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.

I begin with a passage from the Ethics that appears to be quite compatible with OOO. It is from the definitions to Part II:

By singular things I understand things that are finite and have a determinate existence. And if a number of Individuals so concur in one action that together they are all the cause of one effect, I consider them all, to that extent, as one singular thing 2D7

To make this claim in OOO terms (and my apologies in advance to Levi if I get his view wrong – he will no doubt correct me), one could say that the effect that is caused by the number of individuals that ‘so concur in one action’ is the local manifestation of an object. Moreover, among the axioms to Part II is the following: ‘We neither feel nor perceive any singular things except bodies and modes of thinking.’ (2A5). This is not to say that there these are the only singular things. Extending Spinoza’s earlier arguments that there are infinite attributes that follow from the nature of God, even though we are only aware of two, it would seem to follow that there are infinite singular things other than those that we do perceive; or, these other singular things are withdrawn from the local manifestations of the singular things that we do perceive—viz. bodies and modes of thinking. There is perhaps even a convergence here between Spinoza and Leibniz for Leibniz, too, recognizes the possibility of sleeping monads, or monads (read: singular things) that are withdrawn from local manifestations (Harman, similarly, will speak of dormant objects). As Leibniz puts it in his New Essays, ‘…owing to the infinite divisibility of what is continuous, there always remain in the abyss of things parts that are asleep, and these need to be awakened and to be driven forward into something greater and better—in a word, to a better state of development.’

All seems fine to this point, but there are two potential problems with my reading of Spinoza. The first follows from Spinoza’s critique of Descartes. In 2P10S Spinoza claims that ‘Everyone, of course [including Descartes], must concede that nothing can either be or be conceived without God…But,’ Spinoza adds,

in the meantime many [again including Descartes] say that anything without which a thing can neither be nor be conceived pertains to the nature of the thing. And so they believe either that the nature of God pertains to the essence of created things, or that created things can be or be conceived without God—or what is more certain, they are not sufficiently consistent.

In other words, Descartes, among others for Spinoza (such as the Scholastics and especially Aquinas) both admit that the essence of singular things can neither be nor be conceived without God but then they turn right around and speak about the essence of the thing as being sufficient, all by itself, for understanding the nature of this thing. Hence such singular things ‘can be or be conceived without God.’ According to Spinoza, this tendency for Descartes and others to fall into this trap of inconsistency follows from not observing, as Spinoza puts it, ‘the proper order of Philosophizing.’ In particular what is improper about their order of Philosophizing is that it consists of believing ‘that the divine nature, which they should have contemplated before all else (because it is prior both in knowledge and in nature) is last in the order of knowledge, and that the things that are called objects of the senses are prior to all.’ In short, the problem with Descartes’ order of Philosophizing (though I’m not sure this is fair to Descartes and is perhaps a fairer criticism of Aquinas) is that in the end it begins with objects rather than God. This is what leads to inconsistencies. It may seem then that my effort to read Spinoza’s understanding of substance as turning upon the modes may itself be subject to this criticism.

But there is yet another potential problem, and this results from Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between parts and wholes – or Spinoza’s critique of mereology. This is important since if the essence of singular things, including and especially singular things that concur to constitute other Individuals, can neither be or be conceived without God, then what is the relationship of these singular things to God. It might seem that they are simply parts of a greater whole, much as the singular things can become parts, when they concur (and form a dynamic system as I would argue) and form an Individual that is nonetheless irreducible to these parts, an Individual that is a ratio of motion and rest of these singular parts (as Spinoza understands it). If this is true then beginning with God, as Spinoza urges us to do if we are going to pursue the proper order of philosophizing, will seem to entail the undermining of objects. Objects would thus be modes (or parts) of the one true substance, God. This is precisely Leibniz’s criticism of Spinoza: ‘Since there is no matter of modes,’ Leibniz argues, neither a mode nor part of a mode preexists, to be sure, but rather the mode that vanished, and which this one succeeds, is a different mode.’ (Philosophical Essays, 273). Spinoza’s modes are thus insubstantial, on Leibniz’s reading, or they are fleeting masks that strut and fret their hour upon the stage and are heard no more. It might seem then that Leibniz would be the place to turn if one is to do justice to the substantiality of objects, or monads for Leibniz. But Spinoza and Leibniz are actually closer on this point than Leibniz acknowledges (or wants to acknowledge).

To begin to see how this is so it is important to recall Spinoza’s claim, in Letter 12 to Meyer that ‘Measure, Time, and Number are nothing but Modes of thinking, or rather, of imagining…[and thus] it is no wonder that all those who have striven to understand the course of nature by such Notions…have so marvelously entangled themselves that in the end they have not been able to untangle themselves without breaking through everything and admitting even the most absurd absurdities.’ Understanding modes as parts, on my reading of this letter, is to understand them as an abstraction from their concrete nature, a being of reason or aid of the imagination, but if understood as Modes of Substance one sees (at least if one has adequate knowledge) that they are everywhere already infinite, or Substance only is, as actualized and identifiable, in the finite—that is, in-finite. This is my riff on H.F. Hallett’s reading of Spinoza, which I’ve elaborated in other posts. But returning to Leibniz’s criticism of Spinoza we could say that the modes are masks, but not masks that are hiding the more real substance of which they are a fleeting manifestation. Rather, the modes follow from the infinite nature of God as the identifiable actualizations of God, and thus singular things can only be and be conceived through God because the power of God is only conceivable as actualized within a mode. This was the importance, for Deleuze, of Gueroult’s reading of Spinoza (as I discuss in an earlier post). Spinoza does not begin, for Gueroult, with God properly but begins with substance, and more exactly a substantive multiplicity of attributes from which the identifiable nature of God comes to be identified by way of the attributes and the singular things that manifest them—that is, bodies and modes of thinking. Deleuze will echo this approach in his Difference and Repetition where he discusses the ‘repetition of dissymmetry [that] is hidden within symmetrical ensembles or effects; a repetition of distinctive points underneath that of ordinary points,’ and a propos masks and disguises Deleuze adds, ‘since this repetition [of dissymmetry] is not hidden by something else but forms itself by disguising itself; it does not pre-exist its own disguises and, in forming itself, constitutes the bare repetition [i.e., symmetrical repetition or repetition of the Same] within which it becomes enveloped.’ (DR 24).

It does seem then that there is a way of reading Spinoza, and Deleuze’s Spinozist tendencies, in a way congruent (or should I say compossible) with OOO, and yet which does justice to the text and spirit of Spinoza’s and Deleuze’s thought. This is not to say that there are not other problems that I may be overlooking. There no doubt are. There’s also much left to be clarified that can obviously not be covered adequately in a single post (or at least I see it as obvious but it may not be). I’ve just touched the surface of clarifying the relationship between the infinite nature of God and finite modes. I never even brought up, until now, Leibniz’s embrace of actual infinities (which Bertrand Russell is quite correct to stress in his book on Leibniz) and query whether or not this connects favorably or not to Spinoza’s thought. And I can probably go on, but I’ve gone on long enough.


7 thoughts on “Spinoza and OOO

    • My apologies. OOO is an acronym of Object-oriented ontology. For more you should check out Levi Bryant’s blog as well as Graham Harman’s blog. They have links to posts where they lay it out, but basically the general idea is that there are nothing but objects and there is no hierarchy among objects – in short, humans are just objects among objects. It’s a flat ontology, as they put it; and my question was whether a flat object-oriented ontology is compatible with a Spinozist monism. Thanks for asking.

  1. Thanks for this post!

    I think we have to read carefully book 2 and 3 of the Ethics. Different variations of the latin term, objectum, appears in these books quite often (interestingly it almost doesn’t appear at all in the other books).

  2. Your use of “poring” is a curiously apropos malapropism. Spinoza’s texts are a bit like skin – living, breathing, changing, sometimes pale, sometimes tan. They are pores and porous, and they certainly ask to be poured over again and again.

  3. Pingback: historical ontology – Spinoza style | Aberrant Monism

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