historical ontology – Spinoza style

In my post on historical ontology over at the new APPS blog (here), I anticipated the following criticism: how is the multiplicity related to actual beliefs and states of affairs? Are you not appealing to some mysterious aspect of reality, a pure becoming so to speak, that transcends the actual, in order to account for how what we actually know becomes other? Is this not contrary to the very spirit of Spinozism to take immanence seriously, and to take it all the way to its natural conclusions? This is a variation on a criticism that is often directed at Deleuze’s theory of the virtual (most notably by Badiou as I discuss here). Fortunately or not, I was spared this criticism to my post, but it still seems appropriate to address it for I think it clarifies a number of points. This also gives me the opportunity to deliver on a long overdue promissory note I offered Steven Shaviro in my response to one of his posts (here) that was itself in response to my post on eternity and duration in Spinoza (here). Some differences will likely remain, but hopefully what’s at stake will be clearer, and with luck Shaviro will feel I’ve made good on the promise.

This post will be long, though it’s likely to be my last on Spinoza for some time. In fact, this will probably be my final blog post at this blog for a while (many other obligations are piling up, though I’ll likely post over at the New APPS blog on occasion). I may make one final post summarizing some of my thoughts about how blogging has fit into (or not) my philosophical work, but most importantly the blog has become, for me at least, a vehicle that compels me to write more, to come up with something to say. Now this might seem to be a good thing but it is not, for I agree with what Deleuze says, in a Nietzschean vein,

What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, or even rarer, the thing that might be worth saying.

With this caveat, therefore, and with utter irony, I’ll now attempt to do good on what I had promised Shaviro in my earlier post.

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history and philosophy

There has been an interesting number of posts at the newapps blog on the relationship between history and philosophy. Since I deal with historical issues in some detail in Deleuze’s Hume, devoting an entire chapter to an analysis of the history of the Scottish Enlightenment, for example, I’ve thrown my concept of historical ontology into the mix and have posted on it over at newapps (here). I provide links in this post to the other posts that have been discussing this topic. As I note there, the term historical ontology was one Foucault mentioned in his “What is Enlightenment?” essay, but he mentions it without fully elaborating its implications. Ian Hacking picks up the term and has written an essay on historical ontology which is published in a book of the same name. Yet even here, I argue, the full implications of the concept are not addressed. Hacking uses the concept in order to elucidate the processual nature of the subject of knowledge, or to lay out the dynamics associated with the various ways in which a subject can be, whereas I understand it more generally, in a Deleuzo-Spinozist manner as a concept that can elucidate the processual nature of beings in general. In short, it’s an effort to cash in on Foucault’s project while drawing on the work of Deleuze and a reading of early modern philosophy, especially Hume and most recently Spinoza.

iPhones and God

During my runs I will always be found with my iPhone, which has an app (RunKeeper) I use to map my route and track my pace (through the phone’s built-in gps) all while listening to my favorite playlist or CD. Frequently I’ll get a text from my wife or daughter, or occasionally from my orthopedist friend, each from their own iPhones, while I’m out on my run. If the text is not urgent I can always wait until the cool down to reply, and then I’ll also use the phone to check my email and reply to comments on my blog (or check blog statistics, which is in itself a bad habit, I know). Moreover, if I were to happen to run out of the house on an errand and forget my phone, which is itself a rare occurrence, I will feel a notable sense of lack. Many I’ve talked to feel the same way. As I’ve heard it put so many times, “I can’t live without my iPhone.” There are three philosophical points that come to mind from this rather humdrum example, points that may reciprocally clarify and be clarified by this example.

  1. If God, in Spinoza’s sense, is the immanent cause of things, then in an important sense things express or manifest God, including my iPhone
  2. My iPhone is an excellent example of desiring-production, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the term, in that the lack I feel is not the cause of the desire for the iPhone; rather, it is the machinic assemblage of desires associated with the iPhone that causes the feeling of lack, and hence the reproduction of the assemblage (which includes, among many other things, the phone, Apple, and AT&T).
  3. The fact that iPhones are ubiquitous among a broad swath of society, from middle class teens to wealthy doctors and surgeons, offers a window onto contemporary perceptions of wealth and poverty.

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the relevance of philosophy (Frege or Spinoza)

Frege’s famous essay, “On Sinn and Bedeutung,” begins with the problem of identity, or equality. If a and b designate the same thing, Frege argues, then ‘it would seem that a = b could not differ from a = a.’ But the latter, as Kant argued, is an analytic statement while the former may ‘contain very valuable extensions of our knowledge’ and cannot be validated a priori. This problem sets the stage for Frege’s well-known solution: ‘a = b’ and ‘a = a’ differ in sense (Sinn) while they are identical with respect to reference (Bedeutung). More to the point, for Frege one may grasp the sense of a statement, word, thought, etc., but ‘one is not,’ he claims, ‘thereby assured of a Bedeutung.’ For Frege fiction is an example wherein one may grasp the sense of the story, follow the adventures of Odysseus for example, and yet this sense does not have a Bedeutung. As Frege puts it, ‘The thought remains the same whether “Odysseus” has a Bedeutung or not.’ In fiction, therefore, it is only the sense or thought that matters. But for Frege whatever ‘aesthetic delight’ we may derive from the thoughts associated with such fictional accounts, the will to truth (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche) will lead us to move beyond them: ‘The question of truth would cause us to abandon aesthetic delight for an attitude of scientific investigation.’ Or again: ‘It is the striving for truth that drives us always to advance from the sense to the Bedeutung.’ It is this striving for truth, this will to truth, that drove Heinrich Schliemann on his quest to determine whether story of the Iliad were merely a story or whether Troy actually existed – that is, he sought to determine whether or not the Sinn of ‘Troy’ had a Bedeutung.

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coining concepts

Eric Schliesser has a nice post up at the New Apps blog about the importance of creating concepts. What came as a surprise to me in this post was the relevance of creating concepts to the analytic tradition. As Schliesser puts it, with respect to analytic philosophy we tend to think of Frege as the father of the tradition, but actually, Schliesser claims, “Frege’s logic would be the tool” of this tradition, “but it is Schlick that developed the program of the free play in conceptual invention.” This reminds me of the distinction Deleuze makes in the essay “Mediators” between “inventors” and “imitators.” The former produce the innovations while the later provide the tools and efficiencies to carry through on the promise of these inventions, often outdoing the inventor themselves in the process. Deleuze had sports in mind here and referred to McEnroe as an inventor, but one who can get ‘beaten by a quantitative champion’, namely an imitator or technician (Deleuze likely had Ivan Lendl in mind here, although he does not say). Now I’m not implying that Frege is an imitator. Far from it. However, within the history of analytic philosophy, if I understand Schliesser’s point correctly, Frege’s logic has become the technical tool that has enabled analytic philosophers to carry through on the promise Schlick’s conceptual inventions made possible. I am actually at work on a project about conceptual invention and Schlick was nowhere on my radar screen, while Frege was. In graduate school I wrote a paper on Carnap and may have looked through Schlick’s General Theory of Knowledge at the time while studying the Vienna Circle, but if I did I don’t remember. I’ll be interested to learn more about this ‘program of the free play in conceptual invention.’ Schliesser, by the way, has done some great work on Hume, especially on Hume’s critical stance toward Newton, disabusing those who may be tempted by the very common notion that Hume’s attempt, as he put it in the subtitle to his Treatise, ‘to introduce the experimental method of reasoning into moral subjects’ was simply the application of Newton’s experimental method. Schliesser argues that it would be more accurate to see Hume as following in the footsteps of Boyle. Schliesser also kindly refers to Martin Bell’s very nice Hume Studies review of my Deleuze’s Hume book.

real patterns all the way down

After hearing and reading about Ladyman and Ross for some time now, with opinions ranging from volatile dislike to euphoric endorsement, I’ve finally taken the time to read Every Thing Must Go and come to my own conclusions. I’ll use this post to sketch my reading of the arguments of ETMG and offer some thoughts and questions at the end. As usual I’m open to feedback and am always curious to hear of alternative readings.

In many ways ETMG is a book I should be naturally predisposed to read. With my own reading of Hume’s thought as compatible with realism (or hyper-realism as I would call it) I should be interested to see how they incorporate Humean verificationism, along with Peircean verificationism (another philosopher I greatly admire), into their arguments for realism. Ladyman and Ross also draw heavily on current work and research in physics, a discipline I initially pursued and still take great interest in; and they use their readings of physics as a mathematics of real patterns to legitimize work in dynamic systems theory (a systems theory properly understood [more on this below], which I draw on heavily in my Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos book. Finally, by their own admission Ladyman and Ross (though I shouldn’t forget the et. al. of Spurrett and Collier) see the arguments of their book as an alternative to the neo-scholasticism of contemporary analytic metaphysics. I agree wholeheartedly with this objective, though I may have an inner neo-scholastic in me for I find some of Ted Sider’s arguments helpful and think Peter Unger’s essay “The Problem of the Many” is a classic, albeit likely a classic in neo-scholastic analytic metaphysics by Ladyman and Ross’s lights. Despite this, I’m generally in agreement with their criticisms of contemporary analytic metaphysics and thus, with this and all the other points mentioned above I had some very good reasons to read this book.

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Spinoza and OOO

I’ve been thinking through a number of issues related to Spinoza and OOO, extending conversations I’ve had with Levi over whether one can read Spinoza in a way that is compatible with OOO while at the same time not bastardizing  Spinoza’s thought or warping it into something that would be unrecognizable to Spinoza (which I think is precisely what Badiou does in his reading of Spinoza). I think Levi and I are agreed that such a reading is possible (though of course I’ll let Levi speak for himself). That said, poring through Spinoza again of late it appears that one must be quite careful in attempting, as Deleuze sought in his reading of Spinoza, to make substance turn upon the modes. Let me explain.

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reactive philosophy

When all is said and done, on Matthew Stewart’s reading of the Spinoza-Leibniz encounter in The Courtier and the Heretic, Leibniz’s philosophy is a reactive philosophy – a philosophy founded on not being Spinoza’s philosophy rather than being a philosophy that is for something, that is an affirmative philosophy. This may be too strong a claim, but Stewart goes even further and argues that the dominant tendency of modern philosophy has been one of a series of ongoing reactions to Spinoza’s thought. Stewart is quite forthright:

And yet, although the world we live in is perhaps better and more originally described by Spinoza, the reactive form of modernity that began with Leibniz has in fact become the dominant form of modern philosophy. Anxious over the apparent purposelessness of the world revealed by modern science; bitter about the threatened demotion of humankind from its special place in nature; alienated from a society that seems to recognize no transcendent goals and unwilling to assume personal responsibility for happiness–a needy humankind has reinvented the Leibnizian philosophy with abandon over the past three centuries…Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the ninteteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forces immune to the analytical embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought–all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz.

To state Stewart’s claim in other terms, Spinoza is the last realist philosopher and since Leibniz we have been largely on an anti-realist path, a path Stewart presents as a failure of nerve, a failure to embrace the immanence of life as fully real and in no need of anything other, anything transcendent, to give it a meaning or purpose. As Stewart puts it, “Spinoza speaks for those who believe that happiness and virtue are possible with nothing more than what we have in our hands. Leibniz stands for those convinced that happiness and virtue depend on something that lies beyond.” It is perhaps not surprising then that Stewart himself, after getting his Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford (in just 3 years) abandoned the academy, claiming at his website that he discovered what he “took to be irrefutable philosophical objections to pursuing a career in academic philosophy.” He went, instead, and made a lot of money as a management consultant, proving the point Thales made after making a killing with his olive press that, as Aristotle presents it, ‘it is easy for a philosopher to be rich if they choose it.’ Much harder to attain is the happiness that requires ‘nothing more than what we have in our hands,’ for if it were easy, ‘and could be found without great effort,’ as Spinoza concludes his Ethics, then ‘how could everyone neglect it? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.’