Monday, September 8, 2008

Spinoza's Ethics

I read Spinoza’s Ethics largely because I had heard so much about how a certain kind of Theory was deeply indebted to him, or claimed to be. My suspicion was (and is) that it is really Deleuze’s version of Spinoza that interests people, in the same way that people have now heard of Bergson largely because of Deleuze. There isn’t anything wrong with this, and I should admit strait off that I haven’t read very much of the relevant material on the French Spinozan revival of the 1970s. This, anyway, is how I came to Spinoza. Several months ago, I read the Theological-Political Treatise. Parts of it were very interesting, but since my interest in biblical hermeneutics and the debunking of miracles is, at best, abstract, I was not greatly moved. Since then, I have been traveling and focusing n other things, which is a shame. But I finally managed to sit down and work through the Ethics.

This was a first reading, and no doubt a superficial one. There are a few things I would like to highlight and remember. Most generally, and perhaps most superficially, I remember from long ago that much pop (or near pop) neuroscience takes its philosophical inspiration from Descartes. The way in which Spinoza thinks about the relationship between mind and body seems to me obviously far better tuned to contemporary understanding. I am generally fascinated by this aspect of the work, and would, on a second reading, pay close attention to it.

Perhaps most elusive and unexpected, for me, was Spinoza’s treatment of time (and much of this in the last pages of the book). This is bound up with the relation between mind and body. There is eternity and there is duration. The mind is able to conceive of nothing except through the body, which has duration, and is in time. However, the mind may conceive of the body under the species of eternity, but this is, I think, essentially to conceive of God. This is the preserve of reason, which always is concerned with the eternal. There is a great deal more here, and no doubt the duration/eternity dichotomy is crucial not just for Spinoza, but for the whole tradition of philosophy—perhaps it is even universal. The question is, and I might tend in this direction, is Spinoza attempting to get around this dichotomy, to present us with a way of thinking that downgrades the distinction to relative unimportance?

Now, given that I came to this text with Theory in my head, I was especially interested in desire as a concept. Desire is defined at one point as, “appetite together with consciousness of the appetite” (76 – I am using the Penguin Classics edition of the Curley translation). I should say in passing that, in Lukacs, consciousness appeared as the highest good, and there seemed to be no need to explain why it was good. Spinoza does a somewhat better job explaining why it is good. Later, as the first point in the definitions of the affects we find, “desire is man’s very essence, insofar as it is conceived to be determined, from any given affection of it, to do something” (104). The middle clauses, Spinoza explains, are important. Desire is man’s essence only insofar as man, and everything else, strives for self-preservation. Desire is then the conscious (as opposed to appetite) striving for something that, given an existing condition (Spinoza’s affection), tends toward the preservation of the individual. Of course, Spinoza quickly points out, desires “are not infrequently so opposed to one another than the man is pulled in different directions and knows not where to turn” (104).

Spinoza believes that if all individuals acted according to their own best interests, or what, with a clear mind, they perceived these interests to be, we would have peace, freedom, and prosperity. This is because there is nothing more useful to one individual than another individual in full possession of his own capacities. The state, however, and its power to coerce and/or legislate on matters of morality and action, is necessary because people are generally ruled by their affects rather than their reason.

I wonder how similar this is to a Smithian hand-of-God argument? Indeed, since I have been trained to pay attention to the way people talk about affect, it seems to me that a single problematic does indeed somehow unite Spinoza and, who is perhaps most interesting in this regard, the Marquis de Sade. Indeed, as an aside, I am very sorry that I could not bring myself to write about La philosophie dans le boudoir immediately after finishing it. The thing is horrible and fascinating; especially in the light of certain arguments about emotion-talk and radical forms of republicanism at the time of the French Revolution. Sade really does represent this logic pushed in a radical way to a certain limit.

A final confusion of which I want to remind myself: Spinoza several times uses the phrase “more reality,” at one point in what must be one of his famous sives, it is “more reality, or perfection” (33). What does this mean, exactly? I think this must be a significant philosophical point, in the same way that “Deus sive natura” is not just any conjunction, but a basic Spinozan contention. More perfection, I understand. The more of God’s nature one is able to understand, the more perfection one contains, or, is. But I am confused by the equation of this to reality. As opposed to confused ideas of reality? Spinoza, I would have thought, allows the reality of confusion, just not its correctness, or perfection. We can only ever have an imperfect, or mutilated (such language!) idea of evil, since it is itself a negation. It is impossible to hate God, since to know God excludes the negation necessary for hate. But does Spinoza consider such gaps, failures, and negations to be absences of reality? I am a bit confused about this.

At any rate, I rashly moved on from Spinoza some days ago, and have started reading another old and difficult book—though one I have a better excuse for tackling: the New Science of Giamattista Vico. I will need to spend some time with this text, which is more exciting than I had thought it would be, and will write more about it soon. But for now I want only to point out that there are some interesting echoes with Spinoza. For instance, here is Vico’s axiom 35, “Wonder is the daughter of ignorance. The greater the cause inspiring it, the greater the wonder.” Then here is axiom 36, “The weaker its powers of reasoning, the more vigorous the human imagination grows.” One of the more elegant moments in the Ethics is the definition of wonder as what one experiences before a singular thing. This seems to me remarkably powerful. A thing appears singular when one is ignorant of how it is connected to other things, when one has no conceptual grasp of it. (I would argue that psychologically, when a thing is really singular, it inspires not wonder so much as uncomprehending boredom—something is interesting when it speaks in a powerful and unexpected way to what one already knows. Too familiar, or too foreign, and it is impossible to think about). Perhaps having just read Spinoza, I am going too far and assimilating to him what are really pieces of Enlightenment common sense by Vico’s time. Still, the categories of wonder and imagination are clearly important—if I were more energetic, I would keep careful track of how Spinoza defines them, and then how Vico defines and uses them.

It also occurs to me, though only here, that Badiou, who certainly ought to know his Spinoza, may be doing interesting things in his Ethics, discussed a bit below, around the idea of evil as essentially a negation, a failure.

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