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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).

Plotinus and the Degrees of Being Conception: Ennead V ii, 1

Ennead V ii, 1: On the Genesis and Order of Things Following The Proto

The Hen is all things
but not a single one [oudè hén];
for the arche of all things is not all things,
but in that particular way it is all things, that is to say thither
they run.
Rather, they do not yet exist,
but they will be.

How then does [it all] come out
of a Simple One which has in itself
no intricate appearance,
nor any kind of folds whatsoever?

It is because there is no-thing [oudèn] in itself
that through this out of itself come
all things,
that Being [tò òn] may be;

through this
he himself is not existing [ouk ón],
he, the progenitor of itself. But as such
this is the prime engendering.
Being complete,
to not seek, to not hold, to not need,
in some kind of overflowing,
and overplenteousness of itself
it has made [pepoíêken] another.

So the becoming to itself
is turned and filled,
born toward itself gazing, &
this is the Nous.
& the-standing-towards-that,
the Being of itself she made, as her view
towards itself is Nous.

As it stood towards itself, that it may see,
out of the same nous it becomes and Is.
This one
now being such as that one,
The likeness [tà hómoia] creates the potency [dúnamin],
pouring out the many
– and this image is of itself –
just as before

the prime of itself poured out.
& out of the substance [tês ousías] this energeia
Is the Soul, the becoming of that abiding
& so the Nous-of-the-abiding-before-itself
has become.
Yet not abiding she creates, but
Motioned she is born
a phantom [eídôlon].

However looking there, whence born,
she becomes full,
Advanced into another motion her contrary she engenders ,
a phantom of herself, sensation [aísthêsin],
the nature [phúsin] within natural things [en toîs phutoîs].

& not one thing before itself has been hung up, or cut off.
For this reason
it appears that the upper Soul comes
all the way into natural things.
For in any way she comes,
as if something of herself is in natural

But surely not all of her is in natural things,
but her coming
into being [gignoménê] in natural things
is in this way,
as far & so much as she advanced downward,
into the sub-stasis [hupóstasis]
her other
creating in her going out

and her eagerness [prothumía] for
what’s worse.
Then that before this,
that coming right out of the Nous,
Allows the Nous to abide in itself.

[the Greek text, édition Kirchhoff]

Why Plotinus?

Some recent posts on panpsychism, Spinoza and the such had me returning to the Ur-panpsychist, as least as I read the history of the thought. It was Plotinus who helped structure the very influential, non-dualistic, Neo-Platonist Christian theology of Augustine, to some degree safeguarding from heresy the conception of an ontology of degrees of Being throughout the Medieval ages and the Renaissance. But Plotinus is dramatically under-read, especially in view of his pivotal, and quite influential position within the history of philosophy. Part of this problem has I believe been due to the translation of his work, his writings/lectures compiled and edited by his student Porphry, The Six Enneads. This is not to say that the translations are poor (there are several recent translations out after a historical dearth), but rather that for me they often still grasp at something in the text emphasizing the wrong, or at least importune, threads. They can either verbosely, or somewhat sterilely isolate the “concept” in the writing, and ignore the texture of it, the dexterity and one might say, the luminosity.

For those interested in the history of panpsychism the above is a translation of a passage that is quite important to many of the thinkers that follow. One may recognized immediately aspects of Hegel (reflexivity to the One), Spinoza (radiating degrees of causal dependence upon the One), and even Deleuze (that things that will be “runs through” the One) and Badiou (how Being is created via the Nous) in the framing of the emanation of Being from the Hen. I hope to discuss some of these in future posts, as they are quite intriguing. I present this passage precisely because, although the Enneads is quite long (more than a 1,000 pages in some editions), it may all really come down to this passage (and a few others). If one grasps this, one grasps a whole historical thread of though stretching nearly 2000 years to the present, a thread that has repeatedly dipped beneath the fabric which is has sewn, only to appear again.

Also, this short passage allows one to deal with metaphysics straight on, in a condensed, small space, to try to take it whole and see what one can draw from it. One asks often, what good is metaphysics? Perhaps with this short passage (and another I hope to post), we can see what is being proposed, and even look to what it means for our very lives, the way that we look at and solve problems.

Notes on the Translation

Obviously, I put it into verse. The purpose of this is several fold. The first that the Greek itself if quite condensed, as the language tends to be, but also as the philosopher can push it; and poetry actually is probably the best formal approximation of this condensation of meaning and effect. The verse form forces a reader to pause and consider the kerneling of phrases, just as the Greek would require. In this sense, the line breaks hopefully serve to translate the relationship between the ideas present such that mere prose could not. In this vein I also tried to steer clear of excessive explication within the text itself. Translators of philosophy in Greek often “fill in” the meaning that they think is implied by word-use and word-choice, in effect erasing the fullness of what is being invoked. (With Plato this is disastrous.) Where the implications are open I tried to leave them as open as possible so that one could continue to think along with the writer.

As to the text itself there are several basic decisions I made:

To Hen: This is Plotinus’ crowning concept, and is universally translated as The One. Quite accurately of course. But because “hen” is also the aorist (past) participle of the verb “hiemi” which means anything from  “to set in motion,” “to hurl,” “to let flow, burst” even in context “to speak”, the Hen is The One, but also The-Having-Set-In-Motion. To restrict its conception merely to the former is to dramatically cleave its meaning. Even this simple translation difficulty I think has lead to a misreading of the very core conception of Plotinus’ view. So when thinking about the Hen, think of both a Oneness, but also a flowing out, an activity.

arche: Is both the principle and the origin. It is something like a foundation, but is more active.

(phuton) phutois: I translate this “natural things” instead of “plants” as many rightful translators do (as in the section that follows he makes the distinction between phuton and the animal without logos, the latter having the power of sense-perception. This is because I believe that Plotinus is not thinking of this plant or that, but rather of the entire profusion of “growth” that is shown in both plants and animals, the raw aspect of what we regularly call and imply by “Nature” per se. This is an important translation point for the general argument of panpsychism that I believe that Plotinus holds.

Nous: Of course this is “mind” often translated as “intellect”.

autos, etc.: Plotinus uses the reflexive to great degree here, and in more than one gender. I direct the meaning toward this itself, himself, herself, though it can also mean “the same” with obvious philosophical precedent.

There are several other points of translation where I differ from the main line, so perhaps as always, check with other translations to get the full spectrum of possible readings. For instance, I take care to maintain the shifts in gender accomplished here, where Plotinus moves from neuter Hen, to a masculine progenitor to a female engendering and a female soul, always looking back upon the neuter, itself.

The translation is not meant as anything to be taken as authoritative, but rather an experiment in form so as to largely provide a gateway for those interested in Plotinus who have not read him directly, and perhaps an occasion for thought, for those who have studied him more closely.

Pythagorian Spinoza?

Leibniz’s Summation

Of some significance, here I post a summation of Spinoza’s philosophy, as passed through the mouth of a loyal friend, Tschirnhaus, and as relayed to Leibniz in 1675, originally published in English by Wim Klever. It draws out some curious Klever might say esoteric aspects of Spinoza’s thinking. Most distinct about it is the notion that Spinoza held a Pythagorian idea of a transmigration of the Mind. Besides the obvious distortions that can be brought about through one man telling another man what someone else believes, there remains the possibility that the account is somehow intentionally colored in details, either to couch Spinoza, or to put him in a personally favorable light:

As Klever relates:

“In spite of Spinoza’s warning that Tschirnhaus should be reluctant in communicating what he had received for private use, we know that Tschirnhaus nonetheless revealed many secrets to the inquisitive Leibniz. This appears from a note written by Leibniz which he must have made shortly after a meeting. I think it worthwhile to quote this note here in full because it enables us to see how Spinoza’s doctrine was perceived, understood, and explained by his friends and followers in or around 1675. A second reason is that this note which is not known by many scholars and iis not yet available otherwise in English contains several interesting points which cannot be found elsewhere and is also for that reason relevant:

Sir Tischirnhaus told me many things about the handwritten book of Spinoza. There is a merchant in Amsterdam, called Gerrit Gilles [Jarig Jelles] I think who supports Spinoza. Spinoza’s book will be about God, mind, happiness or the idea of the perfect man, the recovery of the mind and the recovery of the body. He asserts the demonstration of a number of things about God. The he alone is free. He supposes that freedom exists when the action or determination originates not from an external impact, but only from the nature of the actor. In this sense he justly ascribes freedom to God alone.

According to him the mind itself is in a certain sense a part of God. He thinks that there is a sense in all things to the degrees of their existence. God is defined by him as an absolutely infinite Being, which contains all perfections, i.e. affirmations or realities or what may be conceived. Likewise only God would be substance or a Being which exists in itself, or which can be understood by itself; all creatures are nothing else other than modes. Man is free insofar as he is not determined by any external things. But because this is never the case, man is not free at all, though he participates more in freedom than the bodies.

The mind would be nothing but the idea of the body. He thinks that the unity of the bodies is caused by a certain pressure. Most people’s philosophy starts with creatures, Des Cartes started with the mind, he [Spinoza] starts with God. Extension does not imply divisibility as was unduly supposed by Descartes; although he supposed to see this also clearly, he fell into the error that the mind acts on the body or is acted upon by the body.

He thinks that we will forget most things when we die and retain only those things that we know with the kind of knowledge that he calls intuitive, of which of which only a few are conscious. Because knowledge is either sensual, imaginative, or intuitive. He believes a sort of Pythagorical transmigration, namely that the mind goes from body to body. He says that Christ is the very best philosopher. He thinks that apart from thought and extension there are an infinity of other positive attributes, but that in all of them there is thought like here in extension. How they are constituted cannot be conceived by us but every one is infinite like space here (“Spinoza’s life and works” Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, 46-47)


I posted below some rough thoughts I had some time ago, and their related Spinoza texts. Klever’s evidence of a kind of at least percieved Pythagorian transmigration adds an esoteric meaning to Spinoza’s mathematization. And while I cannot conceive how such a transformation could be understood within the propositions of the Ethics [on what account is the preservation of identity maintained], it does give conceptual context for some of the more difficult to interpret passages on this issue.

Notable as well is the summation’s deviation from Spinoza’s theory of the three knowledges as found in the Ethics. Here, the trinity of “imaginary, rational, intuitive” has become “sensual, imaginary, intuitive”. Assuming an accurate translation of the passage, this may give some clue to the differences of Spinoza’s treatment of the Imaginary and Order (spoken about here, in Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order). Professor Della Rocca in correspondence had affirmed his belief that Spinoza is somewhat inconsistent in his treatment of “order” in the various parts of the Ethics. What is suggested by the Leibniz summation, perhaps, is that even the rational, propositional conception of true and free in Spinoza is still imaginary; this may be linked to Spinoza’s variation on whether we can or cannot ever have wholly Adequate Ideas.

Spinoza, On The Immortality of the Soul

Controversially, the question of the immortality of the soul/mind arises in Spinoza’s writings, and with it the definition of personal identity. At one point he takes up thoughts about a poet who has, in an Altzheimer’s way, has lost contact with his person. In what sense is the poet still himself? To answer this, Spinoza argues for the existent essence of non-existent modes, a position which Deleuze sums as such:

“A mode’s essence is not a logical possibility, nor a mathematical structure, nor a metaphysical entity, but a physical reality, a res physica. Spinoza means that the essence, qua essence, as an existence. A modal essence has an existence distinct from that of the corresponding mode.” Expression in Philosophy (192)

Despite Deleuze’s assurance that this reality is not mathematical, Spinoza does take recourse to mathematical analogy to make clear his meaning, for instance (cited below), the existence of essence of an infinity of equal rectangles within the essence of a circle (Theorem 35, Euclid) which exist even if only one or even none exist modally.


So the essence of a mind is said to exist within the mind of God, eternally, despite its own limited duration. What this does is give the human mind a kind of eternity, an existence outside of the brief flicker of expression, but what this also does is place that eternal existence in relation to all other essences, of all other things, animate and inanimate, which are also produced by God/Nature. The human mind is eternal in essence as all other things are eternal in essence. But further, (as is shown in the note to EIV39 below), identity itself, our preservation of ourselves as ourselves in duration, is also not guaranteed, and is in fact likely an illusion of perspective. Just as his Spanish poet has died to himself, despite the continuity of his body, unable to recognize even his own writings, we too would only be an infinite series of eternal essences – slight modifications of a rectangle within its circle – defined only by our momentary consonance of parts – both ideational and extended. It is not so much that Spinoza has awarded undue eternity to the human mind, but rather has radically (categorically) undermined the basis upon which the human mind privileges itself to be unique among things in this world, given eternal life, but a life fused with all other things, capable as alien to its own “past” as akin to another thing. I list below relevant passages and definitions to this thinking:

EV29- The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but there remains of it something which is eternal.

(Proof) There is necessarily in God a concept or idea which expresses the essence of the human body, which, therefore is necessarily something appertaining to the essence of the human mind. But we have not assigned to the human mind any duration, definable by time, except insofar as it expresses the actual existence of the body, which is explained through duration, and may be defined by time – that is we do not assign to it duration, except while the body endures. Yet there is something, notwithstanding, which is conceived by a certain eternal necessity through the very essence of God; this something, which appertains to the essence of the mind, will necessarily be eternal.

EIV39note – …But here it should be noted that I understand the Body to die when its parts are so disposed that they acquire a different ratio of motion and rest to one another. For I dare not deny that – even though the circulation of the blood is maintained, as well as the other [signs] on account of which the Body is thought to be alive – the human Body can nevertheless be changed into another nature completely different from its own. For no reason forces me to think that the Body does not die unless it is changed into a corpse. And, indeed, experience seems to urge the opposite conclusion. Sometimes a man undergoes such changes that I should hardly believe that he was the same man. For example, I have heard tell of a Spanish poet who was struck by an illness; though he recovered, he remained so oblivious to his past life that he did not believe the tales and tragedies he had written were his own. He might have been taken for a grown-up infant had he also forgotten his native tongue.

EIp8 – By eternity, I mean existence itself, insofar as it is conceived necessarily to follow solely from the definition of that which is eternal. (Explanation) – Existence of this kind is conceived as an eternal truth, like the essence of a thing, and, therefore, cannot be explained by means of continuance or time, though continuance may be conceived without a beginning or end.

EIp24- The essence of things produced by God does not involve existence. (Corollary)… God must be the sole cause, inasmuch as to him alone existence appertain.

EIp25 – God is the efficient cause not only of the existence of things, but also of their essence.

EIIp8 – The ideas of particular things, or of modes, that do not exist, must be comprehended in the infinite idea of God, in the same way as the formal essences of particular things or modes are contained in the attributes of God. Note – If anyone desires an example to throw more light on this question, I shall, I fear, not be able to give him any, which adequately explains the thing of which I here speak, inasmuch as it is unique; however, I will endeavour to illustrate it as far as possible. The nature of a circle is such that if any number of straight lines intersect within it, the rectangles formed by their segments will be equal to one another; thus, infinite equal rectangles are contained in a circle. Yet none of these rectangles can be said to exist, except in so far as the circle exists; nor can the idea of any of these rectangles be said to exist, except in so far as they are comprehended in the idea of the circle. Let us grant that, from this infinite number of rectangles, two only exist. The ideas of these two not only exist, in so far as they are contained in the idea of the circle, but also as they involve the existence of those rectangles; wherefore they are distinguished from the remaining ideas of the remaining rectangles.

John Donne’s Material Monism of Love, and Spinoza’s Eternity of the Mind

John Donne’s “Valediction Forbidding Mourning” articulates a metaphysics which makes of a death an anchor point, upon which a living being can compass itself, creating a death-defying eternity of affection. He speaks in seemingly dualist terms of a sublunary love “whose soul is sense” contrasted with a love “inter-assurèd of the mind”. In this he seems to compose a rarification of affects such that when stretched materially, thinly enough, become etherialized, though substantial:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
-Whose soul is sense- cannot admit
Of absence, ’cause it doth remove
The thing which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,
That ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two ;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

But here is a certain monist clue in the description of sublunary love. The love whose soul is sense “cannot admit of absence”, since the very elements of its composition, if absent, destroy the very love which might do such perceiving. Much as in Spinoza, the idea cannot be torn completely away from its object (knowledge is merely a privation, and there is nothing positive in knowing, which is false). In just a few lines Donne sums up a physicalist argument of a sort, the very recognition of absence is itself the testament of the physical preservation of that love’s elements. In a certain sense, there can be no such missing (or missing is merely a misconception, as Spinoza puts it, it has no Being). The elements which preserve a state prove to its perseverance. Instead Donne proposes an “inter-assured” love of the mind, a presencing in which any separation is necessarily an expansion, and not “a breach”. The transformation of “breach” into expansion is the view of a monist assemblage, and not of a dualism; “mind” is still composed. Despite the abstraction of such a love, its spiritualization (compared to gold beat thin) by the same reasoning of compositional elements, is a material endurance, made clear by mind.


Though the love after death is not of “eyes, lips and hands”, it seems it must still be physical (just as beat gold is still gold, just as the mind has the body for its object), made of the elements of which it is an expression. In fact, instead of anatomical body parts, it is made now in part by text, in part by bodily afffections, and the relational compositions which preserve. Donne here, in the compassry of two legs, the geometry of a circle, makes an argument against Time (as breach), as the material going out is subsumed in a deeper circle. Like Spinoza he proposes a world where absence has no basis, sub specie aeternitatis, which is experienced through memory, trace, but also the material expansion of those traces in Time, as understanding.

Place Donne’s notion along side what some have taken to be controversial and inconsistent, declaration of the eternity of the Mind:

5p23: The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal.

Scholia: There is, as we have said, this idea, which expresses the essence of the Body under a species of eternity, a certain mode of thinking, which pertains to the essence of the Mind, and which is necessarily eternal. And though it is impossible that we should recollect that we existed before the existence of the Body-since there cannot be any traces of this in the body, and eternity can neither be defined by time nor have any relation to time-still, we feel and know by experience that we are eternal. For the Mind feels [sentit, senses] those things that it conceives in understanding no less than those it has in the memory. For the eyes of the Mind, by which it sees and observes things, are the demonstrations themselves.

Whereas Spinoza wants to make a distinction between memory trace, and “the eyes of the Mind,” Donne’s point seems a bit more refined, as he speaks of the experience of circular and timeless inscription, as compositional trace, the way that when one “foot” stops moving in time, the physicality that binds foot to foot moves it still, drawing it out, as it stretches so thin as to reveal a tremendous arc, the experience of ending where one has begun. There no absolute dichotomy of existence and Mind, memory and mental seeing. I believe that Donne captures something of Spinoza’s argument, that Spinoza himself is not here capable of.

To add to this account see Spinoza’s Letter 17 to Peter Balling (July 20, 1664):

…a father so loves his son that he and his beloved are, as it were, one and the same. According to what I have demonstrated on another occasion, there must be in thought an idea of the son’s essence, its affections, and its consequences. Because of this, the father, by the union he has with his son, is a part of the said son, the father’s soul must necessarily participate in the son’s ideal essence, its affections, and consequences…


Closely Related Post: Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

Wittgenstein, The Structuring of the Ego, and Autopoiesis

[the below was written to an anonymous professor of Wittgenstein, who recommended the reading of A. H. Almaas, a self-styled spiritual teacher, on the nature of the Ego and its relationship to Autopoietic theory (which I hold interest in). What develops is a brief address of Almaas’ appropriation of Autpoiesis to examine the nature of the Ego, when contrasted with the soul, and a critique of Wittgenstein, in view of these same egoic expectations (this professor took a particularly sprirtualized approach to Wittgensteinian “truths”). Where I use the word “soul,” read “the full affective capacities of a person”.] 


Almaas says of the Ego,

We see that the egoic life basically does not respect the autopoietic nature of the soul; it tends to make the open, living system that is the soul in a closed and isolated one, more like a machine. The difference between the egoic and the essential life is not absolute, for the soul cannot become completely a machine. She is inherently an open and dynamic system, and hence rigid ego structuring only limits this openness and constrains her dynamism; it cannot completely eliminate them (559)

This is a little off from the biological Autopoietic theory, but it is very useful. Autopoiesis is not only “open” but it is also “closed”. The theory speaks of autopoietic systems as being “organizationally closed”, but “structurally open”. As long as the changes do not (radically) change the organization of the system it remains autopoietic and in that way “closed”. What Almaas is describing is the structural closure of the system, in a way, that which could starve it. The calcifications of the ego would close off it’s dynamic of exchange. It would begin to suffer entropy at a rapid rate.

Now the structural openness of autopoietic systems, it seems to me, occurs in three ways.

1). It is able to take in energy/forms from the outside, for instance the way that food is able to permeate the cell membrane of amoeba. The organizational closure is preserved, but the structure is open.

2). A system can be called “open” from the perspective of an observer, who sees that the recursivity of the system is “linked” or “coupled” to regularities of another system. In this way, one cell and another cell can fall into a co-dependent pattern. They can form a composite whole even. Matuana and Varela call this “structural coupling”.

3). Here, a system can be open to the structural replacement of one of its parts. The example they use is that in “toilet system”, a wooden float in the tank can be replaced by a plastic one, and the system would remain organizationally closed, that is the same.

So when one imagines that the egoic identity, a major component of intersubjective, conceptual discourse, is a tendency to becomes structurally closed, this means that, a). it might cut itself off from energy input, and starve itself (such as a hurricane would die out if it could not include new material), that, b). that it would loose the ability to structurally couple with other living systems, and become isolated, and, c). it would loose the ability to change out structural components that would alter its capacity to grow (because structural differences in components that fulfill the same function, let us say the shift from a wooden to plastic floatation device in a toilet, are central to the capacity of the organization itself to grow, adapt in history). The calcifications of the ego, cut of an organization from its possibilities and its growth.

So one has to ask, when considering the normative language of Wittgenstein’s descriptions (sense vs. nonsense), how much of this conceptual normativity is part of the ego-complex that makes up social discourse, that is intersubjectivity. Now certainly being able to correspond to grammatical forms of “the way we speak” is a necessary part of the structural coupling between individuals, just as egoic structures aid in such coupling. The way we speak is a part of our composite relations, and only in the extreme of egoic structures, let us say those that through a paranoid fear of the loss of organizational integrity, does truly structural closure set in. (That is to the degree that structural coupling cannot be performed). Examples of psychosis, psychotic language, (perhaps, though interestingly, autism), are of this variety. So we can see how egoic structures might aid structural openness.

One can also make the same judgment about the first aspect of openness, as paranoia and fears might create a recurisivity that does not allow the openness that allows the entrance of other energies, creating a rigidity that starves itself by atrophy and entropy. (Such radical loops of course might also perform leaps to other kinds of openness, jumping the local system: the played out (in)efficacy of Schreber’s “nerve-language” with God.)

But when considering the third kind of structural openness, the replacement of parts, this is where Wittgenstein’s normative language becomes problematic, and a bit too conceptual (egoic). When approaching “the way of doing things” in language, called “grammatical”, one is approaching a structure that contains in its interpretation a logic of sense, imposing a kind of direction upon actions: this is sense, that is nonsense. But because this grammatical form is simply a series of paths already taken by others, entrenched into constraints, it is part of the ego-form of societal intersubjectivity. That one cannot regularly say “she is in pain, but is showing it”, only reflects the series of uses that has compiled that form, and these are historically contingent. But one, as a soul, is certainly capable of using that phrase, in a new way, in a way that recontextualizes it to sense and use.

The soul, in use, is not bound by grammar, as though grammar is an ahistorical arbiter of use. Instead, the soul, uses grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense of it), or does not. It can invent connections, by context, that transcend the accretions of grammar. That one cannot say “God spoke to me and you over heard it”, grammatically, does not mean that such a sentence cannot be used, and be used powerfully to communicate a truth. What the violation of grammatical forms is, such as those made in metaphysical investigations, is the structural openness of the third kind, the possible replacement of part(s) by another part(s), such that a function is maintained, but a new capacity is enacted. This is exactly what poets do, (and what metaphors do…and there are no strict rules for how to make a metaphor). Wittgenstein said that nothing new is discovered in philosophy, and imagined that he was putting those philosophers who thought they were “discovering something” in their place. Well, I would ask, is anything new ever “discovered” in poetry? Yes. All the time.

The confusion of sense that Wittgenstein marks out, when he tries to let us know that there is no “object” (mental or physical) which corresponds to “understanding”, does not mean that the pursuit of such an object does not have “use”. Indeed it has, for it lead to all kinds of science, seeking out the “process” of understanding, a process referent that Wittgenstein suggests is something of a conceptual error. Rather, such non-grammatical object searching is exactly that which is the openness of the autopoiesis of the soul, in common intersubjective historical circumstances. Not only do the sciences benefit from the conceptual mistake, as they search for process referents, but also does man’s self-conception benefit, as she/he projects her/his center, her/his soul, in relations of increasing complexity to the world.

The soul, as part of the matrix of relations, many of them confined by grammatical groupings of “the way we do things”, insofar as it violates those constraints, allows for the swapping out of parts, the parts of which compose its structure, opening it to growth. It is exactly the clarity of Wittgenstein’s conceptual parsing of the grammatical that is the most egoic, since it takes “sense” to be a product of “what has been” (grammar), and not a product of the creative actions of use alone. The “rough ground” is generally the ground the ego knows. Language “not on holiday” can be seen as the language-work of the ego. These are the things which confirm the structures that the ego, as an intersubjective isolation, has built.