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The Bear with the Rapier: Kleist on Leibniz and Microscopic Infinities

Dancing Bears Passing Through Infinities

More on Corry Shore’s “Deleuze and Dance…” post. In the comments section of my last post an exchange lead me to recall von Kleist’s wonderful “On the Marionette Theatre”.  – There is some debate as to how much irony is in the story, if there is a kind of Kierkegaardian reverse or distance, but I suspect that given the power of the von Kleist oeuvre and the place that he gives to the power of the sudden and the supernatural communication, any irony is subsumed by a certain belief, or trust – but what struck me was the kind of (unconscious) parallel between a point Corry was making in calling up Leibniz’s triangle of differentials, appealed to by Deleuze, and Kleist’s own striking analogy of passing through infinities.

First though, Kleist presents the figure of a bear that is able to fence with extraordinary deftness, such that man cannot even approach:

They urged me to attack. “See if you can hit him!” they shouted. As I had now recovered somewhat from my astonishment I fell on him with my rapier. The bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I feinted, to deceive him. The bear did not move. I attacked again, this time with all the skill I could muster. I know I would certainly have thrust my way through to a human breast, but the bear made a slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. By now I was almost in the same state as the elder brother had been: the bear’s utter seriousness robbed me of my composure. Thrusts and feints followed thick and fast, the sweat poured off me, but in vain. It wasn’t merely that he parried my thrusts like the finest fencer in the world; when I feinted to deceive him he made no move at all. No human fencer could equal his perception in this respect. He stood upright, his paw raised ready for battle, his eye fixed on mine as if he could read my soul there, and when my thrusts were not meant seriously he did not move…

The Microscopy Beneath Human Sagacity

We are returned to Spinoza’s “we do not even know what a body can do”, the sense in which there are powers within our body which cannot be completely absorbed, understood or even anticipated. (Corry makes use of this to speak of the kind of apparitional capacties of Michael Jackson, for instance his introduction of the moonwalk.) We are like fantastic sleepwalkers…

However, no one has hitherto laid down the limits to the powers of the body, that is, no one has as yet been taught by experience what the body can accomplish solely by the laws of nature, in so far as she is regarded as extension. No one hitherto has gained such an accurate knowledge of the bodily mechanism, that he can explain all its functions; nor need I call attention to the fact that many actions are observed in the lower animals, which far transcend human sagacity, and that somnambulists do many things in their sleep, which they would not venture to do when awake: these instances are enough to show, that the body can by the sole laws of its nature do many things which the mind wonders at. (E3p2s).

But I want to return to Corry’s Deleuzian citation of the Leibnizian triangle of differentials, and the sense that Spinoza has in mind a kind of bound infinity of parts that grow infinitely smaller within any one delimitation, almost combustable (at least combustable to knowledge) bodies within bodies, growing infinitely minute:

Deleuze characterizes these smallest bodies as being inextensive; they are like calculus limits, or Newton’s “vanishing” (“évanouissants“) quantities. So these infinitely small bodies are not themselves “things” but are more like the differential relations of calculus. (Deleuze, Cours Vincennes: 10/03/1981)

 To better grasp what Deleuze will say about these differential relations, we should take his advice(Cours Vincennes – 22/04/1980) and briefly examine Leibniz’ simple triangle explanation of the differential ratios. [Click on images to enlarge].

The image is of an infinitely diminishing triangle as the intersection of lines near an vertex descrease:

Kleist has something of the very same kind of thought, he may even have Leibniz in mind, but he complicates it, implicates it, as to the very process of coming through or passing through those miniscule infinities.

..We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.

The human being passes through the infinitely small point, entering into the “looking glass” so to speak, but it is not a reversal in the Hegelian sense of reflective consciousness, or a transcedence, so much as an actual process of engagment, something I think Spinoza also might have in mind.

Corry does well to cite the possible Spinozist Theodore Kerckring’s thoughts that were induced by the looking through human anatomy by virtue of the powers of the an early microscope made by Spinoza. The human being as it swims down into the smaller and smaller bodies has a literal encounter with the limits of the mechanical infinite:

Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how as he brought forth bodies, thus to the infinite itself one after another by magnitude they having withdrawn so that no intellect is able to follow whether it is, which it is, or where is the end of their magnitude; thus if in diminishments you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand.

Spicilegium Anatomicum 1670

[Discussed also here: Spinoza and Mechanical Infinities ]

Much as Kleist speak of the passing through concavity, of knowledge passing through an infinity, Kerckring finds that microscopy will only induct us to an infinity that resists us, or at least our eyes. There is a certain regard in which the delimiting mind must release its apprehension to a kind of apogogic comprehension, letting itself be comprehended, so to speak, with a sewn-in result that it is ever and always the body through which powers are channeled and therefore expressed.

Whence Salvation?

Somewhere between the first photo of an imprisonment of powers (the bear chained to perform out of its reservoir of powers), and Leibniz’s evocative minuscule infinities of abstract mathematical division is located Spinoza point about what Infinities are, and perhaps just as importantly how they are to be unlocked, or tapped into. Freedoms are and must be material engagements, combinations, things of which our own bodies are composed, and must be achieved through the soterial collection of that which appears not to think (feel, and act) as much as it can.

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Spinoza and Mechanical Infinities

The Mechanically Bound Infinite

I want to respond to Corry Shores’ wonderful incorporation of my Spinoza Foci  research into his philosophical project (which has a declaimed Deleuzian/Bergsonian direction). It feels good to have one’s own ideas put in the service of another’s productive thoughts. You come to realize something more about what you were thinking. And to wade back through one’s arguments re-ordered is something like coming to your own house in a dream.

This being said, Corry’s reading of my material thrills, for he is, at least in evidentary fashion, one of the first persons to actually read it all closely. And the way that he fits it in with his own appreciation for Spinoza’s concepts of Infinity certainly open up new possibility for the Spinoza-as-lens-grinder, Spinoza-as-microscope-maker, Spinoza-as-technician interpretations of his thinking.

There is much to take up here, but I would like to begin at least with the way in which certain parallels Corry draws that change the way that I see what Spin0za was saying (or more exactly, what Spinoza was thinking of, and perhaps associating on), when talking about infinities. Key, as always, is coming to understand just what Spinoza had in mind when drawing his Bound Infinities diagram:

Corry points out in his analysis/summation of Letter 12, grafting from Gueroult’s commentary, that in order to understand the epistemic point (the status of mathematical figures, and what they can describe), one has to see that what Spinoza as in mind in writing to Meyer is a very similiar diagram found in his Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, of which Meyer was the active editor. There the diagram is not so Euclidean, but rather is mechanical, or, hydro-dynamical:

The diagram illustrates water moving at a constant rate (a “fixed ratio” one might say), but due to the nature of the tube it must be moving at point B, four time faster than at AC, and a full differential of speeds between. There you can see that any section of the intervening space between the two circles composed of “inequalities of distance”  in the Letter 12 diagram (AB/CD) is not really meant as an abstraction of lines and points as it would seem at first blush (the imaginary of mathematics), but rather real, mechanical differentials of speed and material change. The well-known passage

As, for instance, in the case of two circles, non-concentric, whereof one encloses the other, no number can express the inequalities of distance which exist between the two circles, nor all the variations which matter in motion in the intervening space may undergo. This conclusion is not based on the excessive size of the intervening space. However small a portion of it we take, the inequalities of this small portion will surpass all numerical expression. Nor, again, is the conclusion based on the fact, as in other cases, that we do not know the maximum and the minimum of the said space. It springs simply from the fact, that the nature of the space between two non-concentric circles cannot be expressed in number.

Letter 12

The Lathe Buried Under the Euclidean Figure

But, and this is where Corry Shores alerted me to something I did not formerly see, the relationship between the two diagrams is even further brought forth when we consider Spinoza’s daily preoccupation with lens-grinding and instrument making. It has been my intuition, in particular, that Spinoza’s work at the grinding lathe which required hours of patient and attentive toil, MUST have had a causal effect upon his conceptualizations; and the internal dynamics of the lathe (which fundamentally involve the frictioned interactions of two spherical forms under pressure – not to mention the knowing human eye and hand), must have been expressed by (or at least served as an experiential confirmation of) his resultant philosophy. If there was this heretofore under-evaluated structuring of his thought, it would see that it would make itself most known in his Natural Philosophy areas of concern, that is to say, where he most particularly engaged Descartes’s mechanics (and most explicitly where he refused aspects of his optics, in letters 39 and 40). And as we understand from Spinoza’s philosophy, Natural Philosophy and metaphysics necessarily coincide.

What Shores shows me is that Spinoza’s Bound infinities diagram (letter 12), his very conception of the circle, is intimately and “genetically”  linked to the kinds of motions that produce them. It is with great likelihood that Spinoza is thinking of his off-center circles, not only in terms of the hydrodynamics that circulate around them, but also in terms of Descartes’ tangents of Centrifugal force.

There is a tendency in Spinoza to conflate diagrams, and I cannot tell if this is unconscious (and thus a flaw in his reasoning process) or if he in his consummatephilosophy feels that all of these circular diagrams are describing the very same thing simply on different orders of description. But the connection between a tangential tendency to motion conception of the circle (which Corry makes beautifully explicit in terms of optics) and Spinoza’s consideration of bound Infinities in the letter 12 (which remains implicit in Corry’s organization of thoughts), unfolds the very picture of what Spinozahas in mind when he imagines two circles off-center to each other. Spinoza is thinking of is lens-grinding blank, and the spinning grinding form.

One can see the fundamental dynamic of the lathe from Van Gutschoven’s 1663 letter to Christiaan Huygens, illustrating techniques for grinding and polishing small lenses,

And it is my presumption that Spinoza worked at a Springpole lathe, much like one used by Hevelius, Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis, the dynamics of which are shown here:

In any case, when one considers Spinoza’s Bound Infinity diagram, under the auspices of tangential motion tendencies, and the hydrodynamic model of concentric motions, I believe one cannot help but also see that the inner circle BC which is off-center from the first, is representationallythe lens-blank, and the larger circle AD, is potentially the grinding form. And the reason why Spinoza is so interested in the differenitals of speed (and inequalities of distance) between two, is that daily, in his hand he felt the lived, craftsman consequence of these off-center disequilibria. To put it one way sympathetic to Corry’s thinking, one could feel them analogically, with the hand, though one could not know them digitally, with math. The human body’s material (extensional) engagements with those differentials (that ratio, to those ratios), is what produced the near perfectly spherical lens; and the Intellect intuitionally – and not mathematically – understands the relationship, in a clear and distinct fashion, a fashion aided by mathematics and figure illustration, which are products of the imagination.

What is compelling about this view is that what at first stands as a cold, abstract figure of simply Euclidean relationships, suddenly takes on a certain flesh when considering Spinoza’s own physical experiences at lens-grinding. Coming to the fore in such a juxtaposition is not only a richer understanding of the associations that helped produce it, but also the very nature of Spinoza’s objection to the sufficiency of mathematical knowledge itself. For him the magnitudes of size, speed and intensity that are buried between any two limits are not just abstract divisions of line and figure, or number to number. They are felt  differentials of real material force and powers of interaction, in which, of which, the body itself necessarily participates. The infinities within (and determinatively outside of) any bound limits, are mechanical, analogical, felt and rational.

Corry raises some very interesting relationship question between the Spinoza Bound Infinities Diagram and the Diagram of the Ideal Eye from letter 39. They are things I might have to think on. The image of the ideal eye is most interesting because it represents (as it did for Descartes) a difficult body/world shore that duplicates itself in the experiential/mathematical dichotomy. Much as our reading of the duplicity of the Bound Infinity Diagram which shows mathematical knowledge to be a product of the imaginary, the diagram of the ideal eye, also exposes a vital nexus point between maths, world and experience.

From Mechanics to Optics (to Perception)

It should be worthy to note that Spinoza’s take on the impossibility of maths to distinguish any of the bound infinities (aside from imposing the bounds themselves), bears some homology to Spinoza’s pragmatic dismissal of the problem of spherical aberration which drove Descartes to champion the hyperbolic lens. When one considers Spinoza’s ideal eye and sees the focusing of pencils of light upon the back at the retina (focusingswhich as drawn do not include the spherical aberration which Spinoza was well-aware of), one understands Spinoza’s appreciation of the approximate nature of perceptual and even mathematical knowledge. This is to say, as these rays gather in soft focus near the back of the eye (an effect over-stated, as Spinoza found it to be via Hudde’s Specilla circularia), we encounter once again that infinite grade of differential relations, something to be traced mathematically, but resultantlyexperienced under the pragmatic effects of the body itself. “The eye is not so perfectly constructed” Spinoza says, knowing as well that even if it were a perfect sphere there as yet would be gradations of focus from the continumof rays of light so refracted by the circular lens. What Spinoza has in mind, one strongly suspects, and that I have argued at length, is that the Intellect, with its comprehensive rational in-struction from the whole, ultimately Substance/God, in intuitional and almost anagogic fashion, is the very best instrument for grasping and acting through the nature of Nature, something that neither bodily perception, or mathematical analysis may grasp. Indeed, as Corry Shores suggests in his piece, it is the very continuum of expressional variability of Substance (real infinities within infinities) which defies the sufficiency of mathematical description, but it is the holistic, rational cohesion of expression which defies experiential clusterings of the imagination: the two, mathematics and imaginary perception, forming a related pair.

In the end I suspect that there is much more to mine from the interelationship between Spinoza’s various circular diagrams, in particular these three: that of the relationship of the modes to Substance (EIIps), that of the the hydrodynamics of circulating water (PCP, implicit in the Letter 12 diagram of Bound Infinites), and the Ideal eye (letter 39), each of these to be seen in the light of the fundamental dynamics of the lens-grinding lathe to which Spinoza applied himself for so many years, and at which he achieved European renown expertise.

 

 

The Infinities Beneath the Microscope

I would like to leave, if only for Corry Shores’ consideration, one more element to this story about Real Infinities (and I have mentioned it in passing before on my blog). There is an extraordinary historical invocation of something very much like Spinoza’s Bound Infinities in the annals of anatomical debates that were occurring in last decade of Spinoza’s life. I would like to treat this in a separate post and analysis, but it is enough to say that with the coming of the microscope what was revealed about the nature of the human body actually produced more confusion than understandings in what it revealed, at least for several decades. Only recently was even the basic fact of the circulation of blood in the body, something we take for granted, grasped. And in the 1670s the overall structure or system of human anatomy was quite contested, contradictory evidence from the microscope being called in support one theory or another. Among these debators was Theodore Kerckring, who was weighing in against the theory that the human body was primarily a system of “glands” (and not ducts). Kerckring’s  connection to Spinoza is most interesting, much of it brought to light in Wim Klever’s inferential and quite compelling treatment of the relationship of Van den Enden  and Spinoza. In any case Kerckring  is in possession of a microscope made by Spinoza (the only record of its kind), and by virtue of its powers of clarity he is exploring the structure of ducts and lymph nodes. Yet he has skepticism for what is found in the still oft-clouded microscope glass leads him to muse about the very nature of perception and magnification, after he tells of the swarming of tiny animals he has seen covering the viscera of the cadaver, (what might be the first human sighting of bacteria). He writes of the way in which even if we see things clearly, unless we understand all the relationships between things, from the greatest breadth to the smallest, we simply cannot fully know what is happening, if it is destruction or preservation:

On this account by my wondrous instrument’s clear power I detected something seen that is even more wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera to swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt or preserve one would be in doubt, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, just the same, a habitation is exhausted by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how as he brought forth bodies, thus to the infinite itself one after another by magnitude they having withdrawn so that no intellect is able to follow whether it is, which it is, or where is the end of their magnitude; thus if in diminishments you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand.

Spicilegium Anatomicum 1670

Several things are going on here (and in the surrounding context), but what seems most striking given our topic, we once again get a glimpse into the material, and indeed historical matterings of what bound, mechanical infinities might be. (As a point of reference, at the time of Kerckring’s  publishing Spinoza had just moved to the Hague and published his Theological-Political Treatise, having taken a respite from his Ethics approximately half done, and he will have died seven years later.) Kerckring  in a remarkable sense of historical conflation looks on real retreating infinities with Spinoza’s own microscope, and exacts much of the same ultimate skepticism toward human scientific knowledge, as per these infinities, as Spinoza  does in his letter to Meyer. This does not mean that we cannot know things through observation, or that imaginary products are not of use to us, but only that there is ultimately for Spinoza and Kerckring  a higher, rational power of interpretation, the comprehensiveness of what abounds. Neither measurement or calculation is disqualified, in fact Spinoza in his letters and experiments and instrument making showed himself to be quite attentive to each. It is rather that the very nature of human engagement requires both attention to the bodily interaction with devices and the measured thing, and also a sensitivity to anagogic, rational clarity, something found in the very unbroken nature of Substance’s Infinity. What Kerckring’s description does is perform the very consequence of conception in scientific observation itself, almost in Spinoza’s stead (expressing very simililar  sentiments as Spinoza does in Letter 32 to Oldenburg on lymph and blood, and the figure of the worm in blood,

Let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood¹, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, &c., and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion. This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole. He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another.

There is great conceptual proximity in these two descriptions, suggesting I imagine that Spinoza used his microscopes as well, for observation, not to mention that Kerckring and Spinoza come from a kind of school of thought on scientific observation of human anatomy, perhaps inspired by or orchestrated by Van den Enden, as argued by Klever. Just the same, at the very least, Kerckring  presents greater context of just what kinds of retreating infinities Spinoza  had in mind in his letter 12 diagram, not simply a differential of motions, but also a differential of microscopic magnitudes, each of which were an expression of an ultimate destruction/preservation analysis, something that falls to the very nature of what is body is. Spinoza not only ground lenses, but also made both telescopes and microscopes, gazing through each at the world, this at a time when the microcosmic and macrocosmic, nested infinities were just presenting themselves to human beings. And as such his critique of scientific observation and mathematical calculation preserves a valuable potentiality for our (postish) modern distancings and embrace of the sciences.

The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center

An Organic Demoness Ontology

Naught Thought  raises the image of Dark Vitalism and first associates it with the Demoness Zuggtmoy of fantasy lore, suggesting that if we allow an ontology of powers that bubble up from below, from the very matter of matter, we are faced with a world primordially chaotic of its intents. Any intelligence is swarming, polyvalent but still planal, or vectored, like so much threatening mold and fungi that at most grow up from and adhere to an omni-present death process:

Park of of the work of a dark vitalism  is the sickening realization of such an image [Zuggtmoy, Queen of Fungus]. Steven Johnson’s Emergence begins with Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s work on slime molds in which he made one of the amoeba like creatures find a path through a maze towards a food. The mindless functioning of life, of life moving towards goals without any form of intelligence – creatures that function in a completely bottom up fashion (the rest).

And Eliminative Culinarism  also turns to what he calls a thantropic regression (drive) when separating out the consequences of the philosophy of Brassier, a separation that ultimately finds its dark vitalism home in Freud’s Death Drive and its umwege:

If Brassier unbinds and cosmically reinscribes Freud’s theory of thanatropic regression in order to extend the eliminativist vector all the way to the cosmic exteriority, then he must also unbind the theory of umwege beyond the organic life or bios. Because as Freud has explicitly argued and as Brassier has implicitly indicated, the thanatropic regression or the vectorial move toward the precursor exteriority is inextricable from the increasing convolution of the umwege. Here the convolution of umwegeor the increasing twist in the roundabout regression to the precursor exteriority must not be confused with the complexification of life as an opportunity for posthumanist scenarios, because it suggests the differential decomposition of all interiorities via nested deployment or intrusion of cosmic exteriority. After all, the emergence or determination of an index of interiority from a precursor exteriority does not mean the complete envelopment of that exteriority and its reintegration according to the laws of the interiorized horizon. There is always a part of enveloped exteriority that refuses to be assimilated within the index of interiority, thus extending the intrusion of the precursor exteriority into the emerged nested horizons of interiority (the rest June 11, 2009).

The Death Drive and Zuggtmoy

I want to take up this promotion of the Death Drive, and the image of the fungus Queen Zuggtmoy, so as to explore the fuller consequences of so called Dark Vitalism. Mostly I want to bring out how the figure – and we can think through  a figure – of Zuggtmoy enables us to see an edge to the Death Drive that previously had been obscured, as if the side of the well-used coin.

The approach towards zero (and by zero we must be careful, since there are heterogenies in this analogy, absolute zero…cold, quantity zero…nothing, and zero which lies between negative and positive numbers…placeholder) that under a Freudian conception typifies all the aim of the very complexities of life itself, life’s winding pattern, a maze, a rambling circuit that is simply trying to get back to the originary state: Death, Inorganic, Abiotic Stillness. This is how Freud presents it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

It would be in contadiction to the conservative nature of the drives if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an oldstate of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or another departed and to which it is striving to return by the mazings [Umwege] along which its development leads…For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, till decisive external influences altered in such a way as to make ever more complicated mazings [immer komplizierteren Umwegen] before reaching its aim of death. These mazings [Umwege] to death, faithfully kept by the conservative drives, would thus present us today with the picture of the phenomena of life [F III 248]

Nick Land in his book Thirst For Annihilation presents something of the conclusion all here seem to be following, and we can readily see the fungal layer (crust), as it merely bubbles up in a roundabout way of only returning, an opposite form of simply the Christian soul returning to the arms of its Absolute and loving God. We can glimpse a kind of constitutive power of Zuggtmoy here, yet here she is merely passive, a result:

Life is ejected from the energy-blank and smeared as a crust upon chaotic zero, a mould upon death. This crust is also a maze – a complex exit back to the energy base-line – and the complexity of the maze is life trying to escape from out of itself, being nothing but escape from itself, from which it tries to escape: maze-wanderer. That is to say, life is itself the maze of its route to death; a tangle of mazings [Umwege] which trace a unilateral deviation from blank.

Death and Hegelian Reversals: Nature is Immediate, But…

Now it must be stated that an ontology of Death Drive, at least from a Freudian foundation, is one that already assumes a non-vital basis for Substance (or totality), for if Substance itself is living, a return to it would not be a death. This is a difficult thing, for in an Ontology of someone like Spinoza, indeed Substance presents a kind of zero in a near Plotinian sense, but life itself and its weavings are constituted by its very force, and one is never separated out from it (being its expression). A strict dichotomy between Life (Pleasure/Joy), and Death (nil, an inorganic realm), while not conceivable for Spinoza, for Freud seems determined by the very centricity of vision, an absolute focus upon the biological organism itself as a complete boundary (from which life is attempting escape, or at least unweave itself). I have argued elsewhere (in Conjoined Semiosis and The Problem with Spinoza’s Panpsychism) why organisms cannot form an absolute limit, the kind of which would then be dichotomized toward death. It is because Freud is organism centered in really a Hegelian sense, that he is forced to account for an apparent returning difference that is driven by the very acts of consciousness/life itself. Freud performs, in inverse, the very postulation of an illusion of a nil which is posited by Consciousness itself:

True, Nature is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is the immediate – but even so, as the other of Spirit, its existence is a relativity: and so, as the negative, is only posited, derivative [nur ein Gesetztes]…Spirit, because it is the goal of Nature, is prior to it, Nature has proceeded from Spirit [aus ihn hervorgegangen]. Spirit, therefore, itself proceeding, in the first instance, from the immediate, but then abstractly apprehending itself, wills to achieve its own liberation by fashioning [herausbildend] Nature out of itself; this action of Spirit is philosophy. (Philosophy of Nature 444)

Nature is both immediate, but then necessarily post to Spirit, come out of Spirit’s very apprehension. We can see if we undo this original preoccupation with (and centrality of) consciousness as a form of negation, we can see that Freud’s own dialectic unspools. The umwege  that Freud says are the “ever more complicated mazings” that are the complexifications of life, no longer are made against a background of death and zero, but come out of it, just as we have prime images of fungi and moulds that seemed by traditional lights to grow right out of putrescence and decay. In an ontological domain quite far from Hegelian negativity, matter itself thinks. There is nothing to return to, (but not “nothing” to return to), and the weavings of umwege organization are expressive powers of tendril-like freedoms.

[A fantasy illustration of the Fungal Queen from the gameplay world]

The One and the Many: Parmenides and Molds

It is here that I want to return to the powers of Zuggtmoy, in particular as they are manifested by the class of organisms slime mold. Naught Thought already directed us this way, pointing to Toshiyuki Nakagaki famed experiments with slime molds that seemed to demonstrate intelligence (referenced in Steven Johnson’s 2001 book Emergence). This is an intelligence I would like to think hard about because it defies some of our most common assumptions of the kind of forms intelligence must take.

Slime molds are a curious limnal organism, that not only lives between realms that seem conceptual opposed, Life and Decay, but also taxonomically between our easy and dominate ideas of independent Individual vs. controling Group, not to mention what is plant and what is animal (once thought a fungus, now Protista).

First let us engage the fascinating and seemingly conceptually contradictory lifecycle of slime molds, for they are neither individuals, nor colony, but participate in modes and versions of both. I propose that these examples serve as figures of philosophical analogy in particular for those brands of philosophy which like to juxtapose conceptual oppositions to be projected upon forms of life and the world. We are not going to be so forward as to assert that all things have the form of slime molds – though it does form an interesting counterbalance to explicit and implicitassumptions that “it” is like the human (or phenonemological consciousness, etc). What we are to hope is that the example of slime molds might help us overcome some of our more unconscious prejudices, especially when we engae in ontological imaginations.

As eluded to, Slime molds are remarkable creatures as they spend part of their lives in seemingly independent Individual states, and part of the time in collectives (some of which threaten our idea of what constitutes an Individual).

As you can see from the above, a lifecycle of a Plasmodial slime mold, in the haploid (single copy of a chromosome) form at the left the slime mold is either a spore or an individual cell; but, after syngamy, it begins to divide, not itself, but only its nucleus. It does this again and again until it has become one huge cell with thousands of nuclei, giving pause to the Platonic/Paramedian problem of the One and the Many, here the One being a coagulate of the nucleic many. In the Plasmodial stage the huge single cell creeps along in search for food until it eventually forms a sporangium, fructifying stalk, very much like a mushroom, which eventually will put forth the multitude of haploid spores.

To make this clearer, here below is the Plasmodial stage wherein all the individual amoeba-like cells have shed their cell walls, and the single form crawls across a supposedly “dead” territory. One can practically see the Fruedian encrustation of life, the umwege wending its way back toward Death. 

And here below is the spore producing stalk structure that culminates out of the great aggregate form:

And there is a second kind of slime mold (and a third not to be discussed) which begins in an amoeboid form, a single cell that instead of following a path of nuclei division and expansion, expends its life in solitary fashion until food becomes scarce, and emitting a aggregating chemical signal to be read by other isolated slime mold cells. Once a density threshold is crossed the mold cells cluster together to form one great colony which acts as a singular organism again confusing some of our more easy categories of self and group. 

Here is a concise description of the two different kind of slime mold processes of aggregation and reproduction:

All slime molds start life as a single, microscopic cell, and eventually end up as that puddle of goo. A plasmodial slime mold, like the one that researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki coaxed through a maze (see article), constantly grows and divides. But instead of breaking itself into two new cells, it divides only its nucleus, becoming one larger cell with two nuclei. This process repeats until the plasmodium is a giant cell, like a sac of jelly, filled with thousands of nuclei. Ever so slowly, the plasmodium creeps across the forest floor, eating the tiny bacteria and yeast it finds there.

A different group, called the cellular slime molds, stay microscopic for most of their lives. They, too, live and feed in damp soil. When food gets scarce, though, these slime molds have an amazing trick for survival. Each individual sends out a chemical signal, allowing the slime mold cells to find each other. Then they aggregate, or stick together, until they have formed a giant roaming blob. This blob looks and acts like one creature, even though it is really thousands of individuals oozing along together.

Despite these differences, both kinds of slime molds complete their lives with an amazing final transformation. Either slime mold (plasmodial or cellular) keeps crawling along until it reaches a drier spot. There, it stops and metamorphoses into a sporangium: a tall, thin stalk with a sac on top, similar to a mushroom. The slime mold cells turn into stalk cells, or sac cells [about 20%], or spores [about 80%]. Finally, the cells that have become spores burst out of the top of the sporangium and are blown away by the wind. Where they land, they will start their life cycle over, invisible-and individual-once again.

from “Thinking Like a Swarm”

[above: individual to aggregate lifecycle of cellular slime molds]

In thinking about the cellar slime molds and their ability to signal to each other their respective states, one has to consider their communitarian capacities, how they are able to respond to the very threshold field of signally others, such that the way that we identify the boundary level of the organism itself must include the very semiotic field of the cAMP itself. Here  is information on a computer simulation of the cAMP (intracelluar messenger) effects between individual cells under aggregation, which offers signficant thoughts on patterns of formation, just how the chemical signal in chemotaxis expresses itself:

The slime mold aggregation is controlled by chemotaxis toward higher concentrations of cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). (cAMP is a common intracellular messenger in higher organisms.) The onset of starvation causes some cells to produce and secrete cAMP. Extracellular cAMP binds to receptors on cells and initiates two processes. The first, and faster, process activates the adenylate cyclase enzyme which causes production of cAMP. This cAMP is secreted; it can then bind to the same cell, further stimulating cAMP production, and to other cells. The second slower process leads to inhibition of adenylate cyclase. This second process stops the autocatalysis. The extracellular cAMP diffuses away and is degraded by phosphodiesterase, which is secreted by the slime mold cells. Once the level of cAMP has fallen the cells begin to regain the ability to synthesize cAMP.

And here is a Florescence microscopy film of the aggregation which distinctly allows one to see the visual rhythm:

No doubt this leaves us laymen with a sense that we are dealing with the bizzare and transmogrifying edge of animal/plant, and extra-somatic behaviors, ones that allow us to detach ourselves from common notions of when and where the body ends. Cellar slime molds in particular seem to have an intensified sense of Individual and swarm, wherein the field of organization is almost forced to include a semiotic dispersion of the signal itself, with great fineness to the pattern by which they are clustered into a new, single acting entity. If Zuggtmoy powers exist here, they seem exemplified by questions of division, dispersion, unification and semiotic binding.

The Brain without A Brain

Now I would like to turn to the more pronounced “intelligence” features that seem to have been discovered within slime molds. What seems at first blush the very least discerning of vegetable/animal matter, has shown remarkable capacities for behaviors which only “higher” animals could accomplish.

The most well-known of these were Nakagaki’s evocative tests that suggested that slime molds could solve mazes:

Toshiyuki Nakagaki of the Bio-Mimetic Control Research Centre, Nagoya, Japan, placed pieces of Physarum polycephalum in an agar gel maze comprising four possible routes. Normally, the slime spreads out its network of tube-like legs, or pseudopodia, to fill all the available space. But when two pieces of food were placed at separate exit points in the labyrinth, the organism squeezed its entire body between the two nutrients. It adopted the shortest possible route, effectively solving the puzzle.

The organism changed its shape, according to the researchers, to maximize its foraging efficiency and therefore its chances of survival. The meal of ground oat flakes led to a local increase in contraction of the organism’s tube-like structures, propelling it towards the food (from this summation).

Or here in News in Science:

The maze was created by laying a maze template down onto a plate of agar. In the first part of the experiment, pieces of slime mould Physarum polycephalum were placed throughout the 3 x 3cm maze. To grow, the slime mould throws out tube-like structures called pseudopodia, and it soon filled the entire maze.

The maze had four routes through, to get from one exit to the other. Food was placed at both exits, and after eight hours, the slime mould had shrunk back so that its ‘body’ filled only the parts of the maze that were the shortest route from one piece of food to the other.

The researchers suggest that as the parts of the plasmodium come into contact with food, they start to contract more frequently. This sends out waves to other parts of its body which tell give feedback signals as to whether to grow further or contract. Ultimately, to maximise foraging efficiency, the plasmodium contracts into one thick tube, running through the maze.

Surely the visual aspect of the maze gives us an impressional sense of “intelligence” whereas the description allows something more like a directed motility, but really, is there a difference between the two? In a certain way the slime mold has “represented” the territory space, not pictorially, but semiotically, instilled differences within itself which spell differences in the world such that a certain economy, a judicious precision, is achieved.

But slime molds seemingly are capable of more than spatial genius. They have also a primordial memory, a manner by which they can space out time in regulative and anticipatory rhythms, having learned what tends to happen. Last year Nakagaki released a paper detailing the new co-ordinated and seemingly mental capacities.

When the amoeba Physarum polycephalum [a slime mold] is subjected to a series of shocks [burst of dry air] at regular intervals, it learns the pattern and changes its behaviour in anticipation of the next one to come, according to a team of researchers in Japan. Remarkably, this memory stays in the slime mould for hours, even when the shocks themselves stop. A single renewed shock after a ‘silent’ period will leave the mould expecting another to follow in the rhythm it learned previously. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University in Sapporo and his colleagues say that their findings “hint at the cellular origins of primitive intelligence” (in Biology News)

It is reasoned that propagation pathways change with experiences, and thus retain under rhythmed cycles the form of temporally governed action. The pattern without changes the pattern/paths within, such that even the dumbest of cellular life is musically oriented towards states it seems it could never proximately sense.

The Beauty Dark of Zuggtmoy

So what has this rumination over the biological and bio-mental capacities of slime molds given us in regards to the original philosophical question, other than reminding us that there are some remarkable and probably as yet undiscovered characteristics of even what we take to be the simplest forms of living things? I offer, let us reimagine the demoness as a primordial power, one iconically represented by slime mold organism over which she is thought to rule. What would Zuggtmoy’s relationship be to “death” and the Death Drive. Slime molds we know are fundamentally oriented towards decay. Ammonia presents a near universal signal for the presence of putrification such that the entire feeding action could be said to oriented towards its presence (like Jakob von Uexküll’s tick). In this way the slime mold is determinatively and semiotically oriented towards death.

But it does not feed on death. It does not decompose. In fact it feeds on bacteria which perform the decomposition of organic matter. It feeds upon the thin layer of life which itself depends upon death. In this way its preoccupation with death is merely directed toward the very life/death shoreline. One could say that Zuggtmoy lives on the radiance of Death. And this is far from a Death Instinct. (It is easy to confuse the two.)

I want to perhaps poetically concentrate upon this very thin radiance of life that exudes from decay and ultimately death. One can see it with the very ocular and stunning effect the grotesque has upon the eye, the way that objects such as those that one might find in Joel-Peter Witkin’s gallery, shimmer with an odd kind of microbial sheen, the way the eye is forced to traverse the object as if it were covered with serpentine forms or trajectories.

I suggest that there are two things going on under the conflation of the Death Drive. There is first of all a needed explanation of the supposed Repetition Compulsion, the way in which a person (organism) inordinately repeats past trauma undermining pleasure pursuits. The apparent contradiction when placed within a Hegelian like concept of negating consciousness necessarily pressed Freud to conceive of a drive with a very different kind of aim, the aim of a return to a Death State. In typical mytho-anecdotal Freudian fashion, Freud watched a small boy toss and retrieve a spool in Fort/Da binaries only to be conflated into Being and Non-Being manipulations in philosophies of (ocular) presence. Yet, do we not see an elemental mode of the Repetition Compulsion in the most recent Nakagaki experiments on slime mold? As the slime mold slows its movements in anticipation of a cyclictic gust of dry air, are we really to say that we are finding the roots of a Being/Non-Being pre-occupation? Further, are we to deny that the slime mold has no pleasure principle circulations of its own coherence amid the anticipation? And if we were to grant a capacity to actually affect the environment in such a way that the trauma could be influenced to be repeated, would such an investment really be a Death Drive, or rather the celebration of internal coherences and environmental contrapuntal interweave. The pleasures of internal coherence, even amid outcomes of pain, are Pleasure Principle pursuits, and we might agree with Spinoza that it is our direction towards such coherences which gives us our Identification with what is beyond us, for the philosopher ultimately with Substance. There is no essential contradiction between Pleasure and Repetition, though most certainly Repetitions ever are expressionally in need for their expansions, their umwege into greater complexity and less triviality.

The second thing that is happening in notions of the Death Drive is quite apart from the Fort/Da Hegelian origins of the concept. The name itself gave associative rise to death objects or conditions which then are taken to be mesmerizing, attractive, seductive to the soul, apparently again in some sort of opposition to life and pleasure. Oddly enough these gothic preoccupations actually seem to be imbued with pleasures and perverse associations. They are kind of super-charged pleasure pursuits. And somehow these ideational objects are supposed to fit in with the Fort/Da, presence and absence drive to repeat. I don’t think that this is the case at all, and I would like to turn to the figure of Zuggtmoy to illustrate it.

It is not to Death itself that we are drawn, but rather to its sheen, its coverage by infintesmal molecules of light, perhaps we want to see Leibniz’s windowless monads here, or the first phosphorescence that feed on monad window elements loosened. It is the way in which disturbances in coherence (in proportion, form, rhythm, expectation) causes us to narrow ourselves and detect the living things, the forces, that cover that rift or disintegration. Just as Zuggtmoy’s slime molds scent themselves toward the bacteria that thrive upon decay, so too there is a primordeal force which feeds on the life that feeds on death.

But we must pause for a moment to consider what Death is. Is it really a zero-place, a return to nil as we sometimes are inclined to believe? Is it not simply (and factually) the dis-in-tegration of composed elements? The return of nutrient richness back to a matrix of further involvement. (I am reluctantly inclined to the joke Mozart was to be found in his coffin after his death, erasing all his musical works.) A living preoccupation with Death is really a preoccupation with wholesale constitutive elements, things that must be returned to the biome in order for it to function. There is a sense that the way in which material Life feeds itself with growing complexity is by attending to the very abiotic shoreline, the biocline, at which elements become first incorporated into bodies. And Zuggtmoy, the blue-skined Abysmal queen of fungi and their kind, tells us that there is ever a ribboning and forceful consumption which preoccupies itself upon this singular and pervasive riverbed, which pours itself along every vector.

The First View From a Microscope: Finding the Finite

There is an interesting if not compelling anecdote from the history of Science (and philosophy) come from the time when they were perhaps just diverging. Theodore Kerckring was a physician of the mid 17th century and participant in the running dispute of the exact nature of the things of human anatomy that the newly invented microscopes were revealing. The biggest debate was whether the human body was a system of veins or glands (no one seemed to think it could be made of both), as until one had a conception of just what one was looking at through the clouded glass, one really could not be sure what it was, counter to our intution that one need only look at something to be able to roughly tell what you were seeing. In 1670 he published his “Spicilegium Anatomicum” a work of anatomical illustration, physician diagnoses, and also microscopic observation. Among these curiosities and position takings is found the only extant first hand testiment of what could be seen in a Spinoza designed microscope. Kerckring held a once intimate relationship with Spinoza, as they both were members of Van den Enden’s Latin school when young men, though Theodore was Spinoza’s senior by six years. He even married Van den Enden’s daughter Clara Maria with whom one biographical source reports Spinoza may have fallen in love. In any case, Kerckring reports that he is in the possession of a remarkably powerful microscope, designed by the great philosopher, and after he describes the granular forms it reveals, he then passes onto a most perplexing passage where in he describes the tiny animalcules that cover the exposed organs of the cadaver he is examining:

On that account, that which is by my wondrous instrument’s clear power detected, what is seen is wondrous: the intestines plainly, the liver, and other organs of the viscera, swarm with infinitely minute animalcules, which whether by their perpetual motion they corrupt, or preserve, it would be in doubt, oh, for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation. Marvelous is nature in her arts, and more marvelous still is Nature’s Lord, how he brought forth bodies, thus up to the infinite itself reciprocally in his size having withdrawn, that no understanding may be attained, if it be, if one be, or when it would be of some finite size; thus if by diminishing you would descend, never will you discover where you would be able to stand…(tentative translation).

It is not decided what Kerckring saw, but it is possible under some estimates of the magnification of Spinoza’s microscope (based on Kerckring’s other observations and capacites of the day), that these may have been the first human observation of bacteria, more than a decade before those made by the expert microscopist Van Leeuenhoek more than a decade later. But more than this, in Kerckrings speculative observation, something akin perhaps to early travel to the moon, we have nexus of the human with the miniscule of the world, the tiniest places, come from the glass of the great ontologist, Spinoza. And better his own difficulty in assessing if the small animals that cover the dead flesh were part of it maintainance or its destruction, with comparison to a home. To repeat the valued line,

…for something is considered to flourish and shine as a home while it is lived in, all the same though, a habitation is worn away by continuous cultivation.

As we contemplate the Death Instinct and the biocline shore between biotic and abiotic, it would be good to follow Kerckring first-sight inconclusion. We ultimately cannot say which processes of Life, and those of Death (though certainly which are proximately of this one life and this one death). There is an ecosystem, an economy of parts in organization that was glimpsed from the first history of it.

May we suggest that the demoness Zuggtmoy embodies the power of an alien, largely unseen aspect of our pre-occupation with Death. Not a drive to zero, but to the very sheen and radiance upon the decomposed, the falling to the inert, where bonds are loosened.

How Dark is Dark? The Zuggtmonic Drive

Naught Thought tells us that Dark Vitalism is the force of forces, something akin to the One… 

Dark vitalism, while not my own coinage, names the force of forces (or the One) not as a pure unification but the possibility of ‘isness’ itself as well as the resulting emanations, immanences, emergences and transcendences. The ontological cascade moves from the Real, to Immanence, to Sense and finally to Transcendence. Or from existence as only possibility, to the configurations of matter and energy, to the interaction of stimulus and sense, ending with the extension of ontic being via symbols, structures, technologies et cetera.

And that this vitalism is marked by its very chemical machinic nil, something that must be ajoined to the biological preoccupations of D&G…

The recently coined dark vitalism or mechanistic vitalism (dark as in nihilistic but also as attached to the chemical darkness of Schelling’s unground and mechanistic in that it is deterministic) must be articulated in response to Deleuze and Guattari.

If Zuggtmonic forces are driven by the chemical, proto-semiotic, machinic processes that serve a layer of un-brained intelligence which underwrites all “higher” forms of life, a celluar and contrapuntal, inter-rhythmed consumptive incorporation of elements and their living nexus radiance, then is this really a Nihilism at all? Is it not simply the de-centering of the human (and its emblem, consciousness) in such a way that we come to understand “individual” and “corporation” in very different terms. Pre-occupations with Death and Decay rather are turning to the incandesence that surrounds unloosening itself, the core operation of Eros.

Is it merely a revelatory coincidence that Zuggtmoy appears from the roots of Greek for yoking together (ζυγόν; LSJ) and cutting apart (τμῆμα; LSJ)? The Zuggtmonic drive is merely the machinic intelligence of dictative weaving together of initial consumption and incorporation, the feeding of Life upon the Life that feeds on Death, yoking what has been severed in a mat of constitutive grounding, in which the abiotic is sedimentally and musically re-interwove.

And lastly with this in mind, let us consider Eric Deschamps illustration of the seductive and puppeteering demoness. Is there something to say from the point of view of consciousness, the traditions that wish to think in terms of binaries and negations? What does it mean to see as Zuggtmonic a sexualized form of organic fungal-animal, self-directed in a self-organized realm, making the white bones of Centered Consciousness dance or hang? How close are we to Hegel’s greatest nightmare, that matter itself thinks. That instead of the bifurcation of reflective Male consciousness, as Irigaray tells us,

…[feminity in Hegel is] aware of no difference between itself and the maternal, or even the masculine, except that one is mediated by the abstract immediacy of the being (as) or by the rejection of one (as) being. The female lacks the operation of affirming its singular and universal link to one as self (Speculum, 224)

There is an operative consciousness of elemental contrapuntal pervasion, of female determination. Not one marked by severance and absence (however mediated) but by weave and subsumption through affective incorporation. A truly material thought. That desire, in its own realm, dances the white bones. Nicola talks of the Tiniest Diety and we questioned whether Zuggtmoy could be she.

Nietzsche has a beautiful thought about fungus that we should attend to…

382

Gardener and garden – Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus, one morning they are there, we know not how, and they gaze upon us, morose and grey. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him!

Daybreak

We can see where the fungal growth is relagated to an unbecoming lifeform of the worst association, but there is something brilliant here which is more than Nietzsche had in mind. Our conscious conclusion, not just our morbid ones which might pre-occupy with death, but ALL of our conscious conclusions can seem to come up out of no-where in the morning. Both our joys and our fears. And yes, though we must garden our soil, I suggest that we must also make a garden of slime molds and fungi (and not just neat English or German perfections). There is a system below, in our soil. A music in it, and our conscious thoughts spring up in radial circles, and inching surface travels that are far richer than the molar appearances that stir and consolidate us. Zuggtmoy affectively communicates to the plant and animal realm that is within us. I think that there is more to be said of her, her powers in political status and in ontological distaff, but this is a beginning.

Govert Bidloo, A Spinoza Microscopist?

[Addendum, September 10th: in looking at the full text of the letter referenced below, indeed Bidlow did NOT use a Spinoza microscope, but was only referencing Kerckring’s use as well as his observations on the limitations of the microscope. I keep the post up though, to preserve the thought process of a deadend of research, for whatever that may be worth, as well as for the value of Bidloo’s citation of Spinoza at a near near the death of his friend Eric Walten: Govert Bidloo’s 1698 Refference to a Spinoza Microscope ]

Physician to the King and Another Spinoza Microscope?

[The arguments below I present prospectively, waiting for a confirmation of the source]

I stumbled upon some evidence that there is a second Spinoza microscope in the historical record, and it is my hope that this glass may bring to view more of the details for which I have been straining. Thus far, the only first hand report we have is from Spinoza’s fellow Latin student, and possible van den Enden disciple, Theodore Kerckring, who in his Spicilegium anatomicum  (1670), describes how with Spinoza’s glass he had seen a “infinitely minute animalcules” teeming upon the viscera. This description is to be questioned, firstly, because Kerckring himself warns us a few sentences before, that all observations of microscopes have to be doubted; but also because Kerckring reported elsewhere some microscopic observations which plainly come from the imposition of fantasy upon sight.

In this case the account may be more sobering and exact, though I have yet been able to actually assess the content of the claim. The report comes apparently from Govert Bidloo, and man of fairly high standing, and apparently connections to Spinozist political movements of his day. In 1694 Bidloo was appointed professor of anatomy and medicine at the university of Leiden, a post to which he was not able to well-attend due to also becoming the personal physician to stadholder William III, who would die in his arms in 1702. If indeed Govert Bidloo did use and favor a Spinoza microscope, he was a well-connected anatomist and physician, and public champion of microscopic investigation.

Collaboration with van Leeuwenhoek: Parasitic Protozoon

The fact of Bidloo’s use of a Spinoza microscope is at this point circumspect, as for the moment I have only a summary of the mention of praise for a Spinoza microscope-glass (vergrootglass), in a memoir-letter written to the famed microscopist Antony van Leeuwenhoek, subsequently published in the same year, 1698. I do not read Dutch, so I had to rely upon the summation of a website owner to understand its content.

“Passage from a letter of Govard Bidloo (Henrik van Kroonevelt Ed., 1698, page 27) a memoir to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, about the animals which are sometimes found in the liver of sheep, on the etiology of diseases (the Plague) and referring to remarks of scientists abroad on his work, and quoting the quality of the Magnifying glass made by Benedict de Spinoza.”

This is found here. The citation given, aside from the letter itself, is not traceable. Perhaps it is a television production: [52] “Cells of Spinoza”: Tetsuro Onuma, Representative of Yone Production Co.Ltd. (2002).

The phase “quoting the quality of the Magnifying glass” I assume probably means “citing the quality”. Because the context is missing for me, there is no way to affirm what I would suspect, that Bidloo is writing to van Leeuwenhoek about his observations of small parasites and their eggs, as found in the liver of sheep, and it is by virtue of the excellence of Spinoza’s glass that his observations are assured. This is somewhat also how Kerckring references his Spinoza microscope.

Historical Context For Bidloo’s Letter to Van Leeuwenhoek 

Two decades before Bidloo presented his findings to van Leeuwenhoek, in 1674 van Leeuwenhoek was startling the world as he peeled away the curtain of the microscopic, revealing to a new level of exact description and illustration, a world of minute animals and structures. Under his tiny, spherical lenses the first bacteria and protozoans were coming to life, and he began letting the world know about in through letters written to leading scientists in London. And in October ’74, he wrote to the Royal Society about his discoveries of “globules” and “corpuscles” in the bile of domesticated animals, the first Sporozoa and parasitic protozoon. It would be as an expansion upon these observations that Bidloo would conduct his own microscopic examnations. I quote here from Dobell’s excellent book in van Leeuwenhoek to give a sense of the early material and Bidloo’s connection to it, first from the letter, and then from Dobell’s commentary:

…in the bile of suckling lambs there are very little globules, and some, though very few, bright particles. which are a bit bigger; besides irregular particles, of divers figures, and also composed of globules clumped together.

The bile of yearling sheep I find to be like that of suckling lambs, only with this difference, that in this bile there are also oval corpuscles of the bigness and figure of those I remarked in ox-bile. (Letter 7 to the Royal Society, October 19th 1674).

I think there can be no doubt that the “oval corpuscles” – called eijronde deeltgensin the original – which Leeuwenhoek discovered in the gall-bladder of one of his “three old rabbits,” were the oocysts of the coccidian Eimeria stiedae; while the comparable structures which he found in the bile of sheep and oxen were, equally certainly, the eggs of trematodes [Dobbell notes: Fasciola hepatica– the worm itself -was well known to L.; for the Dutch anatomist Bidloo (1649-1713) dedicated a little memoir to him, in 1698, in which it was described and figured. If my interpretations be correct, the foregoing extract records the first observations ever made upon the Sporozoa or upon any parasitic protozoon (200)

Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his ‘Little Animals’

Eggs and the Source of Disease

It is regarding these Fasiola hepatica that Bidloo is writing to van Leeuwenhoek in 1698, apparently part of a collaboration of observations between the two microscopists. This is how Frank Egerton sums up the correspondence in his article for the Bulletin for the Ecological Society of America : 

Leeuwenhoek examined flatworms (flukes) from the livers of diseased sheep under a microscope and suspected that the sheep got the worms from drinking rainwater that collected in fields (21 February 1679, Leeuwenhoek 1939-1999, II:417-419). He pursued the subject no further until 1698, when he and Professor of Medicine Goderfridus Govard Bidloo (1649-1713) of Leiden University (van der Pas 1978) discussed liver flukes in sheep. Boththen wrote up their observations for publication, with Leeuwenhoek sending his to the Royal Society and Bidloo sending his to Leeuwenhoek, who had them published in Delft. Bidloo sent with his letter an overly precise drawing of a fluke, which shows two eyes, a heart, a circulatory system, and intestines that existed only in his imagination. Nevertheless, Bidloo did recognize the eggs and concluded correctly that the species is hermaphroditic. He also generalized from his observations that these worms seem to cause disease in sheep and that worms probably also cause disease in humans (Bidloo 1698, 1972). Leeuwenhoek went out and attempted to find fluke eggs in fields and ditches, where they might have been deposited in sheep feces (2 January 1700, 1939-1999, ?), but he had no way to identify them if he had found them. The fluke life cycle is so complex that it was not fully understood until the mid-1800s (Reinhard 1957). (53)

“A History of the Ecological Sciences, Part 19”

Indeed, the lifecycle of F. hepatica is quite complex, as it relies upon a symbiont aquatic snail, something no microscope would reveal to these men, but it is good to note that Bidloo’s microscope and analysis did properly identify the eggs of F. hepatica, something which may give clue to the magnification of his glass. It would appear that the two men were operating under at least remotely similar powers of glass, and at this point van Leeuwenhoek had achieved magnification really beyond compare for the century.  

Bidloo's illustration of the flatworm F. hepatica

The size of the eggs in question may be in order. They come in the thousands, so together are visible to the naked eye, but the eggs themselves are microscopic, measuring approximately 130-160 µm, or 130/1000th of a millimeter:

According to their optical appearance and approximate measurements, we isolated about 1,300-1,500 ‘large’ eggs from a fairly large quantity of sheep faeces. Of these, 300 were measured and their average size was found to be 154 (143-180) x84 (75-102) µm. Fasciola eggs of normal size found in the faeces of the same sheep measured 129 (107-162)x 71 (61-79) µm.

“Unusually Large Eggs of a Fasciola hepatica Strain” (1982) D. Duwel

As I have not read Bidloo’s account, I as yet cannot tell if his glass resolved such detail, but van Leeuwenhoek’s description of “oval corpuscles” must have. And we should keep our mind open to this possibilities.

If we are to speculate, having identified what Bidloo saw and concluded, and assumed that he used a Spinoza made glass, what was the nature of Spinoza’s “vergrootglas”? Literally, this word means “magnifying glass”, something distinct from the word for microscope. It is the same word used to describe the instruments sold from Spinoza’s estate at auction on November 4th, 1677. (It is even conceivable that this was one of those instruments.) A vergrootglas could be anything from a swivel-armed spectacle glass used for dissection and study, to the very powerful simple, single-lens microscopes that Swammerdam and van Leeuwenhoek used. Aside from the more famous Leiden anatomists who used a simple microscope, we are told that Bidloo’s successor to the university position, Boerhaave, used a lens as small as a grain of sand (Ruestow 95). But the story is unclear. Bidloo was a student and friend to Ruysch, a fellow student and associate of Kerckring from ’61 onwards, who used magnification quite sparingly, and would have had no need of such an intense and difficult lens.

Devils and Parasites

There is another interesting point of about Bidloo’s biography which makes his 1698 reference to Spinoza’s lens more than a point of curiosity. It is twenty-one years after Spinoza’s death, but something more than simply the persistence of the efficacy of Spinoza’ instrument forces his name into consciousness. Bidloo, the physician of William III, was apparently a political activist of a sort, a champion of republican values. And just the year before his rather vociferousfriend Eric Walden had died in prison, perhaps by suicide following a series of failed suits for his freedom, under the general accusation of being a Spinozist-atheist. Walten’s escalating pamphleted attacks against the Dutch Reformed Church, in defense of Bathasar Berkker’s “The World Bewitch’d”, were fierce and reminiscent of Spinoza’s friend Koerbagh, who also died as a political prisoner. Berkker had maddened the religious in his Cartesian-like argument that because their could be not causal interaction between Spirit and Matter, devils and angels could have no effect on this world. This denial of both the miraculous and the diabolical enraged the pious, and when Walten wrote on Berkker’s behalf, the ire came to be directed towards him, eventually with legal consequence. This connection between Bidloo and Walten I find, thinly, but indicatively here:   

In 1688 he took up the cause of William III against James II and showed himself to be a staunch defender of popular sovereignty and the elective nature of monarchy. Next, he turned to the question of the civil rights of governments over the church, and two local disputes, one concerning the privileges of the regents of Amsterdam, and other Rotterdam tax upheavals. [note, after “regents of Amsterdam”: It is unclear which pamphlets in this particular row were written by Walten and which by his friends Govert Bidloo and Romeijn de Hooghe, the famous engraver. See Knuttle, “Ericus Walten”, p. 359-383.] (44)

“Eric Walten (1663-1697): An Early Enlightenment Radical In the Dutch Republic”, by Wiep van Bunge, in Disguised and Overt Spinozism In and Around 1770

Whether Govert Bidloo used Spinoza’s microscope in his observations on the hepatica or not, I cannot say for certain now, but his reference in the published memoir, in the context of his observations on parasites of the body and a suspicion that they lead to human illness no doubt reflected to some degree the events that of the years previous, and the sourness of the death of Walten in prison. What comes to mind is Spinoza’s reflection to Oldenburg so many years before, that we are like a worm in the blood, how our perceptions are only most often local to what jostles us, itself a reflection on Kircher’s microscopic discovery of worms in the blood of plague victims. (Some thoughts here:  A Worm in Cheese ). One must remember that this was not only a time of political and religious upheaval, but also a time of plague. The clearness of Spinoza’s glass no doubt, in the minds of his admirers, expressed the clarity with which the political body must be examined. Bidloo’s study of the bile of sheep, in search of parasites with Spinoza’s glass either in hand or in mind, surely struck him as fitting.


A 1940 Review of Theodore Kerckring’s “Spicilegium Anatomicum”

Spinoza’s Microscopist

I post here a link to a 1940 Canadian Medical Association Journal review of Theodore Kerckring’s “Spicilegium Anatomicum”, a work which contains specific reference to observations made with a Spinoza made microscope. Kerckring was a fellow student of Spinoza’s at van den Enden’s Latin school, and then studied anatomy at the University of Leiden when Spinoza was nearby at Rijnsburg, and was likely part of a Cartesian circle which both J. Hudde and Spinoza held some influence over. Wim Klever argues that he was a loyal follower of van den Enden, who he takes also to be Spinoza’s major philosophical influence. Kercking would marry van den Enden’s daughter.

       

by Albert G. Nicholls
To give context, here is an annotated, modern translation of Marcello Malpighi’s De Polypo Cordis, to which Kerckring is likely responding in his counter to the assertion that “polyps of the heart” develop in life. Kerckring corrects that what has been observed are post-mortum coagulations of blood. Aside from the issue of heart polyps, it was Malpighi’s microscope-aided, revolutionary observations of the fine organization of organ tissue in terms of “cells” which overturned the long-held view that organs such as the spleen, lungs or liver were simply colagulations (parenchyma) or a “confused lumps”, and Malpighi had responded directly to criticism : “De Polypo Cordis” (1666)
 

Line of Argument

The line of reasoning I will be following in this evidence might be called questions about the philsophy of seeing, as the dificulties of applying the microscope to anatomy attest, “seeing” is not a simple matter of “looking”. In order to assess how Spinoza concieved of the powers of the microscopes he built, one must take into view what micro-vision meant for those attempting it, in particular for those of a Cartesian conception of the world. Kerckring’s text gives a portal into the ambiguities of lensed vision, and the trust of observation.

Did the Huygenses “buy” Spinoza’s lens polishing technique?

The Meteoric Rise of Huygens’s Microscope

The following is an exercise in historical imagination, only meant to elicit what is possible from what we know. Perhaps a fiction bent towards fact.

Wim Klever has brought to my attention a detail which sheds some light upon the possible lens polishing techniques Spinoza employed. Admittedly the connective tissue for a conclusion is not there, but the inference remains.

Professor Klever tells me that in his “Insignis opticus: Spinoza in de geschiedenis van de optica” he cites Freundenthal’s publication of the advertisement of the auction of the Spinoza’s estate in the Haarlemse Courant. The advertisement was printed on November 2nd, and occurred on November 4th (almost 9 months after Spinoza’s death). It seems likely that Constantijn Huygens jr., and/or his brother the famed scientist Christiaan,  bid at and purchased what remained of Spinoza’s estate. This is how Wim Klever roughly translates some of the items:

books, manuscripts, telescopes (‘verrekyckers, mind the plural!), microscopes (‘vergrootglazen’, also plural), glasses so grinded (‘glazen soo geslepen’), and various instruments for grinding (‘en verscheidene slypgereedschap’) like mills (‘molens’, also plural!) and great and small metal dishes serving for them (‘groote en kleine metale schotels daartoe dienende’) and so on” (en so voort).

It is the number of devices and equipment that is Klever’spoint. Spinoza is not a dabbler in optics. He does not grind a few spectacle glasses for the near-sighted, but rather is interested in full-blown optical instrument production. There are multiple telescopes and microscopes to be had, as well as perhaps something more important, his grinding dishes, and at least two lathes or mills not to mention other small details of his process. Certainly the bill of sale attests to a rather thorough industrial investment on Spinoza’s part, making of his optical enterprises something quite substantial, but what I am most interested in here is the timing of this auction, in the view of the events that immediately are set to follow, events which may give clue to the nature of just what it is that Constantijn Huygens purchased for his brother.

Spinoza’s death, and auction occurs right at the doorstep of a very important moment in history: the official discovery of protozoa, bacteria, and then spermatozoa by Van Leeuwenhoek in nearby Delft. And it is this discovery which will eventually catapult the single lens simple microscope into European renown. But there is, I suggest, a good chance that Spinoza had been making, using, giving to others and possibly selling this kind of microscope for a very long while (Klever translates “vergrootglazen” as “microscope” as one should, but there is another word for microscope, and this word means “glass that magnifies” perhaps more suitable for a single lens microscope.)  

 

First, I should point out that Christiaan Huygens had been a neighbor to Spinoza since 1663 when Spinoza moved to Voorburg, a sleepy village just outside ofThe Hague. He is a profound experimenter and scientist, having, among other remarkably brilliant things, invented the pendulum clock and discovered the rings of Saturn in the very same year of 1656. Spinoza had, most agree, become a conversational friendinthe summer of 1665, when the two of them discussed optical theory it seems with some regularity and detail. The Huygenses lived about a 5 minutes walk from Spinoza’s room at the house of master painter Daniel Tydeman, just down the road. Christiaan moved to Paris in 1666 to take the prestigious position of founding Secretary to Académie Royale des Sciences established by the Sun King Louis XIV to rival the Royal Society of London. There was no doubt extreme pressure to counter and surpass the great flow of knowledge that was collecting at the Royal Society under the supervision of Oldenburg. 

During the intervening years, as Huygens attempted to bolster his Academy, in letters written to his brother back in Voorburg he expressed interest in Spinoza’s lens polishing technique. As early as 1667, he writes Constantijn “the [lenses] that the Jew of Voorburg has in his microscopes [I don’t have the original word here] have an admirable polish” and a month later again, “the Jew of Voorburg finishes his little lenses by means of the instrument and this renders them very excellent”. Here we have an attestation to both the mystery of the quality of Spinoza’s polish, (it was a technique which Spinoza apparently kept to himself); and also there is the hint that the instrument used was meant for very fine work, on the smaller of lenses. (In general, the difficulty in acquiring a fine polish on lenses was a significant aspect of lens-crafting technique, as polishing away the pitting of the glass brought in the grinding often would change the spherical shape of the lens.) In 1668 Christiaan then writes to his brother a concession over a debate that he must have been having with Spinoza, that Spinoza is right that the smallest objective lenses make the very best microscopes.

These references by Christiaan establish that the Huygens brothers’ had interest in techniques which Spinoza was not free with, and that Spinoza was on the side of the debate that theoretically would favor the use of single lens microscopes; this, at the very least, confirms their acquisition of his equipment and lenses to be something of a notable event. If there was anything to Spinoza’s technical capabilities which resided in the equipment he used (small grinding dishes, the nature of his lathe, an abrasive recipe, a polishing material), this fact might be evidenced by a sudden change in the capacities of either brother in making microscope lenses.

And remarkably, such a change was to come.

Now the issue of timing. Here is a timetable of events that led up to Christiaan Huygens presenting a “new microscope” to the Académie Royale des Sciences, one that perhaps reflects something of Spinoza’s technique in crafting lenses.

9 Oct. 1676  Van Leeuwenhoek sends his letter regarding the discovery of protozoa and bacteria.

21 Feb. 1677  Spinoza dies at the The Hague.

22 Feb. 1677  Van Leeuwenhoek’s letter 18 to the Royal Society is read aloud, the “first ever written account of bacteria” (Dobell).

August 1677 Van Leeuwenhoek discovers the animalcules in semen, spermatozoa

4 Nov. 1677 Spinoza’s auction, the Huygenses seem to have acquired some of Spinoza’s equipment.
@ 4 Nov. 1677 Van Leewenhoek writes to the president of the Royal Society, William Brouncker, about his observation of the spermatozoa in semen. This sample was brought to him by Leiden medical student Johan Ham (who also might have had a single lens microscope).
Late 1677 Christiaan expresses interest in the Van Leeuwenhoek/Ham discovery (OCCH 8:77; and 62-3, 65).

March 1678  Hartsoeker explains to Christiaan how he makes lenses from beads of glass.

16 July 1678  Christiaan presents to the Académie Royale des Sciences the “new microscope” that differs from others in Holland and England only in the very small size of the lens.

Aug. 1678  Christiaan writes “my microscopes” have made a “great noise” in Paris.

One must know that single lens microscopes had already been in use in the Netherlands for some time before these dates. It had been used, but its capacity for magnification had not been regularly harnessed to make scientific discovery. Part of this was due to a difficulty in using it, for it must be pressed very closely to the eye, requiring great patience, and lighting techiques for the specimen in contrast had to be developed. And part of this dearth of scientific discovery was due to simply the lack of a conceptual framework for the microscopic world. This was a new world. Few as yet would even know where and why to point such a small and powerful viewing glass. Be that as it may, the microscope technique of forming tiny bead lenses from threads of melted glass was certainly known and talked about in a close scientific circle of experimenting savants (a short history of the spherical glass here). Among those notables were Spinoza’s correspondent Johannes Hudde who made them at least since 1663 when he showed his design to the French diplomat Monconys, and possibly used it as early as 1659 when he youthfully writes in a letter how he will uncover the secrets of generation through its powers. The scholar Vossius has one in 1663 which he also shows to Monconys, and in 1666 publishes the claim that the smaller the lens the stronger the magnification. And then to greatest attention Hooke describes his own bead microscope in the Micrographia in 1665 (some comments here), complaining though that it is too difficult to regularly use, fearing the loss of his eyesight.

 

Hooke's Fly's Eye, from the Micrographia

And of course, it is the king of all microscopists, Van Leeuwenhoek, who exclusively employed this kind of microscope, making over 500 of them almost all for his personal use (some comments here). When he began using them is of much debate. He makes a claim late in life that had had made bead microscopes as early as 1659 (so simple are they to make!), yet some scholars find him to have been directly informed by the description left by Hooke in the Micrographia. We do not hear of his use until 1774, and the nature of his microscope he keeps secret for sometime. It is Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope – upon the reading of his 18thletterto the Royal Society, the day after Spinoza’s death – that will suddenly take center stage through its discoveries (although its nature at this time remains largely unknown). The single lens microscope is the strongest microscope in the world, but only now will Christiaan Huygens be coming to realize it.

For many years it seems Johannes Hudde had to defend his tiny spherical lenses against Huygens’ intution that larger, compound scopes would do a better job. It seems quite likely that Spinoza found himself mostly on the Hudde side of the argument, even I think it likely that it was Hudde himself, or one in his circle who disseminated the technique to him, either in Amsterdam or at Leiden. To this possibility, the famed Leiden anatomist Swammerdam attributes Van Leeuwenhoek’s technique to Hudde, as he does his own’ and Borch in his diary mentions the heavy influence of Hudde upon these Cartesians. Apart from this debate, Christiaan as a user of the compound scope as late as January 1675 to Oldenburg expresses an outright pessimism towards Van Leeuwenhoek discoveries already relayed to the Royal Society. These may be founded on his own frustrations when attempting to repeat the experiments, as he simply did not have enough magnification power, or they may even be a product of Van Leeuwenhoek’s low social standing as a mere draper in Delft (while Christiaan does not strictly know what kind of microscope Van Leeuwenhoek possesses, he may have guessed. There may be a class issue that folds into the conception of the microscope. Bead lenses are simply, too simple. They are not the shiny, gearing tubes of an upper machinery):

I should greatly like to know how much credice Mr. Leeuwenhoek’s observations obtain among you. He resolves everything into little globules; but for my own part, after vainly trying to see some of the things which he sees, I much misdoubt me whether they be not illusions of his sight…(Dobell 172)

Christiaan Huygens Makes His Turn

But back to the excitment. Something has turned Christiaan Huygens’ pessimism of the simple microscope into an enthusiasm. Most certainly some of this can be attributed to the sudden notability of Van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of the protozoa and bacteria in marshy and boggy water. In November he will have discovered what male semen looks like under high magnification. At stake were arguments over just how Life itself was generated. (Did it arise spontaneously as it seemed to do in moulds, or was there some “mechanism” to it?) One can imagine the primacy of such a question. Secondly though, it is thought that Christiaan Huygens’s sudden leap towards the simple microscope was nearly entirely triggered and faciliated by the young microscopist Hartsoeker, who not long too before had discovered this technique for himself. The two were in correspondence and in March 1678 Hartsoeker reveals to him his secret. As Edward Ruestow narrates in his wonderful history The Microscope and the Dutch Republic:

The announcement of the discovery of spermatozoa in the fall of 1677 arouses the particular interest of Christiaan Huygens and, through the young Hartsoeker, drew him belatedly to the bead microscope…but having heard of a young man in Rotterdam whose microscopes could reveal the recently discovered spermazoa, Christiaangot in touch with Hartsoeker.

The essential account of their first contact, which is Hartsoeker’s, is tainted by its entanglement with his later claim that he had in fact been the first to discover spermatozoa. The surviving correspondence begins with a reply from Hartsoeker in March 1678 in which he explained how he made the bead with which he observed the “animalcules” found in semen. He presented Christiaan with a number of these sphericals, as well as some wood and brass devices to hold them in place, and by the endofthe month had himself come to The Hague to show Christiaan the spermatozoa of a dog. Hartsoekercontinued to correspond with Christiaan about the employment and improvement of these instruments, all of which Christiaan meanwhile shared with his brother Constantijn. The following year Constantijn spoke of Hartsoeker as “the inventor of our microscopes,” and years later Christiaan recalled Harksoeker having taught them to make little spheres that served as lenses (24-25)

This is all very convincing. Christiaan, after many years of resistance to the idea of tiny spherical lenses, debating with Hudde and possibily Spinoza, spurred on by the need for more powerful magnfication due to the discovery of protozoa, bacteria and then the most importantly, the elusive key to life, spermatozoa, collaborates with a savantish, largely unknown young man from Rotterdam who even claims that had discovered the technique himself when he was a young boy, and suddenly is applying his own rather vast device-making knowledge to craft the best microscopes in Europe, presenting them to the Paris academy, confirming Van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries only three and a half months after having learned how to bead lenses himself. Huygens is shopping his microscope across the continent, while Van Leeuwenhoek refuses to allow anyone to look into or even see his.

But the problems with this quick reversal narrative is subtle. For one the lens-bead techique is extremely simple. Hartsoeker himself said he discovered it while toying with a thread of glass and a candle. Swarmmerdam says that he could make 40 more or less servicable bead lenses in an hour. It also, as I have said, was rather ubiquitous. To recount: Huddehadbeen in possession of it at least since 1663, was willing to depart with it for at least Swammerdam and Monconys, andin fact had discussed its advantages with Huygens in April 1665. As M. Founeir describes Huygens’ objection to Hudde:

Hudde discussed the merits of these lense with Huygens [OCV, 308-9, 318, 330-1], who declined their use. He particularly deplored their very limited lack of depthof field. He foundit inconvenient that with such a small lens one could not see the upper and underside of an object, a hair for instance, at the same time (“Huygens’ Design…” 579).

Vossius, Huygens’s friend seems to be in possession of it then, and it is no doubt related to the “flea glasses” that Descartes speaks of in 1637, “whose use is quite common everywhere”.  Further, of course, when Hooke describes it in brief in his 1665 Micrographia, he exposes the method to the whole English reading world. This text Huygens remarkably had in his possession very soon after its publication, one of the few copies in Europe despite the Anglo-Dutch war of that year; and we have that copy, a section of which is annotated with Huygens’ hand.  Huygens had even been so kind to actually translate some of the English for Johannes Hudde.

Further in evidence that Christiaan Huygens was well-familliar with this lens, in November 1673 Hooke demonstrates to the Royal Society “microscope with only one globule of glass, fastened to an instrument with many joints” likely made in wide production by the Dutch instrument maker Musschenbroek. And even more conclusively, Christiaan’s own father Constantijn Sr. a few months later writes of a powerful “machine microscopique” used by both Swammerdam and Leiden professor of Botany Arnold Seyn (Ruestow, 24 n.96); and we know that Swammerdam later favored a single lens scope. Given their prevalence, simplicity andthe extent of Huygens’ likely intercourse with these lenses, it could not be that Christiaan Huygens and his brother were somehow deprived, waiting to be told how to bead glass by the 22 year old [Leiden student?] Hartsoeker? It may be imagined that perhaps Hudde kept his personal means of grinding tiny lenses secret from Huygens due to some competitive antagonism and Huygens’ obstinancyover the larger, compoundlens microscope design. Perhaps. But it could not be that all of educated Europe keep it a secret from one of the foremost scientific minds of the time. Something does not sit right. Was it simply Huygens’s disinterest in such a low-depth of field, simple lens, andhis proclivities for certain other types of lens formations (compound, like his telescopes) that kept him from wanting to know? Was Hartsoeker simply the expedient when Christiaan needed to catch up quickly? The way that Edward Ruestow tells it we get the sense that it merely took the interest of Huygens, the timely injection of technique, and then the application of the Huygens’ brothers marvelous technical sense. Perhaps.

But I suggest that one piece is missing from this puzzle. It may be not until the Huygenses acquired the lens-grinding equipment and lens examples from Spinoza’s estate that they possessed the technical means of polishing these small spherical bead lenses: a talent for minute polish which Spinoza had showed early on. Could it be that this was the link, the technical means which accelerated the rapid development of the Huygens microscope from concept to actuality?

The Huygens droplet design, as it ended up in late 1678

Ruestow cites the kinds of changes that the Huygens brothers made to the Hartsoeker lens technique, such as “removing the molten globule from the thread of glass withametal wire, or, with one end of the wire moistened, picking up small fragments of glass to fuse them into globules over the flame” (25). All these seem aimed trying to make the sphere smaller and smaller, increasing its magnification. In the endChristiaan would proclaim to his French audience that his microscope is not much different than those in Holland and England, other than the size of its smaller lens, supposedly something which he alone had achieved.

He also produced a casing that was built around this tiny lens, “mounting their own beads in small squares of thin, folded brass; with the bead trapped between the opposing holes pierced with a needle through the two sides of the folded brass, those sides were pinched together with hammered pieces of wire. The microscope would go through several revisions.

As Ruestow writes of its appearance in Paris:

“on July 16th he presented to the assembly the ‘new microscope’ he had brought back withhim from Holland – one that, according the the academy minutes, was ‘extraordinarily small like a grain of sand’ and magnified incredibly…before July was out, Christiaanusedthe instrument to show the members of the academy the microscopic life Leeuwenhoek had found in pepper water, soon after publishing the first public announcement of their discovery in the Journal des Sçavans, Christiaanalsoidentified it with the discovery of the spermatozoa.” 

By August his microscope had caused the “great noise” all over Paris, so much so that John Locke at Blois had heard of it. Through the next year he had “cultivated the impression” that Van Leeuwenhoek’s observations were made with a microscope like his own. French instrument makers set to copying his invention. The response was not altogether gleeful. In London Hooke was somewhat put out that so much excitment surrounded what for him was a well-known device, one that he himself had fashioned, used and written of. And Hartsoeker, having finished his third year at the University at Leiden, all the while had been left in the shadows, not something that sat well with his rather conceitful temperment. Traveling to Paris Hartsoeker sought in some way to unmask his role in the creation of this remarkable device, exposing Huygens to be something of a plagerist. As Ruestow reports, knowing wisely Christiaan steered him from that course,

but [Christiaan] quickly took his younger compatriot under tow and wrote a brief report for him, published in the influential Journal des Sçavans, that asserted Hartsoeker’s active role in making new bead microscopes (27).

We have here evidence of Christiaan’s tendency to obscure the origins of his microscope. Yet was there more to the development than simply Hartsoeker’s revelation of the thread melting techique? Was it that in the purchase of Spinoza’s lens-polishing equipment they acquired something of the techiques long appreciated by the brothers? Does this technique prove essential to Christiaan’s implementation of a rather simple bead-glass lense? Was Hartsoekersimply solicited for the one remaining aspect of the technique that Spinoza’s equipment would not provide, that of simply melting the glass into a lens? We do know that the grinding of the already quite spherical bead was common among its users. For instance Van Leeuwenhoek ground and polished almost all of his tiny bead lenses, (and modern assayers do not quite know why). Further, Johannes Huddealsopolished his bead lenses, reportedly with salt. Was there something to Spinoza’s knowledge of small lens-crafting that facilitated Huygens’ suddenly powerful microscope design? Something even that Hartsoeker was privy to? And lastly, if Spinoza’s equipment and techniques are implimented in this sudden rise of the simple microscope, what does this say about Spinoza’s own microscope making practices.

All this fantastic story is just speculation of course

It could merely be a coincidence that, with Spinoza having died just as protozoa and bacteria were being discovered; and with his equipment coming into the hands of the brilliant Huygenses almost 9 months later, they they then just happen to be aided by a young microscopist that gives the means needed to suddenly develop a microscope that will sweep across Europe in merely a few months. Christiaan Huygens and his brother were brilliant enough for that. Perhaps Spinoza’s ginding dishes and recipes simply sat in the dust, having been acquired. But it should be noted that many years before this, the physcian Theodor Kerckring, a friend of Spinoza’s and a member of the inner, Cartesian circle, son-in-law to its central member Franciscus Van den Enden, writes of his use of Spinoza’s microscope:

“I have to my disposal a very excellent (praestantissimum) microscope, which is fabricated by that noble Benedictus Spinosa, mathematician andphilosopher…What I in this way discovered with the help of this admirable instrument…[are] endless many extremely small animalcula….”

This is found in his Spicilegium anatomicum published in 1670, seven years before Van Leeuwenhoek’s acclaimed description of the protozoa and bacteria in letter 18. It is not clear at all what “animalcula” Kerckring saw (some offer that they are post-mortum microbes, or mistaken ciliated action), but there is the possibility that these were the earliest microorganisms to be described, or at the very least, Spinoza had perfected an advanced form of the single lens, bead-microscope whose powers of magnfication approached many of those of Van Leeuwenhoek, and even that of its copist Christiaan Huygens. The timing remains. In November of 1677 the Huygenses lmay have acquired Spinoza’s lens grinding equipment, and in 8 months they have a microscope of remarkable powers.

A History of Early Spherical Microscope Lenses – Spinoza’s Place in Optics

Spinoza’s Microscope

In view of organizing the possible context for Spinoza’s lense-grinding and instrument making, here is a brief timetable of spherical lens use, such that surrounds Spinoza. Spherical lens making was the use of tiny spheres of melted glass, some of them ground and polished. The smaller the sphere, the greater the magnfication, surpassing all compound microscopes at the time, making at a times very minute magnifying glass to which one pressed one’s eye [see here for Van Leeuwenhoek’s example]. This history is quite approximent.

1628 Harvey sees the heart of a flea.
1629 painter de Gheyn II dies at age 64, before Constantijn Huygens, Sr. can convince him to illustrate microscopic views for the proposed “The New World”.
1644 Odierna uses a chickpea sized globule, Toricelli as well.
1646 Kircher sees flea’s leg and hair with spheres no bigger than the smallest of pearls; (Cardinal Medici’s gift).
1646+ Bettini uses a sphere smaller than a millet seed.
1654-1663 Hudde studies under van Schooten, working on Descartes’ Geometry, with J. de Witt, at Leiden.
1656 Borel sees the nerves, feet and eyes of a mite.
1657 Schott uses “transparent atoms”
1657 Hudde writes of plans to study generation microscopically, letter to Van Velthuysen
1658 Kircher sees worms in the blood of fever victims.
1659 Van Leeuwenhoek claims (40 years later) to have produced bead glass lenses, in Delft.
1659 Spinoza begins periodic studies at the University at Leiden.
1660 Blaes influential speech at the Athenaenum of Amsterdam, addresses the microscopes use in anatomy.
1661 Spinoza said to be a maker of telescopes and microscopes, Borch’s Diary
1661-1662 Enrolled at Leiden University studying medicine Swammerdam, Steno, Kerckring, de Graf, Ruysch
1661-1663 Spinoza lives in Rijnsburg grinding lenses and making instruments, a couple of miles from the University at Leiden and the young anatomists.
1663 Spinoza moves to Voorburg, five minute walk from Huygens’ estate, a few miles from The Hague.
1663 At The Hague Vossius shows the French diplomat Monconys his simple microscope of a little hemispherical lens mounted in woodframe behind black board (Journal).
1663 Hudde in Amsterdam shows to visiting Monconys his technique of forming lenses by melting beads of glass, and polishing them with salt (Journal).
1664-5 Hooke‘s influential Micrographia, wherein he describes his beads from threads of glass method. Likely seen by Spinoza in visits to the Huygens’ estate in the summer of 1665 when he also saw Huygens’ machine for grinding lenses.
1666 Vossius, Spinoza’s associate, writes that smaller sphericals of glass best. De Nihi et aliorum…
1666 Spinoza in correspondence with Hudde over the nature of God and technical questions of optics and lens grinding (Letters 34 to 36).
1667 Spinoza speaks to Vossius about an alchemical matter.
1667 Huygens twice writes his brother, complimenting the polish that Spinoza is able to achieve by “the instrument” in small lenses for his microscopes. (Parenthetically, also writes to his brother about Spinoza‘s collaboration with Hudde on calculations on a40ft lens which would have been among the largest in Europe.)
1668 Swammerdam declares sphericals best lenses.
1668 May 11, Christiaan Huygens admits to his brother in letter that he agrees that Spinoza was right, smaller objectives in microscopes represent objects much finer fashion.
1670 Spinoza moves to The Hague.
1670 Kerckring (Spinoza’s former classmate), declares he has seen vascular bundles with Spinoza’s microscope, and organs teeming with minute, possbily symbiotic animals [post-mortum microorganisms or “still active cilliated surfaces”?, Ruestow 265]: yet declares that things viewed solely by microscope should be held suspect. Spicilegium anatomicum.
1671 Kerckring claims to have seen, and draws a tiny, tiny human inside a 3-day old fertilized human egg [seen with Spinoza’s microscope?], Anthropogeniae ichnographia.
1674 Hartsoeker makes beads of glass lenses after his father visits Van Leeuwenhoek.
1677 Johan Ham, a student a Leiden, possibly with a bead-lens, first sees spermatozoa and brings them to Van Leeuwenhoek.
1677 Hartsoeker, a student at Leiden with a bead-lens, later claims to be the first to see spermatozoa.
November 1677 The Huygenses purchase Spinoza’s lens-grinding equipment at auction.
March 1678 Huygens makes his first bead-glass lens microscope aided by Hartsoeker.

 

The importance of this time table is that it builds a net of associations with the bead-like, small spherical lens techniques which made up some of the most powerful yet simply microscopes of the day, in part through the person of Hudde around Spinoza. Hudde taught at least two persons his technique of microscope lens-making, and possibly many more. It also places Spinoza in the context of the anatomist debates of the early 1660’s, as a microscope maker and a Cartesian living in Rijnsburg. The role of Kerckring in this debate (glands vs. vessels and preexistence) under the authority of Spinoza’s microscope also is suggestive of Spinoza’s connection to this group, and the possible powers of his instruments.