Endless Conatus

With a deadline for an essay on Deleuze and sex looming I can’t help but read a double entendre into my title. In working toward an understanding of the third kind of knowledge for Spinoza, I need first to address the concept of conatus, which is integrally related to Spinoza’s ethical program. After this post I’ll need to turn my attention to other commitments, though I’ll still throw thoughts related to the economy (which is at a crucial juncture), what I’m reading, etc., onto the blog. Until I can get back to Spinoza here’s some thoughts on conatus:

It may come as a surprise but Nietzsche loved Spinoza. In a letter to his friend Franz Overbeck Nietzsche confessed, ‘I am amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza…’ This is not to say, of course, that Nietzsche was not critical of Spinoza. He criticized Spinoza’s ‘hocus pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza clad his philosophy’; he despised Spinoza’s efforts to ‘so naively [advocate] the destruction of the affects through their analysis and vivisection’; and even the concept of conatus was criticized by Nietzsche for unduly stressing self-preservation to the neglect of will to power, of which, Nietzsche claims, ‘the struggle for existence is only an exception.’ Despite these criticisms, Nietzsche finds in Spinoza a precursor because, as Nietzsche puts it in his letter to Overbeck, he makes ‘knowledge the most powerful affect’ and Spinoza ‘denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.’ Adding to what has been argued in previous posts regarding Spinoza I want to discuss the relation between conatus and Spinoza’s critique of teleology. This will both mitigate Nietzsche’s concerns and set the stage for a better understanding of the third kind of knowledge.

First to Spinoza’s critique of teleology. This critique is tied to Spinoza’s understanding of appetite, which Spinoza defines as ‘the end for the sake of which we do something’ (4D7). Now this definition seems to rely upon precisely that which Nietzsche claims Spinoza debunks – namely, teleological explanations. But key here is to understand the body that has these appetites. As Spinoza argues, a body that is made up of many smaller bodies, a body with organs such as ours so to speak, will continue to be the same singular body as long as these smaller bodies (or objects) ‘communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed manner’ (2L3Def.). And again, ‘2L5: If the parts composing an individual become greater or less, but in such a proportion that they all keep the same ration of motion and rest to each other as before, then the individual will likewise retain its nature, as before, without any change of form.’ The end for the sake of which we do something, our appetites, is thus a striving to persevere with a given proportion of motion and rest. Spinoza refers to this as the ‘actual essence of the thing’ (3P7), in contrast to the formal essence of the thing that is ‘the essence of each thing insofar as it exists and produces and effect, having no regard to its duration’. (4Preface). The formal essence of the body is the proportion of motion and rest that is independent of its duration in the face of external objects, objects that would bring about the death of the body if they cause it to lose its proportion of motion and rest. The formal essence of the body is the idea of the body as comprehended under the attribute of extension (as eternal or non-durational), in contrast to the actual essence of the body that does have durational existence and is related to other objects, including objects that will lead to its perishing. Understood in this way a key function or effect of our appetites is to select against objects, to select against excessive differences and determinations, for these differences and determinate objects may undermine the ratio of motion and rest and hence undermine (kill) the very durational existence of the body itself. God, on the other hand, as absolutely indeterminate and self-caused substance is the infinite enjoyment of existing that affirms all differences. God, however, is absolutely indeterminate substance in actu rather than in potentia and thus God does not have to select against difference. God is the absolute affirmation of difference rather than the limited affirmation of difference that characterizes bodies like us.

We are now in a better place to understand Spinoza’s critique of teleology. To make a conscious decision to bring about a certain state of affairs, to act towards a particular end or goal, is not inconsistent with either Spinoza’s claim that the mind can have no effect on the body (5Preface), nor is it inconsistent with his claim that our decisions are determined by our appetites (1Appendix). It is rather straightforward why this is so for Spinoza: any conscious decision itself is determined by the process of selecting against difference—that is, it is determined by our appetites. Moreover, this tendency to select against difference characterizes both the mind and the body (which follows from Spinoza’s famous 2P7); consequently, the conscious decision to bring about some state of affairs is simply the mental counterpart to a bodily process of selecting against difference. Spinoza’s critique of teleology is thus not a critique intended to void of sense our conscious decisions to do things. Such decisions are not illusory; rather, his critique ought instead to be understood in the manner of a Kantian critique – namely, it is an attempt to reveal the conditions for the possibility of making such goal-oriented decisions at all. And the condition for this possibility is the tendency to select against difference; or, as Spinoza defines it, it is our appetites; and it is this understanding of appetites and selecting against difference which most appealed to Nietzsche. Connecting this to an earlier post, our ultimate appetite is not, contrary to Nietzsche’s reading of Spinoza, simply to persevere within the fixed proportion of motion and rest that is the formal essence of our body, but rather it is to affirm the absolutely indeterminate condition that does not select against difference, that does not act towards a particular end or goal. To state it in yet another way, our conscious decisions to act towards a particular end or goal supervenes upon a conatus that is endless, that is absolutely indeterminate and not to be confused with any determinate ends or goals. Understanding conatus in this way is crucial, as I read Spinoza, to making sense of the third kind of knowledge.


One response to “Endless Conatus

  • Vasantha Surya

    “, our conscious decisions to act towards a particular end or goal supervenes upon a conatus that is endless, that is absolutely indeterminate and not to be confused with any determinate ends or goals.” —
    I understand this, insofar as it has a bearing on ethics, as an awareness of conatus as the dynamic striving towards eternal life (personified as God, perhaps), which is reflected in thought, word, and deed (without any element of individual ‘will’ or ‘force’ or ‘ego’) …Submitting to the will of God is offering one’s thought, word, and deed to conatus, the reflection of Divine Will within oneself — to the life force within, to do with them as IT will.
    From what I know of Spinoza, he was a tranquil and humble person with no Superman image.Paradoxiclly, this is what validates his immensely powerful concept of conatus.

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