The Mastery of the Passions – Lecture 3

October 25, 2013

So far we have been speaking about how our affects determine our actions, rather than how our actions can determine our affects. We have already seen an indication of this reversal in the previous lecture when we examined Deleuze’s explanation of Spinoza’s practical philosophy as the transmutation of passive to active joy. We should not underestimate how strange this transformation is, as the phrase ‘active joy’ is, on the face of it, a contradiction. How can an affect, which joy is (one of the primary ones along with sadness and desire), which by definition must be something passive, since affects are caused (notice the passive construction!) by the effects of external objects on the body, and their interrelation with the imagination, becomes something active? The answer to this question, as shall see, is the possibility of a different relation to affects; rather than having an inadequate understanding of affects through my misunderstanding of my relation of my body to other external bodies, where I would be at the mercy of one passion following the other, I relate to my affects through my understanding.

The aim of Spinoza here is not to rid us of our affects, since this impossible, as we are part of nature and always vulnerable to being affected by an external objects, but to have greater control and rule over them through a better understanding of external bodies. As Spinoza writes in the appendix of part 4 (4ApXXXII), human power is limited and easily overpowered by external causes, and this means that we do not have absolute power to determine the things that are outside of us. We ought to bear calmly what happens to us, even in relation to the ‘principle of self-interest’. We need to understand that we are not separate from the universe but part of it, and thus many things are outside of our control. If we understand this then we will be content, for the better part of us will be affected by this idea, namely the understanding. From the understanding we accept necessity, and thus we agree with the ‘order of nature’.

One way of agreeing with the ‘order of nature’ is to understand that there is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in Nature itself. In the preface to part 4, Spinoza argues that people see nature as being good or evil, because they project human ideas upon it. We imagine something is perfect because it accomplishes the intention of the author of the work. Thus, if I see a house that is not completed then I will say that it is imperfect, and if it is accomplished, perfect. If I don’t know what the intention of the person who built it, then I can’t be sure whether it is perfect or imperfect. So then we form universal ideas of things, and ‘perfect’ begins to mean anything which embodies a universal idea, and this is true both of natural and artificial ideas. Thus we can call a man ‘imperfect’ because he doesn’t represent the universal idea of what a man should be. These ideas are models, and because they view Nature as having an end, purpose or function, we think that it has to fulfil these models, and if it doesn’t, then it has somehow failed, or worse ‘sinned’.

This idea of Nature being imperfect or perfect is a prejudice and does not rise from true knowledge. We will see that this is an important argument of the appendix to part 1, where Spinoza rejects the idea of finality of nature in which people imagine that God has created the world for the sake of fulfilling their desires and for no other reason. This is all part of his refusal of any anthropomorphism. The eternal infinite being (God or Nature) acts from necessity – the necessity of its action is the same as the necessity of existence (IP16). It exists for no end and acts for no end, it just is. The notion of a final cause is only the relative explanation of human desire, and not Nature or God. In the same way, good and evil are not positive descriptions. They too are modes of thought or notions, which we form when we compare things. Thus one and the same thing can be either good or bad, or not even good or bad, at difference times. These words do not indicate anything intrinsic to a thing or to Nature in general.

As Lloyd argues, in the axioms to part 4, Spinoza tells us that there is nothing in nature that cannot be destroyed by some external cause which is stronger than it, and yet guided by human reason we can become free (Lloyd 1996, pp.84–5). How can we both be dependent on the external world and at the same time be free? It is not a contradiction because of the interconnection of imagination and the affects that were described in Part 3. Because we are finite modes of infinite substance we are subject to external causes of which we cannot have true knowledge nor can we be the origin. It is how we react to this dependence which is important. It is not a question therefore of restricting the emotions to a separate realm and acting only through reason (impossible for human beings), but to avoid the ‘determining power of the emotions’. The issue is whether one just passively undergoes the action of external causes, or whether the mind itself becomes the determining cause. And this has to do with understanding the causes of emotion; not abolishing, but understanding what causes them, and in this understanding we can have some determining power over them. We can then become the determinate cause of our affects rather than just the partial one through the inadequate idea of external things.

The key proposition in Part 4 is proposition 18: ‘A desire which arises from joy is stronger […] than one which arises from sadness.’ Spinoza explains, in the demonstration, that desire is the very essence of what it means to be a human being, or any being whatsoever, which is the striving to preserve one’s being, so a desire that is affected by joy is increased by the affect of joy, where one that is affected by sadness is decreased by it. The force that is created by joy is both ‘human power’ and the external cause, whereas sadness is defined through human power alone. It is we who make ourselves sad. In the scholium, Spinoza argues that this explains our lack of power, and why we are so stupid and irrational though we have the seeds of reason within us. What we need to see is what reason actually can give us, and which affects agree with reason and which do not. Reason demands nothing that is contrary to nature, therefore it is not against nature that ‘everyone should love themselves’, which means seek their advantage, but this means leading oneself to a greater perfection, and preserve one’s own being as far as one can. Virtue is nothing less than acting from one’s own nature, which is the same as striving for one’s own being, and happiness means nothing but being able to preserve one’s being. We, however, can never bring it about that we are not dependent on external things to preserve our being, since we cannot live without them. To be reasonable about affects is to know what one can have power over and what one cannot, but also to understand the external causes which determine the affects that we have. The point is that we must act by knowledge of what is really useful for us, and not by momentary feelings or false models of good and evil.

One way which we are dependent on external things is that we are not alone. We need to see that this is strength and not a weakness, since it belongs to our nature that we are not alone. As Spinoza continues in the scholium to proposition 18, that which is most excellent is what most agrees with our nature. Thus, if two individuals are of the same nature and they combine they would be doubly powerful. For human being there is nothing more useful for them than other human beings. We should want that all our minds and bodies ‘compose’ together. We desire to be with those people who are most like us to the extent that we could become one mind and one body. If people are governed by reason, and by reason they seek their own advantage, they would want nothing for themselves that they would not also wish for others, since this is to their own benefit.

As Bennett indicates, the issue is how Spinoza deduces a community or even common feeling from an ethics that seem so egotistical (Bennett 1984, p.299). Thoughtful egotism will make it obvious that my own interests can only be furthered if I care for the interest of others. It is not restraint or fear that makes me so desire, as though the state or some other outside force will threaten me if I do not take interests of others in regard, but I see this myself from my own reason. One source of this is that I can see that the other man is the same as me. Again reason transforms what appears to be dependency on an external cause, other people, into an active desire, the feeling for commonality and sociability. As Spinoza writes in proposition 35, we agree through reason and not through passions: ‘Only insofar as men live according to the guidance or reason, must they always agree in nature.’ In the corollary, he adds, that what is most useful for us is that we live according to reason, since what is most useful for us is what agrees with our nature, and we only act when we live through the dictates of reason and the understanding. We understand, therefore, that when we seek our own advantage what is most useful for us is other people. It also clear, according to our nature, he also writes in the scholium, that we cannot live a solitary live, since we are ‘social animals’. We thus gain more advantage than disadvantage by living with others. Let ‘the theologians’ and others despise human beings; it is only by joining forces with others that we can help ourselves:

So let the satirists laugh as much as they like at human affairs, let the theologians curse them, let melancholic praise as much as they can a life that is uncultivated as wild, let them disdain men and admire the lower animals. Men still find from experience that by helping one another they can provide themselves much more easily with the things that they require, and that only by joining forces can they avoid the dangers which threaten on all sides. (IVP35S)

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.

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Problem of Induction–Lecture 3

October 24, 2013

The justification of science appears at first glance to be the generalisation of experience. I heat metal x and see that it expands, I heat metal y and see that it expands, I heat metal z and see that it expands, and so on, such that it seems natural that I can claim that all metals expand when I heat them. Most scientists think that this is what a scientific argument is, and most would also think this is what we might mean by objectivity. There are, however, two questions we might ask of them. First of all, does the inductive method really produce knowledge, and secondly even if it did is this how science itself operates in its own history?

Let us take the first question first, because it is the more traditional problem of induction, and has its canonical form in the argument of Hume. To understand his problem with induction we first of all need to understand his epistemology. For Hume, there are two kinds of propositions: relations of ideas, and matters of facts. In the first relation, the truth of our ideas is confined to our ideas alone. Thus if you understand the concept ‘bachelor’ you know that the idea ‘unmarried man’ in contained within it. When it comes to matters of fact, however, we have to go beyond our concepts to experience. They tell us something new about the world and not just the ideas that we already know. A matter of fact would be that Paris is the capital of France, or metals expand when heated. Of course when you know the idea then you know what is contained in it, but to get the idea you first of all have to get the knowledge.

They can be false relations of ideas as there can be false matters of fact. Thus if you think that a whale is a fish, then you have made an error about a relation of ideas (you don’t know that a whale is a mammal), and if you think that Plato died in 399 BC, then you have made an error at the level of facts (Ladyman 2002, p.32). Relations of ideas can be proved true by deduction since the negation is a contraction. Basically relations of ideas are tautologies, you cannot assert that Peter is not a bachelor at the same time as asserting that he isn’t married as well, since being unmarried and being a bachelor are one the same thing. On the other hand, matters of fact cannot be proved by deduction, but can only be derived from experience and their contradiction is not a fallacy. If I say that Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, none of the terms have a logical relation to one another, so I could assume that there is taller mountain. I would have to experience the different tall mountains on Earth to know which one was tallest or not (Ladyman 2002, p.33). For this reason Hume was extremely sceptical about what one could claim to know deductively. All that one could claim are logical relations between concepts that we already known (whose origin anyway would be the senses). What we cannot claim is to produce new knowledge about the world simply through examining our concepts (as theology and metaphysics is wont to do in his opinion).[1]

These distinctions seem very straight forward and at first glance appear to back up the inductivist view of science. The problem for Hume, however, is the idea that matters of fact could have the same necessary conclusions as relations of ideas, as the idea of expanding metals as a universal law implies. The key to this problem for Hume is whether I can assert that what happens in the past is a certain kind for what will happen in the future. I have experienced the fact that the sun rises every morning. Does this give me the right to say that it will rise again tomorrow, when I haven’t actually experience this dawn yet? If it does rise then I will be certain, and in terms of the past, I know that it did rise, but now can I know that I will rise again tomorrow? It is perfectly possible, even if it were unexpected, that the sun might not rise.

Induction for Hume is based upon causal arguments. Our only knowledge of cause and effect is through experience itself because there is no logical reason why any causal relation should hold or not hold. I know that matches cause fires, because I know that from experience, not because matches logically contain fire. Just as we can only infer future behaviour of the world from the actual experience of the world, then we can only understand the category of causality from experience. In other words without experience we would not have the concept of causality as a generality. If I always experience the dawn as the rising of the sun then I conjoin this events. If A always follows B, then I will say that A causes B. This because I believe that the future always follows the same path as the past. So that if A happens, then B will happen. Linked to conjunction is contiguity and precedence. Contiguity means that B follows A in time and space, and precedence is that the effect is always after the cause. (the flame is after the lighted match and not before). It is because of conjunction, contiguity, and precedence, that we feel that we have good reason to say that A causes B, or that the sun will rise tomorrow. Hume assertion, however, is that this can never be a necessary reason, as is suggested by generalisation of a universal law however compelling I feel this causality to be.

Take the example of billiard balls, which seems the most basic relation of causality. The ball X hits the ball Y and causes it to move. But what do we mean by that? Do we mean that the ball X makes the ball Y move or that it produces its movement? We think there is a necessary connection between the two events. X moving and Y moving. What we experience is conjunction, contiguity and precedence, what we do not experience is some mysterious ‘necessary connection’. What we see is ball X and ball Y, what we do not see is some other third thing (like an invisible connection, indeed what we do not see is causality). What does it add to our explanation of the events, even if we were to add this mysterious cause. Wouldn’t the ball X and the ball Y just move in exactly the same way?

The point for Hume is just because two events have always in the past be conjoined, does not mean that we can be universally certain that they will always do so. The conclusion of inductive argument could be false but that would never make it invalid (indeed it might make it more interesting, as if the sun did not rise the next day), but this is never the case with a deductive argument if the premises are true, then the conclusion is necessarily true. What underpins the inductive generalisation is the belief that nature is well ordered spatially and temporally, that what happens many times will happen again in the same way. But that is just an assumption. Why must the future always be the same as the past and it certainly is not a logical contradiction if it were not.

Now of course we make these kind of inferences all the time, and Hume accepts that. I probably would not be able to live if I really though the sun would not rise tomorrow every time I went to bed. But this uniformity is a result of our psychology (perhaps it is an evolutionary trait) rather than reason or logic. We find regularity in nature because our habitual associations of events, and not because these events are necessarily connected.

There is no doubt that Hume’s problem is very profound and does make us look at induction more critically, but we might think that the idea that science itself is inductive in the simply way that inductivism implies is too simplistic. It is important to note that this is a very different critique from the methodological one. In the first case, we investigate the method of induction, and like Hume say that is flawed, or might even argue that Hume’s own account of induction is not a correct description of induction.[2] Whereas in the historical account of science, we are arguing whether the description of method is actually how scientists themselves work. One is a description of the content of scientific knowledge, the other is a description of the activity of scientists themselves. Do scientists really act the way that Hume’s example suggests they do? This is a completely different way of doing philosophy of science. For it does not first of all describe a method of doing science and then apply it to scientists, rather it examines what scientists do and from that derives the method. We shall see that this way of understanding science is going to be very important to Kuhn.

Why might we think that scientists do not use the inductive method in the way that induction has been described so far? Take the example of Newton’s Principia (Ladyman 2002, pp.55–6). Newton presents in this work the three laws of motion and the law of gravity. From these laws in explains natural phenomena like planetary motion. He says that he has inferred these laws through induction from observation. Now it is French philosopher of science Duhem that points out that there is a problem with Newton’s explanation. The data he is using is Kepler’s. His data proves that the planet will move in circles, whereas Newton’s in ellipses. This means that he could not have inferred gravity from Kepler’s data, rather he already the hypothesis of the law of gravity to interpret Kepler’s data. Again Newton’s first law state that bodies will maintain their state of motion unless acted upon by another body, but we have not observed a body that has not been acted upon, so this law could not be obtained through observation. Even Kepler’s theory could not have be derived from observation, because he took his data from Brahe, but could only organise it by already assuming that planets moved in circles, a hypothesis he didn’t receive from data, but from the mystical Pythagorean tradition.

So there are two reasons why we might be sceptical of the simple inductive explanation of science. One is methodological through the problem of induction (though we might come up with a better inductive method to solve this), and the other is historical, that science does not work in the way that theory of induction describes. I think the latter is the more serious issue than the former. For in the end science is what scientists do, and not what philosophers might idealise that they do.

Works Cited

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] A group of philosophers from the 20th century called logical positivists also liked this distinction, and differentiated mathematical and logical truths, on the one hand, and science on the other. Anything that didn’t fit this schema was said to be nonsense or meaningless.

[2] This is what Ladyman does when he lists all the different ways in which we might counter Hume, the most telling being induction as the ‘best explanation’ (Ladyman 2002, pp.46–7).


Sexual Difference

October 23, 2013

Freud was supposed once to have said at a party, ‘What does a woman want?’ (in German, Was will das Weib).[1] Why should we think that women would know less what they want than men do? We might want to dismiss out of hand Freud’s remark as being sexist. Obviously there are many places in Freud’s work that one could find evidence for such a thing, and this would just be one more example out of many. I don’t want to defend Freud in this regard. I would think it would be very hard for someone at that time not to be sexist, and Freud is hardly special concerning these matters. After we have made our accusations, however, there might be something more interesting to say. I am reminded of something that Adorno said about Freud that when he is his at most exaggerated that is when he is true.[2]

Why was it that most of Freud’s patients were women? Do we have to look at the answer to this question in some aspect of Freud’s personality? Is not the real answer that it is entirely unsurprising that if you were an educated women of the early 20th that you would not have been driven quite literally hysterical? The fact that Freud’s treatment room was full of women tells us nothing about women (that women are more susceptible to hysteria than men, for example), but tells us everything about the society that they lived in at the time, which pretty much closed off every opportunity to them. Take for example, the patient at the heart of Freud’s first case study (though it was his friend Breuer’s patient), Anna O., whose real name was Bertha Pappenheim, who later became had a leading role in the development of German social work. Could we not say that her symptoms were caused by the world that she lived in? The real question, then, is why was this world more damaging to woman than men, and is it still so today? What then is the difference between men and women that one could be more damaged than the other? The answer to this question, I want to convince you, must be social rather than biological. There is nothing in the nature of women that would make them less equal than men.

In speaking, thinking and writing about sexual difference, you might imagine that the most important word in this expression is ‘sexual’ and not ‘difference’, since after all what we are interested in is sex. Yet, to understand the possibility of their being two kinds of sexes, one first of all has to know what kind of difference it is that you want, because this choice will determine completely how you understanding your own sexuality. There are two ways that we can think this difference. Either we think that it is real, or we think that it is symbolic. In the first case, difference is determined by nature. This is a very old idea, even though today the new language of genes and evolutionary psychology might dress it up in apparent objective and neutral discourse. The difference between men and women, then, has been laid down in 250,000 year ago when the human species first emerged, and the whole search for equality and justice between the sexes is just liberal wish fulfilment. What might make us a little sceptical about this thesis is that the behaviour of our distant ancestors, which we know very little about, just happens to be exactly the same as the prejudices of our more traditional and conservative fellow citizens. In the symbolic universe, on the contrary, it is not nature that determines the difference between the sexes, but language; that is to say, sexual differences are cultural, and if there is a biological element within sexuality, then it is moulded, shaped and transformed by social pressures and forces that interpret and place a certain value on them. This is the line that Freud takes, but we might conclude that he does not take it far enough, because he still wants to look for something universal that determines the difference between the sexes, even though it is no longer natural. Or if we want to be more precise, it is not that he stills seeks for something universal that makes his interpretation of sexual difference finally inadequate, but that he finds it in the wrong place. This is why we’re going to end with Lacan (well at least Lacan as he is reinterpreted by Zizek).

It is to Freud that we must thank for the invention of the symbolic interpretation of sexual difference. It is in his Three Essays on Sexuality, where we first see a committed and resolute argument against a biological and natural interpretation of human sexuality, which only sees sexuality in teleological or utilitarian terms. We only have sex for the sake of something else, for procreation or serial monogamy. For Freud, on the contrary, human sexuality is highly complex and differentiated, and what we find sexuality expands well beyond any purpose or useful value, a general sexuality, which he called ‘polymorphous perversity’(Freud 1991, p.109). To understand, however, the meaning of this perversity, we have to go back to the genesis of human sexuality. How is it that the child becomes a man or a woman, and takes on sexual difference, which is something that we are born into rather than are?

First of all, this is not primarily a biological process, although biology, of course must come into it, but an accomplishment. You have to become a man or woman in the full sense of the terms. You aren’t just naturally a man or a woman. The key essay for us here is a much latter work of Freud’s, ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’(Freud 1991, pp.323–43). When we look at this essay in detail, we can see that there are two different series one for the girl and one for the boy. This series is not innate as such. This means that you have to live in a society, and society, as such, determines how this series works. Now Freud has a word for how this pressure of society works and it is the Phallus. It is very important not to confuse this with the Penis. The phallus is not biological, but symbolic and as we have said above what characterises human sexuality is that it is symbolic.

Of course this does not mean that there are no biological elements in human sexuality, otherwise it might be hard to imagine how we could have ended up with the difference between the sexes, but this difference is not enough by itself to explain the complexity of our sexuality (what it is to be a man or a woman), however many chimpanzees one looks at. Our biology is always interpreted through a symbolic universe which is given in advance and determines how we are going to interpret the fact that we have a penis or we do not.

It is Freud’s absolute conviction that we live in a male society. Many people will say that he is sexist, and when I tell you about his theories about human sexual development you might agree with him, but I think he is quite correct about this. We do live in a male society.[3] It is certainly the case when Freud was writing (it is no surprise, as we said right at the beginning, that nearly all his cases where women) and I think it is still the case now, even though there might have been all kinds of advancements in the meantime in terms of the law and work. If we do live in a male society, then being born biologically a girl means that you are going to be seriously disadvantaged from the start and this drawback has nothing at all to do with biology, but how this biological destiny is interpreted. Or in Freud’s words, how the logic of the Phallus operates on one’s sexual development.

Let is then see how Freud himself explains how one becomes a boy or a girl; that is to say, how one ends up fulfilling one’s destiny and become what one already was. First of all let us take the series of the little boy. At the earliest stage of the child’s relation to the parents, which Freud calls the ‘phallic phase’, there is no distinction between the sexes. This is because what determines one’s sexual identity is the object of ones desire and it is clear that both the girl and the boy have the same object which is the mother (or more precisely the mother’s breast). For the little girl, however, to become a woman, she has to change her object of desire from her mother to her father. The explanation of this transformation is given by what Freud calls the ‘masculine ideal’. It is this ideal which gives to the physical differences of the sexes their negative and positive significance and explains the divergence in their development: from the phallic to the Oedipal phase to the castration complex and its dissolution for the little boy; from the phallic phase to penis envy to the Oedipal complex for the little girl. You might notice in these divergent series that the little girl never leaves the Oedipal complex.

What one has to understand, however, is that none of this makes sense without the masculine ideal being in operation from the very start. It is this ideal which ensures that the development of the two series is divergent, and at one end we end up with the little girl and at the other the little boy. For why would the little girl feel different in this way unless she did not measure herself against the masculine ideal? Now such an idealisation cannot be made sense of biologically. Sure there is a difference between the sexes, but that is not sufficient to explain why having a penis is a good thing and not having one is bad. The possibility of such a structure of idealisation is not to found in our bodies but in language, and how it already structures our experience of them, and how the little girl experiences her body as lacking something which then affects the rest of her psychological development.

It is Freud’s disciple Lacan who, following the teaching of the French linguist Saussure, who showed that this process of the sexual differentiation depended entirely on the structure of language and not on our biological fate alone. For Lacan, Saussure’s fundamental discovery was that language was divided between the function of the signifier and the signified. The signifier being the word itself and the signified what the word represented or signified. Such a difference is not important in itself, but the realisation that the signifier can operate without the signified. It is this separation of the two aspects of language that explains the possible existence of the ideal which can structure our experience.

No one more than the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizêk has explained more clearly how this split works and the example he gives is the ordinary coke bottle (Zizek 1989, p.96). How is it that this object, when I look at it, somehow represents the ideal of America? Common sense tells us that the idea of America is first, and then this idea is somehow ‘symbolised’ by the coke bottle. This is to interpret the relation between the two elements however after the relation has been constructed. It is not an explanation of how it is created, for it is clear that it is the coke bottle, which is the origin of the idea of America and not the other way around by capturing something that is rather hazy and ill-defined into a definite object which then can pin this picture of the ideal of the American life down for us. It is not, of course, the properties of Coke which make it this symbol, for there is no reason that such a strange tasting liquid should do that; rather it is its formal function. In this instance, the coke bottle (and it does not have to this object, it could have been anything else), is operating as a pure signifier. It is a kind of like an empty box in which we can project our fantasy of what America is and which can then organise and consolidate this reality. It isn’t that the coke bottle signifies the American ideal, because it could not exist without it; rather it is the place through which this ideal is produced. It is precisely because it doesn’t mean anything, that it is ‘it’, as the advertisement goes, that it can act as the empty signifier through which the idea of America can be coalesced.

The masculine ideal operates in exactly the same way as the coke bottle. There is nothing empirical about the male sex that would make it ideal. Rather masculinity has to go through a process of idealisation through which it can then be translated into a norm by which the status of the two sexes can be measured, the one as positive and the other as negative. Although there is something fixed about sexual differences there is nothing stable about the ideal which fixes our fantasies. One day the coke bottle could just be a container for a strange tasting brown liquid, and nothing else. And equally the male sex may no longer occupy the space of the ideal from which the development of the two sexes is measured. The ideal space is precisely empty. Anything can occupy it, so that one might imagine in the future, for example, a feminine ideal, where the little boy would experience himself as mutilated rather than the little girl. What then is universal is not the masculine ideal, as such, but the ideality which language make possible. Equally, even when an ideal works, it is never a total success. This is why the elevation of coke to an ideal strikes us as a bit corny and over the top. Surely reality just isn’t like that, and we only have to visit the real America to think that what is represents is a fantasy. In the same way, the reality of women is always escaping the masculine ideal all the time and in fact it is the men who are more under its power than her. Reality might be structured by language, but it is always being destabilized by it from within.

Works Cited

Adorno, T.W., 2010. Minima Moralia : Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Elms, A.C., 2001. Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous “Quotations.” In J. A. Winer et al., ed. Sigmund Freud and his Impact on the Modern World. New York: Routledge, pp. 83–104.

Freud, S., 1991. On Sexuality : Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works A. Richards & J. Strachey, eds., London: Penguin Books.

Graeber, D., 2011. Debt : the First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, N.Y.: Melville House.

Zizek, S., 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology, London; New York: Verso.


[1] According to Freud’s biographer Ernst Jones, he was supposed to have said this to Marie Bonaparte who was a patient of his, though this phrase never appears in his work or his diaries (Elms 2001, pp.84–8).

[2] What he actually wrote is ‘In psychoanalysis nothing is true except the exaggerations’ (Adorno 2010, p.49).

[3] Anthropologists tell us that there have been examples of female societies in the past, but they have long since disappeared with the rise of agriculture and the state (Graeber 2011, pp.176–82).


Joy and Sadness – Spinoza Lecture 2

October 13, 2013

When we come to Spinoza’s analysis of affects the fundamental distinction is between active and passive ones. This is because the essence of singular things is to be understood in terms of power. Since only existence is what distinguishes one thing from the other, each thing seeks to preserve its own existence (‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being’ IIIP6), otherwise it would cease to be what it is. Any singular thing, however, is also linked to an exterior environment, and the more complex it is, the more complex these relations will be. What defines the nature of human beings, is not some ‘natural perfection’, or that they are created in the image of God, (all ideas guilty of the worse kind of anthropomorphism for Spinoza), but the complexity of their bodies and therefore the complexity their relations to other external bodies. These relations can have two basic forms either active or passive: either I determine myself in relation to these external bodies, or they determine me, and the more that I determine myself the more my power increases, and less I determine myself, or the more that I am determined by external causes, the more my power decreases.[1]

The distinction between passive and active affects is understood by Spinoza through two fundamental affects: joy and sadness. We might say that for Spinoza human affective life is made up of three basic affects: desire (conatus – the striving for self-preservation that all singular things have), and then joy and sadness. All the other emotions that Spinoza describes in the Ethics are merely variations of these three basic affects but the most fundamental are joy and sadness.[2] How can we understand this difference between joy and sadness? Spinoza explains it in proposition 11 of Part 3:

The idea of any thing that increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our body’s power of acting, increases or diminishes, aids or restrains, our mind’s power of thinking.

Whatever increases or diminishes the power of the body to act also increases or diminishes the power of the mind to think. This follows, Spinoza writes in the demonstration, from 11P7 and IIP14. The first is the statement of parallelism – the order and connection of things is identical to the order and connection of ideas – and the second is that the mind contains what the body experiences, and the more complex a body is the more sophisticated these experiences are. In the scholium, Spinoza explains that our minds, because of the complexity of our bodies can go through many changes. These changes, to use Bennett’s expression, are to be thought in terms of ‘up and a down’, as the passage from a great or lesser perfection (Bennett 1984, p.257). What does Spinoza mean by ‘perfection’ in this context? Again we have to remind ourselves that for Spinoza human beings are not a ‘dominion within a dominion’. We are part of the universe of infinite series of causes and effects, about which we cannot have absolute knowledge. The human body is essentially vulnerable to external bodies, because it has so many complex and involved relations to them. To increase my power to act is to increase my power to determine myself and act against these external bodies through the desire of self-preservation, and my power to act is decreased when these external bodies threaten by existence. I can only be destroyed, Spinoza writes, by external causes. Perfection is an affirmation of existence. The more perfect something is the more reality that thing has, and therefore the more power to act it has and thus the more power to think.

It is with respect to this increase and decrease of the power to act that we can understand the two fundamental affects joy and sadness. Joy is the affect by which the mind passes to a greater perfection, and sadness to a lesser one. There are things in the world that make us joyful and there are things in the world that make us sad. This is all that we need to understand passive affects. First of all these affects have to do with the body, but we know from part 2 that the mind is the idea of the body and that the power of the mind to imagine things depends on the existence and relation of the body. Thus joy and sadness, at least for human beings, does not just involves direct relations with our bodies, but also with our imagination, the idea of the bodies we have, and the ideas of how they are changed or modified by external bodies (whether persons or objects). For the most part, because of the very way we do have ideas of our body, these ideas are inadequate (because we do not have an adequate understanding of the relation our body to the other bodies).

As long as the body is affected by an external body, Spinoza writes in the following proposition, the mind will regard that body as present, and as long as the mind imagines that external body as present, then our own bodies will be affected in the same way. This means that if the mind imagines an external body that increases the power of the body to act then the mind’s power of thinking will be increased, and it will feel joy, and if it imagines an external body that decreases the power of the body to act then the mind’s power of thinking will be decreased, and it will feel sadness. Then mind, then, Spinoza states in the corollary of IIIP13, will try to stop imagining those things that restrain the power of that body and its own, and in the scholium this explains the difference between love and hate. One who loves strives to make present the thing he loves, because this is a passage to a greater perfection through the idea of an external cause, joy, and one hates, for the opposite reason, will try to destroy the thing that she hates.

Through imagination we have, therefore, very complex relations to external bodies. It means in IIIP15 that anything can be the accidental cause of joy or sadness, and we can love or hate those things without any cause known to us because they are similar in our imagination to other objects that affect us. Thus, as in IIIP16, by the mere fact that there is a resemblance to one object or another, we can be affected by joy or sadness. Moreover imagination also opens us up to time. We are affected by the same joy or sadness, Spinoza argues, whether we are talking about a past or future external body, or whether we are speaking about a present one. Thus the imagination retains past impressions of encounters which still affect it in the present, and as the same time can project these impressions, both present and past ones into the future. As long as I am affected, Spinoza writes in the demonstration, I will regard the external body as present, even if it doesn’t exist. The image of an external body is the same whether it exists in the past, present, or future; it is there in my mind, and it affects me. We might say that accidental causes of affects are always the mediation of one affect by another affect, either through different affects, or different times. In each case, for Spinoza, the causes of these affects are inadequately understood and thus experiences passively, whether they are sad or joyful.

It is the intersection between affects and affections which determine the specific nature of human emotions. The mind strives to imagine and recollect images that augment the power of the body to act, and to keep before those ideas which exclude the existence of things that diminish my power to act. It is these images that carry associative feelings from the past, which reflect the causal interactions between my body and others that have left their traces within me, such that different bodies with different traces will react differently in the present then I will. My body is all my past interactions which affect my mind carried through into the present and projected into the future.

Our relation to affects is not merely individual but social (and this will be very important in part 4, to show that the self-interest does not contradict friendship and sociability). It is true for Spinoza that each being strives to exists, but the form that this striving takes is determined by the nature of that being. Human beings are social beings. This means that my own well-being is inconceivable without others. I am not first an isolated being which then encounters others; rather, my very individuality is inconceivable without my relations to others that care for me, and I care for them. It is not that the individual pursues his or her own interests against the interests of others but that to be an individual is to be already acted upon and act with others. My existence, as a determinate mode of infinite substance, is already involved with the existence of others. This is why from IIIP21 Spinoza argues that if we imagine the thing that we love affected with joy and sadness, then we too will be affected by joy and sadness and we will love those who affect those we love with joy, and hate those who cause them sadness. We too also feel empathy towards other beings like ourselves (IIIP27). If the nature of an external body is like our body, then if we imagine that body involving an affect, then we too will be affected by that same affect, which explains the feeling of pity that we have for those that suffer. For human being, affects are imitative. We do not only affirm ourselves but also those we love. Those we love are those whose existence gives us joy, and we wish to give them joy, and exclude from existence everything that gives them or us sadness. This is not altruism as an idea but the power of imagination. If we imagine someone like us to be affected by an affect, we can likewise imagine ourselves also so affected and so also be affected. This similarity is not one of common identity but a direct apprehension through bodily awareness. Thus in every bodily experience there is a direct relation to other bodies and this must always be the case for human beings. And this is both the cause of conflict and harmony. Every human emotion, whether positive or negative, is caused by bodily imaginings, and our ideas of good and evil arise out the joy and sorrow of being in our bodies. What is good is not what we judge but what we desire. We judge it good only because we desire it, and not the other way around.[3]

There is no Good and Evil in the moral sense. Rather they are relations between bodies. What is good is what augments my existence; what is bad is what diminishes it. If we think of this in terms of food, Deleuze explains, then what is bad for us is what destroys our bodies (Deleuze 1983, p.34). This is what we mean by poison. What is good is what suits our nature, and what is bad is what doesn’t. If something suits our nature then it increases our power, if it doesn’t, then it decreases it. Thus, as Deleuze writes, the aim of the Ethics is replace transcendent morality with an immanent ethics, which is nothing else than the relation between bodies (Deleuze 1983, p.35). It follows from this that Spinoza does not see any benefit to sadness at all. Sadness does not teach us anything. It only makes us weak, and from this weakness arise feeling of ‘hate, aversion, mockery, fear, despair…, pity, indignation, envy, humility, repentance, abjection, shame, regret, anger, vengeance, cruelty…’(Deleuze 1983, p.39).

Every individual, for Spinoza is a singular essence, which is a degree of power. This degree of power is determined by an ability to be affected. Thus an animal is not defined, Deleuze explains, in Spinoza as a species, but in terms of its power to be affected, by amount of affections that it is capable of (Deleuze 1983, pp.39–43). When it comes to human beings this power of being affected is defined by two types of affections: actions and passions. Actions explain the nature of the individual (what it can do) and passions how it is affected by external bodies. The power to be affected is present as the power to act, when it is ‘filled’ by active affections of the individual, and the power to suffer when it ‘filled’ by passions. For every individual the power to be affected is constant, but the relation between active and passive affects is variable. It is not only important, however, to distinguish between actions and passions, Deleuze adds, but between two kinds of passions. If we encounter an external body which does not suit us, then the power of this body is opposed to the power of ours and as such it acts as a ‘subtraction’ or ‘fixation’. It takes diminishes or subtracts from our power to act, and the passions that correspond to this relation are sad. In the opposite case, if we encounter an external body that suits us, then its power is added to ours, and we are affected by the passion of joy. Now joy, just like sadness must be separated from our power to act, since it is a passion and must therefore have an external cause, but the power to act increases proportionally such that we reach a point where passive joy ‘transmutes’ into active joy. There cannot be, however, any active sadness, because sadness by definition decreases the power to act and thereby, the power to exist, and not being does not seek to preserve its existence. Suicide, for Spinoza, is not a sign of strength but weakness: a more powerful cause outside of me causes me to take my own life, if even I think mistakenly that I am the cause.

All the sad emotions and passions of our lives represent the lowest point of our power, and thus of our existence. Sadness alienates us from ourselves. We are totally at the mercy of feelings that come from the outside, and totality powerless from stopping them. Only joy can help us to act. If we allow ourselves to be affected by those things that bring us joy, then we become more powerful and more active. One issue for Ethics, then, is how can we experience the most joy so that this feeling of joy can be transformed into ‘active free sentiments’ especially since our nature since to make us so vulnerable to sadness and unhappiness (are we not the most miserable creatures on this planet?), since we are constantly affected by external bodies that we do not understand. How then can we affirm ourselves when we are buffeted from negative passions from all sides? This is the question that part 4 will seek to answer.

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Deleuze, G., 1983. Spinoza : philosophie pratique, Paris: Éd. de Minuit.

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.

Rorty, A.O., 1987. The Two Faces of Spinoza. The Review of Metaphysics, 41(2), pp.299–316.


[1] This is always relative for Spinoza, since as finite determinate modes, human beings can never totally be separated from external causes. The aim of the Ethics cannot be to rid ourselves of affects, since they belong to our nature, but to understand them better. Whether we do so is itself is not up to us. Self-determination is not free will for Spinoza but the recognition of necessity (Rorty 1987).

[2] Bennett lays these out, though he is not convinced that Spinoza should treat desire in the same way that he does joy and sadness (Bennett 1984, pp.263–4).

[3] Geneviève Lloyd gives an excellent explanation of this (Lloyd 1996, pp.77–6).


Induction – Lecture 2

October 9, 2013

Last week we spoke about the difference between science and religion. We said that this difference could be conceptualised as one between belief and facts. The more, we investigated, however, what a fact is, the less certain we became of its status. Common sense might tell us that facts are just out there and we simply observe them and scientific theories are merely a collections of these observations. When we look at the history of science, however, it is clear that this is not how science works. What we take as facts are already determined by the way we understand and see the world, and our observations are equally shaped by this background conceptuality. In this lecture, we are going to investigate the problem of induction, and we shall see that we’ll come up against the same barrier again. Science is not just a disinterested observation of facts, but is already predetermined in some way or other to interpret these facts. Moreover the knowledge that science has of the world cannot itself be infallible, because of the very way that it interprets these facts.

Ordinarily we might think that scientific theories are obtained from facts through observation and this is what makes it different from belief. But what does it exactly mean that theories are obtained or derived from facts? How do we get from the one to the other? What we mean here is something logical rather than temporal. We don’t just mean that first of all there is a collection of facts, and then a theory, as though facts were just pebbles on a beach that we pick up. A theory, on the contrary, is supposed to tell us something about these facts before we have even discovered them. It is about meaning and context, rather than just what comes first or second in a temporal order.

What then do we mean by derivation when we speak about logic? We don’t have to go into the complexities of logic here but just the basic form since all we are interested is how theories originate from facts. Logic is based upon deduction. Here is a valid deductive argument, which comes from Ladyman:

All human beings are mortal

Socrates is a human being

Socrates is mortal. (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

1 and 2 are the premises and 3 is the conclusion. You cannot deny the conclusion if you take the premises as true. We can change the premises slightly, however, as Ladyman writes, and the deduction would be wrong.

All human beings are animals

Bess is an animal

Therefore Bess is a human being (Ladyman 2002, p.19)

What is important here is that it’s the form of the argument itself that is wrong. The conclusion does not follow from the premises even if one accepts them. Bess could be any kind of animal. What is positive about deductive arguments is that they are truth preserving. That is, if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is. The problem is that the conclusion does not contain any more information than the premises. It does not tell you anything more about the world and surely this is what science does.

From this is follows that if science is derived from facts then it cannot be done so logically, because logic cannot tell us whether a fact is true or not. If we know that there are true facts then we can logically relate them together (logic is ‘truth preserving’), but it is only from experience whether we know that they are true. Take for example the scientific law that metal expands when it heats. It does not matter how many times that I repeat this, as Chalmers argues, it does not logically follow (as is implied below) that all metals will expand when heated:

metal x expanded when it was heated

metal y expanded when it was heated

metal z expanded when it was heated

All metals expand when heated (Chalmers 1999, p.44)

If scientific theories don’t come from facts logically, then how are they derived? The answer must be through experience itself; that is to say, inductively. What do we mean by induction? First of all the difference between deductive and inductive arguments is that in the latter the conclusion always goes beyond what is contained in the premises, as the example above shows. I can never be certain that all metals will expand when heated, because this is precisely what I assert when I move from a singular instances (this metal expands when heated) to the universal judgement that all do so.

How then can I adjudicate between a bad and good inductive argument in the way that I did with deductive ones? It would seem, through common sense, that I might be able to justify my universal judgements if I go through a number of singular observations. In other words that I observe a large number of samples of metal to investigate whether they do expand or not, and if I observe in this large number that they do, then I would be justified in asserting ‘All metals expand when heated’. Thus the laws of induction would be

1) The number of observations should be large

2) They must be repeated under a wide range of conditions

3) There should be no exceptions.

It is precisely for this reason that English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon can up with his ‘new method’.[1] First of all this method is negative. The point is that we should avoid falling into bad arguments rather than coming up with new deductive ones. Bacon’s method is rules about how to practice science by avoiding some of the worst errors. These errors he called ‘idols of the mind’: that we tend to see order and regularity in nature when there is none is the idol of the tribe; that our judgements and are shaped by our language and concepts rather than what we see is the idol of the marketplace; and finally that are views of nature can be distorted by our philosophical and metaphysical systems of thought is the idol of the theatre.[2] From this follows the positive content of Bacon’s method that we ought to make observations of nature that are free of these idols. It is from the mass of information gained through observation that we should make generalisations, rather than understanding our observations through generalisations, which he accuses the philosophers of doing. This he calls the ‘natural and experimental history’.

It is important to understand that what he meant by observation is not just looking but experiments and it this emphasis on experiments that distinguishes the new method from the old Aristotelian one. It is experiments that preserve the objectivity of observations. First of all it allows them to be quantified and secondly that they can be repeated by others and thus tested as to their reliability. It is this data from experiments that are then put into tables. To use then example from Bacon of heat: first we have the table of Essence and Presence that lists those things that are directly part of the phenomena of heat; secondly, we have the list of Deviation and Absence, which lists those phenomena that are related to the first but have no heat; and then we have the list of Comparison, where features that have a quantity of heat are listed and quantified. The empirical method is one of elimination. Let us say I argue that the colour white is explanation of heat. Then I would check my tables and I would see that not all the phenomena that hot are white, or that some phenomena that are white are not hot and so on. White, then, could not be part of theory of heat. Through this process of elimination Bacon explained that heat was caused by the ‘extensive motion of parts’, which is not far from the modern kinetic theory of heat.

Bacon believed that one can discover the forms that made what we observed possible, even though they were not directly perceivable. These forms where the direct physical cause of what we saw. This was the rejection of final causes, where natural phenomenon where viewed as purposive. The Aristotelian explanation, for example, that stones fall to the ground was because the earthly element sought to fall to the centre of the earth. Teleological explanations such as these are only suitable for human actions (since humans unlike stones do have desires) but not natural phenomena. The ubiquity of physical causes is the major different between new empirical science of the 17th century and the old science of Aristotle’s era that had dominated the explanation of nature for so long.

There are, however, problems with induction. First of all what is the status of the non-observed forms that are the physical cause of what we observe. How can we make a leap from what is seen to what is not seen? It is possible to see how heat might be explained by Bacon’s method since in fact we can see the motion, but how would we go about explaining radiation? Also we see in science that there can be two competing forms that explain the same visible phenomena such as the two theories of light, for example. Bacon does have an answer for the last problem. He says that we ought to set up two competing experiments that would test what we observe and we could see which was the more successful. But this already demonstrates what we might doubt about Bacon’s new method. In this case are not the theories themselves determining the experiments and not what we observe? Bacon says that science is made from two pillars: observation and induction and that we ought to be able to observe nature without prejudice (the prejudices being the idols of the mind). This is perhaps what most people think that science is. We take many particular instances and then we generalise a law. Yet the problem is how we account for this mysterious leap from the particular to the universal. How many instances make a general law and if there is an exception does this mean that law is no longer a law? There are two problems with the principle of induction as Bacon describes it. One is that we might doubt that any observation is unprejudiced. This is not just in a negative sense as Bacon describes it, but also positively, that without a theory it is hard to know what one would observe in the first place. Secondly, we might worry about how it is possible to go from many observations to a general law. Just because X has happened many times before, how do we know we know that it will happen again? This problem of induction, as it is called, and was introduced by the Scottish philosopher Hume, has for many made naïve inductivism untenable. We shall investigate this problem in next week’s lecture.

Works Cited

Chalmers, A.F., 1999. What is this Thing Called Science?, St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland.

Ladyman, J., 2002. Understanding Philosophy of Science, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] See (Ladyman 2002, pp.22–5) for this summary of Bacon’s method.

[2] As we can see, what Bacon sees as idols, we might see as unavoidable necessities and this precisely prevents us from accepting the inductive explanation of science.


Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

October 4, 2013

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on, and defend, some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites (thus it is perfectly possible to think that animals are capable of ethics in this sense).[1] We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudaimonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects. To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].


[1] This is not to say that animals have rights for Spinoza. Not even human beings have these, at least not in the normal way that we think of them. A right is a power for Spinoza and so we have a ‘right’ over something to the extent that we have power over them.


Humanities in a University in Ruins

October 2, 2013

You are a student in the school of humanities. You have come to study a particular subject. Some English, some History, some Philosophy, and so on. All of you, perhaps, have some idea what you subject is about. You might not know very much about your subject and hope to learn something about it, but you do have some idea how to get about it and where to begin, so to speak. But humanities? What is that? Does anyone know anymore what that word means and why should anyone be interested in that at all? If I am English student, then I want to study English. Why should I learn anything about history or philosophy, let alone linguistics or creative writing. Aren’t those students who claim that knowing about the humanities isn’t relevant to their course right after all?

It goes without saying that I do not think so, otherwise I wouldn’t be standing in front of you now introducing this course to you with a few words. First of all, I think the specialism of English education system is not beneficial. I think a student should know about these other subjects. Indeed, I think humanities students should now about science and science students should know about humanities, but that would be another story. But this isn’t the major reason why I think you ought to have some grasp of the humanities. To understand humanities is to understand what a university is and why it exists, though as we shall see this might not be such a happy story.

What it the history of the word humanities? The word comes from the Latin studia humanitatis that was linked to the rediscovery of the classical world in the Renaissance out of which grew literary and historical criticism (both of which are essential to discovery and preservation of ancient texts. What began, however, as a spiritual awakening soon became institutionalised in the university, and even became associated with a certain discipline of the mind that was necessary for particular professions (as though knowing Latin and Greek somehow made one a good civil servant). Perhaps the greatest influence of the ideal of humanities was the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt. He redesigned the curriculum of the university of Berlin which became the template of the modern university around the world, even here in England. Central to the idea of the university for Humboldt was Bildung. This word is usually translated as ‘culture’, but it means more than that. It comes from the verb bilden, which means to ‘form’, whose earlier form the English verb ‘build’ derives. Culture, in this context, means self-formation. To study the humanities is to be on a journey of self-discovery, not just to learn about something outside of oneself, but to discover oneself. This is the tension that is at the heart of humanities. It is not enough simply to know stuff. One has to form an opinion about them that is an expression of one’s own self-development. Somehow the study of humanities makes one a better person. It develops one’s character, and this development is expressly moral.

Humanities is just as much defined as what it is not as what it is. What it is not is science. As opposed to the humanities, the object of science is not the cultural production of humans themselves but the investigation of nature. And why as no-one can agreed a common method to the study of humanities, everyone is pretty certain what scientific method is. It is the study of facts through empirical means. Moreover, not only can everyone readily agree what science is, we can also see around us the fruits of its success. Science gives us IPhones and Google. What has the humanities ever done? Science produces wealth on which the humanities are parasitical, and even the humanities student is seen as a shirker and scrounger.

Of course one only has to investigate deeper underneath the headlines to know that this absurd (you can find numerous list on the internet of famous and successful people who have studied the humanities), but that is beside the point. The prejudice against the humanities is evidence of something very real, which for some time now there has be a real crisis in the humanities and this has to do with what we now think the function of a modern university is and which has little at all to do with how Humboldt imagined it when humanities was at its heart.

I think that Bill Reading is right to say that ‘it is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society nor what the exact nature of that society is’ (Readings 1996, p.2). This is because the university is no longer tied to the idea of culture (and a national culture at that), but is increasingly seen as a corporation that is part of a trans-global network. It’s function is to produce capital and capital of a particular kind: human capital. In this context, the student is more likely to see themselves as a consumer rather than some who is on a journey of self-discovery and the object of their study is less like to some national cultural artefact (why should studying George Eliot be in any better than studying the Simpsons?). If the purpose of the contemporary university is to produce technology (sciences) and training (professional and vocational subjects), what possible place is there for the humanities? You can hear people say that they offer great transferable skills, but why should they be better than any other training, and anyway to defend them in this way, is this not already to admit to defeat?

How, then, can we defend, if it is at all possible, humanities today on its own terms, if the cultural project of the university is now over? Reading again suggests a way forward for us. Rather than justifying national and cultural identity, whether at the individual or state level, the role of the university in the era of globalisation, and more specifically humanities, is to question what it is that we value. ‘Accountants,’ he writes, ‘are not the only people capable of understanding the horizon of contemporary society, nor even the most adept at the task’ (Readings 1996, p.18). Paradoxically the ruin or crisis of the humanities might be the very reason for its salvation, but if it continues to cling to the old ideas of culture and tradition, then it will be doomed.

Bibliography

Readings, B., 1996. The university in ruins, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.