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Some Easy Spinoza

Spinoza is a difficult thinker, not so much to understand, but to tolerate.

That is, there is something so tutorial about his main work the Ethics, it sometimes takes a great deal of effort, or merely exposure, to realize that he has quite benign intentions and realizations, and that there is something even more than a cold wind that blows through the architecture of all those propositions, proofs and scholia. But the work somehow always even upon embrace sits uncomfortably in the mind. It seems to be at the same time obviously false (or intellectually presumptuous), but also evocatively true in ambition and even somehow in reference.

I had a bit of a light-weight epiphany the other day when spending the afternoon down by the creek. The sun was radiating down, the water rushing in that relentless and still pleasurable way, and I lifted my head and stared at the huge boulders that filled the very small valley. In their very size, and the luminosity of the sun upon them they possessed a kind temporality what was in distinct contrast to the ephemera of the day, and of course of myself.

It was in those rocks that something about Spinoza occurred to me, that the kind of things that Spinoza is arguing for in all his elaborate ways are really pretty simple. They are listable.

1. There is one world, which means that when you and I are talking about it, or reacting to it, we are talking about and reacting to the same thing.

2. Things may change in that world, but it is still the same world.

3. We are part of that world, and being part of it is what allows us to communicate and be.

4. Through imagination we helpfully separate out one part of that world from the rest.

5. Through rationality we connect the separated out parts, which are not really separate.

6. Intuition is the flash of this connection. We all experience it.

7. We have very little control over ourselves (much less than we think), and the control we do have comes from thinking clearly.

9. Blaming (and overly praising) things external to us is largely a mistake.

10. Our salvation – in the grand sense, and the daily sense – depends on the salvation of things/persons external to us.

11. No soul can be freed without the body.

12. At any moment you can achieve greater freedom by changing the way that you think.

13. Any thorough embrace of “I” in the most selfish sense, undermines the sense of what an “I” is.

14. Understanding how something works is key to freedom.

15. We are our machines and techniques.

16. Nothing is completely unreal.

17. Everything outside of us has an explanation (causes), but an explanation which we can never be completely clear about.

18. Eternity is just the term for something that is not bounded, but is merely and entirely expressive.

19. The more we become like eternity, even in the most pragmatic situations, the freer and more powerful we are.

20. Gaining control involves separating out yourself from that which is outside of you, then reconnecting yourself by realizing that you were always connected but not in the way that you thought.

21. Things could not have been different than they have been, a thought that makes things very different in the future.

22. Everything thinks, however dimly. Which is another way of saying that things are all to some degree organizing, and not merely passively organized.

23. Thinking involves starting from the widest and working in.

24. I necessarily feel and see the world through others.

25. When we’re wrong, we’re only partially wrong.

This certainly is not exhaustive of Spinoza truths, and some of them may simply be inaccurate. They are a kind of intutional snap shot of much of my reading and thinking on Spinoza recently, and are worth putting down.

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The Coins of Others

Today while eating at our favorite greasy-spoon Andy’s my wife and I were discussing an everyday something that happened at her work, where she is a bartender. This is how she summed it when I asked her if she would:

Ricardo, a buser, appeared at the bar and presented to me a small, bronze coin, not unlike a penny. His English is not expansive and he told me in a somewhat confusing way that the coin had been discovered by someone in the kitchen or on the busing staff and that, though he liked it, the person who had found the coin had instructed him to give it to me. It was something of a gift.

I looked at the coin a bit more closely and realized that it was a Canadian coin. I showed Ricardo the image on the “heads” side of the coin, explaining that it was the queen, expressing to him that it was not a US coin, but rather a Canadian coin, and therefore had no worth for spending.

Ricardo was interested in this, not only because he was surprised to find it was a foreign coin, but perhaps also because he had appraised it as a gift. I accepted it happily and thanked him.

It was interesting to me that an object that began as a mistaken penny, a seemingly worthless piece of currency as it is, but was presented and passed on to me as a gift of some worth. That worth – the worth of a gift – is ultimately what was imprinted on the coin. It was deemed technically worthless by its status as foreign currency, but immediately took on a sort of exotic worth in the exact same process. Had the coin been something of worth in US currency, perhaps a quarter, or even a dollar coin, the gift would have seemed something entirely different – a payment; how does it feel to receive one dollar from someone with whom you work? The “worthlessness” as a penny and the worthlessness of foreign currency are both, seemingly, necessary for the gift to be received as a gift of any worth at all.

From our discussion it occurred to me that those that are lovers of philosophy are not unlike coin lovers. There is a certain sense, in reading the ideas of others–whether they be the largely discredited, though still taken to be influential views of people of the past (Descartes, Plato, etc.), or if they be the exotic ideas of contemporary schools of thought (Deleuze perhaps, or Zizek)–there is a sense that the foreignness signals something. Because these coins (ideas) are not a part of our regular currency, they evoke the whole series of relations which allows them to have functioned as coins (ideas) at all. If one has an ancient Roman coin in one’s hand, through its marks and significations, something of the whole of Rome comes before us. These are economies of thought. And whether we use them within our own economy, and our appreciation for them, operates somewhere between a “gift” and a “value”.

This brings to mind Nietzsche’s brilliant equation of truths with coins:

What is truth then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonomies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations that are elevated, transmitted, beautified in a poetic or rhetoric manner, and that appear to the people after a long usage as fixed, canonical and binding: truths are illusions of which one has forgotten they are illusions, metaphors that are worn out and literally became powerless, coins that lost their images and are now metal and no longer coins.

“On Truth and Lie in the Extramoral Sense”

In his analogy, Nietzsche does not deal directly with the notion of public minting. There is a way in which he imagines that coin-truths are minted in a metaphorizing process, by the imprints of experience: “What is a word? It is a copy in sound of a nerve stimulus,” and “To begin with, a nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is imitated in a sound: second metaphor”.They have become blank, rubbed out from their images, in his imagining, and are circulating emptily, without force. But this is not really how truth-coins function. Coins function within an economy of marks. A blank coin does not circulate, and expressions of experience do not mint coins. What Nietzsche is drawing out is that via their marks, when coins circulate, they no longer are their marks seen as marks, as part of a specific economy in history. The marks circulate invisibly, so that a “dollar” becomes in a way, transcendent in its effect. When we encounter a foreign coin, a coin of others, we encounter the very minted aspect of our ideas, our truths, the associated and contractual relations which make up a criteria laden economy. The marks come out. And when we take up the coins of other currencies, we bring up the possibilities of our own currency.

As I have written elsewhere, Nietzsche did not come up with the metaphor of comparing truths to coins. He was responding to Plato’s Socrates, who talks of the trade of pleasures likened to the exchange of coins, in the purchase of virtue:

My dear Simmias, I suspect that this is not the right way to purchase virtue, by exchanging pleasures for pleasures, and pains for pains, and fear for fear, and greater for less, as if they were coins, but the only right coinage, for which all those things [69b] must be exchanged and by means of and with which all these things are to be bought and sold, is in fact wisdom; and courage and self-restraint and justice and, in short, true virtue exist only with wisdom, whether pleasures and fears and other things of that sort are added or taken away. And virtue which consists in the exchange of such things for each other without wisdom, is but a painted imitation of virtue and is really slavish and has nothing healthy or true in it…

Phaedo

Here, if we follow the analogy, we surmise that there is an official mind of real coins, in fear of a counterfeit minting by others. The “stamp” of currency, is that of Ideas, (instead of the stamp of Nietzsche’s nerve-stimulous). The reason I suggest indeed that we value the gift aspects of coins, of foriegn ideas, is neither to recieve coins of official and universal mint (transcendent ideas), nor coins of most naturalmint (nerve-impressions), though the ideational, and affective aspects of idea economies are always in employ, but it is to enter into lived economies of Sense, so that they reflect upon our own. In this way, value and gift coincide.

If we must ask, What is it that is impressed upon the metal blanks of our coins? We would have to say that the blank is never blank, and what is impressed is the repeat of folds in our bodies, made from creases of our shared criteria and Sense. A community of e/a ffects and distinctions.