negation”, Hegel’s personal contribution to the progress of philosophy and mankind. Spinoza’s description from Hegel’s point of view simply collapses into an acosmism, an undifferentitated whole of Substance, leaving no specific reality for either rocks, lakes or most importantly Man. In examining Hegel’s objection, Gatens and Lloyd introduce the vectoral notion of verticality and horizontality. It is suggested that Hegel’s problem is that he is only thinking of the “vertical” relationship of the modes to Substance, their individual, expressive relationship to the Totalizing whole. I quote at length here from the two authors because it is a very good paragraph, as they make an extremely important point:

Hegel’s critique of Spinoza thus focuses on the relation between individual mode and Substance. His complaint is that Spinoza cannot coherently articulate that relation without collapsing the infinite mode back into Substance; Substance remains undetermined, undifferentiated, while the individual mode is merely negative. But this is to miss the other dimension of Spinoza’s treatment of the finite modes -their mutual interaction, in which the determining force of Substance is mediated through the whole interconnected network of modes. Hegel’s critique of Spinoza is oriented, as it were, to the vertical relation between Substance and individual mode, rather than to the horizontal relation in which finite modes act on and are acted on by one another. Here, along the horizontal axis of finite modes, the claim that determination involves negation can be seen not as a repudiation of finite individuals but as an insight into their interdependence (71)

– Moira Gatens and Genevieve Lloyd, Collective Imaginings, chapter 3 “Re-imagining Responsibility”

Gatens and Lloyd are making clear the a key emphasis Spinoza places on modal expressions, as real, when included in our own constructive and immanent projects of freedom. I would graph out the differentiation that they find in Spinoza in this way:

I would parenthetically add to Gatens and Lloyd’s point that the reason why Hegel is thinking solely about the verticality of the modes is that the binary of individual/God, (or individual/world) is one of the primary schemas of the intersubjective investigations and inculcations of European Christianity. The salvation of the soul, through its relationship to an all-encompassing God, (via various institutional mediations), was the essential dogmatic concern, and this lengthy heritage necessarily brings the philosophical focus back to this binary difficulty: how does the individual soul return to God. Hegel, because he sees man at the apex of history, primarily must read the problematic in terms of a vertical dynamic, the individual vs. the whole. But Spinoza, because he is not burdened by the primacy of man or his reflective powers, allows another dimension of analysis which Hegel cannot see: that of the horizontal. The institutional mediations of the State, Church, Family and their imaginary relationswhich simply interpose themselves as aids to an essential verticality, are by Spinoza exploded out to the ultimate horizontal limit: the infinite expression of the modes. And the imaginary status of their mediating ideas become proliferate and constitutive vectors of power, degrees of freedom, across the field of Being (if one could put it that way without too much obfuscation).

Heveliuss Selenographia (1647) Spring Pole, Foot Pedal Lathe, illustrated

Spinoza’s Lathe

I want to return to the assumed spring pole, foot pedal lathe (pictured above), to get a much more concrete, affective sense of the vertical and the horizontal in Spinoza, and how the practices of Spinoza’a lens grinding may have helped construct his metaphysical conceptions. One must recall that Spinoza spent hours upon hours at such work lens work. To grind, polish and re-polish a lens could take several days, much of it in non-stop and highly repetitive, one might even say meditative, action (Auzout in 1664 records a time of 15 days for a single objective lens). So let our attention be called to the internal dynamics depicted above, found in focus of the dotted yellow frame. Here one should picture Spinoza seated or standing at length, his foot rhythmically pushing down a vertical tension from the spring pole at the ceiling. The vertical rising and falling motion forms a kinetic warp which not only works to orient the body spatially to the height of the room, connecting consciousness from the floor boards to the ceiling, but also creates and punctuated temporality, a timed ratio to the work. Transverse to this warp is the weft of horizontal action. The oscillations of the grinding form are pulled across the body by the push and pull connectionsof the foot the ceiling pole, and distinctly lateral to the focus of concentration. Again and again for hours these up-down, left-right actions literally weave a room of fluctuating conscious attentions, in which the craftsman necessarily embraces the lived experiences of the space, aware that whatever precise spotlight of focus he may have, it is merely a part of much larger, wider degrees of perception. Against Hegel’s fear of an individual’s collapse into the undifferentiated, the agentized craftsman becomes the draw-string of every quarter of the room, a focal point of at least two vectors action, from which and to which he is a differentiated, yet interconnected and expressive part. The melding of the craftsman and his tool is more than a metaphor. It is an experiential and metaphysical certainty.

Within this dotted frame of loomed space, at its center is a rotating circle. It whips at varying speeds in response to both the intensities of the leg, and the limits of the spring pole above, in a concentric motion. It is no secret that Spinoza had great love for the circle as a diagramed exemplar of the relationship between the modes and Substance (Ethics 2p8s, pictured below), but also as an ideal of vision and the actions of optical focus (Letter 39 to Jelles, March 3rd 1667). Here, for hours on end Spinoza would stare determinitively as a rotating circular form which remained both fixed (stable in its ratio), and changing, expressing in both the consummation of the vectors of the room’s actions. One cannot help but think that such concentrated attention upon the spinning form would leave at least a conceptual imprint upon the philosophical craftsman, especially as he considered the modal expressions to be causal interactions immanent to the whole, just as internal rectangles can be considered immanent to the properties of a circle (his diagram below). It is most suggestive to see that the rotating circular form becomes a bed of friction and idea, producing realized changes in the material of glass held in Spinoza’s sensing hand.

from Ethics 2p8s
The Turning Lap

To carry our instructive analogizing further, one must look closer at the actions immediate to Spinoza’s attention as he worked his glass into the required shape.

In the scalloped metal form likely an abrasive would be applied to aid in the grinding, the light blue arrow above represents the hand’s actions upon the circular rotation. The horizontal and vertical tensions are vortexed into an oscillating circularity. There a recipe of frictions and intelligenced experiences interact to bring about an ideal result. What Antonio Negri calls the “concrete…unique terrain of reality, [the] fruit of the paradoxical determination [a metaphysical dilation of unity and multiplicity]” (The Savage Anomaly, 127), the modal “surface of the sea”, occurs here, in the turning scalloped dish, a product of the cybernetic expressions of a room, a mechanism, and man, in which the craftsman’s hand performs a living shore of perceptual action.

The Sublime Tool

If this notional leap from mechanism to conceptual metaphysics seems too great, too fantastic, I believe that this is because we do not have a strong enough sense of the bodily, affective, imaginary foundational means of immanent abstract thought, something that Spinoza’s own metaphysics works to make more clear. Further I believe we must adjust ourselves from thinking of Spinoza merely in terms of propositions and proofs, though the rhetorical form of his work certainly at first or even second glance invites us to think of him in this way. Richard Sennett for instance in his recent pragmatic and near-poetic book, The Craftsman (2008), perhaps gives us a bridge for thinking about craft and abstraction as part of one constitutive process. He invites us to understand how human progress and freedom comes by thinking through one’s tools, how tools help frame our questions and solutions. In fact this is very much how Spinoza has conceived of abstract thinking itself, as he followed Descartes’ analogy found in the 8th rule of the Regulae : just as how a blacksmith’s tools had to be originally made by simpler tools themselves, so too simple tools of the intellect are needed to make other, more complex tools of the intellect (On the Emendation of the Intellect ). In a certain sense, one needs something that hammers in order to make a hammer:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. For, in order to work iron, a 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. We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. 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 labor 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, with small expenditure of labor, the vast number of complicated mechanisms which they now possess. So, in like manner, the intellect, by its native strength, makes for itself intellectual instruments, whereby it acquires strength for performing other intellectual operations, and from these operations gets again fresh instruments, or the power of pushing its investigations further, and thus gradually proceeds till it reaches the summit of wisdom.

But is our reading of Spinoza’s metaphysics anything more than simply a coincidence of horizontal and vertical vectors in the lens-grinding lathe, and Gatens and Lloyd’s horizontal and vertical spatialization of his metaphysics in defense against Hegel? Is this conflation merely accidentally bolstered by the analogy of ideas to be taken read tools in Spinoza’s very early work? I think there is much more to this than that, and that aside from the notion of the horizontal and the vertical there is a multiplicity of core principles that seem to stem from Spinoza’s unique, and one must say classed, artisan experiences. In particular we must understand that Spinoza, unlike Descartes, was through and through a practiced craftsman, an artisan by trade and value, who repetitious and refining practices which he took rather seriously must have influenced his guiding conceptions of Mind, Body, Idea and Power. In fact, it seems that it is a tooled notion of idea and body that I believe informs his vital definition of the power of the body, a defintion which will reconceptualize any of our instrumental approaches to material augment of the human body or mind:

Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great many ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other Bodies, the more useful it is; on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

– E4p38

Think on how this expressive yet instrumental numerical notion of power can be found within the most elementary experiences of tool use, as Richard Sennett tells us about the wonders of the flat-edged screwdriver:

…in its sheer variety this all-purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities: it, too, can expand our skills if only our imagination rises to the occasion. Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime – the word sublime standing, as it does in philosophy and the arts, for the potentially strange. In craftwork, that sentiment focuses especially on objects very simple in form that seemingly can do anything (195)

The Craftsman, Chapter Six “Arousing Tools”

I believe that Spinoza’s lifelong craft experiences with the lens-grinding lathe (among so many other simple tools) had a lasting effect on his conceptions of Mind and Body, and their necessary unification. The grinding lathe, with its intimate, indeed cybernetic, interweave of body, mind and material construction, its concentric use of the spinning semi-sphere, must have struck Spinoza as sublime in the sense that Sennett tells us. There is the evidence of Spinoza’s resistance to the sophisticated, semi-automated designs of his brilliant and wealthy neighbors the brothers Huygens ( EP 15/32 ) which tells us that Spinoza was quite hesitant to leave behind the interface of the machine with the understanding and felt hand. But it is more than this. It seems that the grinding lathe leaves its conceptual, kinetic trace all the way up through to the most abstract, and most radical of conceptions. In fact there is the very real sense in which we may read Spinoza’s Ethics (as it exists both in idea and extension) as a tool which can affect and be affected in the greatest number of ways. 

Picturing Work and the Work of Picturing

Once we have a vivid sense of the kinds of material engagements Spinoza had concerned himself with, his bodily practices of concentrated creation and refinement, we get a better sense of how Spinoza conceived of his own Rationalist, propositioned philosophical aims. From there we can place ourselves with the lived historical space of the man who lived at the cusp of our modernity, and feel something of the material and pragmatic focus of his articulations of freedom. Below is Spinoza’s rented room in Rijnsburg where he lived roughly from age 29 to 31 having fled the upheavals of Amsterdam, perhaps with concern for the return of his tuberculosis from remission. It is today’s Spinozahuis museum. As mentioned before the wood turners lathe depicted there is NOT the kind of lathe Spinoza would have used, but if you look to the upper center left of the photo you can see a hypothesized spring pole, the vertical vector of his practice. It is not known if Spinoza’s later rooms in the village of Voorburg, where it is thought that he did his most concentrated grinding work, were of this size, but the combination of the Rijnsburg room and Hevelius’s illustration gives us I believe some determinative sense of the internal dynamics of Spinoza’s lived experiences as a craftsman and thus as a thinker; they directs us to the material and conceptual causes that may have privileged Spinoza treatment of the Mind and Body over his predecessor, Descartes. There is much that divided these two thinkers from each other, but perhaps even more than joined them. Each was concerned with lens-grinding, optics and the improvement of the telescope, but only one of them was a practiced maker of lenses and instruments. Only one of them touched the glass.

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, Spinozahuis

Hevelius's Spring Pole Lathe, from the Selenographia (1647)

 

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle

The Rijnsburg Wood-turners Lathe, another angle

The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

Spinoza as Seer

In a sense, if we are to understand Spinoza’s optical influences we have to come to at least consider what seeing, or more helpfully, perceiving meant for Spinoza, for behind any optical conceptions Spinoza had lies the very act of actively engaging the world. Much as Descartes worked from definitive values of what clear perception was, wrestling with both empirical experiment and mathematical analysis, so too Spinoza held core positions on what clear perception involved, and these factors into the nature of Spinoza’s break with his precursor. It has become my running thought in this research that if we can generalize, Descartes’ model of clear perception involved the hyperbola’s capacity to refract rays come from a single point on an object, to another co-ordinate point on the surface of the back of the eye, and that importantly this point fell upon the central axis of the hyperbola, a mathematical line which expressed, or was the locus of, the human freedom of Will. This point of focus was – at least in the accounts of vision where Descartesis in praise of the hyperbola and the remarkable representational accuracy of the eye – the fulcrum of a naturalized embrace of narrow focus, frontal clarity.

The hyperbolas central point of focus as a model of clarity

The hyperbola's central point of focus as a model of clarity

This seems to be contrasted in Spinoza with an emphasis upon the multiplicity of visual axes that a spherical lens affords (Spinoza’s optical letters are talked about here: Deciphering Spinoza’s Optical Letters ). Spinoza was privileged enough to be familiar with thinkers who argued that spherical aberrationwas over-emphasized as a problem, and he seemed to hold that there was also a problem of “hyperbolic aberration” (my term), that is the inability of such lenses to focus rays cleanly to any points peripheral to the exact center-line of vision. Whatever one is to make of the impact such aberrationwould have had on telescope construction, it is plain that Spinoza’s view of a model of vision was panoramic, that is, anything that had clarity in the center, was clear due to its place within the context of the clarity of all that surrounded. Instead of a vague and confused border of “confused images” which only “serve” the central crispness (Kepler), because Spinoza felt that we looked with the Mind and not the eyes – something that Descartes also argued but withthe burden of theological-theoretical commitments to a free faculty of Will – Spinoza holds that ideal vision embraces the tableau, the scope of things. The hyperbola’s acute focus, as Spinoza understood it, just did not provide the convincing analogical force of what clarity would mean. I think it safe to say, neither thinker, Spinoza or Descartes, had a sure enough idea of what exact effect spherial aberration had on telescopes nor how refractionproduced its images, and it was their different notions of mental claritywhich governed their arguments for ideal lense shapes, filling in the blanks of what was known.

a modified diagram from Spinozas letter 39 designed to bring out the capacity of spherical lenses to focus peripheral rays

a modified diagram from Spinoza's letter 39 designed to bring out the difference between spherical and hyperbolic lens focus as it pertains to peripheral rays

Within this overview of differences, it is worthwhile to consider my guiding assumption of this research: that Spinoza’s experiences as a lens-grinder and instrument maker (not to mention his social standing having come from an artisan class) decisively gave him a craftsman’s appreciation of perception, one that reflects itself in his metaphysis. To get a firmer grasp on what a “craftsman’s appreciation of perception” is, I turned to Richard Sennett’s book on the subject, The Craftsman. There he writes adroitly on the nature of craftsman perceptions, thinking processes and environments, in particular the relationship to tools and on-site difficulties. This has been of great value. In his sum of craftsman perceptions he turns to “cognitive dissonance’ theory to help explain how the craft perception functions. This strikes me to be of use in pointing out just where Spinoza and Descartes seem to optically diverge. Below he discusses the nature of “focal attention” (he mentions two examples he has discussed previously, the house the philosopher Wittgenstein designed and had built, in which he infamously had the ceiling height of a room changed 3 cm, just as the worksite was being cleaned up; and Gehry’s explorations into the processes of forming titanium, designed for the rippling skin of his Bilbao project).

The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening…Localizing can result from sensory stimulation, when in a dissection a scalpel unexpected hard matter; at this moment the anatomist’s hand movements become slower and smaller. Localization can also occur when the sensory stimulation is of something missing, absent or ambiguous. An abscess in the body, sending the physical signal of a loss of tension, will localize the hand movement…

In cognitive studies, localizing is sometimes called “focal attention.” Gregory Bateson and Leon Festinger suppose that human beings focus on the difficulties and contradictions they call “cognitive dissonances.” Wittgenstein’s obsession with the precise height of a celing in one room of his house [citing that the philosopher had a ceiling lowered 3 centimeters in a house he had designed just the construction was being completed] derives from what he perceivedj as a cognitive dissonance in his rules of proportion. Localization can also occur when something works successfully. Once Frank Gehry could make titanium quilting work [citing the design of a material of specific relfective and textural capacities], he became more focused on the possibilities of the material. These complicated experiences of cognitive dissonance trace directly, as Festinger has argued, from animal behavior; the behavior consists in an animal’s capacity to attend to “here” or “this.” Parallel processing in the brain activates different neural circuits to establish the attention. In human beings, particularly in people practicing a craft, this animal thinking locates specifically where a material, a practice, or a problem matters.

The capacity to question is no less or more a matter of investigating the locale. Neurologists who follow the cognitive dissonance model believe the brain does something like image in sequence the fact that all the doors in a mental room are locked. There is then no longer doubt, but curiosity remains, the brain asking if different keys have locked them and, if so, why.  Questioning can also occur through operational success…This is explained neurologically as a matter of a new circuit connection being activated between the brains different regions. The newly active pathway makes possible further parallel processing – not instantly, not all at once. “Questioning” means, physiologically, dwelling in an incipient state; the pondering brain is considering its circuit options (278-279).

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

It is not my intention to claim that Spinoza holds a proto-cognitive dissonance theory, though there are some signficant and suggetive correspondences (a social dimension to agreement, determintative conditioning and holistic forces in judgment). Rather, I would like to put it the other way around, to use Sennett’s point about the nature of focal attention to shed some light upon Spinoza’s difficulty in accepting Descartes notion of an ideal crystal clear center of vision. If we simplify, we could say that Descartes was concerned with identifying and constructing means of “clear and distinct” perceptions or thoughts which would define idealvision (mental and otherwise). His engagement with the hyperbolic lens is at least analogically connected to his engagementwithhyperbolic doubt, each designed to focus the mind on a central clarity. What Sennett’s appeal to the craftsman experience of Cognitive Dissonance does is help expose a rift in the very center of focus which Descartes hopes to at least rhetorically stabilize. Focal Attention may be best understood as an irreconcilable line of fragmenting possibility and dys-clarity, and not the consummate moment-after experience of veritability. Modelsof the mind which have most thoroughly drawn upon the visual metaphor for truth mostly have taken the clarity of a perception as the exemplar of correspondence. I see two dogs, and I know that they are twodogs and this clarity is established against a figure-ground constrast. But a Cognitive Dissonance approach seems to suggest is a much finer grain look at what perception is. That is, when our focal attention is turned from this thing to that thing, this aspect to that aspect, it is not clarity which guides our view, but dys-clarity, a fuzziness of the possible and the incomplete. The eye may apprehend the distinction between a figure and the ground but it does not stop there; it continues to trace the significance of relation of elements that both compose the figure, and distinguish it from its context. The processes that give birth to a single distinction carry on in a relational, distinguishing manner. This destabilization of the center, and its resolution through its coherence with a whole, I believe is expressed in several ways in Spinoza thinking.

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

The depth of field analogy for knowing and Being

But first a short defintion of the concept

Cognitive Dissonance: “the uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or from engaging in behavior that conflicts with one’s beliefs. More precisely, it is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions.”

Spinoza and the Trace of Consciousness: the grain of wood

Sennett is concerned with the experiences and perceptions which guide the craftsman through his work, the careful notice of differences in materials, possibilities and designs, how a hand passes over wood grain or the mind might connect one part to another part. It is the waythat the mind glides over difficulties and solutions. Taken in its visual state, it is the way that the eye focuses upon this or that, leading itself across the bed of differences. And it is my intuition that Spinoza’s lived practices with craft that gave him a distinct sense of what it means to perceive and distinguish.

What is necessary is to establish just what it is that lies at the center of focus, if it not a crystalline clarity. And there are two selections of the Ethics which I have in mind in response to the Cognitive Dissonance lead. The first is Spinoza’s maxim concerning what it is that we imagine to be the case. It is important to realize that when Spinoza talks about the imagination, he means a confluence of both sensory experiences, and the beliefs we form about them, so much so the latter cannot be separated out from the former. The ideas we hold – or more properly, the ideational states we are in – determine our imaginary, phenomenological experience of the world.

Spinoza writes in part 3 of the Ethics, proposition 12:

The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting.

This is the key proposition on which Spinoza will found our imaginary relationship to both to the world, but also to others. Through the mind’s force of positive imagining, it brings coherence to our body’s relationships, and thus improves our ability to act more freely (as our own cause). He continues to explain in the demonstration:

Hence, as long as the mind imagines those things that increase or aid our body’s power of acting, the Body is is affected with modes that increase or aid its power of acting, and consequently the Mind’s power of thinking is increased or aided.

In Spinoza’s view, though our relationship to the world may be imaginary (that is, we may not fully understanding the causes and effects involved), if we imagine a relation which improves our power to act, we will experience Joy (defined as an increase in this power, DOA 2), and thus the Mind will tend to continue to imagine in this fashion. Any imaginary improvement, if it results in Joy, is also an improvment in the power of thinking, and thus there is an imaginary, though non-optimal, path to greater power and freedom.

Hopefully the rough connection to Cognitive Dissonance theory will be seen. There is a tendency in perception and belief which determines the mind to think in a more coherent fashion. When there is dissonance – that is, a disjunction between one’sown ideationaland physical states and the states of the world – the imaginary value is to resolve this. In a sense, the imaginationis guided by the resolution of a center of dissonance, bringing the body into concert with its own powers as far as it understands them. (I leave aside the ladder of rational, causal understanding.) 

For Spinoza there is a cohering balast that centers the processes of imaginary experiences of the world. This is reflected in the most characteristic experiences of consciousness, the passing from one thought to other, as if in a chain. When Spinoza presents his General Definition of the Affects, he radically asserts that our chain of thoughts, most generally, are the result of the Mind affirming one state of the Body or another, such that each affirmation leads either to an increase or decrease of the power to act. These changes are the result of affects which express the adequacy of the ideas which compose our mind:

E3: General Defintion of the Affects: An affect, that is called a Passion of the mind is a confused idea, whereby the Mind affirms concerning its Body, or any part thereof, a force for existence (existendi vis) greater or less than before, and by the presence of which the mind is determined to think of this rather than that.

Exp: I say, first, that an Affect or passion of the mind is a confused idea. For we have shown that the mind is only passive, in so far as it has inadequate or confused ideas. (E3P3)
I say, further, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body or any part thereof a force for existence greater [or less] than before. For all the ideas of bodies, which we possess, denote rather the actual disposition of our own body (E2P16C2) than the nature of an external body. But the idea which constitutes the reality of a passion must denote or express the disposition of the body, or of some part thereof, which is possessed by the body, or some part thereof, because its power of action or force for existence is increased or diminished, helped or hindered.
But it must be noted that, when I say a greater or less force for existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past disposition of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the reality of an affect affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

There are two significant aspects of this definition I would like to point out. The first is the ateleological view Spinoza takes toward these kind of ideational affirmations of the body. The mind does not arrive at its present affirmation state through a comparison of a present state with a past one, but rather makes of its present existence a repeated and continual “concrescence” (to borrow wrecklessly from Whitehead’s wordsmithing). Any perceptual grasp of the world, insofar as it involves a shift in degrees power and Joy, can be seen as coming from a comprehensive grasp in a sphere of understanding. To put it another way, if we adopt the cognitive dissonance model of perception and belief holding, the running line of potentiated dissonance which guides and centers our focal points of attention becomes repeatedly resolved in the affirmative embrace of a perception/thought/state of the body, made in context with the whole. Clarityarrives not due to the crispness of an axis of perception, but due to the resolution of that line within the panorama either of the visual tableau, or the ideas we hold. Seeing something clearly, thus, is fundamentally a connective and comprehensive apperception.

The ultimate perception is, as Spinoza argues, the perceptual Idea of God, one whose scope and speed of embrace brings clarity to all other affects and imaginations. From the 5th part of the Ethics:

P13: The more an image is joined with other images, the more often it flourishes.

P14 The Mind can bring it about that all the Body’s affection, or images of things, are related to the idea of God.

The second aspect of the General Defintion of the Affects I want to point out is that the chain of thoughts which make our everyday consciousness are not centered upon a Will which controls them, but rather are an expression of the ideas that make up our MInd; thus our ideational states determine the line of imaginary and cognitive processes which include our visual perceptions (clarity of perception cannot be the model of knowing), yet only insofar as these are understood as affirming our physical states. There is no center of vision nor of judgment. Rather there is the confluxof repeated changes in the power to act, something that reveals itself not in binary of Being and Non-Being, but along a gradated spectrum of Being, wherein the power one has is a function of the degree of Being one has.

All this proceeds too fast, for I have not properly connected Spinoza ateleological, affirmational understanding of perceptions and thought-chains to the kinds of curiosity and tensions that arise even the the smallest of conscious distinctions. What a Cognitive Dissonance model of perception and belief provides, I have suggested, is the idea that there is a fissure at the center of the eye’s focus, and that this rift is only closed through the coherent orientation to our experiences at the edge of that rift, in relation to all that lies at the margins. Any philosophical view that in a binary strictly equates focal clarity with Being, and all else with Nothingness or Non-Being, does not fully appreciate the recommendations that a metaphor of visual experience would provide; for at the very center of the eye, if we follow Spinoza’s thinking, lies not the undoubtable truthof one proposition, or the pure assurance of an object seen, but rather the living line of the electric destablized possibility for greater Joy or freedom. Perceptions are a body’s forward lean. In Spinoza’s terms, this line is the shore-point of our realized power to act, and thus occurs along the affects we experience, as they are expressed in both the ideas that make up our mind, and the states our body is in. The very center of focus is our fluxuations in perfection and Joy.

Descartes not Representational Despite His Love of Lens

Now at this point really I would like to take the opportunity to make clear that I have for the sake of contrast been unfair to Descartes, for by and large when he seeks clear thoughts he does not have in mind a clarity which operates independently of other understandings. He, like Spinoza, sees a global and connective sense in truth, one which puts any clear perceptions of the world in the context of the natural dispositions of the Intellect and our soul’s relationship to God. His use of skepticism and doubt is likely at most pedagogical. There has been too much groping at what has become a cadaver of Descartes’ notions of Ideas, without notice of the living relationship such concepts hold in his overall natural science and theological scheme. Nadler, Yolton and Behan (his new piece “Descartes’s Semiotic Realism” forthcoming), all have worked to show that most of our modern conceptions of Descartes’ Representationalism are ill-considered, forwarded by a chain of deformations: first Malebranche, then Reid, and lastly to great effect, Rorty. Much of what we rail against as invidiously “Cartesian” is not really something Descartes would champion. I think the arguments of Nadler et al are very well taken, and expose a tendency of philosophy, for all its sophistication, to organize itself around oppositions simple to grasp. And thus it does us some good to look closer at the forefather of the great Substance divorce between the Mind and the Body.

This is a strange thing to say, considering that much of my contrast between Spinoza’s view of perception and Descartes’ view seems to rely upon representational models of what is known. Spinoza objects to the representational notion of clarity, what he calls “falling into pictures” because he feels that representation simply is inadequate to express what happens when we hold ideas about the world. As I have presented it, Descartes seems too seduced by the visual metaphor of a center of vision becoming clear, a ring of focus, which then can be traced down an ancient heritage of an Ocular philosophy of Presence, where the revealing aletheia of Being stands out from the confusions and negations of Non-Being, playing out the 1s and 2s of dialectical Greek counting. But I would put forward that Descartes is only drawn in this direction against, or at least in tension to, a more comprehensive understanding of perception, one in which the Mind “sees” in a very unrepresentational way, with the “mind’s eye” (a phrase that likely Spinoza takes from Descartes). It is my sense that only Descartes theological commitments to the soul and its freedom of choice expressed through the judgments of the Will which force Descartes away from what he would otherwise be more comfortable with, into an account of vision which emphasize visual clarity along a central axis of focus. It is the need for a localizable edge of judgment, most amenable to an analogy of the otherwise blurred field of view, overdetermined by an essential binary of clear and unclear, which pulls Descartes back into pictures. We see this in the development of his Dioptrics away from the non-representationalistexplanations he begins with.

Descartes’ Blindman

The greatest example of Descartes non-representational concept of mental “seeing” is his analogy of a blindman who sees the world through the use of two sticks, literally feeling the world into accurate appraisal. But first, like Spinoza, Descartes warns us not to fall into pictures. Here he points up the semiotic stimulations of our thought. It is not on the basis of resemblance that we come to know or sense things:

…it is necessary to beware of assuming that in order to sense, the mind needs to perceive certain images transmitted by the objects to the brain, as our philosophers commonly suppose; or, at least, the nature of these images must be conceived quite otherwise than as they do. For, inasmuch as [the philosophers] to not consider anything about these images except that they must resemble the objects they represent, it is impossible for them to show us how they can be formed by these objects, received by the external sense organs, and transmitted by the nerves of the brain…instead we should consider that there are many other things besides pictures which can stimulate our thought, such as for instance, signs and words, which do not in any way resemble the things which they signify (forth discourse, trans. Olscamp)

And then here Descartes draws on the very physical modes of sensing, or seeing through a stick:

It sometimes doubtless happened to you, while walking in the night without a light through places which are a little difficult, that it became necessary to use a stick in order to guide yourself; and you have then been able to notice that you felt, through the medium of the stick, the diverse objects around you, and that you were even able to tell whether they were trees, or stones, or sand…(first discourse)

…just as when the blind man of whom we have spoken above touches some object with his cane, it is certain that the objects do not transmit anything to him except that, by making his cane move in different ways according to their different inherent qualities, they likewise and in some way move the nerves of his hand, and then the places in his brain where the nerves originate. Thus his mind is caused to perceive as many different qualities in these bodies, as there are varieties in the movements that they cause in his brain…(fourth discourse)

Descartes figure 18, Dioptrics

It is Descartes conception of light that the tendency of rays communicate themselves without movement, instanteously across space, just as a blindman’s stick seems to. When rays connect to our eyes, Descartes understands our sensing to be that of connective stimulation. When we see objects, we are seeing like a blindman, with sensations directly transmitted to our nerves. He compares a blindman holding two sticks to the baton centers of vision of each of our eyes, emphasizing that the image itself is not what is directly communicated to the Intellect through the nerves.

 So you must not be surprised that objects can be in their true position, even though the picture they imprint upon the eye is inverted; for this is just like our blind man being able to sense the object B, which is two his right, by means of his left hand, and the object D, which is to his left by means of his right hand at one and the same time. And just as the blind man does not judge that a body is double, although he touches it with two hands, so likewise when both our eyes are disposed in this manner which is required in order to carry our attention toward one and the same location, they need only cause us to see a single object there, even though a picture is formed in each of our eyes (sixth discourse).

The eyes using the two batons of central rays of light

[These citations discussed some here: Descartes and The Blind Man’s Cane ]

It would seem that there is within Descartes thought a primary distinction, as Yolton and Behan argue, between signifying and representing; the stimulations of the senses communicate themselves directly through the nerves in a signifying process not based on essential resemblance. The problem is that such a signifying mode of interpretation does not favorably present itself to the requirements of an Individuated and free action of the Will. Where, and before what would the signification process end…the pineal gland? This puts Descartes in tension with himself, as the analogy of visual clarity, embodied by the pursuit of hyperbolic focus in lenses, pulls him back toward representationalist notions. I don’t at all believe that Descartes holds such a representationalist idea of knowledge, but rather suspect that it is only the independence of the freedom of the will which again and again forces its intrusion, under an auspices of directed and establishing clarity. The resting place of hyperbolic doubt, the cogito, assures a clear focus relation on which all relations can be reconstituted, owing to God. 

Conclusion: Spinoza and Craft

What makes this most interesting is that because Spinoza objects to Descartes at the most radical level of the Will itself, denying the rationality of such a theological vestige (Ethics, 2p48s records the critique of boththe will and representation), he remains unencumbered by the need to take from vision a strict Being/Non-Being binary of optical focus and blurring, center and margin. Instead he draws on, if we can be bold enough to assume it, another luminous analogy, that of Plotinus’s Neo-Platonism, the notion that light radiates in a sphere (put forth by Kepler), and that it expresses itself in gradations of ever-weakening power and cohesion, understood as degrees of Non-Being and power. Spinoza positions himself in the Augustinian, Plotinus line of thought which makes of evil a privation, but he does so at the epistemological, yet by virtue of his parallelism, still bodily level, where the degree of the adequacy of our ideas result in real, affectual experiences of the fluctuations of our power and perfection. Instead of a center of vision which affirms a crisp focus of assured clarity, Spinoza’s center of vision is the breaking wave of the affirmation of our own body’s power, its capacity to act, understood within the context of the full scope of tableau of what is “seen”. As our eyes, fingers, ears, mind flits from thing to thing, we are constantly in states of imagined increases of pleasure and power, owed to the coherence of causes and effects. While central clarity may help incise distinctions of importance, these distinctions only grow meaningful and distinct in the full context of the margins.

It is my sense that Spinoza gained something of this metaphysical insight, in addition to the great variety of sources we might name, from his experiences as a craftsman. His patient polishing of propositions not only reflect in form his careful polishing of lenses, but the content of his thought I believe express the sensitive, non-representational experiences of judgment that come from working with materials, designs and tools in a comprehensive fashion. Spinoza’s refusal to admit Descartes Substance divorce of mind and body perhaps came from his bodily experiences of shaping and sensing glass under tension. While Descartes spent much of his time in mathematics and theory, informing and confirming his hypotheses at times through experiments, he lacked hands-on knowledge of what mechanical construction and application required. In a sense, his vision was mechanical, but his hands were not. One cannot help but realize that Spinoza’s cybernetic turnings of the grinding lathe (either with his off-hand or by foot pedal), communicated a complex of sensations and judgments far too subtle and rapid to place the crown of knowing upon a independent and freely functioning Will. Instead, as the lathe was tensioned in a flux of speeds and grits, and his eyes caught the traces of changes, as his hand holding the torquing glass blank felt the moment to moment consequences of his lathe’s turning – in one great curcuit – he necessarily understood the shore of perceptions within a comprehensive and assembled bodily whole of communications. The coherence that a craftsman brings betweeen his own hands, the limits and possibility of tools, the variations and states of material, amid a continuous, creative line of “dissonance”, a hole in the center of the percieved, non-absolute differentiations of grades, their deviations in form, doubtlessly expressed itself in Spinoza’s own embrace of the union between body and mind, and the careful consideration of the moment to moment changes in the body’s capacity to act.

Axioms of the Craftsman

Craftsman Axioms for dealing with resistance, come from Richard Sennett’s work,

The skills of working well with resistance are in sum, those of reconfiguring the problem into other terms, readjusting one’s behavior if the problem lasts longer than expected, and identifying with the problem’s most forgiving element.

Resistances, then, can be found our made. Both cases require imagination. In found difficulties, [as a craftsman] to cope we identify with the obstacle, seeing the problem, as it were, from the problem’s point of view. Made difficulties [such as complicating a work of creation] embody the suspicion that matters might be or should be more complex than they seem; to investigate, we can make them even more difficult.

Spinoza as Craftsman: A Closer Look

The Craftsman

An initial synthesis of some of the aspects of my research and a more refined notion of craftsmanship: writing to think through.

This is not the place to write a review of Richard Sennett’s provocative, subtly powerful book The Craftsman. I can only say in that vein, it is a book I highly recommend for those who enjoy looking at recurrent themes in culture and technology, wih an eye to informed thinking about the challenges and opportunities that face us today. The book is chock-full of illuminating analogies and narratives of human progress in problem solving [what he does with chicken recipes is astounding]. Aside from this general appreciation I believe Mr. Sennett’s observations on the significance of the wisdom of the craftsman has great consonance with the same point I am have been attempting to establish: Spinoza’s view of seeing technology as a continuous interface between bodies in assemblage. To put it one way the Craftsman represents the bodily knowledge shore between ideas held and our capacity to act, something I believe is embraced by Spinoza’s parallel grasp of both Mind and Body, thought and extension.

But from this book I would like to concentrate on a few distinctions of analysis Sennett makes to study they way that tools are used, and to assess their epistemic value as a means of intuition and inference. I cite from his chapter “Arousing Tools”.

Mr. Sennett starts with a general appraisal of the place of tools in our process of learning and acting:

Getting better at using tools comes to us, in part, when the tools challenge us, and this challenge often occurs just because the tools are not fit-for-purpose. They may not be good enough or it’s hard to figure out how to use them. The challenge becomes greater when we are obliguedto use these tools to repair or undo mistakes. In bothcreationand repair, the challenge can be met by adapting the form of a tool, or improvising with it as it is, using it in ways it was not meant for. However we come to use it, the very incompleteness of the tool has taught us something (194).

He goes onto make a distinction between a fit-for-purpose tool and an all-purpose tool. The example he uses for each is a screwdriver. A philips-head screwdriver is fit for one purpose, yet a flat-blade driver has a flexibility to it, “it can gouge, lift, and line as well as screw”. It is tempting to apply Spinoza’s definition of power to this distinction, the flat-blade tool actually has a greater number of ways it can “affect or be affected”. This does not make it a better tool at any given instance, for it its capacities must be assessed in assemblage to situations and to among other things, screws, but there does seem to be a fundamental difference to be noted.

The all-purpose tool has something of an openness to it:

…in its sheer variety this all-purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities: it, too, can expand our skills if only our imagination rises to the occasion. Without hesitation, the flat-edged screwdriver can be described as sublime – the word sublime standing, as it does in philsophy and the arts, for the potentially strange. In craftwork, that sentiment focuses especially on objects very simple in form that seemingly can do anything.

I’d like to stop here for a moment, for I am attempting to look through Richard Sennett’s lens at the discoveries I have come upon in regard to Spinoza’s technical-optical practices. There is no doubt that Spinoza, at least in life, if not in philosophical theory, embodies the core values of the craftsman. He lived a thrift life upon the intentionally thin thread of the earnings of his lens-grinding and instrument making. He came from the artisan class of Amsterdam Sephardic Jewry, and devoted himself to the perfection of things for their own sake, a mark of craftsmanship. And his hands-on experiences with materials and the lathe gave him a distinctly craftsman approach to problems of light and glass. If we ask, For Spinoza, what tools would strike him as “sublime” in the sense that Sennett defines it? It would seem safe to say that the lathe in its simplicity and multiplicity of uses would be sublime. Nearly every required lens could be ground on his bench provided the right glass, abrasives and forms were available. This spinning concentric action must have been “potentially strange” and a source of many, perhaps unconscious, inferences.

I think though that in my close reading of Spinoza’s two Optical Letters, it would seem that Spinoza also regarded the spherical lens as sublime. In his argument for its superiority its essential multiplicity, as long as one accepted its one inherent drawback of slight spherical aberration, gave it a certain panopticalquality, the way that it addressed rays coming from all points of a field of view. One can say that this understanding came from a failure to properly understand the optics involved, but I suspect that it is rather overestimated how correct the understanding of contemporary optics was. A theorist could hold what we take to be a “true” optical belief, but only due to fact that he also held a great number of beliefs we would regard as false. In a sense, to assess the truth or falsity of a scientific belief, one should perhaps take a more tool-oriented view toward these beliefs, asking how they worked to solve which problems.

Keeping this in mind, I think it safe to say that Descartes’ also found his discovered (imagined) hyperbolic lens “sublime”. For Descartes the simplicity of its form (a hyperbola could be made with two sticks and string in the garden he tells us), the elegance of its line bespoke a remarkable potential for applicability. But there is something to the foundational thinking of Descartes’ hyperbola (shown in Kepler), which also seemed to make it something like a fit-for-purpose tool, a philips-head. The way that Descartes saw it, it matched the human eye, acting like a hand and glove prosthetic extension of the organ out into space. It fit its purpose. Additionally to this, it not only fit the shape and powers of the eye, but it also snugly secured itself within Descartes larger conception of perception and the exercise of the Will. The hyperbola’s narrow aim of focus matched Descartes’ idea of the “clear and distinct” object of perception, crispened in a field of obscured images. This field was a background for the exercise of valuations and free choice. It was this fit-for-purpose aspect of the lens that I believe Spinoza instinctively had some objection to. It could be argued that Spinoza’s embrace of spherical lenses also had a fit-for-purpose quality to it, as indeed it did. The sphere was evocative of the completeness of mental-vision that in the pre-requisite acceptance of inadequate and imaginary ideas, strived for a total awareness of the causal matrices that brought things together. What needs to be pointed out is that Spinoza is not the only holder of such conceptual relations. Rather, they are likely endemic to all descriptive, problem-solving thought. At the time the understanding of refraction and spherical aberration was still quite confused, even in the minds of those that would make the most progress in these areas.

In a certain way, Mr. Sennett wants us to know that the very ambiguity of a tool, the fuzziness of its ability to work, is that which stimulates us to imagine what must be the case that would make the tool work (or require a new tool). He tells a wonderful story about the problems that arose with the invention the surgical scalpel (15th century), born of the introduction of silica into the iron, giving a new and remarkable sharpness. It enabled precise anatomical dissections and discovery, as well as advances in living operations. Remarkably this new knife produced the difficulty of now to cut, what techniques of muscle movements could handle this suddenly fine instrument (less shoulder and a co-operations of figures Sennett tells us). It seems it took a century or more to be able to master these new powers. The tool imposes itself upon the imagination in the context of the resistances of the world.

It is easy to think that Descartes had in mind that his hyperbolic lens would act something like the new scalpel, like his hyperbolic doubt, it would cut through the murky imperfections of the field and clearly select out what is essential. It would carry the eye to distant things, by extending the eye itself. Generally it is assumed that Descartes valuably got it right with the hyperbola, as he identified a solution to spherical aberration (already pointed out by Kepler). And if we are to imagine that he got it wrong, there are likely two ways he was wrong. The first was the widely assumed connection between what turned out to be chromatic aberration (the obscuringcolored ring in telescope observations), and spherical aberration. But, as Graham Burnett has pointed out, he also got wrong his assumption that he could just take a mathematical formula, engineer on paper a machine that could would carry it out, and with a little advice and sweat from a hired craftsman, his paradisaical lens could easily be produced. Again and again he expressed frustration with hired artisans that either they or the materials were failing him.

Four Stages

Sennett gives us a guide to stages of technological development that might help us see Descartes difficulty more clearly, and perhaps gain the value of Spinoza’s craft-sensitive, if metaphysical objections. First he says that there is reformatting. Reformatting is simply the “willingness to see if a tool or practice can be changed in use”. The example offered is the way that Christopher Wren used chiaroscuro techniques of shading in his illustrations of specimens shown in Robert Hooke’s microscope, so to produce plates more vivid than what could actually have been seen in the poor quality glass and light, while still being perceivedas quite accurate. Descartes indeed employed reformatting in both his development of mathematical tools (a forwarding of the Law of Refraction), and his inventive design of an automatic lens-lathe, but lacked any capacity to reformat techniques of placing materials in relation to each other in real machines, assuming that this was the least difficult portion of the process, just getting the matter to do what the mind wished it to.

Secondly, there is adjacency. “Two unlike domains are brought close together; the closer they are, the more stimulating their twined presence”. This seems precisely what Descartes did in terms of his imagination of the eye and his hyperbolic lens. By placing the two hyperbolic forms, organic and glass, together in an assemblage, his inferences to the clarity of thought and vision took wide gallop.

Thirdly, is intuitive leap or surprise. “Although you were preparing for it you didn’t know in advance precisely what you would make of the close comparison. In this third stage you begin to dredging up a tacit knowledge into consciousness to to the comparing – and you are surprised. Surprise is a way of telling yourself that something you know can be other than you assumed” (211). This no doubt lead to the writing of the Dioptrics, and his more than decade-long pursuit of a grinding machine capable of making his very precise lens.

Fourth is Gravity. “The final stage is recognition that a leap does not defy gravity; unresolved problems remain unresolved in the transfer of skills and practices…The recognition that an intuitive leap cannot defy gravity matters more largely because it corrects a frequently held fantasy about technology transfer. This is that importing a procedure will clarify a murky problem; more often, the technical import, like any immigrant, will bring with it its own problems” It is in gravity that Descartes seems to have failed, and is there no better evidence of this than Descartes (feigned?) glee that his craftsman de Beaune had severely cut his hand trying to make the desired lens, proving to Descartes the superiority of his rational vision! Descartes lacked the connection to material practices to adequately transfer his familiar terrain of mathematics and geometry to lathes and glass. His lens was impossible to make.

These four stages help us enframe something of Descartes’ failings and also help suggest to us something of Spinoza’s resistance to the lens and its attendant conceptions. There is one more tidbit that Richard Sennett offers us in this chapter that I want to bring to the issue. He says that in his distinction between a fit-for-purpose tool and an all-purpose tool, as they are designed specifically to either repair something broken or seek to improve it upon repair,

The tool that simply restores is likely to be put mentally in the toolbox of fit-for-purpose-only, whereas the all purpose tool allow us to explore deeper the act of making a repair. The difference matters because it signal two sorts of emotional responses we make to an object that doesn’t work. We can want simply to relieve its frustration and will employ a fit-for-purpose tool to do so. Or we can tolerate the frustration because we are now also curious; the possibilities of making a dynamic repair will stimulate, and the multi-purpose tool will serve as a curiosity’s instrument (200).

It is fair to say that both Spinoza and Descartes, in their philosophies, imagined the possibility of radical improvements in the minds and lives of their readers. Descartes’ radical doubt, and Spinoza’s “clear and distinct” excellerated leap to the Totality of Causes: God, are figured as sublime simplicities. And each thinker has characterized the process as that of the making of tools that could make other tools, like a blacksmith (Spinoza borrowing the image from Descartes). What I would want to ask would be, what is the role of the simplicity of craftsman understanding of the lathe and the lens in Spinoza’s vision of what is clear? For Spinoza I think it likely that he thought of the spherical lens as something like the flat-edged screwdriver, capable of a workman-like enhancement of human bodily powers. This all-purpose property allowed him to remain with this curiosity focused upon a more systematic and comprehensive vision of what made vision clear: the Ideas that we hold. I suspect that it was his hands-on practice of grinding glass to required mathematically describe shapes, and his physical understanding of the fancifulness of Descartes’ hyperbola, that lead him to disparage the enthusiasm for the shape. This did not prevent him from investigating it, but it did keep him in deep suspicion of metaphysical and scientific foundations of its importance.

I think also that this resistance to the hyperbola, and the fundamental acceptance of spherical aberration as a slight and perhaps necessary impairment, draws our attention to Spinoza’s understanding that real change occurs in the world of human imagination and affects, within the realities of our weaknesses. Despite his great concentration upon rationality and abstract reasoning, the model of Euclid’s Geometry, it is within human sociability that the hands touch the matter at hand. The realities of the properties of present conditions are the actual vectors of the power we may have. Any active use of reason does not transcend its earth. As he understood that any change in power and freedom requires a change in the body, and that any ideational move was a physical move, so must he to some degree have gleaned this understanding from the resistances of the cloudy glass and the spinning of the lathe, in the cybernetic feedback of his body’s own actions and experiences. The polishing of a lens was prosthetic, but not prosthetic to the eye, prosthetic and expressive of the body and mind.

I think that that in the gap between the two Substances of Descartes lies Spinoza at his lathe.

A related post writen some time before: The Lathe Mind: What Spinoza Meant by “Individual”