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Tag Archives: Substance

Žižek Asks “What is Spinoza?”: Tarrying With a Negative

Where Spinoza Diverts From History

Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.

This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.

The Denial of the Mediator

From Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!

1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.

I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.

2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.

I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:

“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”

Difference and Repetition

Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).

3. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.

It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.

Where is the Center of the Affects?

4. What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”

Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries  of terms Same and Different,  as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.

5. The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.

Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination

This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)

This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.

6. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).

This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).

7. What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.

Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis,  is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.

8. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.

This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.

A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation

Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.

There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.

Spinoza on the Infinite, the Unbound: Part I


Key to understanding Spinoza’s approach to the Infinite is appreciating that for him, primarily and speaking generally, The Infinite is Unbroken. And following this, modifications of the Infinite (how Spinoza defines the modes) do not break that unbroken state. For Spinoza, any treatment of Substance must follow from this understanding.

What makes this compelling, and ultimately germane to any assessment of the status of rational knowledge as it is found in logically related descriptions, and at the seeming apex of such, mathematical descriptions, is that insofar as numerical designation indicate a limitation, a bound, a break in The Infinite, this is an imaginary product and is not adequate knowledge. Perhaps, penultimately: mathematical, scientific knowledge stands at a skeptical remove from the true nature of Nature. Which is not to say that mathematical relations, and the various fields of mathematical description, do not play a significant role the human being coming into some form of absolute knowledge of God/Substance/Nature. At most, the internal coherence and powerful indications of mathematical forms act as Augustine’s finger, pointing to Substance’s moon.

One can see this in Meyer’s preface to Spinoza’s early career more geometrico treatment of Descartes’ philosophy, The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy. Meyer explicitly sets out Spinoza’s distance from Descartes’ matho-scientific treatment of Nature:

This [work] must not be regarded as expressing our Author’s own view. All such things, he holds, and many others even more sublime and subtle, can not only be conceived by use clearly and distinctly but can also be explained quite satisfactorily, provided that the human intellect can be guided to the search for truth and the knowledge of things along a path different from that which was opened up and leveled by Descartes. And so he holds that the foundations of the sciences laid by Descartes and the superstructure that he built thereon do not suffice to elucidate, and resolve all the most difficult problems that arise in metaphysics. Other foundations are required if we seek to raise our intellect to that pinnacle of knowledge.

I had to get this basic beginning out so that I can move on. Hopefully to follow soon: Spinoza’s hyper-proximity to Badiou (and Badiou’s intention misreading), Cantor’s attempt to in-concretize Spinoza’s Infinite (as transfinite), and, the Place of Mathematics within Spinoza’s theory of the Intellect and Knowledge, the weight of Letter 12  (or something of these sorts).

Spinoza, Infinite Substance, and Kabbalah Influence

Math Unto Infinities of Different Sizes and Badiou

I’ve been looking into the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s ontology and epistemology, and been having some discussion with Eric Schliesser with whom I agree: Spinoza is a skeptic in terms of a stable, mathematical knowledge of nature via mathematical thought and operation. This of course is rather counter intuitive considering the heavily rationalistic interpretation of Spinoza in the last century, and the rather strong circumstantial evidence of his more geometrico form of his Ethics, which seems to announce the primacy of mathematical knowledge.

There is also a timely subject matter to these questions, at least in these circles of blogged conversation, as Badiou’s Cantor-inspired Set Theory framing of Being runs right up against and perhaps turning upon the onto-epistemic standing of maths in Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from any critique that Spinoza might offer Badiou’s Being a la maths, there is the provocative historical fact that Cantor’s Set Theory was heavily influenced by early study of Spinoza, in particular his position on kinds of Infinity and questions of divisibility. Spinoza represents a kind of Ur-figure in the concepts Badiou make central, so getting a firm grasp of Spinoza’s differences seems contemporaneously a significant thing to have.

The Door of Heaven and Spinoza’s Early Influences

But in this post, given my personal context, I simply want to post a significant passage on the connection between some of Spinoza’s most elementary ideas, and the thesis that Spinoza was strongly influenced by concepts found in the Kabbalah and the Zohar. Long have I noticed the similarities, and have even come upon other sources outlining them, but it seems that it is a fact/thesis that often get forgotten – some of Spinoza’s most significant contributions to philosophy, not to mention his involute and sometimes sublated Neoplatonism, are best reflected in the ideas found  in this religious thinking. It is good to provide a googable link and easy reference for those who have not thought about it much.

The best Spinoza interpreters continued to link the great philosopher with the doctrines of the authentic Kabbalah, especially those of the Zohar. One of the most important among them was Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, a German Jesuit whose book Der Junge de Spinoza/ is still a classic hardly ever matched by more recent publications. Dunin-Borkowski has a full chapter called “Kabbalistische Wanderfahrten” (Kabbalist travels). A subdivision of it reads (pp. 176-90): “Der Ursprung der Mysticism-Kabbalah und die Urkeime des Spinozismus” (The origin of Mystericism-Kabbalah and the first germs of budding Spinozism). The author stresses that “a higher form of cognition of all finite things, a cognition of God and the light of eternity in the Kabbalah as well as in De Spinoza appears as the highlight of Ethics“. According to him, there was a highly developed older and intermediary type of Jewish mysticism prevailing beside the Kabbalahin the thirteenth century, and the Talmudists had already conceived the existence of mediators between God and the Universe. From these mystics, he concludes, an infinitely long and slow but almost straight evolution leads, through the ideas of the (kabbalistic) sephiroth and the neoplatonic emanations, directly to the basic concepts of the natura naturans and the first links of the natura naturata  in Spinoza’s system. Dunin-Borkowski, in contrast to Heinrich Grätz, the well-known historian of Jews in Germany, calls the sephiroth in the Sepher Jetzirah (Book of Creation) of the Zohara “highly advanced evolution of the secret philosophy of the Talmud, a groping for a link with secular science, an important transitional work pointing to the speculation of the oldest gaonitic religious philosophers. The concept of the En Sof, the Endless or Boundless one, Dunin-Borkowski continues, dominates the Zoharto the same extent as it will later be prevalent in Spinoza’s mind. And here we encounter exactly the same determinations which by so many thinkers and scholars consider a fundamental clevage between Judiasm and Spinozism. God (the En Sof) cannot be designated by any known attributes. He is best called Ayin (the undeterminable). Hence, in order to make His existence known to all, the Diety was obliged (or, what amounts to the same thing, wishes) to reveal Himself at least to a certain extent. But the En Sof, being boundless, cannot become the direct creator, for he has neither will, intention, desire, thought, language nor action, attributes which belong only to finite beings. The En Sof, therefore, made His existence known in the creation of the world by the ten sephiroth, which flowing directly from Him, partake of His perfection and infinity.

These substances or emanations are parts of one another, as sparks are part of the same flame; yet they are, at the same time, distinguished from one another, as are different colours of the same light…The pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar  have become of the highest significance for Spinoza. For there the sephirah “wisdom” forms a perfect unity with the crown and the En Sof. “They are like three heads which, actually, form only one. Everything is connected and linked together in the one whole (the universe). Between the Universe and the Ancient One (God) there is no distinction at all. All is One, and He is all – without distinction and separation.He who describes the sephiroth as separated from one another, destroys God’s unity’.

But Dunin-Borkowski has made another important discovery. The concepts of the Kabbalah were first transmitted to young Spinoza in a rather palatable contemporary version, i.e. Abraham (Alonzo) Herrera’s famous book Door of Heaven. It was written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew by Isaac Aboab. This work, which dealt with Kabbalistic philosophy, was a favorite sourcebook of Baruch’s noted Talmud teachers, Saul Levi Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. In 1678 (one year after Spinoza’s death), a Latin version appeared under the title Sha’ar Hashomayim  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”Hashomayim “>seu Porta Coelorum. In quo Dogmata Cabbalistica Philosophorum proponuntur et cum philosophiae Platonis conferuntur.

Herrera himself had already died in 1639, and young Baruch absorbed the contents of Door of Heaven just during those most decisive years of mental development when the imprint of new ideas of strongest and everlasting in every budding intellectual. He read, of course, the book in its Hebrew version, the language he mastered best up to his death (despite his somewhat clumsy Latin publications and Dutch letters).

According to Herrera, there is on original substance with an infinite extension. Outside it, there are only divine modiwhich are all encompassed in that original substance, the En Sof, even in the potentialities. Thus, there is a created (finite) and a non-created (infinite) State of God, i.e. both God in His proper sense and the Universe; but God is and remains the immanent cause of all things, and the “Universe is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God”. Therefore, we find in the “Lexicon Cabbalisticum” (a chapter of the Door of Heaven) the unequivoked statement: “the acceptance of this unity is part and parcel of the faith of every genuine Israelite; we must believe that the Infinite manifests Himself in all His modi through the unity” (my italics). There is one substance, Herrera stresses, with infinite properites. It is determining itself by a multitude of infinite beings which are, however, nothing but its modifications. God is One and Many at the same time – one in so far as He is infinite; many in so far as He determines Himself in His attributes and modi. These modi cannot exist nor be understood without the Divine One inherent and indwelling in them. Everything is one in God(my italics). Dunin-Borkowski reaches the following conclusion: “Especially the first five treatises of the book [Herrera’s Door of Heaven] explain that only blind prejudice can overlook this source of Spinoza’s.

“Spinoza and Kabbalah” by Henry Walter Brann,  in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings (2001), edited by Genevieve Lloyd

If Spinoza had read The Door of Heaven  it was likely before the age of 15, but really the Kabbalah was a prevalent conceptual touch-stone at this time due to messianic stirrings in the political realm. In any case, as I see it, Spinoza’s Kabbalistic influence seems likely, and it is noteworthy that Brann reads the Kabbalistic impulse, along with its mathematical preoccupations, as part of the attempt of mysticism to come to grips with the power of science. In a certain sense Spinoza’s system can be seen as an extremely rigorous, scientific and literal radicalization of both the religious impulse of the Kabbalah, but also its political force (an immanent unity towards a freedom through communication, an offspring of Renaissance revolutionary conceptions of civil transformation). In a more particular view towards the question of the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s system, the Kabbalistic influence of an insistently Infinite and unbroken Substance helps interpret the power of Spinoza’s seemingly anti-mathematical stance in his letter 12 to Meyer, wherein he declared mathematics imaginary in origin. Perhaps we get a glimpse of just how Spinoza conceived that it is through the Intellect that we see any quantity as infinite and undividable into finite parts, despite our ability through mathematics to divide quantities with incredible facility and clarity.  Additionally, Spinoza’s pantheism, (the issue under which the Catholic Cantor most firmly staked his objection of Spinoza), understood as a position taken upon mathematical infinity and set=making itself, may help provide the most robust correction to Badiou’s mathematical ontologies.

Spinoza’s Substance and the Objects of Objection

Reid has an interesting discussion of what he calls Anthrophobia, a term he admits rhetorically made steer in the wrong direction of his criticism. It is the fear that those that reject so called Flat-Ontologies have of losing what is “human”. The discussion follows Larval Subject in the comments section of Ontophobia (a blog I do not participate in). I want to re-post here some of my comments offer to Reid because they bring up for me one of the more valuable offerings of Spinoza’s ontology, the ability negotiate the tension and desires of Flat Ontologies, and their attempted deepening.

Reid, when you say…

I think that you and Graham, specifically Graham on this point, should draw the full dehumanizing conclusions of flat ontology, which is that humans do not have a naturally privileged status. Rather, this privilege is an artificial effect of economic stratification. Moreover, while it may be virtuous compared with poverty, I don’t think it is so in itself. So in part, the call for dehumanization is one for a new ethic of life that does not depend on abstract opposition to poverty, and rather seeks to fully embrace its ‘unclean’ and ‘contaminating’ character (culturally, not biologically), the better to transform rich and poor….

…I want a unified approach to politics and ontology that suspends the sufficiency of their prescriptive claims, in order to make equivocal use of their components.”

I have to say that you are right on it. I just wonder why Spinoza’s example (if you want to filter it through a Deleuze ontology that is okay too), doesn’t satisfy just this kind of need? The natural kinds of sedimentation possess only the “dignity” (what Spinoza calls “right”) that they can manage. In this sense the essential dignity is not pre-existing, except in the most eternal/essence sense, but processual, ever determined and restricted. (See Althusser on Spinoza perhaps, to take apart the possibilities of such an analysis.)

The embrace of the unclean or contaminated is the embrace of the fact that there is no “human” per se, nothing to be contaminated in the first place, the flesh as expression.

When Dr. M [Graham Harman] tries to say to you…

“The problem is that Badiou’s real is not much of a real (if we’re speaking of inconsistent multiplicity here. It’s inarticulate, not carved into parts. Its only role is to haunt any count with an excess or residue that escapes the count.”

1). I can’t see how this differs any more from the (OOP) “haunting” of the object that is always in retreat (talk about a haunting), which as you point out has no identifiable attachment to its expression (nothing that makes it THAT object).

2). Badiou’s Real in my view is really very much like Plotinus’s Hen (the One/Expressed), which is beyond the Being/Non-Being determination. It does seem to haunt a bit, but really this leads to point three…

3). For reasons 1 and 2, it seems that Spinoza’s expressive Substance is the way out between the Scylla and Charybdis. Because objects are merely determined, modal expressions of Substance, a Substance which does not belong to any one particular object, we avoid the Aristotelian problem, and because Substance by its very nature expresses itself in determined fashion we end up on the better side of the ontological/epistemological divide, which is to say, we can be (asymptotically) equivocal about our descriptions. Prescriptions certainly remain, but they are only performatively sufficient. They help constitute our capacities to form mutual bodies of affect and thought, which are no less material bodies; and this is a prescription/epistemic which itself becomes re-inscribed, or understood as pre-positedly ontological: expressions of our powers to act, feel and be.

It seems that following Reid if we really want to theoretically grant, and then therefore work for in analysis and reason, the full dignity of extant human beings (and other things non-human), the full variety of Substanced expression must be embraced (with their sedimented values), we require a pre/post/human ontology (what Adrian called Prehistoric) that only Spinoza provided, one in which “objects” are ever transpierced by powers, knowing that “essence” projected onto some retreating screen/void, (or “singularity” bubbled up from morass, and stretched out onto a mathematical grid), is not the pragma foundation of the dignity of others. Ultimately dignity is composed of mutualities, mutualities which are bodies to be affectively and objectively made.

Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca’s Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes’ thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)


Graham Harman’s La-deigger and Hei-tour

The Synthesis of Heidegger and Latour

Recommended is Graham Harman’s introductory November 29th, 2007 lecture on how Heidegger’s tool-oriented, human-centered conception of Being is strengthened by de-centralization of Latour‘s panoplies of actor networks (human and non-human), and Latour’s pure ontology of relations (an occasionalism), is deepened by Heidegger’s Four Fold Substance cryptology (pictured signficantly below).

Any Latourian actor (entity) in a Network is also claimed to have these four Heideggerian “dimensions”

The lecture mp3: “On Actors, Networks, and Plasma: Heidegger vs. Latour vs. Heidegger” [provided by Anthem]

PDF of the slides for the Lecture

To give a few immediate responses to the ideas presented: I was quite surprised by the points of correspondence between Harman’s Heidegger-Latour Synthesis, and my own attempt to expand Spinoza through the cybernetic potential of Campanella’s pansensism, and a dialectic with Davidson’s notion of epistemic Triangulation. Like Floris van der Burg’s treatment of Spinoza and Davidson in which Spinoza is used to deepen Davidson through a metaphysical appeal beneath description, Latour is seen here to be deepened in relationship to Heidegger’s notion of hiddenness. In both cases Substance provides a ground for real articulation.

There were some off hand homologies. Latour’s “any two things are always linked by a third thing”, something that Harman finds to be one of the most original of Latour’s thoughts, is in my opinion enlightened by Davidsons rational triangulation, which he grounds through regularities of response to regularities of stimuli, only confirmed through a third set of regularities. For this reason it is my intution that Spinoza’s imaginary triangulation of the world through the imitations of the affects (by which I mean to open up Davidson’s rationalism of translation and objectivity) fits neatly into this essential Latourian triangulation (“its the third actor that has to say its the same thing”). Further it is of interest that not only does Latour alleviate Heidegger’s human-centricism, but Spinoza would as well. In this Latour and Spinoza share. In this vien, Harman’s “tool analysis” post-human reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time, reflects quite well on the product of my proposed application of Campanella’s “cognoscere est esse” (to know is to be) to Spinoza’s bodies in epistemic composition, in an ontology of constructed freedom.

An apex of the lecture perhaps comes to the quandary Harman finds in Latours occasionalism, as he says, “If a thing is defined solely by its relations, I just don’t see any way to move from one step to the next”. The mode of becoming (which I believe he argues would just become another actor), is missing. It is not clear how Heidegger’s Four-Fold view of Being at all helps Latour answer this question though. Harman regularly returns to Leibniz, in his journey into pre-Kantian waters, but I cannot help but think that it is not Leibniz that would aid him, so much as Spinoza. It is Spinoza’s vectorial notion of Being, that is, an immanent Being of degrees that is played out on the register of knowledge which would provide dimension to the flat networks, not to mention an additional ethical texture. At times Harman approaches this principle of greater reality in his lecture, but it is not linked directly to the Spinozist principle of self-causation, freedom through the understanding (and embodiment) of cause. That is to say, Spinoza reads the change of things through a contant striving, the conatus, manifested directly as a capacity to act, which is itself a bodily affirmation. Networks in this way themselves persist through self-affirmations of their relations. What differentiates networks and the actors within them, and propells them to the next moment, from a Spinozist pov is the striving of God itself, expressed in degrees of freedom, along the fluxuations of action itself. Harman tells us that Latour knows that something called Plasma exists because networks collapse. One might ask, how is this Plasma differentiated from Spinoza’s Substance, other than to say that it has no formal Attributes (which are collapsed to the level of networks, in matter and the semiotic). It strikes me that Latour’s actor networks are simply the modal expressions of Spinoza(semiotic/material matching the mental and the physical in Davidson), without the depth of Substance. Much as how Harman sees Latour enriched by Heidegger, it strikes me that he would be even further fortified by an engagement with a cybernetic Spinoza, one in which all bodies are seen to be bodies in knowing assemblage, exercised on degrees of freedom.

This being said, Harman’s points about Latour’s networks do something rather signficant to Spinoza’s notion of bodily idenity (a shadow thought inherent in many of Spinoza’s positions). Because Spinoza defines a body as a particular communicative ratio of parts (something we might call a network of actors), and because Substance is one great consummate ratio of parts in communication, any notion of absolute identity, aside from a fleeting essence/conatus, must be denied. The networks extends out, and the bodies in communication do not cease.

I would add as well that Harman’s excellent unveiling of Heidegger’s notion of tool (unbroken and broken, like Spinoza’s adequate and inadequate idea), dovetails wonderfully into a Spinozist sense of bodies that are continually in assemblage (causes always being horizontally displayed toward the external, for nothing but Substance is the cause of itself), a cybernetic view of perception through combination with other bodies upon which we must depend (and thus mutually express in combination). Spinoza too, I feel, is tool-oriented in his metaphysical construction (as he even compares the development of thoughts to the making of tools), in which the limits of a human body’s capacity to act cannot be separated out from the tools used and engaged. In a symmetry to Harman’s metaphysical correction to a purely logical pragmatist reading of Heidegger (the use of tools does not fully reveal them, any more than theory does),  Spinoza’s often disembodied rationalist metaphysics needs to be re-embodied along tool-combination, lived-relation of bodies in combination as pragmatism, where pragmatism is understood to be an ideational expression of material power.

I am unsure though why Harman resists panpsychism, from which he distances himself at several points. But perhaps Spinoza’s panpsychism would prove more palatable to his project of deepening actor networks, or perhaps Campanella’s pansensism.

Harman’s Prince of Networks  forthcoming

Mark Fisher’s somewhat helpful, somewhat world-weary commentary on Harman’s Latour for Frieze magazine: “Clearing the Air

Spinoza’s Circle and the Interior

Some Ruminations on Spinoza’s “Simplest” Thought

A single figure keeps returning to me as I contemplate Spinoza’s optical concepts and metaphysics, in view of the prevailing Cartesian science of the age, that elementary figure that Spinoza provides to help explain how he conceives of the reality of the modes, even the modes of ideas for non-existent things, in relationship to the ultimate reality of Substance, God or Nature. As Spinoza explains, the figure stands for something that has not parallel, not example, because it is a fundamental relationship which is unique and totalizing.

Ethics part 2, prop 8 schol. — The nature of a circle is such that if any number of straight lines intersect within it, the rectangles formed by their segments will be equal to one another; thus, infinite equal rectangles are contained in a circle. Yet none of these rectangles can be said to exist, except in so far as the circle exists; nor can the idea of any of these rectangles be said to exist, except in so far as they are comprehended in the idea of the circle. Let us grant that, from this infinite number of rectangles, two only exist. The ideas of these two not only exist, in so far as they are contained in the idea of the circle, but also as they involve the existence of those rectangles; wherefore they are distinguished from the remaining ideas of the remaining rectangles. (Elwes trans)

This has always been a convenient image for the explanation how the modes dependently are an expression of the totality which is all of what there is. One practically sees how the modes, while causally interacting with each other to produce current states of being, immanently rely upon a larger comprehesivity. And if one wants to even leave off from the narrowness of Spinoza’s explicit thought, the chords D and E could be read as vectors which produce an intersecting point (unlabeled), the modal expression of two lines of force, a point of focus, this seems at least arguable when considering much of the rest of Spinoza’s view.

But two other realizations come to me as well. The first is that the rectilinearitythat Spinoza presents within the borders of the circle very well may for Spinoza have represented the linear analyses of motion provided by Descartes. Part of the challenge presented to Spinoza, as he tried to heal a perceived breech between Body and Soul, Thought and Extension, was how to bridge mathematical descriptions with affective realities. In a certain sense the rectilinearity with the circle of Substance for Spinoza represents the ideational crispness of mathematical description understood as a partial, yet sufficient expression of substance. The mathematics is to some degree subsumed. Just as Huygens and others struggled to assume the advantages of the Perspectiva  tradition in optics, yet still fully explain the properties of light’s propagation (which Huygens would show to be that of a wave or a pulse), Spinoza too sought to preserve the mechanized sureties of Descartes mathematizations, yet with a view that could account for the affective propagations living bodies (as early as Kepler’s Paralipomena light is described as an “affectus”).

Secondly though is the realization that the circle does not only represent Substance as a whole, but also any conatus expression of Body (defined by Spinoza as a preservation of a ratio of motion and rest over time). The circle above can also be read as the recursive coherence of a body, and the internal causal relationships of which it is composed, immanent to its essence. 

In other words, a body, in the ordinary as well as in the Cartesian sense, preserves its physical integrity in just the same way the whole universe preserves it: they differ only with regard to the degree of probability that each can ‘survive’ externally caused modifications. Only the unique individual of level-ω can be modified in infinite ways without giving up its identity.

The Physics of Spinoza’s Ethics, David Lachterman

What level-ω is in Lachterman’s nicely conceived reduction is the last border of an entire body. Level-2 is the most elementary kind of body for Spinoza, a hypothetical composition of what one supposes is at least two of the most simple bodies “corpora simplicissima”. The human body, and all such bodies we regularly recognize as such are what Lachterman regards as level-k bodies (2 < k < ω). Following these descriptions, the circle above from the Ethics could be read not only as the schema of the level-ω Body, but also of any typical level-k Body. It is only the degree of power, freedom and being that preserves such a circle (ratio) that distinguishes it from the ultimate whole. Spinoza world can be seen as one of circles within such circles. The modal causal interactions are immanent expressions not only the totality of Substance or Nature, but also are expressions of the ratio of motion and rest of which a said body (level-k) is composed. The existential modality of ideas and extensions which is interior to the circle (level-k) can be read as contingent to the essence of that Body taken as a whole, as it is determined to exist.

While it is fair and best to understand the diagram exactly in the way that Spinoza meant it, I think it is important to realize that in a figure such as this, representing something for which Spinoza says there is no parallel, the image is likely overdetermined by several other Spinoza concerns and conceptions. The circle and its interior floats through Spinoza’s thinking process (additionally). The diagram can be read across at least these two layers: the affective subsumption of Cartesian mathematicization of Nature in terms of propogating, interacting bodies; and, the immanence of constituent modes of bodies under gradations of Being and power. And I would end that the suggestive recursivity of this body (level-k) opens itself perhaps to Autopoietic descriptions, at least for those bodies considered to be alive, and Autopoiesis itself to Spinozist re-description.

Some Experiments in Re-translation, “idea” as “information”

In lead to some of the thoughts on Idea as “information”, here are a few interesting “distortions” of the Spinoza notion of idea. (These are very rough sketches, mostly a simple swapping out to be read for effect, and then later for analysis):


E1A6: True Information must agree with its correspondent.

E2D3: By Information I mean a reception [conceptus] of the Mind that the Mind forms because it is a thinking thing.

E2D4: By Adequate Information I understand information which, insofar as it is considered in itself, without relation to its correspondent, has all the properties, or intrinsic denomination of true information.

E2P7: The order and connection of Information is the same as the order and connection of things.

E2P8: The Information of singular things, or ways of being [modi], that do not exist must be comprehended in God’s infinite Information in the same way that the formal essences of singular things, or ways of being, are contained in God’s Atrtributes.

E2P13: The correspondent of the information constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.

E2P19: The human Mind does not know the human Body itself, nor does it know that it exists, except through the information of affections by which the Body is affected.

E2P20: There is also in God the information, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God, in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the information, or knowledge, of the human Body.

E2P26: The human mind does not percieve any external Body as actually existing, except through the information of affections of the Body.

E2P28: The information of the affections of the human Body, insofar as it is related to the human Mind, is not clear and distinct, but confused.

E2P29: The information about the information of any affection of the human Body does not involve adequate knowledge of the human Mind.

E2P32: All information, insofar as it is related to God, is true.

E2P33: There is nothing positive in information on account of which it is called false.

E2P36: Inadequate and confused information follows with the same necessity as adequate, clear and distinct information.

E3P40: Whatever information follows in the Mind from information that is adequate in the mind necessarily is also adequate.

E3DOA4: Love is a Joy [a passage from lesser to greater perfection], accompanied by the information of an external cause.

General Definition of the Affects

An affect that is called a Passion of the mind, is confused information, by which the Mind affirms of its Body, or some part of it,  a greater or lesser force of existing than before, which when given, determines the mind to think of this rather than that.

E5P1: In just the same way as thoughts or the information about things are ordered and connected in the Mind, so affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body.

E5P14: The Mind can bring it about that all the Body’s affections, or images of things are related to the Information of God.

What becomes clearer, because of what Wittgenstein might say is the grammar of the word “information”, is that there is a conflation that Spinoza performs, particularly with the genitives. The “information of the mind, body or affections” can simultaneously mean “information about the mind, body or affections” and “information which is concordantly expressed in parallel to the mind, body or affections”. This is not understood to be a confusion on Spinoza’s part, but rather is a negotiation of what can be called the two aspects of “sign”, its actionable, dignifying power and its representational power. Information (idea) is always possibly “about” and “of”. It both expresses the state of the mind/body, yet also puts this body into a relation to other bodies (identifiable as a degree of being). This is a fundamental Spinozist point. What turning away from the English word “idea” does, as translation is strained because of distinctions in the use of “information”, is separate out any representationalist picturing from the very act of thinking, which for Spinoza is an act of doing. My idea of dogs, or my dog “Tiger” or my idea of Freedom is primarily information about my body, (but in relation to the rest of the world).

What makes this informational approach in Spinoza startling is that he couples this calculative, even propositional sense with an affective appreciation of the Body. All thoughts carry the body with them and as such are also felt states of the Body, affects, as it seeks to express itself more Joyfully and Powerfully. Bodies, at least in the human/animal sphere, are primarily joined through an imaginary and affective sharing of what is felt. Information, therefore, organizationally feels, and all calculations must be seen as calculations of the Body as Flesh, historically positioned and conjoined to other feeling bodies. (For more on the affective and still rational potentialities in a Deleuzian/Davidsonian sense, see Wasps, Orchids, Beetles and Crickets.)


Becoming Intense and Longitude: Deleuze and Guattari

Deleuze and Guattari define a body by the terms latitude and longitude, such that each “body” would have a reading in each register, as they put it:

D&G wrote:
Latitude is made up of intensive parts falling under a capacity, and longitude of extensive parts falling under a relation.

-a thousand plateaus, Becoming-Intense, Becoming Animal (257)

They credit this discovery to Spinoza. Latitude is read in degrees of power [or intensity]. In this way the traditional dualisms of Idea and Body are subsumed under the body itself, and expressed in both intensive and extensive states. What is interesting in this model is how it borrows from global positioning. A body, as it grows more intense, will, it seems, expand in its proporitionality to the globe. In reading this model of Spinozist thinking, can one imagine that one can increase in latitude without an isomophoric increase in longitude? This seems impossible in the Spinozist framework. Yet Deleuze and Guattari’s hypothesized lines of flight seem to elicit just such an intensification, a latitudnal line that expands in intensity without expanding extensively. A composition of music, the scribbles of black marks made by Bach perhaps, would seem like a line of flight without longitudnal expanse, until taken up in history. Yet is this a proper reading? Perhaps the composition itself marks out a bodily, that is extensional relation of parts the cut across our customary boundary lines, taking up the extensional intensities of influence (the clop of horses outside his window, the spatiality of notes played when he was a child, the distance between keys on a keyboard, [an infinite list] etc), into a single assemblage of which it is only the burg of vast ice. And how are inadequate ideas to be represented here, which would be intensifications which do not compose as powerful extensional relations, as are imagined? The globe itself presumably would be the Body without Organs of Substance and Nature.




[For a more elaborate approach to Deleuze and Guattari, see the entry “Orchids, Wasps, Beetle’s and Crickets: A Menagerie of Change in Transgender Identity”]