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More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Let the Nuptials Commence

Malebranche and Hume as One

I have posted several comments in critique of, and at times in synthesis with, Graham Harman’s admittedly provisional theory of Causation, partly because it is so damn alluring, so to speak. It practically begs to be questioned for the very boldness of is claims to explain the weirdness of caustion. Here I examine the final pages of his essay “On Vicarious Causation” because it was thesethat defied me a bit, for it seemed that somehow I had missed just the precise kind of connection that Graham proposes, having understood generally what he was outlining.

Nicolas Malebranche

Nicolas Malebranche

David Hume

David Hume

Two Sides of a Misunderstanding
Below I post from the informative conclusion from Graham Harman’s essay, one in which he seeks to bring Hume and Malebranche into complementary contact with each other in such a way to explain the nature of the result he is after. He seems to feel that if we simply let go of Malebranche’s fear of blasphemous atheism, his occasionalism fits hand and glove with Hume’s empiricism and somehow they would work to explain each other:

Hume and Malebranche face opposite versions of the same problem. Although Hume supposedly doubts the possibility of connection, note that for him a connection has actually already occurred: he is never surprised that two billiard balls lie simultaneously in his mind, but doubts only that they have independent force capable of inflicting blows on each other. In this sense, Hume actually begins with connection inside experience and merely doubts any separation outside it. Conversely, Malebranche  begins by assuming the existence of separate substances, but doubts that they can occupy a shared space in such a way as to exchange their forces – leading him to posit God’s power as the ultimate joint space of all entities. Like Hume, we can regard the intentional agent as the vicarious cause of otherwise separate phenomena. The tree and its mountainous backdrop are indeed distinct, yet they are unified insofar as I am sincerely absorbed with both. But more than this: when the parts of the tree fuse  to yield the tree with its single fixed tree-quality, I too am the vicarious cause for the connection of these sensual objects. Even if I merely sit passively, without unduly straining eyes or mind, it is still for me that theseparts have combined. Here, a real object (I myself) serves as the vicarious cause for two or more sensual ones. In the inverted case of Malebranche, we cannot accept the pistol shot of the deity as our vicarious cause, since no explanation is given of how God as a real object could touch other real objects; fear of blasphemy is the sole protection for this incomplete doctrine. Instead, just as two sensual objects are vicariously linked by a real one, two real objects must be vicariously linked by a sensual one (220)

Graham has indeed identified an important nexus in the split between Idealism and Empiricism, and even brought forth suitable candidates for each school of thought. The problem of course is that I can’t see how he connects these two complimentary visions of the world, but rather leaves them floating there as two mirror reflections which simply do not touch.

One sees this in the paragraph before where he treats the accidents of sensuous objects in our mind. Due to the amphibious quality of accidents of sensuous objects, both belonging to the object and not,  they are the means by which one object able to somehow connect to, and fuse  with other sensuous object in our mind, crossing over whatever buffer had restrained them before:

“Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.”

This presumably is happening within the Hume side of the equation (though we will see that it might fit better within Malebranche’s representationalism); yet it should be noted, it seems that here it is not human beings or their minds that are doing the fusing, but that it is the sensuous objects themselves, dangling their red lanterns in our mental street, are doing this. Sensuous objects through the power of their allurements, produce the fusion.

This is inner action is for Graham equally complimented by an occasionalist reality of real objects whose parts are not encrusted to it from the outside, (thus creating that sensuous object), but rather whose parts are on the inside  of them, composing them:

“A real object, too, is formed of parts whose disappearance threatens its very existence. The difference is that the parts of a sensual object are encrusted onto its surface: or rather, certain aspects of those parts are fused to create it, while the remainder of those parts emanates from its surface as noise. By contrast, the parts of a real object are contained on the interior of that object, not plastered onto its outer crust.” 

And how do these real, internal parts cohere together so as to make an object? One presumes through each of them, each part holding an accident-driven fusion of their own inner, sensual objects such that they come in contact with other parts. I.e., inside each extrinsically organized object are other extrinsic parts (the occasionalism of Malebranche); and outside each sensuous object are “parts” which are the qualities and accidents which compose it in the perceptual space of an asymmetrical relation, the Intention-as-a-whole, which is a real object. These internal relations are intrinsic to an object (and at least in the first paragraph quoted, marked by a possible Humean explanation).

What is left behind is the very mechanism which actually connects these two, perfectly positioned but unassailable worlds. What is it that makes the sensuous objects which dangle their accidents in order to produce a fusion/connection with other sensuous objects (a processes exemplified by metaphorization), have traction? What makes one fusion of sensuous objects in our mind more powerful, or better than another? What causes the actions or states of a senuous object (is Graham satisfied with the bundling of qualities)? 

An Answer: The Cleaving of Malebranche and Hume

An answer to this proposed marriage between Malebranche and Hume worlds seems obvious. One has to begin from a place in which both the mental inner activity of objects (the sensuous combination of vicars), and the material, real object combinations, are part of one  expressive relation. That is, the insides and outsides are already powerfully and significantly connected, from the beginning: there is no fundamental split into realms.

In order to see how this is philosophically possible or even likely I believe we need to look at is the first half of Graham’s dichotomy, Malebrache. In particular, it is the extensive Malebranche/Arnauld debate that proves pivotal to explaining how contemporary and creative philosophers like Graham can end up with two halves of a mirror without any connection between them. (I follow here the excellent exposition of the debate written by Steven Nadler, Arnauld and the Cartesian philosophy of ideas (1989)).

Antoine Arnauld

Antoine Arnauld

As Nadler points out it was in their dispute over just how to interpret the concept of “idea” principally in relation to the philosophical innovations of Descartes, that eventually lead to modern philosophy reading “Idea” as a mediating form between the mind and the world, producing the concordant “veil of ideas” problematic that characterizes much if not all of Idealism, including it seems, its distant descendant Object-Oriented Philosophy.

To put it most briefly, Nicolas Malebranche argued that for Descartes, and properly for philosophy, ideas were indeed mediating representations, literally objects before the mind:

The word idea is equivocal. Sometimes I take it as anything that represents some object to the mind, whether clearly or confusedly. More generally I take it for anything that is the immediate object of the mind. But I take it in the most precise and restricted sense, that is, as anything that represents things to the mind in a way so clear that we can discover by simple perception whether such and such modifications belong to them. (Rech. Eclaircissement III: OC III, 44; LO, 561, as cited by Nadler, 61)

Under such a conception we can immediately see the framework for Graham Harman’s vicars, and even the possibilities of his synthesizing, fusing accidental lures. Malebranche though makes a significant distinction when thinking about ideas: they are quite distinct from “sensations”. Sensations leave us only circulating  within the bare parameters of our soul, with no way out. It is ideas are the very intelligibility, the God-given capacities of representation, through which we are able to pierce through our sensations and connect to the intelligible world. So we see from the start that, far from a simple fear of blasphemy, not only is it God that keeps objects in contact with each other in Malebranche’s occasionalism of change, it is divine intelligibility which also allows us to break through the sensual world, the very same sensual world that Graham Harman is trying to connect to the outside world. When you take away Malebranche’s God, not only do objects not connect to each other, but souls do not connect to the world.

As he characterized the debate,

What is the issue at hand? Mr. Arnauld insists that the modalities of the soul are essentially representative objects distinct from the soul, and I maintain that these modalities are nothing but sensations, which do not represent to the soul anything different from itself(Repose V; OC VI, 50; Nadler 82 ).

Antoine Arnauld, a French Roman Catholic theologian, on the other hand argued (with some inconsistency) that ideas were not representations distinct from our sensuous perceptions, not mediating forms of some intelligibility kind, but rather were actions of the mind in direct perception of the world. As Arnauld summed his understanding of Malebranche’s position, we can detect the roots of Graham Harman’s problem of connection:

At first, he [Malebranche] supposes that our mind does perceive material things. The trouble is only in explaining how: whether it is by means of ideas or without ideas, taking the word ‘idea’ to mean a representative entity distinct from perception. After much philosophizing on the nature of these representative entities, after having marched them around everywhere and having been only able to place them in God, the only fruit that he gathers from all is not an explanation of how we see material things, which alone was what was sought, but rather the conclusion that our mind is incapable of perceiving them, and that we live in a perpetual illusion in believing that we see the material things that God has created when we look at them, that is to say when we turn our eyes towards them; and meanwhile seeing, instead of them, only intelligible bodies that resemble them(VFI, 229, cited in Nadler 89 )

Contrary to this, for Arnauld the mind did not look on and stare at mental objects, intelligible bodies distinct from our sensations, but rather ideas were the very workings of a mind connected already to the world, a position which Steven Nadler calls “Direct Realism”. As Arnauld writes, he makes no distinction in kind, but onlly in relation, between a perception and an idea (a distinct that Malebranche maintains as one of kind):

I have said that I take the perception and the Idea to be the same thing. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that this thing, although single, stands in two relations: one to the soul which it modifies, the other to the thing perceived, insofar as it exists objectively in the soul. The word perception more directly indicates the first relation, the word idea, the later(VFI, 198; Nadler 109 )

There are not two different entities here [perception and idea], but one and the same modification of our soul, which involves essentially these two relations; since I cannot have a perception which is not at the same time my perceiving mind’s perception and the perception as something as perceived (VFI, 198 )

Nadler then traces how it was Thomas Reid, a Scotish contemporary of David Hume, who then (mis)characterized all of philosophy stemming from Descartes as lumpedly conditioned by Malebranchean mediating “ideas” between the mind and the world, adopting Malebranche’s veil of ideas (or “palace of idea” as Arnauld called it) interpretation of Descartes theory. Reid saw himself as the first to break from a philosophy that had been thus plagued by the problem of skepticism,

Modern philosophers…have conceived that external objects cannot be the immediate objects of our thought; that there must be some image of them in the mind itself, in which, as in a mirror, they are seen. And the name “idea”, in the philosophical sense of it, is given to those internal and immediate objects of our thoughts. The external thing is remote or mediate object; but the idea, or image of that object in the mind, is the immediate object, without which we could have no perception, no remembrance, no conception of the mediate object (The Philosophical Works of Thomas Reid, 226, cited by Nadler 8 )

“Des Cartes” system of the human understanding, which I shall beg leave to call the ideal system, and which…is not generally received, hath some original defect; that this skepticism is inlaid in it, and reared along with it (Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (Chapter 1, section 7; 1764, Glasgow & London)

Through the bottleneck of Reid’s historical interpretation the very possibility of Arnauld’s or Descartes’ “Direct Realism,” which would feature ideas to be read as actions of the mind and not mediating representations, become lost to Idealism’s Representational Cartesianism, of which Husserl remains a positive exemplar.

The Solution: One World, One Process 

My point to Graham’s Hume/Malebranche compliment of each other is that the very dichotomy that Graham finds himself split over, is of a historical creation, in particular one that imposes a separation of worlds, realms or objects, but one that may not even have traction in Descartes its reported origin. Key to a way forward, when considering the transmission of the Idealist problematic, is the kind of direct realism that Arnauld favored, one in which ideas of the mind are taken to be the actions of the mind engaged in perception. Actions of the mind are distinguishing in such a way that they face both outwardly and inwardly. They are unto the horizon of the object/body recursively defined as “ideas” (or semiotic differences), but also understood to be directly caused through interaction with the world.

Arnauld’s reading of ideas though is still tainted to some degree with the essential notion of idea as representation, a picture or image of reality, a functional difficulty which would remain a problem of the Idealism what would inherit Reid’s characterization. And Arnaud is not really consistent on this matter. While he got it right that for Descartes ideas should be best seen as actions of the mind already directly engaged with the world, what was needed was a metaphysical vision in which the kinds of connections that bind objects together in the real world “out there” were the very same kinds of connections that were going on when mental actions were taking place, binding us to the world, connecting that is “out there” to what is “in here”.

And this is exactly the connection between inside and outside that Graham is seeking to establish, although perhaps the best that can be done within the Idealist framework is simply place Hume and Malebranche on two sides of the same miror, such that they cannot touch. But it seems more that Graham has not only adopted Malebrache’s occasionalism of objects, but also places himself well within the heritage of Malebranche’s “palace of ideas” theory of cognition, robbing each of them of their explanatory lynchpin, the very thing each was designed to fortify…God. One is left with objects that do not touch or change with any explanation, and mental objects which serve as representations, but whose means of connection to the world remains opaque.

It turns out though there wasa philosopher who proposed that Ideas were just that, not representations of the world, but actions of the Mind (in my view, making them semiotic). And because his metaphysics was a metaphysics of panpsychism, our internal events were necessarily already external events, all things had an inner life of mental action (precisely what Graham is seeking to connect in his theory of vicarious causation). This philosopher of ideas as mental actions (what he characterized as affirmations of aspects of the body which manifested a degree of power, reality or perfection), was perhaps the foremost Dutch commentator on Descartes in the generation that followed the birth of that philosophy, at the cusp of a breaking wave into modernity….the marano, ex-communicated Jew and maker of telescopes Baruch Spinoza.

Each perception is already a belief, it does not come into the human mind neutral, but is an action of the mind, and thus the organism, the object. Each perception, or even imaginary conjuration, is a material change in the ontological sinews which connect that object/body to all others, and expresses both the internal relations of that body, and its causal links to the world. One does not have to pierce  through the veil of ideas or even of sensuous vicars, to get to the world, because one is already part of the world, and each mental action is a change in one’s position in it. There is no veil. There is only strength of action.

Conclusion: We Follow the Body, not the Object

Now to be fair, whereas Malebranche  wanted to separate out ideas from sensations because sensations were the animal half of us, and his intelligibility of ideas was meant to carry us beyond the inner limits of our animal bodies. This is the opposite of where Graham wants to go. His vicars, his representations drip with the sensuous. Their very animal richness is that he suspects provides the link between their internal object nature and real causation (though the mechanism of this link remains as yet unexplained). In a sense it is the presence of the sensation, the way that it supersedes the ideal “essence” of the object that it helps construct, that joins the real body to other bodies. It is this priority in Graham’s philosophy, the way that sensation may clue toward the connection itself, that I believe will break through the mirrored universes of objects he has set up. It is my hope that the great tension between his cornerstone discovery of dual objects (Heidegger/Husserl), and the firm desire to give rightful place to all things which are not objects per se, (qualities/accidents), and create a non-human-centric metaphysics giving rights to even the smallest of things, will produce a rift which will force an abandonment of the concepts of mental action as essentially an act of Representation, and isolation/severance/retreat as a fundamental pre-condition of all ontology. The key, I believe, is recognizing the nature of the connections that already exist, a cognizance which empowers, and not looking to pierce through barriers which produce the illusion of dis-connection. Every wall necessarily is a link.


Spinoza: Not As Abused As Is Said

Two Kinds of Disparagment Found In the Huygens Letters

I am looking at the references to Spinoza made by Christiaan Huygens, coming to them with the expectation that they would reveal a general disparagement of the man, either in terms of his optical knowledge, or in terms of his person, for these letters have been characterized as proof of a certain diminishment Spinoza had suffered in the minds of those who came to know him.

I quote below two sources that typify this kind of conclusion.

It is however the letters which Christiaan Huygens wrote to his brother Constantijn between 9 September and 11 May 1668, which provide us with the clearest evidence that by then, those engaged on actual research into dioptrics had begun to take a somewhat patronizing attitude to Spinoza’s theorizing on the subject. They make it perfectly clear that although Huygens valued “our Israelite’s” practical skill in producing first-rate lenses, he thought it very unlikely that he was capable of adding anything of value to the understanding of optical phenomena (97)

Spinoza’s Algebraic Calculation of the Rainbow & Calculation of Chances, by Michael John Petry  

Over time, he earned praise from some notable experts for his expertise in lens and instrument construction. Huygens, writing to his brother from Paris in 1667 (when Spinoza was living in Voorburg) noted that “the [lenses] that the Jew of Voorburghas in his microscopes have an admirable polish.” A month later, still using the somewhat contemptuous epithetet – occasionally replaced in his letters by “our Israelite” – he wrote that “the Jew of Voorburg finishes [achevoit] his little lenses by means of the instrument and this renders them very excellent (183) 

Spinoza: A Life, by Steven Nadler

The Optical Israelite

While Petry finds in these letters clear evidence for an accumulation of doubt as to Spinoza’s capacities as an optical thinker, the relegation of him to simply that of an excellent craftsman, Nadler acknowledging that although Spinoza’s instrument achievements were much respected, strongly suggests that he was seen merely as a “Jew”, or perjoratively as “our Israelite”. The picture that is left by these writers and others is that somehow Spinoza was seen in a poor intellectual and ethnic light by the Huygnses.

In looking at these letters, this simply does not seem to be the case. Firstly, Nadler’s implied characterization that in these letters Spinoza is ONLY the Jew or Israelite does not hold. He is also “Le Sieur Spinoza” , “Sir Spinoza” (September 9, 1667, May 11 1668), and just “Spinoza” several times. He is also addressed in combination of “Spinoza et Monsieur Hudde” (Semptember 23, 1667); whether this is a sign of his diminishment in contrast to Mr. Hudde, or one of familiarity is hard to weigh. In fact it is hard to measure the full texture of the Jewish nomenclatures, some of which Nadler finds distinctly “contemptuous”. There very well may be social contempt in these, but the title “the Jew of Voorborg” may be a title Spinoza had somehow informally gained in circles, and not simply one of Christiaan’s invention, and though “our Israelite” may strike our eyes in a jarring fashion, it is difficult to parse out the affection from the diminishment, if indeed there is such. (To understand what Huygens means by “our Israelite” one for instance may have to anachronistically ask, Is Spinoza diminishing others when he refers to the “Brazilian” in his waking dream, as an “Ethiopian” [Ep. 17].)  Because of these telescopic difficulties across centuries, at the very least I want to present the picture of the Huygenes social relationship to Spinoza as more complex and varied than what I assumed by reading the tale of these references without looking at them. And I wish to open the possibility that there was more social respect there, against the tremendous currents of the prejudice of the times, than otherwise would be assumed possible in a less nuanced reading, a respect that Spinoza had personally earned across social barriers.

Petry’s point I am unclear on, for in the letters Spinoza’s optical (vs. craft) acumen does not seem to be in question. There seems to me to be clear evidence rather that Spinoza rather had collaborated with the well-respected mathematician Johannes Hudde on calculations for a 40 ft. lens (Sept 23, 1667), and that these calculations had perhaps influenced Huygens’ own calculations for even longer lenses. Perhaps Petry has in mind Huygens’ thoughts in his May 11, 1668 letter, where Huygens discusses his new eyepiece with Constantijn. Spinoza certainly had no knowledge of the optics of this eyepiece, or its principles, but if I am reading Huygens correctly, this is his proposed solution to spherical aberration using only spherical lenses (against a hyperbolic solution). Not only would Spinoza have no knowledge of these principles, neither would any other man in Europe, Johannes Hudde included. I am unsure if we could say that this was a “patronizing attitude”. I am certainly open to evidence to the contrary.

Others have suggested Christiaan’s warnings to Constantijn should keep quiet about his invented lenses, and not reveal them to Spinoza, proves that he regarded Spinoza to be a “competitor” in lens-making. I find this an odd, or perhaps incomplete conclusion. Christiaan’s invention simply was not ready to be made public, and he knew Spinoza to be at times in close contact with Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society of London. Spinoza had kept Oldenburg abreast of the details of Huygens’s progress. There is a sense though in which Spinoza may have been a competitor to Christiaan. The Huygens brothers may have had an intimate relationship to lens-grinding, and there are signs that Constantijn grew cold to Christiaan’s instructions when Christiaan had gone to Paris. The lenses ground during the time of their separation are thought by Anne van Helden to have been entirely farmed out to craftsmen. If though Constantijn continued his conversations about optics and lenses with his neighbor Spinoza, having lost his brother partner to fame in Paris, indeed Spinoza may have represented, however slightly, an emotional threat to Christiaan. It seems, by several accounts, that Spinoza was an engaging man to talk with. Any disparagement we may find in these letters from Christiaan, insofar as we find it, I think should be understood within this context as well, that the brothers were extremely close on the subject and practice of lens-grinding.

Spinoza and Tuberculosis: His Disease and Devotion

[Tuberculosis can be a difficult disease to diagnosis. The following is working under the assumption that the diagnosis of “phthisis” for Spinoza’s long-running pulmonary problems is best understood as the disease tuberculosis.]

The Influence of Disease

It is interesting that of all the influential facts we seem to have about Spinoza’s life, his tuberculosis may be neglected only as much as his lens-grinding has been. Very little of how debilitating this disease can be, nor its chronic nature seems to be considered when framing a picture of Spinoza’s motivations for life decisions. At most his tuberculosis, called in biographies “phthisis” (its name derived from Greek) gives us a remote picture of a man made weak and coughing at times. Then there is the oft repeated, unsupported, yet romantically satisfying thought that he died not only of his TB, but also from inhalations of glass dust from his lens-grinding. The facts of the disease seldom seem to enter into the explanations for Spinoza’s decisions and life turns.

Spinoza’s early biographer Colerus tells us that Spinoza had been suffering from tuberculosis for more than 20 years when Spinoza died at the age of 44, in February of 1677:

Spinosa was a Man of a very weak Constitution, unhealthy and lean, and had been troubled with a Pthysick above twenty years, which oblig’d him to keep a strict course of Dyet, and to be extreamly sober in his Meat and Drink. Nevertheless, his Landlord, and the people of the House did not believe that he was so near his end, even a little while before he died, and they had not the least thought of it.

If we track backwards, this would place the first bout with tuberculosis very close to the date of his father’s death (March 28, 1654), and his taking over of the family firm (September 1654). Spinoza’s step mother, Esther, died only five months before his father did (October 14, 1653), after a year of serious illness, itself a year after Spinoza’s own sister Miriam had died. Tuberculosis is a highly contagious disease when symptomatic, (if living 24-hours-a-day exposed for two months it is estimated that you have a 50% chance of being infected).

To more fully picture the condition, the symptoms of active tuberculosis include:

– A cough which may last three or more weeks and may produce discolored or bloody sputum
– Unintended weight loss
– Fatigue
– Slight fever
– Night sweats
– Chills
– Loss of appetite
– Pain with breathing or coughing (pleurisy)

That Spinoza may have contracted tuberculosis from his father (or other family members), and may himself have become symptomatic in the year 1656 or so is not something that many people have considered. (To his credit, Nadler does momentarily bring up the idea that Spinoza may have suffered from the same thing that killed his step-mother (Spinoza: A Life, 155); why he notes the step-mother and not his father I do not know. These are years that we have very little historical record of, and a struggle with the illness may very well be a reason for this (the highest risk for developing of the disease is in the first two years after infection). When Spinoza applied for orphan status in March of ’56 (two years after his father died), and when the cherem is read against him in July of the same year, removing him from the community, having failed to pay the family firm’s imposta tax, he may indeed already have been tubercular, and perhaps even seriously so. This would make his excommunication something of a quarantine, not only of ideas, but also in a vividness of metaphor, of body and illness. A cutting off of an already diseased limb. We really need not go that far, though it should be considered. We have had such a variety of motivations projected onto Spinoza and his situation at this time, from Jonathan Israel’s thought that Spinoza was during this period attempting to be excommunicated by being outrageous simply to climb out from the burden of onerous debts, to Wim Klever’s notion that Spinoza at this point was so invested in his political and spiritual education with Van den Enden, long broken from the community, the excommunication was but a trifle. Either of these may be so, but if Spinoza had by now become symptomatic, his illness certainly would have played into his inability to run the firm to profit, or more significantly, his desire to no longer conduct that kind of vigorous business or to remain in the community 0f his youth. No matter the thesis for his excommunication and his change of attitude towards the values in life, the facts of an onset of a lethal diseased that might have killed many of his family members certainly would play an informing role.

Chekhov’s Example

Tuberculosis does not always head in a straight line, by my understanding. It can be recurrent. Chekov, for instance, who like Spinoza also suffered from the disease over a twenty-year period. A first onset expressed itself in an initial bout of fevers in December of 1883, and then three days of coughing up blood a year later in December of 1884. It was not until six years after these, from the strain of trans-Siberian travel, that again the disease seemed to surface, much more forcefully. Chekhov, like Spinoza, died in his 44th year, at the peak of his intellectual and creative powers. [Citing “Chekhov’s Chronic Tuberculosis” (1963), by Brian R. Clarke]. This is how one medical information website describes the nature of the disease’s chronic mechanism:

In addition, TB can spread to other parts of the body. The body’s immune (defense) system, however, can fight off the infection and stop the bacteria from spreading. The immune system does so ultimately by forming scar tissue around the TB bacteria and isolating it from the rest of the body. Tuberculosis that occurs after initial exposure to the bacteria is often referred to as primary TB. If the body is able to form scar tissue (fibrosis) around the TB bacteria, then the infection is contained in an inactive state. Such an individual typically has no symptoms and cannot spread TB to other people. The scar tissue and lymph nodes may eventually harden, like stone, due to the process of calcification of the scars (deposition of calcium from the bloodstream in the scar tissue). These scars often appear on x-rays and imaging studies like round marbles and are referred to as a granuloma. If these scars do not show any evidence of calcium on x-ray, they can be difficult to distinguish from cancer.

Sometimes, however, the body’s immune system becomes weakened, and the TB bacteria break through the scar tissue and can cause active disease, referred to as reactivation tuberculosis or secondary TB. For example, the immune system can be weakened by old age, the development of another infection or a cancer, or certain medications such as cortisone, anticancer drugs, or certain medications used to treat arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. The breakthrough of bacteria can result in a recurrence of the pneumonia and a spread of TB to other locations in the body. The kidneys, bone, and lining of the brain and spinal cord (meninges) are the most common sites affected by the spread of TB beyond the lungs.

“experience had taught me”

At the very least, if Spinoza was showing symptoms of the disease as early as 1656, as Colerus’ very rough estimate would place them, Spinoza’s life decisions to not pursue wealth, but rather a life of philosophy, must be cast in a slightly different psychological light. Spinoza writes of his change of mind in The Emendation of the Intellect:

After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness.

I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail (Elwes translation).

This is thought to have been Spinoza’s earliest philosophical text, before the Short Treatise, Shirley placing its composition between the years 1657 and 1660. What, we may ask, was this “experience” that has taught Spinoza the futility of social life, the uncertainty of “fame and riches”. Are these generic experiences that all of us would have, or perhaps the particularities of watching his father die in tubercular fashion, after a life of substantial monetary and honorific gain? Or, more jarringly, was it the onset of the same disease, the same coughing up of blood, that he had seen his father and his step-mother succumb to? This would certainly have a life-turning effect. Spinoza continues in the opening of the Emendation, actually referencing the analogy of fatal illness and remedy as the very mode of his decision making:

For I saw that my situation was one of great peril and I was obliged to seek a remedy with all my might, however uncertain it might be, like a sick man suffering from a fatal malady, who, foreseeing certain death unless a remedy is forthcoming, is forced to seek it, for therein lies all his hope (Shirley translation).

Is this just a proximate reference, or is Spinoza speaking literally of his own onset of illness?

We see no evidence for debilitation in April of ’55 in the record of Spinoza’s subpoena and physical confrontation with the Alvares brothers. He is struck so hard his hat comes off, something which might afford a reference to physical weakness, but none is mentioned. In fact, from the vague description it seems that only the hat seems worse for wear, leaving the impression of a firm man. And in ’58, from Fra Tomás’ 1659 report to the Spanish Inquisition, we find Spinoza to have a handsome face “de buena cara” with light, clear, but perhaps pale skin, blanco. This would seem to put him in good health. The only thing I would mention is that in this report there is great contrast given between his very dark hair and eyes, and the paleness of his skin. Prado, in whose company Spinoza is in, has a “brownish” complexion on the other hand. While he may have been in good health at the time, the paleness of his skin may have been due to some convalescence. In 1659 he is described by another informant for the Inquisition as having a “well-formed body, thin, long black hair, a small moustache of the same color, a beautiful face”.

Yet as we have seen from the example of Chekhov, an attack of tuberculosis does not necessarily leave one debilitated for life. The body’s immune system can indeed isolate the infection, and return one to health, even robust health, only to be susceptible to the disease later, at times of great stress or weakness. Assuming that his disease was that of tuberculosis, one cannot conclude that Spinoza’s health was never robust, as some have thought.

The Beginnings of “Isolation” and a Conserve of Roses

A great deal of investigative imagination and analysis has gone into the question as to why Spinoza left Amsterdam for the much more quiet Rijnsburg in 1661. Gullan-Whur suspects that something had frightened Spinoza in a way that the excommunication had not, perhaps something to do with the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps an increasing pressure from Dutch authorities and Jewish reaction made it unsafe for Spinoza to continue his Amsterdam life, some feel. And there is the account of a knife attack outside the theatre, if it is to be believed. Alternately, some think that he went to Rijnsburg to be closer to the Collegiant movement. Spinoza’s very good, generous friend Jarig Jelles bought a large new house on the Herengracht in Amsterdam in 1660, but Spinoza did not move in. First he moved to near  “near ” Ouderkerk, and then to Rijnsburg near Leiden’s university. Why? It is mentioned that his move towards isolation was so that he could be away from distractions from friends, so that he could concentrate on his work, and this is no doubt true. But is it too much to notice that his withdrawal from friends and the air of the city may have been really a question of health? Was it not that tuberculosis struck him again, and it is was in full view of his mortality, and even questions of contagiousness, a theoretical need for fresh air, that brought him to concentrated isolation?

By September 1661 he writes to Oldenburg that his Short Treatise, (one may say his most overtly spiritual work) is still a work in progress. There is no hint of his illness in their correspondence. In the winter of ’62/’63 he has the company of Johannes Caesarius, who is living with him, helping him in a none-too-satisfactory fashion with the geometrical treatment of Descartes’ philosophy. Gullan-Whur reads Caesarius to be Jan Casier, a student of Van den Enden’s school, now a young, Dutch Reformed ordinand (1642-77). As a collaborative biographical note of perhaps significant correspondence during this period, Adriaan Koerbagh, Spinoza’s friend and comrade in spirit of the same age, had received his doctor of medicine from nearby Leiden University in 1659, with a dissertation on the causes of Tuberculosis, Disputio medica unauguralis de Phthisi. In 1661, the year that Spinoza moved to Rijnsburg, Koerbagh became a Doctor of Law, again at nearby Leiden, and in Koerbagh’s later political trial he admits that he had discussed philosophical matters with Spinoza numerous times in the years 1661-63. Having conducted a study of the causes of tuberculosis, one wonders if Koerbagh had ever seen Spinoza as a patient. Or if Adriaan himself had tuberculosis which weakened him (as he would died only within a few months of being sentenced to prison and hard labor in 1669). Along this thin line of argument, is it a coincidence that a conserve of roses is the only conserve mentioned in Koerbagh’s Bloemhof  (1668). The suppressed Bloemhof  was a 672 page dictionary of terms written by Adriaan and his brother, meant to demystify the use of foreign phrases and technical jargon, putting into the vernacular the verbal obfuscations by which eclesiastical, medical and legal “experts” carried out much of its authority over the common man. In June 1665 it is for a conserve of roses that Spinoza says he is waiting (Letter 28), writing to the physician Johan Bouwmeester who was an intimate of Adriaan Koerbagh. Spinoza had visited his friends in Amsterdam earlier in the year, and during his visit to the city he seems to have suffered a recurrence of his tuberculosis:

At the same time I also expected some of the conserve of roses which you promised, although now for a long time felt better. On leaving there, I opened a vein once, but the fever did not abate (although I was somewhat more active even before the bloodletting because of the change of air, I think). But I suffered two or three times with tertian fever, though by good diet I have at last rid myself of it and sent it packing. Where it went I know not, but I don’t want it back.

At this time Spinoza has just moved from Rijnsburg to Voorborg near the Hague. Likely having finished first drafts of parts I and II of a then tripart Ethica, he makes a break and begins his work on the Politico-Theological Treatise. Spinoza distinctly associates the “air” of Amsterdam with the onset of his illness. It would appear likely that this causal belief was consistent in his life, and thus part of his reason for moving out of Amsterdam in the first place. One can also ask, something I’ve not seen considered, was the renewed attack of his disease in some way linked to the much discussed break from the Ethics, and his turn to political issues of the day?

Voorburg, Not So Quiet

At this point I would like to take up some of the psychological criticism aimed at Spinoza by his biographer Gullan-Whur. In making her assessment of a certain flaw in Spinoza’s self-perception she provides us with a rather telling description of the house Spinoza moved into in Voorburg. She points out that although Spinoza, in her opinion, plays the role of the isolated sage, being crankily troubled by intrusions, he moved into one of the most bustling, connected locations in all of Voorburg:

Voorburg was a rural village, but Benedictus had not chosen to live in a peaceful part of it, for the Kerkstraat houses, huddled on a terrace and generally having only a gable loft above their ground floors, were flanked by the market place and a boat-servicing harbour beside the Vliet. Yet, whole this lodging was feverishly cacophonous compared with sleepy Katwijkerlaan, he never complained…nothing was easier that getting to any Dutch city from Voorburg. The philosopher could leave home almost at the ringing of the horse-boy’s bell to catch the trekschuit. Voorburg being on the way to everywhere (the canal system joined the River Schie at Delft, and continued south to Rotterdam and Dordrecht), he should have foreseen a continuous flow of callers (154-155)

She goes onto conclude that Spinoza himself does not own up to his own emotional needs for company, caught up in the production of his own image. I might suggest that Gullan-Whur has severely misread Spinoza’s contradictory needs for isolation and for contact. This essentially is the mindset of the chronically, if sporatically, ill. Rather than this being a profound conflict of conscience, or the inability for Spinoza to understand his own needs, Spinoza’s tuberculosis and his philosophical/scientific endeavours required both isolation and contact. Indeed I would suggest that it was likely the disease that forced Spinoza to reconsider his life, and it was this ever-present relationship to his own body and mortality that made his rationalist philosophy most concerned with the freedoms of the body. Gullan-Whur’s example of reading the man is actually instructive for all interpretations which ignore his physical histories. In fact Iwould think that all of Spinoza’s metaphysical positions on the body should benefit from being seen in the light of  a possible continual threat and experience of tuberculosis. 


It is persuasive to infer, and least as persuasive as any other reasoning I have encountered, that Spinoza’s father and step-mother indeed died of tuberculosis, and that Spinoza had contracted the illness from them. On average, people have a 50 % chance of becoming infected with tuberculosis if they are in close contact eight hours a day for six months. If Colerus’s estimate is right that Spinoza had struggled with the disease for more than twenty years, this would put his first attack right at the decisive years of the late 50s, as Spinoza was forming his new political and theological relationships with Van den Enden and Prado, leaving behind the family business. (By stating this length as more than 20 years, Colerus at the very least seems to want to place the illness before Spinoza’s milestone move from Amsterdam.) This encounter with a disease that may have killed his father and step-mother surely would have shaped the decisions Spinoza was making. And the resultant dedication to philosophy, science and selective isolation should not be considered outside of this persistent awareness of both his disease and the effects it may have had on others. All the complexities of influence that we can convincingly conjure up may very well pale to the experience of the fatal fever and cough a year after you watched your father and step-mother, and perhaps even sister, pass under similar conditions. It is agreed that this is a time of plagues, and the death of family members and close friends, certainly by 1664 was not uncommon. This does not mitigate the personal effect the disease would have had upon Spinoza in the determinative years of 1655-1658, not to mention the consequences of managing the disease over a lifetime.

Why the timing and substance of the disease has not been well considered by biographers and interpreters of Spinoza’s life, I do not quite understand, except for the recognizable need to comprehend the man in terms of much vaster, more abstract historical and intellectual factors.

Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker…the Glazier

Jan Hendriksz Glazemaker was born in 1619 or 20, married in 1651, and buried Dec 5 1682.

Assumed to be the translator of Spinoza’s works into Dutch, on the strength of the evidence from Duijkerius’ Philopater novel, Glazemaker is seen to be a thorough participant in the Van den Enden and Jan Rieuwertsz circle of Cartesian-Collegiant politicists. Nadler counts him, taking him as part of the Mennonite Amsterdam community, a likely friend of Jelles from youth. It should be noted as a very shallow but perhaps significant resource that, as per his adopted name, he worked as a glazier before becoming a professional translator. As a glazier, and part of a glazier family (after his step father Wijbrandt Reijndersz), he was familiar with techniques of glass making (if peripherally), sources for very good glass, and possibly spectacle makers.

(There is a history that connects the glass used for lens-grinding to the glass used for windows and mirrors. Rolf Willach in his “Development of Lens Grinding and Polishing…” reports that at least in the early part of the century, the glass used was window glass cut into circles, and deduces that three telescopes from the first decades of the 1600s used Venetian mirrors to grind into their plano-convex shape.)

Though a negligable lead in the quest for Spinoza’s early lens-grinding knowledge, because Hudde’s technique of microscope lenses was a glass-beading technique, and by one report Van Leeuwenhoek was inspired to learn lens-crafting from watching a fair glass-blower, it is something to mark.


A list of some of Glazemaker’s translations and their dates [Spinoza leaves Amsterdam mid 1661]

De deugdelijke vrou (1643)
Joh. Barclai, D’Argenis (1643)
Toonneel der werreltsche veranderingen (1645)
Romainsche Historien van Titus Luvius, sedert de bouwing van Romen tot aan d’ondergang van ‘t Macadonische Rijk. (1646)
Nikolous Coeffeteau, Romanische historien (1649)
D. Erasmus, Onderwijs tot de ware godgeleertheit (1651)
Homerus, De Iliaden (1654)
Descartes, Redenering om ‘t beleed, om zijn reden wel te beleiden ende waarheit in de wetenschappen te zoeken (1656)
Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia: of bedenkingen van d’eerste wijsbegeerte (1656-1657)
Descartes, Principia philosophiae: of beginselen der wijsbegeerte (1657)
Descartes, Proeven der wijsbegeerte (1659)
J. Lily, De vermaakelijke Historie, Zee- en Land-Reyze van Euphues (1668 )

Spinoza’s Idea as Information


E2p13 The correspondent of the information contituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

A brief thought, which I constantly have imagined that needs to be said, but I have yet to say it fully to myself, and not to others. Is there not something in Spinoza’s notion of Idea (Adequate or Inadequate) which is readily implied by the concept “Information”? In many of the standard views of information we can more clearly see the implication of the thought that all things come in expressions of Extension and Information (Idea). Information would simply be the relations between material expressions. There are perhaps many potential pitfalls in translating Spinoza’s Idea as “information”, the greatest of these is perhaps reducing knowledge to an input/output model (but I sense that it is exactly this model that Spinoza’s theory of knowledge resists). What is most beneficial though, is that phrases like “Inadequate Idea” become “Inadequate information”, quickly making more clear at a glance why falsity is only a privation (of power), that there is no such thing as a completely false idea, (because information, even the most mis-directed, is still doingsomething; it just isn’t doing what you think it is). Talking of Idea as information does much to dispell the thought that Idea is a “representation” as in a picturing, which for Spinoza I don’t think it really is.

I cannot help but feel that there are several avenues to this understanding.

1. Chalmers panprotopsychism lays heavy on this possibility.

2. Bateson’s definition of Information, as “the difference that makes a difference” putting information (Ideas) in a matrix of vectored questions about what difference, how and where?

3. Understanding the non-representational, “direct realism” character of Descartes’ notion of Idea (Behan, Yolton, Nadler, etc.), from this heritage we get even a deeper sense of the non-representational character of Spinoza’s correction to Descartes. “Sign” as signification and representation. Idea as an action.

4. Related to 3, seeing the Scholastic heritage of Spinoza’s thinking, the way that he synthesizes a Scotist notion of the formal distinction, for instance, and a Plotinian concept of degrees of being, understood to be degrees of power. (The two alternate proofs, concepts of contingent existence and power, from Ethics Ip11)

5. An autopoietic idea of recursive organization, from Mantura and Varela’s biology, to possibly Luhmann’s social modeling, both being friendly to an informational conception of organization. (Importantly, see Gould’s use of the term exaptation)

These are but a few of the potential theories which may dovetail into a translation of Spinoza’s Idea into the concept of Information. If you are familiar with Spinoza, do a bit of an experiment. Each time you read a proposition of his which uses the term Idea, simply re-translate it as “information”. At first it is a bit jarring, like hearing the King James Version of the Bible in another diction. It ruins it. But then, let it sit. I cannot say that it is necessarily a better word because “information” is a heavily laden word in our culture (much as perhaps “idea” was in his), filled with numerous philosophical underpinnings, but it does free up Spinoza’s thought to new understanding.