Genealogy and the Will to Power, Nietzsche and Foucault – Lecture 5

August 11, 2016

panopticonFrom one so dismissive and critical of much of philosophy, Nietzsche is unhesitating in his admiration of Spinoza. He writes in a postcard to this friend Overbeck:

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted. I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by ‘instinct.’ Not only is his over-all tendency like mine – making all knowledge the most powerful affect – but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself: this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil.[1]

What does the death of God mean in Nietzsche? It isn’t merely a matter of demonstrating once and for all that God does not exist, since in some sense Kant had already achieved this, but that with the death of God Man also ceases to exist. We forget, in the famous scene of the madman in the Gay Science, the crowd who are laughing at the man searching for God and who declares we have all killed God, are themselves atheists. No one believes in God anymore, at least not serious people, and no-one is the least worried about whether God exists or not. What is really disturbing is what happens after God dies, for it there is no longer any transcendent order to the universe. ‘Are we not straying,’ the madman cries, ‘as through an infinite nothing’ (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 181).

God is a symptom not a cause. It is the sign of a desire to uncover an ultimate purpose or goal of the universe, as though all of this meant something more than the fact that it exists. This purpose or goal is a reflection of human interests and desires projected upon the universe. As though the universe only existed for the sake of human beings. God is just a sign of the ridiculous over weaning pride of a highly evolved chimpanzee who imagines that the universe is a reflection of itself.

In the preface to the third part of the Ethics, Spinoza argues that human beings are not a special being separate from the rest of nature, but a part of nature like anything else. Human beings are no more sinful or evil than any other being. The right way of living is not to be referred to some mysterious human power that takes us outside of nature, but to active and passive affects and how the mind can moderate them that are immanent to nature. It is not enough to curse and laugh at our affects and actions, rather it is important to understand them, just as we understand any other animal behaviour. What is good and best for us. Just as it would be absurd to morally judge the actions of lion or a volcano, then it is ridiculous to morally judge our affects. Anger, for example, is a natural affect of human beings. It would be wrong to label it therefore as a defect or evil. We might come to see that in certain circumstances anger is a not beneficial, and then we might come to moderate it, but we do so because we understand and rationalise it, not because we have given it a moral label. Nature operates by rules, and if human nature is part of nature, then it too must operate by rules. To understand our behaviour means to understand what causes us to act or respond in a certain way and what would be most beneficial to our lives (in the same way that we understand what benefits a plant or animal, too much water and sun it will die, or it if it is not fed the right kind of food). This means that we treat human actions ‘just as it were a question of line, planes and bodies’ (de lineis, planis aut de corporibus) (Ethics 3 pref.).

This is not to argue that values, morals and religions do not exist, because we can look around the world and see that they do, but that the origin of values, morals and religion cannot not itself be moral or religious. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is about the non-moral or non-religious origin of morality or religion. This origin is power. Thus, although morality and religion present themselves as the opposite of power, as though they were objective rather than subjective, they are disguised forms of power, or the way in which power organises and distributes affects. What better way to control and dominate others than to cause them to control and subjugate themselves? Religion, before it is a metaphysical doctrine of the origin of the universe, is a legitimisation of political authority. God the King is a justification of the King as God.

Value judgements, like ‘good’ or ‘bad’ are immanent to a form of life. What is good for me is bad for you or vice versa, just as the gazelles are good for lions, but lions are bad for gazelles. That the gazelles construct a universe in which lions are intrinsically evil is retrospective justification of their hatred of lions. The universe, of course, is indifferent to them both. The language we use to justify ourselves has its origin in history. It is just that we have forgotten this history. For Nietzsche morality has it origin as the expression of power. Those who have power see themselves as good against those they see as different from themselves. Morality is the expression of a rank society. If we were equal, then there would be no moral judgements. The antithesis of this aristocratic instinct is herd morality. How do the weak impose their own values? ‘By inverting, disfiguring the meaning attributed to the strong’ (Kofman and Large, 1993, p. 87). Our values, rather than expressing a separate hidden order of the universe, are nothing but the forgotten etymological transformations of the result of the historical changes in power and the social logic that maintained them.

In the past, what was called good was the expression of the power of those who had aristocratic values. The was still the case when priests took power, since divine authority (the pure and the impure) was there to maintain aristocratic values. The emergence of kingdoms in human history was the result of military conquest. The function of religion subsequently was to legitimate social stratification. We are the pure, they are the impure. We are pure because we are powerful. They are impure, because they are weak. The emergence of a kingdom from a rank society always follows the same logic:

Eventually the aggressive leader of one rank society (often a highly motivated usurper) gained an unforeseen advantage over his neighbours. He pressed his advantage relentlessly until he had subdued all his rivals. He turned their chiefdoms into the provinces of a society larger than any previously seen in the region. To consolidate power, he broke down the old loyalties of each province and replaced them with an ideology stressing loyalty to him. He rewarded priests who were willing to verify his genealogical credentials and revise his group’s cosmology, ensuring his divine right to rule. (Flannery and Marcus, 2012, p. 347).

It is not morality and religion that explain social stratification, but the other way around; social stratification explains the origin of different moralities and religions. This is the major and perhaps only lesson of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, even if you disagree with the details of his argument.

The final social logic we observe is the internalisation of the priestly type. Here the priest does not exist for the sake of the power of the king, but for himself. This is the history of Judeo-Christianity and the domination of a slave morality and the inversion of the moral order. What had hitherto been seen as worthy and good, the aristocracy, is now seen as a base and evil. All that is powerful is evil and all that is weak is good. But not only do we get a reverse of the terms of the relation but the type of relation. The first form is active, whereas the second is reactive. The noble morality first of all experiences itself as good and then judges what is different from it as bad, whereas the second form of power, slave morality, has to judge first what is bad to be able to feel good about itself. Thus the noble spirit cannot take its enemies seriously for long. It does not have the spirit for revenge. It forgets. And for this very reason it loves its enemies for how else is it to prove itself. For the slave, on the contrary, the enemy, the noble spirit, is the wicked and evil one. The thought of evil is the first thought, and only secondarily does it come up with the idea of the good.

It is in the triumph of slave morality that Nietzsche believes morality as ideals and thereby judgement is born. Weakness is turned into an ideal, as though it were something that one had to choose to be rather than what one is. Thus patience and obedience to a higher power (God) is seen as a virtue. Be submissive! They are no doubt miserable and hate life, but they believe that they will be rewarded in the future, in heaven. They see themselves better than the noble, even though they have to obey them, and obey all authority, because their God has told them to do so. But they comfort themselves that they, the nobles, will punished in the future, whereas, the slaves they will see their reward. Or own morality is a residuum of this triumph of reactive will to power. The only difference is that there no nobles, but only the values of the slave, and thus we do not even see ourselves as slaves anymore.

Even though Foucault’s story will be very different from Nietzsche’s, there are many things, in terms of methodology, that they share in common, and Foucault himself is transparent about this.[2] History is not made up of a necessary evolution that somehow ends up with us, as though the whole of history had this intention in mind from the beginning, or that there was an internal logic to its development like ripening of a fruit. On the contrary, history is contingent and we only discover its meaning after the fact. Thus Nietzsche’s story of the origin of our morality is not necessary. Things could have happened differently and our morality could be totally different. There is no necessity that slave morality would have triumphed or that slave morality had taken the form of Judeo-Christianity, and thus we could be living totally different lives with totally different values, as there is no necessity that the universe itself came into existence.

Rather than human history being made up of chain of historical events that are linked together necessarily, it is made up of singular contingent events that are rare and exceptional. What we discover, in the archaeological and anthropological evidence, is changes in social logic are sporadic and intermittent, and nothing changes for 1,000 of years or hundreds of generations, if not at all. What is interesting about human history is not how many things happen, but how little different kinds of things happen, and thus is because of course power is essentially conservative. Why change something when things have always worked.[3] If revolutions in social logic are rare, then they are also discontinuous. Thus a society that works with one logic that stresses equality and sharing, for example, in which hoarding and wealth is seen as shameful and dishonourable, like the Hadza, will be completely different from a society in which inequality is hereditary and stratified, like the Tongans. They will speak a completely different social logic, and their religions and moral values will therefore be completely different. Societies with different social logics are discontinuous and incommensurate and there is no universal language that can translate one into the other. There is no such thing as truth, but only truths (the Hadza truth, the Tongan truth and so on).

It is for this reason that we have to understand power historically rather than metaphysically. There is no essence of power, only different social forms of power that are expressed historically. If we look to our most recent past, rather than the long stretch of our human history from 200,000 years ago, then we can say that Europe has undergone a transformation of political power. In the first instance, power is justified, as in most kingdoms, through divine right. Sovereignty is the authority of the king justified through religion as is the case in all kingdoms. From the 16th century, Foucault discerned a new kind of power, which he called disciplinary power, and which was latter transformed into new form in the 18th and 19th centuries, which he called biopolitics. In the first case, power has as it object individuals, in the second, the population as a whole.

The justification of society is no longer transcendent, in the sense of sovereign power, but immanent, in the sense of a contract. The key distinction is no longer between the people and the sovereign, as it is in an aristocratic kingdom, but between the people and the multitude. The question of power is how can we transform the multitude, which represents chaos and disorder, into the people, which represents stability and order. Disciplinary societies do so through controlling individuals through institutions (prisons, barracks, schools and hospitals), biopolitical societies through the production of populations through norms and standardisation. Each society would require its own discourse and moralities, which would be very different in their meanings and effects, even if they were to use the same language and terms. This new form of power is the power of the market:

The market determines that good government is no longer simply government that functions according to justice. The market determines that a good government is no longer quite simply one that is just. The market now means that to be good government, government has to function according to truth. (Foucault et al., 2008, p. 32).

Thus it is the change in the nature of power that determines the rise of utilitarianism as the dominant form of moral rationality, because utilitarianism can now be expressed in language of the market, cost-benefit analysis and rational choice theory, rather than whether utilitarianism is the best expression of an objective universal ethics, as opposed, for example, to deontology. Morality is not external to power relations. It is just one more discourse amongst many used to justify and legitimate them.

If power is the explanation of morality and not morality power, then how do we explain power? Power names actions or practices. Promising, judging, loving, and governing are all practices. History is nothing less than the history of changing practices and the social logic that underpins them. When it comes to practices there is always a relation between forces, one which is active and one which is passive or reactive. So there is the loving and the being loved, the judging and the being judged, governing and the being governed. A practice is the encounter between these two forces. This encounter Is not causal. In other words, the active force does not cause the passive one, rather there is an encounter between an active and passive force. Nor is the difference between the passive and active force one of quantity. It is not necessarily the case the active force is stronger or tougher than the passive force.

When Deleuze explains Foucault’s work he distinguishes between pure matter and pure functions (Deleuze, 2006). The pure matter of force is power to be affected, and the pure function of power is the power to affect. It is important not to confuse this with the actualisation of power, which is formed matter and formed function. The actualisation of power are actual historical institutions and practices. Foucault’s genealogy is the description of virtual relations of power and not actual relations. These virtual relations of power are diagrams. The example of a diagram that Deleuze gives is the Panopticon. Foucault is not interested in actual Panopticon nor the fact that Bentham’s plan was never actually built, but rather what the idealisation of Bentham’s plan says about how power has been changed or transformed.

There is always a relation between power and knowledge. Power always attracts knowledge, but that does not mean that knowledge and power are the same. Knowledge has to do with formed matter and formed functions rather than pure matters or functions. Knowledge concerns the actualisation of virtual relations of power in institutions. When we come to think about morality, then, it concerns knowledge. How virtual relations of power are actualised. These actualisations are always subsequent to the practices themselves. Knowledge is always the attempt to fix and stratify relations of power so they repeat invariantly through techniques of power and the human sciences (what Deleuze calls ‘dispositif’, but is variously translated as ‘device’, ‘apparatus’, ‘construction’, ‘machinery’, and so on). On the other side, however, because power and knowledge are not the same, even though power attracts knowledge, and knowledge falls back onto power and ‘miraculates’ it, as though it were the origin of power, the virtual relations of power are always escaping their stratification. The virtual relations of love are infinite, even within a given field, whereas actual relations of love are finite (only these relations of love are permitted and none other).

There are two possible confusions. First of all, we can think that the relation between active and reactive forces is dialectical and that the one causes the other. In this sense, we might think that power is transcendent and sovereign. There is never a substance or essence to power (we cannot define outside of situation in which we find power operating). This means that wherever there is power there is always resistance because there cannot be an active power without resistance. Secondly, we should not confuse actual relations of power with virtual relations of power. Rather than thinking of power as homogenous and regularised, outside forces are constantly escaping it. In one of the last papers Deleuze wrote, ‘Postscript of the Societies of Control’, he speaks of the new form of power as permanent training and perpetual audit, but he also imagines, even now, in ways that we have never visualised, the young are conceiving of new ways of escaping and new lines of flight.

Many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they’re being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill. (Deleuze, 1992).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G., 2006. Foucault. Continuum, London.

Deleuze, G., 1992. Postscript on the Societies of Control. October 59, 3–7.

Flannery, K.V., Marcus, J., 2012. The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

Foucault, M., Bouchard, D.F., Simon, S., 1977. Language, counter-memory, practice: selected essays and interviews. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Foucault, M., Senellart, M., Collège de France, 2008. The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-79. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [England]; New York.

Kofman, S., Large, D., 1993. Nietzsche and Metaphor. Stanford University Press.

Nietzsche, F.W., 1974. The Gay Science : with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Vintage Books, New York.

Yovel, Y., 1991. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence. Princeton University Press.


[1] As quoted by Yovel in ‘Spinoza and Nietzsche: Amor Dei and Amor fati’ (1991, p. 105).

[2] See his essay, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (Foucault et al., 1977).

[3] It is usually external contingent events that causes revolutions in social logic, like climate change, agriculture and domestication, or the Europeans turning up on your doorstep.


Natural Rights and Virtue – Lecture 4

August 7, 2016

SpinozaSo far in this course we have looked at the traditional philosophical arguments for morality: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue theory. We have seen that the first two, though at first glance might appear to totally oppose one another, have, as their object, actions. Morality is a subset of rational activity. We are moral because we are rational. In the first case, consequentialism looks at, as the name implies, the consequences of an action, and in the second, deontology, the intentions behind an action. Virtue theory is different because it does not examine moral activity itself, deciding which action is moral or not, but the character of the moral agent themselves over a life time. The question is not whether such an action is honest, but what does it mean for me to be honest, which might differ in different situations.

There is, however, a more fundamental question, which we shall examine over the course of the next two lectures, whether the philosophical justification of morality is itself an illusion. Levinas asks at the beginning of Totality and Infinity, whether we are ‘not duped by morality?’ (1969, p. 21) The aim of this question is to make us think about the status of moral justification. When we observe people’s behaviour we might think the last thing we observe is morality. Is not the world exactly the opposite of the one described by philosophers? Deeper than this suspicion, we might also wonder whether the morality of philosophers themselves is as universal and rational as they portray. At one and the same time as Kant is defending the universality of the categorical imperative, he is declaring in his lectures on anthropology that Black people and Native Americans are congenitally lazy and incapable of real work.[1]

One way to respond to these criticisms is to say that Kant is merely repeating the prejudices of his age and that it is possible to salvage a rational core, but another response might be that morality is really a secondary phenomenon of a more fundamental aspect of human history, which is power. Kant conceives of Native Americans and Blacks as secondary human beings because of colonialism. The moral abrogation of their status as human beings is secondary consequence of this fact. What better way to justify slavery and genocide than a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of human races, but also we might notice how neatly this pseudo theory fits the actual actions of the European powers at the time in their systematic plundering of wealth and resources, which was fundamental to the rise of capitalism.

Morality, then, is not a subset of rationality but of power and we ought to be more critical of its supposed claim to universality that merely acts as screen concealing its true ideological function. There is a whole other history of philosophy, however, which is far more realistic about morality and power, and that is the theory of natural rights which has its source in ancient philosophy but has its modern form in the writings of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza.[2] Before we come to this tradition, let us describe how we normally think about rights (and this too has its own long history). We normally think of rights in terms of the essence or definition of something. We define what it is to be human being, for example, and then from that follows certain rights, which might be different from the rights of animals. Indeed, we have seen from our own history that how we consider the definition of people will change how we think about their rights (if we define women to be equal to men, then what we mean by this is that they have the same rights).

This way of thinking about rights goes back to antiquity. The Roman philosopher Cicero would argue that a thing is defined by its essence, which is the law of its nature.[3] Natural right does not refer to a state prior to nature but what conforms to an essence in a good society. A good society is one in which a man might realise his essence, which is his true nature. What is first is one’s duty. One only has rights to the extent that one has obligations, since it is these obligations or offices that allow me to fulfil my essence. It is the philosopher or sage who knows what essence is, what the best society would be to fulfil this essence, and what offices or duties, therefore, that would bring this realisation about.

Christianity repeats this doctrine of natural rights. The difference between the Christian version and the ancient theory is who has the authority to define what essence is, what the best society would be, and the offices and duties therein. It is no longer the philosopher who does so, but the church. How does one reverse this account of natural rights? Not by coming up with a different definition but by completely rethinking what we mean by ‘right’ altogether, and the first philosopher to do so is Hobbes. What he is doing is also saying that morality has to do with politics, which is not that different from Cicero, who is appropriated by Christianity, but he adds that when it comes to politics we need to think of power not essences. Not what is something, but what can that thing do, what is it capable of. Thus it is within the right of a small fish to eat the larger one (Spinoza, 1951, p. 200). This sounds abhorrent to us because we still think of rights in terms of schema of antiquity and Christianity, where a moral action conforms to an essence.

If natural right is defined in terms of power, then the state of nature precedes society. This means for Hobbes that human beings are not born social but have to become so. This is directly against the Christian tradition where Adam existed without sin prior to the fall. Without sin, he conformed to the natural essence of man and it was the adventures of existence that caused him to lose it. In Hobbes’ eyes it is the other way around. One is not born social and reasonable, rather one has to achieve it. What is first is not obligations or duties but rights. One limits rights in order that one can become social and responsible, but it is rights that are first. At the level of rights everyone is equal. Everyone does what they can in terms of their power. Difference arises at the level of the social, which limits people’s rights. What is important here is that it is not at the level of natural rights that we can speak of the differences between people. This means that there is no competent authority who can say what anyone is capable of or what their essence might be (it is up to them to decide what they are capable of and not an external authority). If rights come before obligation or duties that are decided in advance by an authority, then the question becomes why should I limit my rights in order to become social. In other words, what are the benefits of society to me? If a society does form, then it does so as an agreement of persons of equal rights because as a collective each increases the power of the other that would be less if they existed alone. It is we who decide to come together because it is in our best interests to do so and not because of any external authority. Here we have two very different conceptions of politics. The Antiquity-Christian model, which is juridical, and this new theory of politics that is based on power.

Just as much as we can view rights in terms of power, then so too can we redefine virtue, which would give a different meaning to virtue theory. In Machiavelli’s The Prince, virtue (virtù) does not necessarily mean moral virtue, as we might mean it, but strength or power. Thus he speaks of skill of an archer who can hit the target of from a long distance because they know the ‘strength’ of their bow.[4] The word that he uses in this context is virtù. In this way, when he speaks of the virtue of the prince, he is not listing their moral qualities, but their power to influence events and their ‘fortune’.

Spinoza, who read both Hobbes and Machiavelli, too thinks of ethics in terms of power. ‘By virtue and power,’ he writes, I understand the same thing (E4 D8). At the heart of Spinoza’s ontology is conatus. What determines the singularity of a being is not its conformity to a universal essence, whereby we might claim it is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, such that we might say of someone that they are not rational enough once we have defined all human beings as ‘rational animals’, but its power to exist. Every individual thing, be it a stone, plant or animal, strives to preserve its existence and will continue to exist as long as something more powerful does not prevent it from so doing. I am nothing more than my power to exist, as you are, and our power to exist, conatus, is individual to each one of us. Universals, like ‘humanity’ are only abstractions that do not exist as such. I can have an encounter with you on the street, but I cannot encounter ‘humanity’.

When we normally think of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we do so through moral values. So we might think of ‘good’ as morally good, and ‘bad’ as morally evil, but for Spinoza these are retrospective justifications for something much deeper. What is good is everything that I find useful for me; that is, what increases my power to exist. What is bad is everything I find not useful to me; that is, everything that decreases my power to exist. What is good or bad for me will be determined by my nature. Thus what is good or bad for a stone, is not going to be good or bad for me, what is good or bad for a plant is not what is going to be good or bad for me, and what is good or bad for a lion is not going to be good or bad for me, and equally, since being is singular for Spinoza, each of us are an individual expression of the power to exist, what is good or bad for me is not necessarily going to be good or bad for you. ‘We do not desire,’ Spinoza writes, something because we say it is good; rather it is good because we desire it’ (E3 P9sch.). Thus, it is not bad for the lion to eat the gazelle, since that is what lions do, but it is not good for gazelles to be eaten by lions, so generally gazelles try to avoid lions. What Spinoza would say is that we don’t need to add a moral language to understand it. Moral judgements, as we might suspect are irrelevant.

Now we might say that is alright for lions and gazelles but not for beings like us, since we, as consequentialists and deontologists would say are special and unique within the animal kingdom because of our capacity to make moral judgements. It is at this point that Spinoza’s ontology meets his ethics (and that there is no difference between them is central point of his thought, unlike Kant, for example, who saves ethics by separating them into two distinct worlds). For Spinoza, all beings, stones, plants, animals and human beings are expression of one and the same being to a certain degree. There are no exceptions, or as Spinoza says, human beings are not ‘a dominion within a dominion’ (E3 Pref.). No doubt a plant is more complex than a stone, and animal more complex than a plant, and a human being more complex than a lion, but this does not mean, ontological speaking, that human beings are a completely different kind of being. No doubt because we can speak we can confuse words with ontological reality. So because we have the word ‘evil’ we think there are evil things that transcend our own interests, but this does not mean that evil exists as such exterior to these interests. Human beings act just as lions do, the only difference is that they try and convince the gazelle that they are good for them as well. It might be true that I would lock the serial killer in prison, because such an encounter would seriously undermine by power to exist, but why, as with the example of lions and gazelles, do I need to add a moral language of judgement on top of this to justify it?

Ethics is ethnology. Just as I can study the behaviour of a lion, then I can study the behaviour of human beings. We can just as much talk about an ethics of fleas as we can of human beings, though of course the life of a flea is simpler. How is this different from the normal way that we talk about morals? Normally we talk about morality in terms of norms and values. We say that if you want to be a good person you should behave in such and such a way. ‘Ought’ is not the same as ‘is’. This brings us back to essences that we discussed before, because you can’t have a norm without an essence. I can’t act in the right way if you don’t tell me what it is to be such a person. Thus if there are norms about what it is to be a woman then this follows from the definition of woman. This essence of course is an ideal. In this way no individual woman could ever live up to what it would be to be a woman. All women would fail from the beginning.

Spinoza’s ethics has nothing at all to do with norms because he understands essence in a completely different way. An essence is not an abstraction or definition, but the individual existence of a singular being. We can speak of the essence of ‘William’ as the individual existence of someone called ‘William’, but there is no essence of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ as such. Ethics is a way of being, rather than a norm. When I speak about my ethics (and there can only be an individual ethics for Spinoza), then I am speaking about my individual way of being.

Throughout my life this essence is to be understood as a variation. Sometimes my power to exist increases and at other times it decreases. This is because my body is always in contact with other bodies, and since I have a very complex body, then this means that these relations are numerous and complex. If this contact increases my power to exist, then I experience it as joyful, and if it decreases my power to exist, then I experience it as sadness. These are the two primary affects of existence for Spinoza, which correspond to my conatus. Ethics, then, for Spinoza, is understanding those encounters that bring you joy and those that bring you sadness, and learning to avoid the latter. I know that coffee increases my power to exist in the morning, but drinking too much gives me eczema, so I shouldn’t drink too much. I know speaking to Paul makes me happy, but Peter really depresses me (perhaps it is the other way around for someone else), so I should avoid him. What really surprises Spinoza is that people seem to go out of the way to make themselves sad, and moreover we appear to live in societies whose only function seems to be to make the vast majority of people unhappy and miserable (the two source of this are the two great normative tyrannies, which are religion and politics).

It might appear on first sight that Spinoza’s ethics is egotistical and individualistic. If all that matters is my own power to exist why should I care about others? This would be to ignore human nature, though. Human beings are by nature social beings. The more I compose my power to exist with others, then my own power to exists increases. It would belong to my own interests to create a society in which the greatest amount of people would be capable of expressing their own power to exist. What best serves my purpose is another person who increases my power to exist and this would be the same for them, and so on to the next person. This is why he will argue, in the Tractatus Politicus, that democracy is the best form of government (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 385–7). ‘Nothing,’ he writes in the Ethics, is more advantageous to man than man’ (E4 P18 Sch.).

Works Cited

Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980 [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=20&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 4.9.16).

Levinas, E., 1969. Totality and infinity: an essay on exteriority. Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Machiavelli, N., Mansfield, H.C., 1998. The prince. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.

Mikkelsen, J.M., Kant, I., 2013. Kant and the concept of race: late eighteenth-century writings. SUNY Press, Albany.

Spinoza, B. de, 1951. A theologico-political treatise and a political treatise. Dover, New York.

Ward, J.K., Lott, T.L., 2008. Philosophers on Race: Critical Essays. John Wiley & Sons.


[1] Kant writes in his unpublished notes, Reflexionen, that ‘Americans and Negroes cannot govern themselves. Thus are only good as slaves’ (Mikkelsen and Kant, 2013, p. 8). See also Bernasconi’s essay ‘Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Racism’ (Ward and Lott, 2008, pp. 145–66).

[2] An excellent and concise of this history can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza (“Deleuze: Spinoza: 09/12/1980,” n.d.).

[3] Cicero is useful for us, because he sums up the ancient Greek tradition of ethical thought in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, but also his own work was influential on the ethical theory of Christianity and especially Aquinas.

[4] ‘He should do as prudent archers do when the place they plan to hit appears too distant, and know how far the strength of their bow carries, they set their aim much higher than the place intended’ (Machiavelli and Mansfield, 1998, p. 22). It is interesting to note that the translator, Mansfield, feels that he cannot leave virtù translated as ‘virtue’ in this context, since it has such a moral overtone for us.


Descartes and the New Metaphysics – Lecture 2

March 22, 2015

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesIf Galileo is the name that stands for the emergence of a new science and a new way of looking at the world, then Descartes is the one who grounds it in a new metaphysics.[1] For the scientist, who is dismissive of the need for philosophy, since for her it is only important if her model works, this is of no importance, but in the history of philosophy, he institutes a whole new way of thinking that all subsequent philosophy has to answer to.

One of the difficulties of reading Descartes, at least if you don’t read him in too much detail, and jump over the things he says that seem anachronistic, their main ideas have become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heard of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read him without really making any attempt to understand. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever. This is especially the case when we come to his famous proof of the existence of God, which we can dismiss with great ease if we are not aware of what problem it answers. Indeed the problem is more interesting than the question.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote what he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world. It is not enough to reform our current views; we have to reject them completely.

Such a revolutionary change, one we are still living with, is obvious in the famous rejection of the geostatic universe for a heliocentric one, but it is perhaps a more ordinary example that might make it clearer for us exactly what is at stake here. Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red).

For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why Descartes takes his doubt much further than classical scepticism. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that is I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you now, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exists in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair really exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense, since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[2] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected).. It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese, 67(1), pp.77–90.

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 October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.


[1] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew 1986).

[2] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Descartes

November 8, 2014

DescartesOne of the difficulties of reading Descartes’ Meditations is that it has become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heart of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read the text without really making any attempt to understand it. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote the Meditations as he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method in the Meditations is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why we can Descartes’ takes his doubt much further than classical scepticsm. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appear to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[1] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). Thus to use Deleuze’s example from his own lectures, the idea of frog is less perfect than the idea of God (Deleuze 1978). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea. The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to thing about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no manner philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant that we will look at next week), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza want to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5. For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

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 October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.


[1] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


The Vision of Necessity and the Intellectual Love of God in Spinoza – Lecture 12

April 15, 2014

BaruchSpinoza4Part 5 is perhaps the hardest part of the Ethics, and not because it is impossible to understand the words we read. Such an interpretative difficult probably belongs to the book as a whole. Rather, even if we can understand the words, do we really know what Spinoza means by the intellectual love of God? Is it possible to have such an experience? It reminds me of some of the stories in Plato’s dialogues which are there to explain the ultimate end of philosophy. I can read the words of the Symposium that describe the ‘ascent to the beautiful’, but can I really know what this means if I have never had such an experience, which as Spinoza writes at the last sentence of the Ethics, is as beautiful as it is rare? Sometimes we confuse knowing about philosophy with being a philosopher, and they are not always the same thing at all.

What is the highest wisdom of philosophy? Plato and Spinoza are one is this regard: to teach you not to fear death. As Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 38:

From this we understand what I touched on in IVP39S, and what I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less harmful to us, the greater the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge, and hence, the more the mind loves God.

But how do we get to this sanguine state so that we no longer fear death, which is probably the greatest fear we all have? We do so by reaching what Spinoza calls the third level of knowledge. It has already introduced us to this level in the second part of the Ethics (IIP40), and it is worthwhile here to remind ourselves what the three levels of knowledge are. The first level is the stage that most people are at. It is the knowledge of opinion and belief, which is motivated by fear and hope. This level is not really knowledge at all, but ignorance and unawareness of the world around you and the network of infinite series of causes and effects that determine one’s existence. The second level is a little more difficult, but is knowledge proper. It involves, Spinoza argues, common notions and the adequate ideas of things. Thus, he will write in the second part of the Ethics that there are universal properties of bodies that are recognised by all (IIP38). These common notions are adequate ideas of things and form the basis of our scientific understanding of the universe, but not only this understanding as we shall see later. Now we would think that this would be the end of the matter: the distinction between knowledge and opinion, but it is not. Spinoza says that there is a third level of knowledge, which is the intuitive knowledge of God. It is this knowledge that is the proper knowledge of the philosopher, or the wise human being, which is the same thing, and is the purpose of the Ethics to convince us both that it exists and is possible, and finally can enable us to free ourselves from the worse effects of our affects.

What is this intuitive knowledge of God, or what Spinoza will call, in Part 5, the ‘intellectual love of God’, and how does it differ from the second level of knowledge? The first thing to underline, as Lloyd stresses, is that we should not confuse this with any kind of mystical or supernatural knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.110). There is no transcendence in Spinoza, no reality beyond this reality, no being beyond being. The second kind of knowledge is an understanding of things through the parallelism of the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, but the third kind of knowledge is an immediate understanding of myself and my place within the universe, or to use Spinoza’s language, my place within God. My understanding of this produces the highest affect of joy in my mind (for we have to remember that there is no division between reason and affects for Spinoza), which is what he calls ‘blessedness’. However this immediate joyful wisdom is not be confused with mysticism or irrationalism.

At the end of his lectures on Spinoza, Deleuze explains these different types of knowledge in terms of swimming (he is adamant that we should not take mathematics as the model of adequate knowledge, but just as one example) (Deleuze 1978). What does it mean to know how to swim? Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think about what it means not to know how to swim. Not to know how to swim means to be at the mercy of the waves such that if one entered the ocean one might drown. To be at the mercy of the waves is inadequate knowledge, for one has a passive relation to external elements about which one only knows the effects (‘I am drowning’) and not the causes, which would be precisely to know how not to drown, and which is the same as knowing how to swim (learn to float, learn to shut one’s mouth so the water does choke you, and so on). Now as the waves crash over me, depending on what happens, I might cry out in joy or shock. Such are my affects or passions, to use Spinoza’s language, and they are always related to external relations to an external body. The waves on my body, which might be nice, but also could be quite dangerous (these are the screams and shouts one hears on the beach all day, which generally one takes to be an expression of happiness, but there is always the threat of tragedy on the horizon, otherwise there would be no lifeguard). But what does it mean to know how to swim? How come that is not the same? It does not mean, Deleuze says, that I have to have a mathematical or physical understanding of wave mechanics. That would be going too far. Rather, as they say in French, one has a savoir faire of the wave. Instead of fighting against the wave, one goes with it, one has rhythm. In the sense one knows how to compose one’s body with the body of the wave. One knows the right moment to jump in, when to dive, to surface, to use the wave to propel one along, and so on. It is important not to think that the second level is mathematical. Mathematics is kind of second level knowledge, but it isn’t what this knowledge is tout court.

Just as one can speak of knowing how to swim, Deleuze says, one can speak of knowing how to love. How does someone love inadequately? Just as in the case of the wave, one who does not know how to swim, one is at the mercy of external effects of which one does not know the causes. Whereas to know how to love is to know how to compose one’s body and mind with another. This is a strange kind of happiness, Deleuze says, but no-one would confuse it with mathematics or physics.

What then is the third kind of knowledge? It hardly seems possible that such a thing could exist. It does so because the other two are relations to external bodies and not to essences. I either know how to compose with another body, or I do not, but neither the relation of composition or decomposition is an essence. What is an essence Spinoza? It is a degree of power. To have the third level of knowledge is to know (or to intuit, to use Spinoza’s word, so as to distinguish it from the second level of knowledge) what makes up one’s own degree of power and what makes up the other’s degree of power. For every degree of power that is given there is always a degree of power stronger, since the totality of Nature would be infinite degree of power, and no singular thing could be the same as infinite Nature, as this would be to confuse a mode with a substance. Now if we were to view this relation between essences externally, then we would say that the weaker essence would be destroyed by the stronger one (the hand crushes the fly), but if this were the case, Deleuze says the whole of Spinozism would collapse, for it would mean that there would only be inadequate relation between essences. How can we think of the relation between essences in a different way?

The key he says is proposition 37 of part 5, for it explains that the axiom in part 4 that describes the relation between essences as one destroying another only has to do with singular essences in a determinate time and place. What does it mean to think of something in this way? It means to think of it in terms of existence. What does it mean for something to pass into existence at a certain time or place? It means that a body is determined from the outside by other external bodies. I have an essence, you have an essence, each essence is singular, but to exist is to be determined from the outside by other bodies (I cannot exist without food, water and air, for example). To exist is to have a time and a place, and to have a time and place is to exist in relation to other external bodies that determine one from the outside. Until such point that these external bodies enter a different relation, then I exist.

At this level, everything exists at the level of opposition. I kill the pig to eat its meat, but the next day, I die of botulism, and so on. In this case, one might speak of a stronger power destroying a weaker one. Such is the risk of death, which is the inevitable and necessary event that external relations that sustain my body enter a different relationship (which is what we mean by disease). My essence, however, is not the same as the external relations that I have with other bodies. A degree of power describes an intrinsic and not only an extrinsic relation and for this reason it makes no sense for Spinoza to say one degree of power destroys another degree of power, just as much as it does not make any sense to say that the colour red is redder than green. Intensive magnitudes cannot be compared extensively.

What then does it mean for Spinoza to say that one is eternal? It is not a declaration of belief, as if by that one means that one is immortal, for eternity and immortality are not the same. To think that one is immortal is simply to take one’s finite existence and to imagine that it would continue for every, which contradicts the very fact of death. An experience of eternity, on the contrary, Deleuze says, can only be felt as a kind of intensity. It would be to understand that one’s death, as the relation of a body to other external bodies, was insignificant and did not matter, because as intensive parts, singular essences, we all degrees of the infinite power of God.

What matters, what is important, is not the duration of our lives (how long we live), but the actualisation of one’s essence. If one laments a premature death, it is just because they did not live long enough, or that they didn’t actualise what they could have become? Equally, we might think someone who had a lived a long life in years but did not do everything with their lives that they could, might also have lived a sad life. It is perfectly possible to live a short life, as Spinoza did, but intensively as though one where eternal. Intensity, then, would be the measure of the third level of knowledge.

Many find the end of the Ethics incoherent and a contradiction of the overall message of the book. The most notorious of these is Bennett, who pretty much gives up on it altogether. Sometimes one thinks that Bennett doesn’t like Spinoza at all, and one wonders why he is reading him, since most of the time, in his opinion, Spinoza is wrong (Bennett 1984, pp.329–75).[1] I think, however, that Lloyd is absolutely right in stressing that this third level of knowledge is not religious at all, but is merely a taking on board, in terms of our lives and our experiences, what is taught abstractly through definitions and axioms in part one that God is the totality of the universe of which we are an intrinsic part, rather than an element separate from it sustained by a fictional personal God, who in reality is nothing else than a projection of our absurd pride that the universe could have been created for us in the first place (Lloyd 1996, pp.112–13).

One way that people imagine that they have a special and unique place with the universe, rather than just a finite mode of an infinite substance, is to believe that there is immortality of our lives after death. To overcome our fear of death, we imagine that our personality and consciousness continue after we have disappeared. This is not possible for Spinoza, because my sense of myself is only possible because I have a body. My mind, as we learnt from part 2, is an idea of my body, and my body is not an idea of my mind. Without my body I wouldn’t have a mind at all, and any sense of duration, and time would cease to exist. Immortality is based on the false idea that minds can exist without bodies, and no one suggest that bodies are eternal. Combined with this false idea is the confusion of eternity with infinite duration, so that I imagine myself living together as I am now but just for an infinite time.

Eternity does not mean for Spinoza time going on forever, but something quite different. This is why he can say that even though there is no immortality in the way that religions have imagined it, there is part of my mind which is eternal. This seems to be very strange since it implies that the mind can exist without the body, and this cannot be what Spinoza is saying since it would contradict the fact that the mind is the idea of the body. The contradiction exists for us, because we still viewing eternity in terms of duration. We are imagining that mind would continue to exist in the same way as it endures whilst the body exists.

Again the best way to understand the eternity of the mind, as Lloyd suggests, is in relation to the third kind of knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.121). I only understand myself through the affections of my body, but it is impossible that I could know the infinite network of causes and effects that lead up to this affections. I can know, however, the true status of myself as mode of infinite substance. How would this knowledge, Lloyd asks, overcome my fear of death? Not through the knowledge gained by simply reading the first part of the Ethics, but something more subtle:

What is new is the understanding of the truth of finite modes in relation to particular bodily modifications, and to ourselves as ideas of these modifications. (Lloyd 1996, p.121)

Lloyd continues to explain that is not a matter of ascending to a transcendent vision of the universal, like Plato’s ascent to the beautiful and the vision of the one, but of understanding the ‘actual existence of these affections’ (Deleuze would have said the singular essences). For all that exists for Spinoza are singular things and substance, or the being of singular things. To understand singular things as the expression of substance is different from understanding them in relation to other singular things, which is the basis of the 2nd level of knowledge, which compares one thing with others. This kind of knowledge, though adequate, can never be complete. As Lloyd concludes, ‘we know that we are in God, and are conceived through God; we understand ourselves through God’s essence as involving existence’ (Lloyd 1996, p.122) Having seen this, I can understand that dying is of no consequence to me, since, in understanding myself in relation to substance which is eternal, the greater part of my mind is given over to what is eternal, rather than to what is individual and perishable in me, my imagination and memories.

Works Cited

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

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].

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

Zizek, S., 2004. Organs without Bodies : On Deleuze and Consequences, New York; London: Routledge.

 


[1]. Surely there is a better way of reading philosophy which isn’t so sad. Perhaps Deleuze’s advice, as quoted by Žižek, is more joyful: ‘Trust the author you are studying. Proceed by feeling your way […]. You must silence the voices of objection with you. You must let him speak for himself, analyse the frequency of his words, the style of his obsessions.’(2004, p.47)


Spinoza and Truth – Lecture 11

March 30, 2014

20120322_Gartenberg1What does Spinoza mean by truth? When we think about truth normally in philosophy then we think about the agreement between a statement and a state of affairs in the world, but this can’t be what Spinoza means by truth, at least not in any simply way. Why is this? Because for Spinoza truth cannot be the agreement between two different attributes, since attributes can have no causal relation to one another. Thus the idea of ‘tree’ cannot be true because it agrees with an object called a ‘tree’, rather an idea is true because it is true in itself and not because it ‘represents’ something else. What then does it mean to say that an idea is true in itself?

In one sense, Spinoza is repeating the story of truth that we have heard since Plato: perception is not sufficient to explain truth. This is because, as we know, perception does not tell me truth about things at all. Indeed if all I had were perceptions, then I probably wouldn’t have a very good idea of reality at all. One of the basis premises of the new modern science is what common sense tells us about nature (which we might say is the Aristotelian starting point) can only lead us astray. Common sense might tell me that the earth is at the centre of the universe, because that is how it appears to me, but I know in fact that this is not the case. What is true is not what my senses tell me, but what true knowledge does, and true knowledge is not perception, as Plato would have already told us, but mathematics. Copernicus does not disagree with Ptolemy because he saw something different in the heavens, but he postulated a different mathematical model and that is why he saw the heavens in a different way. It might be the case that Galileo did see something different in his telescope, but he wouldn’t have seen what he was looking for unless he had already agreed with Copernicus’s mathematical revolution.

If an idea is not true because it agrees with what I see with my eyes, then why is it true? Here we have to make a difference between the psychological event of having an idea and the content of the idea itself. I might be thinking of a circle because I see a circle. Or I might be thinking of circle because I associate it with something else. Perhaps I have being thinking about bears and then the idea ‘circle’ just pops in my mind. Or, I might be thinking about circle, but I have completely the wrong idea of circle in my mind. I might think lines drawn from the centre of the circle are not equal. None of the instances of thinking of the idea circle would make the idea true. The occasion of thinking the idea does not make the idea true (and this is really the reason why perception cannot be the source of the truth of ideas, since it psychologises them, and would make truth subjective). What is true is the objective content of the idea itself, which can be thought by anyone (or anything if it capable of thinking true ideas).

In proposition 35 of the second part of the Ethics, Spinoza explains how such an error is possible. There is no positive idea of falsehood. Strictly speaking there are no false ideas in themselves, because every idea is an idea of something that exists. Rather there are confused ideas. To have an ignorant idea is to have an idea of a positive thing, but in a confused way. The example that Spinoza gives in the scholium is the idea of freedom. Why is it that people falsely believe they are free? The answer is because they are ignorant of the causes that make them act the way they do. Because they are ignorant, they therefore think they are free. The cause of false ideas is not a real idea, but ignorance on our behalf, and this ignorance is always ignorance about causes. To use the other example that Spinoza gives in this scholium. I believe that the sun is 200 hundred feet away from me because I am ignorant of the true distance. Even though I know that the sun is further away than it seems. Because the distance that it appears from me is caused by the relation of my body to the sun, I might still fall under the error that the sun is closer than the actual distance. Of course I can also understand why it is that the sun appears in the way it does to me (I can understand for example that the sun really doesn’t get larger at sunset or change from yellow to red, but this is the effect of light in the Earth’s atmosphere), but that means I have to have a true idea of what the sun is and what the my body is and how they interact.

Because of our limited knowledge, Spinoza thinks that is very easy for us to have inadequate of idea of things, but does he think that we can have adequate idea? It would surprise us if he said ‘no’ to this questions, since Spinoza is an exponent of the new modern science. He is a realist. He does not think that our scientific theories are just our way of understanding what reality is, but are true picture of what is. Indeed Newton’s laws would be true, even if there were no human being to think them.

The difference is between understanding a particular thing as a mode or as an expression of substance. Let say I look at a stretch of water that is in front of me. I could just describe the water as I see it, perhaps in the way that I writer might describe it in a story, or painter paint it. Or I could describe it in terms of substance. Not just this stretch of water in front of me, but through an attribute that expresses not just this part of reality, but the whole of reality. Isn’t this just what science does? Science does not explain this or that particular instance or occasion of water, but the reality of water as such, which for Spinoza would be explained in the current scientific explanation of nature through the general laws of physics. This would be to have an adequate, as opposed to an inadequate understanding of water, because I would be understanding its true cause, which is substance explained in this case through the attribute extension.

The laws of physics are what Spinoza calls ‘common notions’. The occasion for us to have ideas is our bodies, for this nothing in our minds that does not come via our bodies. Thus if we didn’t have eyes to see the sun, then we wouldn’t have the idea of sun. The error, then is not think that the ‘truth’ of the idea of the sun somehow has its origin in us. We can think the true idea of the sun, because the true idea of the sun corresponds (or is the same as) as the causal relation between the mode and substance. There cannot be any other idea of the sun that is true because nature cannot be any different than what it is, otherwise substance would be lacking that different reality and therefore would not be infinite.

How can we escape the confused ideas of the realm of sensations and affections? We can only do so when we understand ideas internally and not externally. To understand ideas internally means to know the necessary order and connections of ideas themselves and not how they are encountered through affections. Yet even though I might know the difference between the two, how do I take the step from one to the other? It is probably wrong to say that Spinoza rejects imagination, because this would be argue that he rejects the body, but as we know, for Spinoza, only through the body can I know the world. There must then be a route from inadequate to adequate knowledge, and the key is ‘common notions’.

Inadequate knowledge only tells me about my individual encounters with things. What Spinoza calls duration. How something appears to me at a certain time and place, and which I might subsequently remember and associate with other things. But I can, through duration, leap out of duration. I can recognise what is ‘common to all things’. In so doing, I am understanding the mode through substance and not through another modes, which I can only have a limited knowledge of. It is possible to understand the causal relation between substance and modes. It is not possible to understand the infinite causal relation between modes (it is this inadequate understanding we have seen, for example, that produces the error of free will).

It is very important not to confuse common notions with universals. In IIP40S1, Spinoza disputes the existence of universals precisely because they are not common notions. I can have an adequate idea of scientific laws of nature that are common to all bodies, but what I cannot have is the idea of all horses that would be common to the universal ‘Horse’. The latter is merely a word, whereas the former is a true idea. This is why we differ in what we mean by the word ‘horse’, but we do not differ when we understand what is common to all things (like extension and the laws of nature that follow immediately from it), because this is common to nature as such, and not just a use of words. When we understand the universe, we understand it as it is in reality, and our understanding cannot be any different from God’s (what the universe is in reality in terms of truth), because there couldn’t be any other understanding. There is no mysterious transcendent cause, nor any distinctive human understanding (as there is in Kant for example) that would be any different from truth of what is actually in reality, which would be true whether we knew it or not.

It is possible to have adequate ideas because it is possible to know the causes of things. Of course as finite beings, it is not possible to for us to know the cause of everything, but that does not mean that we know nothing. It is possible for us to understand the essence of God for example, for Spinoza. It is possible for us to understand the idea of a triangle, though it is not possible for us to have the idea of every triangle that has ever existed. To have an adequate idea is to understand something through its cause rather than its effects. Thus to have an adequate idea of the sun is to understanding why it makes my skin feels warm and appears closer than it is in reality, as opposed to an inadequate idea, which starts with effects, my warm skin, the appearance of the sun and the sky, and argues backwards towards the cause. The sun is close to me in the sky because it is circling the earth; the sun warms the my skin because it was created by God to benefit human beings. Both these arguments are false because they argue from effects rather than causes. To understand the effects of the sun through its cause is to follow the order of reality itself. It is to go from substance as it expressed through its attributes and then to modes. Rather than to start with modes and to try and get back to attributes and from there to substance.

We have only distinguished between inadequate and adequate knowledge in this lecture, but there is third level of knowledge that Spinoza describes in IIP40S2, which he calls ‘intuitive’. We will have to wait to Part 5 of the Ethics to find out what this.


Spinoza’s Materialism – Lecture 10

March 18, 2014

human-proportions-for-artistsSo far, in relation to part 2 of the Ethics, we have only spoken about the mind and not the body (and the mind in relation to the attribute of thought). The particular nature of human beings, however, is that they are the union of a mind and a body. What, then, is the relation between the mind and the body? First of, unlike Descartes, Spinoza begins with the body not the mind. If we are going to understand the nature of the human mind, we first of all have to understand the nature of the human body. This quite is different from Descartes who believes that the union of the body and the mind must be thought from the vantage point of the mind and not the body, and the mind is the truth of the body and not the other way around.

When we are thinking about Spinoza’s parallelism we are thinking about the relation between human thought and the attribute thought. For Spinoza the true ideas of thought are independent from us. These are necessary truths belonging to the causality of thought and not to whom or what thinks them. When we are thinking, however, about the nature of human thought itself, and not just its relation to the attribute thought, then we have to think of the relation between our bodies and our minds, because this is the kind of beings that we are. We already saw from last week’s lecture that the idea for Spinoza has two sides: one side is the idea itself, which Spinoza calls its formal reality, and the other side, is the object that it represents, which Spinoza, following general practice, calls its objective reality. No idea can be defined without these two sides. When we thinking about the nature of thought itself, and not just the human mind, then we are thinking just about the formal reality of ideas, the necessary causality of thought. When we are thinking about just the human mind, though, we focus on the objective reality of ideas. We have to ask ourselves ‘What is it that the human mind represents?’ Spinoza answer to this question is that the human mind represents the human body. We have to be very clear about what this answer means. It means that body is the essence, definition, or content of the mind. What the mind represents is the body, and not itself. Without the body, the mind would be nothing at all; it would have no objective reality. Thus in the scholium to P13, Spinoza will say that the complexity of the human mind, as opposed, for example to the mind of a dolphin, is to do with the complexity of the human body, and not with human mind. It is because our bodies can feel, experience, sense more that our minds are more complex than other animals, and not the other way around. We do not have complex bodies because we have complex minds, but we have complex minds because we have complex bodies.[1] As Spinoza writes in the scholium to P13,

In proportion as a body is more capable than others of doing many things at once, or being acted upon on in many ways at once, so its mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things at once.

This explains why the next section of Part 2 has to do with the general nature of bodies. If we are to understand the human mind through the human body, then we have to understand the nature of the human body first. The human body, of course, is acted upon as any other body is in nature. To put it within a modern context, to understand human psychology we first of all have to understand physics and biology. For Spinoza’s interests in the Ethics is human happiness, then the central idea in this excursus, as Curley indicates, is the idea of the composite body, which is a body that can be acted upon by many external bodies without losing its identity (Curley 1988, p.76).

There are many different bodies in nature: basic chemical elements, simple material objects, simple organisms, and more and more complex forms of life. For Spinoza, the human being is a very complex living organism that is made up of many individual bodies, and is affected by many other bodies, in very many complex ways. What we can or are able to know for Spinoza, is directly related to the complexity of our body to be affected: everything that we know, from the simplest and most basic, to the most complex and extraordinary, first has to come to through the experience of our bodies.

The relation of the mind to the body also explains the limitations of the human knowledge, and the possibility of inadequate ideas. If we have inadequate ideas, then it is because we have a confused or distorted understanding of the body. Thus a false idea, or an inadequate idea, is not false at the level of the mode of thought or mode of extension, but in the relation between them. To understand this relation we have to understand how the human mind comes to inadequate ideas of things.

For human beings, our perception of things, which is the first level of knowledge for Spinoza, is mediated by our human body, as he states in IIP26:

The human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing, except through the idea of the affections of its own body.

Our perception of things at this level, therefore, tells us more about the condition and nature of our own bodies, rather than the nature of external things themselves. Thus if I am short sighted things will be blurred and small, but this is true for human nature in general, since we can only perceive external things in the way that they affect our bodies, and we cannot perceive them in any other way.[2] In Spinoza’s terminology this fundamental relation between the idea and the object mediated by the body is called imagination. When I see something for Spinoza, I am imagining it. This does mean that I am making it up; rather I have an image of it in my mind, whose origin is mediated by the affects of the body. The image is the correlate of the sensations. We should, however, be very careful about what Spinoza means by the word ‘image’ here. An idea is certainly not a picture (as Spinoza makes very clear in IIP43S), if one imagines a picture to be some kind of thing which is a copy of a real thing, as though in the mind there existed images which corresponded to actual things; rather an idea is always a mode of the attribute thought. Error does not happen because I have the image of something in my mind which is wrong; rather error happens because my mind lacks the idea that excludes the existence of the thing that I imagine to be present. Thus, to use Spinoza’s example, when the young child imagines the existence of a winged horse, it is not the image of the ‘winged horse’ that is in error, but the child lacks the knowledge that would tell him or her that this image could not possibly exist. So there is nothing wrong with the imagination in itself, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to IIP17:

For if the mind, while it imagined nonexistent things as present to it, at the same time knew that those things did not exist, it would, of course, attribute this power of imagining to a virtue of its nature, not to a vice.

Inadequate ideas are those ideas which are caused from outside of my mind. This is only a partial knowledge of an object, whereas adequate ideas, within the internal necessity of the order and connection of ideas, are a complete or whole conception of the object. If we only remained within the external relations of the mind to objects, then we would only have a partial and mutilated understanding of the universe. But why is this understanding only partial and mutilated? This is because the body has a negative impact on the causality of ideas, if we assume that we only know things through perception. Thus, I am affected by the rays of the sun as it warms my face. There is nothing in common between me and the sun, and therefore, at this level, I cannot have an adequate idea of the sun. Rather, as we have already said, this relation tells me more about the body affected (in this case myself) than the body which is the cause of the affection. As Deleuze says in his lectures on Spinoza, a fly would be affected by the sun in a different way (Deleuze 1978). The reason why this is inadequate knowledge is that I only know the sun in terms of its effects on my body (just as the fly only knows the sun in terms of the effects on its body) and not in terms of causes; that is to say, what the cause of the sun and what is the cause of the heat on my face and so on. To know that I would have to know what my body was and what the sun was, and I could not know that simply through the effects of one body on another (it is not through the warmth of the sun against my face that I know that my idea of the sun is adequate and the idea of the sun of the fly is not). Inadequate ideas are therefore representation of effects without the knowledge of causes.

The idea of inadequate ideas will become very important in the rest of Spinoza’s Ethics. For to live at the level of the knowledge of effects, that is to know nothing of the causes of things, is to live a life of encounters only. One sensation follows another sensation, but I have no real understanding of the causes of these sensations. This is the level, unfortunately, that most of us live. When we come to think about our ethical life, this means that we are completely under the control of one feeling following another, like a paper boat buffeted by the mighty waves of the ocean of emotion. If we knew the true cause of these emotions, then we would be in control of them, rather than they in control of us. Knowledge of these true causes is the aim of the rest of the parts of the Ethics.

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].

Lahn, B.T., 2004. Human Brain Evolution Was a “Special Event.” Available at: http://www.hhmi.org/news/lahn3.html [Accessed November 25, 2012].


[1] Humans have extraordinarily large and complex brains, even when compared with macaques and other non-human primates. The human brain is several times larger than that of the macaque — even after correcting for body size — and “it is far more complicated in terms of structure (Lahn 2004).

[2] We can of course improve our bodies in relation to instruments, but these instruments themselves have to relate to what our bodies can interact with. There is no point having a powerful electronic magnetic microscope if we can’t make available to the human eye the images that it produces.