Spinoza, appetites, and inferentialism

Appetite, as Spinoza makes clear, is nothing but our striving to persevere in our being, and this striving, “as related to the mind and body together, it is called appetite” (3P9S). As related to our body, therefore, our appetite is the striving to persevere in a given proportion of motion and rest. Spinoza refers to this striving as the “actual essence of the thing” (3P7), as opposed to the formal essence of the thing which is “the essence of each thing insofar as it exists and produces an effect, having no regard to its duration” (4Preface). The formal essence, or our proportion of motion and rest, is independent of its duration in the face of external objects, objects which could, if they caused our body to lose this proportion, kill the body (Note Spinoza’s claim, in the Short Treatise (I/53): ‘…if other bodies act on ours with such force that the proportion of motion and rest cannot remain 1 to 3 [for example], that is death, and a destruction of the soul…’). The formal essence of the body is the idea of the body as comprehended under the attribute of extension, in contrast to the actual essence of the body that has durational existence. Understood in the context of other bodies, that is actually rather than formally, our striving to maintain the proportion of motion and rest is a striving in the face of external differences (that is, other objects). One of the functions or effects of our appetites, therefore, is to select against excessive differences, to filter and navigate relations in order to ‘maintain the proportion of motion and rest’. Such a selection process is simply part and parcel of the striving to persevere in one’s own being with its proportion of motion and rest. God, on the other hand, as absolutely indeterminate, self-caused substance is the infinite enjoyment of existing that is the affirmation of all differences, or as what Deleuze refers to in Spinoza’s Ethics as the ‘logic of purely affirmative difference and without negation.’ Since God is not absolutely indeterminate substance in potentia, but in actu, and because God does not have to select against difference (i.e., there is nothing lacking in God), God is the most perfect being. Finite and determinate beings, however, must select against difference if they are to persevere in their being. This is its appetite, its proper goal and end. At the same time, however, it is not clear what differences we must select against, or how much we can endure and still persevere in our being in the face of differences.  It is not known in advance what a body can do. Consequently, through processes of experimentation and learned association we can become more perfect; that is, the more difference we do not have to select against, the more perfect we become; and it is in this light that Spinoza argues, in 3P12, for the existence of ideas that “aid the body’s power of acting.” By arguing for the effectiveness of such ideas, Spinoza is not being inconsistent with his earlier claims that the “decisions of the mind are nothing but the appetites.” To the contrary, the decisions of the mind which aid the body’s acting by selecting against difference, or by reducing difference to a common, known form, is nothing but the appetite itself, or our striving to persevere in our being.

The striving of perceiving and mobile beings to persevere in  their being by selecting against difference is carried out in two ways. One is the tendency of such bodies to recognize and then assimilate differences. In 3P52, for example, Spinoza states that “If we have previously seen an object together with others, or we imagine it has nothing but what is common to many things, we shall not consider it so long as one which we imagine to have something singular.” Stopping to rest upon those things we imagine to have something singular, and passing over those that are common and familiar, is only the first step in the perceptual process of familiarizing ourselves with this singularity, the first step in reducing it to what is common and identifiable. We tend to ignore the sounds our car makes, for example, unless it makes an unfamiliar sound; or, conversely, all sounds and scents are mere background upon which the sensation of temperature and blood stands out for the tick (as Uexkull discusses). The other way is the tendency of the mind to reduce singularities to something common through the use of language and concepts, or what Spinoza refers to as common notions or beings of reason. Such common notions iron out the differences and lead us to overlook the singular differences and peculiarities of an individual. Rather than perceive the particular details of an individual tree, we see simply what we take to be common and universal to all trees. Such a “Being of reason,” Spinoza claims in the Appendix to his work on Descartes, “is nothing but a mode of thinking, which helps us to more easily retain, explain, and imagine the things we have understood” (I/233). In other words, they assist us in identifying or classifying the things we have understood, or they iron out the differences for the sake of easy comprehension.

We can see here an important sense in which the appetites found a Brandomian inferentialism. Since concepts, according to Brandom and as discussed here, are to be understood in terms of the role they play as premises and conclusions in the process of giving and asking for reasons, for their inferential consequences, both compatible and incompatible, then concepts will also involve a process of selection against those consequences excluded by the concept. Understood in terms of mereology, concepts may serve as premises for more inclusive conclusions, by which is meant a conclusion with broader scope than the original concept (e.g., if it is a cat then it is a mammal, with mammal giving greater scope than cat), or they may serve as premises or conclusions with less scope than the original concept. On Brandom’s reading of Spinoza, the mereological reading is critical. In order to have adequate ideas we must be able to deduce the object of the idea from the idea itself, and this only occurs when we begin with the whole; otherwise we have an inadequate idea. To support these claims Brandom draws from Spinoza’s letter 32, and in particular this passage:

I consider things as parts of some whole, insofar as their natures are mutually adapted so that they are in accord among themselves as much as possible; but insofar as things differ among themselves each…is considered to be a whole, not a part.

Brandom then cites Spinoza’s example of the parasitic worm who lives in one’s blood. For this worm it considers ‘each particle of blood to be a whole’ insofar as these particles differ among themselves from the worm – they are not worm and the worm however may and in fact does come to adapt to living in the midst of these other, external objects (or wholes). Nevertheless, the worm does not and ‘could not know,’ according to Spinoza, ‘how all the parts [of blood] are controlled by the universal nature of the blood, and are forced, as the universal nature of the blood demands, to adapt themselves to one another, so as to harmonize with one another in a certain way.’ Similarly, we are like the worms in our encounters with objects. Although we may be mutually adapted to one another, and our appetites and concepts may aid our body’s abilities to maintain its ‘proportion of motion and rest’ in our relations with other objects, we nonetheless do not grasp the universal whole, or God, and hence we do not have the adequate ideas that occur when we can deduce the objects of our mutually adapted encounters from the whole (God) of which they are a part.

As Brandom develops this reading, he will stress the importance of self-consciousness, having an idea of and idea, as exemplary of the third kind of knowledge whereby we do begin with the whole and deduce the inferential relations of the parts therefrom. As was discussed in the previous post, Brandom is a committed holist and finds with Spinoza a kindred spirit (along with Hegel). Without venturing into a long discussion of mereology, I want to follow up on one point from the previous post – namely, Haugeland’s claim, which Brandom cites with approval, that ‘all transcendental constitution is social institution.’ As I said at the time, there are some difficulties with both the understanding-assent links of inferentialism as well as the social holism that is the condition for the possibility of our use of concepts. In particular, I argue for a Humean hyper-realism whereby it is the whole itself that is constituted, or imagined and fictioned, and the transcendental condition for this constitution is invention itself, or difference-in-itself as Deleuze would understand this. To draw from dialetheism at this point, we could take, as Graham Priest does, Russell’s paradox about the set of all sets that do not have themselves as members. Rather than avoid the paradoxical consequences of this relationship between whole and parts, a dialetheist would claim that this and other such paradoxes and contradictions are true. Putting this in terms of invention as transcendental condition, the third kind of knowledge is thus not the inferential relation of a whole to its parts but is rather the problematized encounter or intuition of the hyper-real that is only actualized as an identifiable whole or part on the condition of invention itself. A tell-tale sign of an encounter between invention as transcendental condition and discursive thought, or with the logic of inferentialism and mereological whole-part relations, is paradox. Dialetheism embraces and affirms this encounter, even if, as was my criticism in my post on dialetheism, this encounter is ultimately to serve as a means to the end of a more inclusive scientific understanding rather than the creation of philosophical concepts.

We can begin to understand a Deleuzian metaphysics as a Spinozist metaphysics, or more especially as answering to the call, ‘what can a body do?’ Rather than lay down the limits of possibility for what we can do or know, one should push the potentialities of the impossible, the consistencies that can be drawn from the incommensurable and chaotic. In doing so we are following our appetites, acting towards the end that is the preservation of our proportion of motion and rest.  And with this move we can also clarify an important confusion that surrounds Spinoza’s critique of teleology. In particular, we can see that to make a conscious decision to bring about a certain state of affairs (to become a philosopher let us say), a decision which prompts certain actions and behaviors (going to graduate school), is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s claim that the mind can have no effect on the body (5Preface), nor with his claim that our decisions are determined by our appetites (1Appendix). The reason is simple: any conscious decision or determination one makes negates, or selects against, other possibilities (becoming a geologist for example). It is always important to recall Spinoza’s famous statement, “determination is negation,” in Letter 50. To make such a decision is not necessarily a conscious decision to select against difference, though it could be; rather, the decision itself is determined by the process of selecting against difference – i.e., it is determined by our appetites. Furthermore, this tendency to select against difference characterizes both the mind and the body; consequently, the conscious decision to bring about some state of affairs, or to play the deontic game of giving and asking for reasons, is simply the mental counterpart to a bodily process of selecting against difference. This follows both from the fact that for Spinoza “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (2P7), and from his understanding of appetite as the striving to persevere, a striving that is expressed by both the mind and body. Spinoza’s critique of teleology is thus not a critique in the sense that conscious decisions to do things (i.e., act for the sake of some good or goal) are in some way empty or illusory; his critique ought instead to be understood in the manner of a transcendental critique – i.e., an attempt to reveal the conditions for the possibility of making such goal-oriented decisions. And the condition for this possibility is the tendency to select against difference, to filter the hyper-real so that there are wholes and parts, and the inferences and deductions upon which these depend. All this, according to Spinoza, is an expression of our appetites.


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