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.

To recall what was said in my historical ontology post, I argued that for Hume we

do not begin with the distinction between a natural world and a subject who reacts to and engages with this world, but rather we begin with a propensity, a process, and the distinction between subject and object, self and world, are themselves effects that are inseparable from these ongoing propensities and processes. The inseparability of what is from the processes that actualize what is is what I call historical ontology.

On this reading of Hume, Hume is following what Spinoza identifies as the proper order of philosophizing, which for Spinoza entails beginning with the nature of God rather than with identifiable, determinate objects (I discuss this at greater length here). My use of historical ontology to express the ‘inseparability of what is from the processes that actualize what is‘ thus becomes, in the context of Spinoza, the inseparability of God from determinate, singular things. But his is for many a damning problem for Spinoza’s thought, and one from which his philosophy is unable to be extricated (Leibniz, Hegel, and Russell offer different versions of this criticism). So my initial problem, it appears, has simply been displaced.

To sketch a response, and thus to sketch an understanding of historical ontology à la Spinoza, we can turn to this key passage from the Ethics:

The idea of a singular thing which actually exists has God for a cause not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he is considered to be affected by another idea of a singular thing which actually exists; and of this [idea] God is also the cause, insofar as he is affected by another idea, and so on, to infinity. 2P9

Stated in its simplest terms, there is an infinite chain and web of singular things inseparable from the ‘idea of a singular thing which actually exists’. As a consequence, we  can never know a singular thing completely. This is not because there is a mysterious, transcendent reality from which we are barred access, but it is rather for the more pedestrian reason that we, as singular finite modes ourselves, simply can’t know everything. This is why, for Spinoza, if we do begin with our ideas of singular things, with determinate objects, we are following the improper order of philosophizing. For those who start with ideas of singular things then, according to Spinoza, ‘when afterwards they directed their minds to contemplating the divine nature, the could think of nothing less than of their first fictions.’ 2P10S. The crucial question, then, is how and why we are not simply condemned to our first fictions, or to our second, third, etc., fictions as we construct more elaborate and detailed accounts of singular things. The short answer to this qestion is that God’s nature as the ‘infinite enjoyment and power of existing’ is not to be identified with the determinate ideas and singular things themselves but with their continued power to continue existing in relation o other singular things, singular things that may very well undermine the ‘fixed pattern’ of ‘speeds and slownesses’ of bodies that constitute or ‘compose one body or Individual’ 2P13Def., and hence these other singular things may bring about the dissolution and death of this individual. It is important to remember that for Spinoza ‘God’s power is his essence itself’ 1P34. Similarly as we come to know more about nature it is not, for Spinoza, the increase in fictions, wither in number or complexity of structural relations, that matters most (though it matters as we will see), but rather it is the power inseparable from this increase, the power that is God’s essence and which made this increase possible. This is historical ontology, Spinoza style, and it accounts in part for the importance of Spinoza’s claim that ‘The human Mind is capable of perceiving a great many things, and is the more capable, the more its body can be disposed in a great many ways’ 2P14.

We must tread carefully here and avoid conflating two conceptions of power which reflect the two orders of philosophizing. At 4P5, for instance, Spinoza claims ‘The force and growth of any passion, and its perseverance in existing, are not defined by the power by which we strive to persevere in existing [which is the power we have in common with God’s essence, and hence the importance of common notions for Spinoza, as Deleuze notes in his reading, or with what bodies have in common – namely the power of existing], but by the power of an external cause compared with our own.’ For the passions, therefore, it is a determinate, singular cause distinct from ourselves as a determinate, singular thing (or Individual) which accounts for the rise and perseverance of a given passion. In the transition from sadness to joy, for example, we begin to move from relations between the actual and determinate to the poser inseparable from and common to the continued existence of each and every singular thing, to infinity. Deleuze coins the concept counter-articulation to highlight this very Spinozist move in his own work (see especially Logic of Sense).

But the move to joy is only the first step in this process. Joy is, as Spinoza defines it, a ‘passion by which the Mind passes to a greater perfection’ in contrast to Sadness whereby the Mind ‘passes to a lesser perfection’ 3P11S. This scholium is in support of 3P11 which states that ‘any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our Body’s power of acting, increases or diminishes, aies or restrains, our Mind’s power of thinking’. And yet this move to Joy is a ferst and crucial step for while Joy is a passion it is nonetheless the passion that accompanies an increase in the Body’s/Mind’s perfection and powers; it is simply that these powers are again relative, as is the case with all passions, to ‘an external cause compared with our own’.

The step beyond Joy is what Spinoza discusses most in the controversial part 5 of the Ethics. This becomes apparent early on when, in 5P2, Spinoza argues that, ‘If we separate emotions, or affects, from the thought of an external cause, and join them to other thoughts, then the Love, or Hate, toward the external cause is destroyed’. This includes Joy as well since it too, as Spinoza adds in the Demonstration, is ‘accompanied by the idea of an external cause’. These other thoughts that free us from the passions are thoughts determined by reason and the intuitive love of God who, for Spinoza, ‘is without passions and is not affected with any affect of Joy or Sadness’ 5P17. It is this move to the power of reason that affirms, without compromise, the power we have in common with God’s ‘infinite power and enjoyment of existing’, and thus Spinoza will repeatedly make comments such as the following: ‘every action to which we are determined from an affect which is a passion, we can be determined by reason, without the affect’ 3P59; ‘I call him free who is led by reason alone’ 3P68Dem; and finally, ‘A free man things nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Despite the move to reason and to thoughts beyond Joy or any passion, our reason is nonetheless our reason, or it is a thought inseparable from a singular, finite Mind. This is the historical ontology, Spinoza style, I mentioned earlier, though perhaps it is more fully clarified now. The infinite enjoyment and power of existing that is common to the power of finite singular minds when these minds are determined by reason is nonetheless the power of singular things themselves. It is not some mysterious, transcendent power that is in some sense external to singular things. To think in these terms would be to succumb to the passions and to the imagination of fictions again rather than engaging in ‘a meditation on life’. This is why towards the very end of the Ethics itself, at 5P39, Spinoza claims that ‘He who has a Body capable of a great many things has a Mind whose greatest part is eternal’. This follows upon Spinoza’s earlier comments that ‘we feel and know by experience that we are eternal’ 5P23S and 5P23 itself: ‘The human Mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the Body, but something of it remains which is eternal’. These comments have caused much consternation among Spinoza’s commentators, and it’s perhaps not clear that my historical ontology reading of Spinoza offers much relief. If God’s eternal and infinite power of existing is inseparable from singular things but is not to be confused with them in that eternity is to be differentiated from duration, then how can a singular thing, in this case the Mind, be said to “persist” when the Mind itself is supposed to be nothing less than the idea of the Body? Moreover, it also seems that Spinoza is inappropriately exporting a durational term, persists, into his discussion of that which is eternal. It is perhaps no wonder then that these claims have caused many to throw up their hands and turn away from these late passages of the Ethics.

One way of possibly reading what is going on here is to note that for Spinoza the infinite power and enjoyment of existing is neither one or multiple. That is, this power is not the power of a numerically One God. Spinoza is quite clear in arguing that anyone who thinks of God as One misunderstands God’s nature (in Letter 50, for example, Spinoza says that anyone who ‘calls God one or single has no true idea of God’). It is also clear that God’s infinite power is not to be confused with the determinate, singular things and modes themselves (substance, after all, is differentiated from modes in that it is conceived through itself while modes are not). Spinoza is thus not a pantheist in the traditional sense of the term. And yet God’s infinite power is fully differentiated – more to the point, God’s infinite power and enjoyment of existing affirms all possible differences and is thus best understood in terms of what Deleuze will call multiplicity. God’s power is a multiplicity that is irreducible to the identity of the one or the multiple. There are thus differences within God’s infinite power but as a multiplicity these differences are not to be confused with the differences between determinate modes in duration, and yet these differences are real. It is in this sense that I think one can understand Spinoza’s claim that something of the Mind persists after the death of the Body. So here’s the rub: inseparable from each individual, determinate thing is the eternal power of God as multiplicity of differences, a multiplicity of pre-individual singularities, as Deleuze puts it, and thus there is an eternal difference that “persists” inseparable from the determinate and determinable individuals that are ‘liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess’ 5P20S, as Spinoza put it in the Ethics, following through on how he begins the TIE. Although Spinoza did not speak of multiplicities or of ontology in the way that Whitehead and then Deleuze later would, it seems to me such a reading is perfectly consistent with Spinoza’s intentions and that, moreover, Spinoza’s historical ontology, as I understand it, is integral to Spinoza’s ethical project.


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