Strange Encounters II

As I concluded the previous post, I argued that the Deleuzian extension of Hume’s project entailed both the affirmation of monism (Spinoza) and multiplicity (Hume). This point is made crystal clear in A Thousand Plateaus when Deleuze and Guattari announce that “pluralism = monism” (ATP, p. 2; see this earlier post where I discuss this theme in the context of William James’ radical empiricism). This effort to bring Hume and Spinoza together, however, is fraught with difficulty, or at least apparently so, in a philosophical landscape that has been forever altered by Kant’s project. Since Kant was woken from his dogmatic slumber, Hume and Spinoza have come to be rethought, if rethought at all, in the context of the conditions for the possibility of experience. In the case of Hume, this has largely led his philosophy to be read as a project in epistemology. Hume comes to be seen as a precursor of a Bayesian epistemology whereby knowledge comes to be constituted through a process of induction that constitutes degrees of belief. Spinoza, at worst, is thrown into the refuse pile of philosophical dogmatists, one of the philosophers who accepted, without question, that guarantees of our knowledge. Spinoza, in fact, goes much further than either Descartes and Leibniz in that while they accept God as the unquestioned guarantor of our knowledge of the world (Descartes) as well as the harmony of the world itself (Leibniz), God remains inaccessible and unknowable; Spinoza, by contrast, argues in the last half of Part 5 of the Ethics that even God can be known.

To state the contrast between Spinoza the dogmatist and Hume the skeptic, one could say that Spinoza presupposes the identity that grounds knowledge while Hume argues that this identity comes to be constituted. Husserl remarked upon this aspect of Hume’s thought, and it is for this reason that I have argued for a Humean phenomenology (see this). So how then can one bring Hume and Spinoza together? Put simply, through a rethinking of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). And this brings me back to the issue that in part spawned the New Hume debate – to wit, Hume’s claim that the “particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed” are powers that provide the reason for the regularities of nature but these powers “never appear to the senses.” What are these powers? The simple answer to this question is that these are the laws of nature that are the subject of natural science, and it is precisely the nature of these powers that are revealed, over time, through the process of scientific enquiry. We could say that this is a scientific explanation of facts. That which appears to the senses, therefore, would bring in our mental faculties and the epistemological problems of how we come to know the “particular powers” of nature. With this we have an epistemological explanation, and form here we are not too far from the Bayesian epistemology mentioned above.

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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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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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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.’

Leibniz and neoconservatism

A standard reading of modern political theory, or one could arguably say the standard reading, lays the greatest emphasis upon the state of nature theories and their attendant arguments concerning the social contract. Beginning with Hobbes, this standard reading continues on through Locke and Rousseau, emphasizing along the way the influence of Locke upon Jefferson. Given the revolutions of the late 18th century, especially in light of the social contract justifications given by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, it is perhaps not surprising that this has become the standard reading.

What I would like to argue is that it is precisely the importance of the social contract theorists for the intellectuals who sought a justificatory ground for revolution that has resulted in the great stress that has been laid upon this aspect of modern political theory. Lurking beneath this standard reading of political theory we can find a deeper tension at play, and a tension that provides for a more comprehensive and illuminating account of political and economic processes as they have actually unfolded since the late 17th century. This is the tension between the thought of Spinoza and Leibniz.

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Spinoza or Leibniz

In his excellent book, Before Logic, Richard Mason (who also has a nice book on Spinoza, The God of Spinoza) argues that problems in logic as logicians understand them, and as they attempt to resolve them, are themselves consequences of particular choices, choices that exclude options that might have been on the table had another choice been made. Mason is quite adamant that this does not involve historicizing logic, nor does he adhere to an ahistorical view of logic. The arguments of Mason’s small book are all ‘intended,’ as he claims in the final lines of his book, ‘to show how logic must be part of philosophy, not in any sense before it. Too much must come first.’ And some of what comes first are particular interests and choices that set the stage for the logical developments to follow. One such choice is between Spinoza and Leibniz.

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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.

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Spinoza Upside Down

Steven Shaviro’s post lays out quite nicely the contrast, as he sees it, between Spinoza-Deleuze and Whitehead. In essence this boils down to what role, if any, the virtual plays in their work. As a longtime admirer of Whitehead’s work as well as Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead, I’d like to think that in the end we agree on more than we disagree. I do want to address some of Shaviro’s concerns and see this as an opportunity to clarify some things. To begin, I want to discuss two claims that I would support and I believe Shaviro would support as well:

  1. There are nothing but modes or actual entities.
  2. The turn to the virtual should not be a turn away from actual entities and modes, and if it is there should be no such turning.

As for the first claim I take seriously Deleuze’s claim that his task was to make substance turn on its modes rather than have the modes turn on the substance they are modifications of. This may indeed entail turning Spinoza’s thought upside down, or unhinging it to use Shaviro’s phrase. Deleuze himself appears to echo Shaviro’s criticism of Spinoza that “There is no substance, nothing behind the modes or affections, for there to be modes or affections of,’ when in Difference and Repetition he claims that “Spinoza’s substance appears independent of the modes, while the modes are dependent on substance, but as though on something other than themselves.” (DR 40). As Shaviro states much the same point, “Spinozian substance is still a subject for all the predicates, a monism behind the pluralism.” I may therefore be going too far, even for Deleuze, in my own reading of Spinoza, but it is certainly true of Deleuze’s project, and so that will be my primary focus. First, I agree with Whitehead’s claim, which I discuss in an earlier post, that ‘apart from the things that are actual, there is nothing.’ (Process and Reality, p. 53). So I’ll elaborate a bit upon my reading of Whitehead and hopefully clarify my understanding of the virtual (and I’m inclined to cease using the term altogether and use problematic, dynamic system at the edge of chaos, or some other such term to avoid what has become the almost automatic association of the virtual with being something out of this world, to borrow Hallward’s apt phrase).

As I read Whitehead and Deleuze I see a Humean problematic – namely, what is important are not the terms (impressions and ideas) but the relations between these terms. This will loom large in Deleuze’s work, and not just in his reading of Hume whereby he stresses the significance for Hume of the fact that relations are external to their terms. Understood in this way, and as I argue at greater length in Deleuze’s Hume, a multiplicity is not to be confused with a material or substantial substrate but rather with the relations between actual terms, relations that are irreducible to the terms themselves. In Difference and Repetition, for example, distinct individual languages actualize a multiplicity, but for Deleuze a linguistic multiplicity, as he calls it, that is nothing less than the “reciprocal connections between phonemes.” It is thus the connections and relations between phonemes that is actualized as a language, and yet the phonemes are nonetheless inseparable from the language itself. The phonemes themselves are actual and as such can be objects of study. A language thus does not predicate upon the phonemes but are an emergent property of the relations between phonemes. Similarly for Whitehead he offers what he calls a “cell-theory of actuality.” (PR 256). In the same way that Deleuze argues for multiplicities that are inseparable from the state of affairs that actualize them – the relations among phonemes are inseparable from the diverse languages that actualize them – so too for Whitehead ‘each ultimate unit of fact is a cell-complex, not analyzable into components with equivalent completeness of actuality.’ (ibid.). In other words, and in line with Whitehead’s project to break with traditional philosophy’s long-established tendency to claim that what is ultimate, what grounds everything else, are facts, he will instead claim that there are nothing but actual entities and facts are simply cell-complexes, societies, or emergent properties (though he does not use this term of course) of actual entities. Moreover, as Shaviro points out, actual entities are not complete in themselves, for complete actual entities are perished actual entities, and thus they are always in the process of prehending and being prehended by other actual entities (a point Deleuze stresses about Whitehead in his book on Leibniz).

The lesson I draw from this in understanding the problematic is that it is not outside the actual, nor do I think it undermines the actual; rather, it is the power of relations, or what Deleuze will call the power of “and” that problematizes and intensifies the actual (a problematized or aberrant actual) while being inseparable from it. As Whitehead understands this point, the established facts are “societies [cell-complexes] in an environment [that] will constitute its orderly element, and the non-social actual entities will constitute its element of chaos.” (PR 131). These anti-social or nomadic actual entities are what problematize facts and, given a sufficient uprising (so to speak), they may very well lead to the displacement of this fact by another fact. One can see here one of the many reasons for the profound influence of Whitehead on Latour (not to mention the influence of occasionalism which Graham Harman rightly pointed out to me). This is in effect how I read a Spinoza where substance would indeed turn on the modes; namely,  substance would not be something behind the modes but rather something between them, the power of ‘and’ and the nondenumerable that is distinct from the modes while being inseparable from then.

What then are the implications of all this for the second claim, for the ethical move from the actual to the virtual? As Shaviro shows, Whitehead secularized God and hence placed God on an equal footing to all other actual entities and therefore removed the need for a return to a higher ideal. The same secularization needs to be done of the virtual, Shaviro argues, and if we do so we would then no longer need the move to the virtual. I agree. As I’ve tried to argue in an earlier post and again in Deleuze’s Hume, the virtual is already secularized and is not out of this world as Hallward and Badiou each argue (though in differet ways). The virtual is only determinate and identifiable as actualized, but then it is actualized as a problematized actual, an aberrant actual as the nomadic anti-social actual entities disrupt the equilibrium of the well-ordered society (to continue with Whitehead’s example) and thus the virtual (or problematic) functions as the relationships between actual entities that accounts for their birth and perishing. To clarify what I mean by way of an example, and more importantly to clarify what is meant by a move to the virtual or to multiplicity, I’ll return to an example I used in a previous post. If we take David Sudnow’s efforts to learn improvisational jazz, he is in essence attempting to learn to play jazzy melodies without an already written score. His difficulty in learning to play, which he describes in intricate (some might say excruciating) detail, was to know where his hands should go next in playing a melody. He found himself again and again returning to the well-established jazz chords and melodic runs that his instructor gave him, but found as he watched his instructor play that he always did more than that. What is this more? For Sudnow it was many more ways for his hands to go than the actual paths and patterns he had learned. However, he eventually discovered that when he was playing improvisational jazz he didn’t need to prefigure where his hands would go but could simply begin where he actually was. Sudnow uses the term “melodying” to capture the active, processual nature of playing improvisational jazz, of melodying amidst the actual (where one’s had actually is). Deleuze offers a related example in Logic of Sense when he discusses the actor who counter-actualizes their role. In contrast to Sudnow’s efforts to play improvisational jazz and hence make it up as he goes along, the actor performs a predetermined role with already written lines, but by counter-actualizing this role they are not escaping it but are making it active, individuating it, and they do so by tapping what Deleuze calls in his “Methods of Dramatization” talk, “sub-represenational dynamisms.” These dynamisms entail intensities that are not to be confused with the determinate and singular, with the determinate role. As Deleuze puts it in his talk:

Though experience always shows us intensities already developed in extensions, already covered over by qualities, we must conceive, precisely as a condition of experience, of pure intensities enveloped in a depth, in an intensive spatium that preexists every quality and every extension. Depth is the power of pure unextended spatium [or what I’ve been calling the power of absolutely indeterminate susbstance with respect to Spinoza]; intensity is only the power of differentiation or the unequal in itself, and each intensity is already difference, of the type E-E’, where E in turn refers to e-e’, and e to ε-ε’, etc. Such an intensive field constitutes an environment of individuation. (DI 97)

The turn to the virtual is therefore not a turn from the actual but rather an intensification and individuation of the actual. The actor individuates the role rather than passively reciting lines; Sudnow is individuating a melodic line when he is melodying a jazz piece rather than playing a written score (though even here, as with the actor, a performer can individuate the piece through the ‘power of differentiation’); and a speaker’s language is individuated by the intensive relations of phonemes. At this point one might ask how this relates to doing philosophy and in particular to the ethical concerns of Spinoza and Deleuze. My examples so far have been actors, musicians, and speakers of a language. Deleuze was asked much the same question by Ferdinand Alquié after his “Method of Dramatization” talk. ‘What struck me,’ Alquié says, ‘is that all the examples he [Deleuze] uses are not properly philosophical examples.’ Deleuze responds by saying that this criticism hit ‘home more forcefully,’ and says, ‘I do believe in the specificity of philosophy, and furthermore, this belief of mine derives from you yourself.’ (Alquié supervised Deleuze’s work on Spinoza). In particular, for Deleuze the ‘theory of systems’ he is developing is philosophical, and not scientific, and thus it is a ‘philosphical system, with its own dynamisms, precursors, larval subjects, specific to it.’ Philosophy thus has its specific dynamisms, multiplicities, and processes of individuation. Levi Bryant’s work is exemplary in detailing and applying the systems approach to understanding objects. I’ve argued along similar lines in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos; and Manuel Delanda and Brian Massumi, less I forget, forged this insight even earlier. But what is true of philosophy as a distinctive, individuated system, is equally true for Spinoza and our understanding of an individual life. A determinate, singular life likewise has its own multiplicities that are tapped when one is living a joyful, intense, and individuated life, and this living (a la melodying for Sudnow) is inseparable from what one is actually doing within their determinate life. Whether or not this brings idealism back in, I’d like to think not, but as it is I’ve only sketched the general contours and admit that more needs to be done.