You Cannot Underestimate Yourself (on Ethics III P26s)

Most of the affects defined in Part III of the Ethics come in pairs: for each affect there tends to be a joyful and a sad variant. Love and hate offer the simplest example of this: love is just joy accompanied by the idea of an external cause; hate is just sadness accompanied by the idea of an external cause. There are more complicated couplets, too. For instance, ‘The striving to do evil to him we hate is called Anger [ira]; and the striving to return an evil done us is called Vengeance [vindicta]’ (IIIP40c2s) — this finds its counterpart in that ‘reciprocal Love, and consequent striving to benefit one who loves us, and strives to benefit us, is called Thankfulness, or Gratitude [gratia seu gratitudo]’ (IIIP41s). In general, affects are ideal relations we form toward ourselves and toward others that involve our imagination; and since these relations can be either joyful or sad, it’s obvious why they would come in pairs.

But they do not always appear in such neat symmetrical form. In particular, consider the scholium to III P26:

Pride [superbia], therefore, is Joy born of the fact that a man thinks more highly of himself than is just. And the Joy born of the fact that a man thinks more highly of another than is just is called Overestimation [existimatio], while that which stems from thinking less highly of another than is just is called Scorn [despectus].

So, one can think too highly of oneself (pride) and of others (overestimation); and one can too lowly of others (scorn). But this is obviously three-quarters of a pair of pairs. There’s a conspicuous absence here: Spinoza does not say that it is possible to think less highly of oneself than is just. As it happens, this is no accident.

In order to see why, it’s important to consider what the point of this part of the Ethics is; you have to keep in mind what we gain by undertaking an analysis of affects. One of the first claims Spinoza makes in Part III of the Ethics is that the common conception of free human volition is untenable. Human beings, he tells us, tend to be conscious of their appetites, their desires, and their actions — and, at the same time, they tend not to be conscious of the causes that determine them to desire and to act the way they do. There is, if you like, an epistemic gap that gives rise to the misconception that we freely choose the things we desire and will: we are aware that we have desires, but are unaware of the reasons why we have these desires. Basically, then, Spinoza identifies an informal fallacy underlying most of our intuitions about human free will: from the (negative) absence of knowledge of the causes that determine us to act, we infer the (positive) claim that our wills and actions really have no causes; and so, if we act in a certain way (and we do!), it must be because we freely chose to do so. But this is an argumentum ad ignorantiam, an argument from ignorance. It is exactly as valid as saying that because I do not know why the sky is blue, therefore there is no reason why the sky is blue; and it is even a bit weirder than that, because we don’t usually attribute to the sky the freedom to choose to be blue.

In this context, we can see what the value is of Ethics III: Spinoza is giving us an account of how our desires are determined, even though we may not be conscious of these processes of determination. His claim is that when our desire is configured in a particular way, we are necessarily led to act in accordance with that desire. And affects very significantly modify or shape our desires, almost always through the imagination.

Let’s consider a very simple example.

I experience joy — that is, my power to think and to act increases in some way, and I am conscious of this increase. Now, I imagine that something external to me is the cause of my joy; let’s say I imagine that my joy is caused by some one person in particular, Rho. That is, I love Rho! This is nice. Now when you love someone or something, this determines you to act in a particular kind of way toward them: namely, you will strive to aid them, to encourage them, to try to increase their power to think and to act. If you like, you can cash this out in a utilitarian sort of way: since I imagine that Rho’s tendency is to bring me joy, increasing their power should, hypothetically, bring me even more joy. But Spinoza doesn’t limit himself to this kind of account; simply put, it just necessarily follows that I strive to aid what I love. And since I love Rho, that’s just what I am determined to do.

Now notice the work done by imagine in that last paragraph. 1. I imagine that Rho is the cause of my joy. But I might be wrong about this. For one thing, maybe I’m just totally mistaken about where my joy is coming from, and Rho is in fact indifferent to that process; maybe they just have nothing to do with my joy at all. But it might even be worse than that: Rho’s nature might be such that their tendency is actually to decrease my power to act and think. But no matter: I can still imagine that they are the cause of my joy, and love them. And when I do, I am determined to do what I imagine will increase their power. So then: 2. I imagine that acting in a certain way will increase their power. But I may be wrong about that, too! The actions that I imagine here might not even affect Rho at all; if they do affect Rho, my actions might not increase or decrease Rho’s power in any way; or, again, worse case scenario, perhaps my actions will turn out to affect Rho negatively, so that their power to think and to act decreases. In a way, Spinoza’s point is that none of this matters: the relations that I imagine obtain between Rho and my joy, and the relations that I imagine will obtain between Rho’s capacities and the actions that I may perform, determine me to act in a certain and determinate way: I love them, so I necessarily strive to do what I imagine will increase their power. So we can see that Ethics III is really about the power of the imagination, or inadequate knowledge, to determine the will to desire certain things, and thereby to determine us to strive to act accordingly.

Let’s return, then, to the missing fourth affect that would complete our triplet of pride-overestimation-scorn. Pride: I experience joy from thinking myself more highly than is just. Overestimation: I experience joy from thinking of others more highly than is just. Scorn: I experience sadness from thinking less highly of others than is just. But what is the than is just, here? Evidently, it refers to the power of the thing being evaluated, since a singular thing’s essence just is its striving to persevere in its being. And the gap here is between the actual power of the thing and the power that I imagine it to have. So in pride, I imagine that I am more powerful than I really am, and this thought produces a joy in me. And in scorn, I imagine that someone is less powerful than they really are, and this thought produces a sadness in me. And remember that joy and sadness just are the conscious passage to a greater or lesser perfection — that is, consciousness of an increase or decrease in power.

So now we can see why the fourth category is missing. Let’s say that I imagine I have less power than I really have. This doesn’t happen abstractly; it happens concretely, taking the form of: I think I cannot do x (although x really is within my power). But this thought produces a sadness in me, it decreases my power — to what extent? Precisely to the extent that it removes from my power. Why? Because the thought that I cannot do determines my striving in a very particular way: it determines me not to try to do x, since I imagine that it is impossible for me to do so, and you cannot strive to do what you really think is impossible. And if I am determined not to do something, indeed not even to try, this is the same as it really not being within my power. I think that something is not within my power; I am determined necessarily to strive to do things other than this, which I think is impossible.

‘Indeed, no one thinks less highly of himself than is just, insofar as he imagines that he cannot do this or that. For whatever man imagines he cannot do, he necessarily imagines; and he is so disposed by this imagination that he really cannot do what he imagines he cannot do. For so long as he imagines that he cannot do this or that, he is not determined to do it, and consequently it is impossible for him to do it.’ (E III def.aff. XXVIII exp.)

You cannot underestimate yourself! You can only make things that would otherwise be in your power impossible for you. And remember, nobody knows what a body can really do.


Spinoza: on potestas and potentia in Ethics V

In a wonderful essay on the question of whether the State is an individual in Spinoza’s sense, Alexandre Matheron notes, almost as an aside, that the distinction between potestas and potentia is not always dispositive.

This distinction has received a lot of scholarly attention, although it is notoriously difficult to capture in English, where both terms are often translated simply as ‘power’. Gueroult argued at length for its importance in the first volume of his study on Spinoza, Dieu. Through Deleuze, but also Foucault, it has made its way into the vocabulary of French political philosophy, where it is rendered as pouvoir and puissance. It also runs through Agamben and Negri to Italian theoretical writings, as potere and potenza; Negri makes the distinction central to his reading of Spinoza in The Savage Anomaly.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this distinction is as the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of power involved in political power—potestas, as in summa potestas, or potestas ordinata; and, on the other hand, the kind of power involved in a pure capacity to act—potentia. In a Deleuzian vein, it can also be glossed as the difference between a power that is immanent to a body (potentia or puissance) and the transcendent power of a ruler’s command (potestas or pouvoir). As Beth Lord has pointed out, the latter isn’t necessarily restrictive of the former, but it can be; Deleuze and Negri certainly have a marked tendency to push the distinction in that direction, as though potestas is always only detrimental from the perspective of potentia. Hardt notes that Negri often writes as though the distinction can be unproblematically mapped onto the antagonism between capitalist potestas or potere and proletarian potentia or potenza.

To be sure, this distinction is sometimes operative in Spinoza’s writing. The question is of its limits. Negri cites a beautiful example of the positivity of potentia in the Ethics, III P12: ‘The mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting’ (Mens, quantum potest, ea imaginari conatur, quae Corporis agendi potentia augent, vel juvant).

By contrast, to get a sense of Spinozist potestas as ruling power, consider these lines from Chapter XVII of the Theologico-Political Treatise: ‘Nevertheless, to understand rightly how far the right and power of the state extend, we must note that its power is not limited to what it can compel men to do from fear, but extends to absolutely everything it can bring men to do in compliance with its commands. It’s obedience which makes the subject, not the reason for the obedience’ (Attamen ut recte intelligatur, quousque imperii jus & potestas se extendat, notandum imperii potestatem non in eo praecise contineri, quod homines metu cogere potest, sed absolute in omnibus, quibus efficere potest, ut homines ejus mandatis obsequantur: non enim ratio obtemperandi, sed obtemperantia subditum facit). This is the kind of power involved in producing subjects, and Spinoza already sees that such potestas doesn’t necessarily have to invoke fear like the Hobbesian sovereign, but can operate through subtler channels.

But the distinction isn’t quite as rigid for Spinoza as has sometimes been suggested. Take this passage from Chapter III of the Political Treatise, which is often invoked as a place where we catch a glimpse of the purportedly revolutionary communi multitudinis potentia: ‘Because the Commonwealth’s Right is defined by the common power of a multitude, it’s certain that its power and Right are diminished to the extent that it provides many people with reasons to conspire against it’ (quia jus civitatis communi multitudinis potentia definitur, certum est, potentiam civitatis et jus eatenus minui, quatenus ipsa causas praebet, ut plures in unum conspirent). The jus of the state is defined (de/limited) by the potentia multitudinis, no doubt. But shouldn’t we have expected a potestatem civitatis here, rather than a potentiam civitatis? Since it has sometimes been claimed that the potestas / potentia distinction is more significant in the political writings than in the Ethics, this is all the more striking.

In fact, let’s turn to the Ethics. Matheron points out two places where Spinoza doesn’t just use the word that one wouldn’t expect: he actually equivocates, actively treating the terms as interchangeable.

First, in the demonstration to V P29, Spinoza initially writes that the mind ‘has only the power of conceiving things in relation to time’ (eatenus tantum potentiam habet concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus). ‘But eternity cannot be explained by duration. Therefore, to that extent the Mind does not have the power of conceiving things under a species of eternity’ (ergo mens eatenus potestatem non habet concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis). But that’s not the end of the story. Reason, for Spinoza, consists precisely in just this kind of conceiving of things sub specie aeternitatis, and it does pertain to the mind to conceive the Body’s essence sub specie aeternitatis; therefore, ‘this power of conceiving things under a species of eternity pertains to the Mind only insofar as it conceives the Body’s essence under a species of eternity’ (ergo haec potentia concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis ad mentem non pertinet, nisi quatenus corporis essentiam sub specie aeternitatis concipit).

Let’s first note another possible frustrated expectation here. One might reasonably have guessed that the potentia-potestas dyad would map onto another of Spinoza’s conceptual couplets: that is, the (intrinsically limited) power to conceive things merely in relation to duration, potestas concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus, against the (intrinsically infinite) power to conceive things under an aspect of eternity, potentia concipiendi res sub specie aeternitatis. But this is not what we find. Instead, first we encounter potentia concipiendi res cum relatione ad tempus; then we get potestas concipendi res sub specie aeternitatis; finally, potentia res sub specie aeternitatis. So what accounts for the difference, then?

I also don’t think the dilemma here can be resolved by suggesting that we find potentia in the first and third cases because Spinoza is describing a power that we do have, whereas in the second case we find potestas because he’s describing a power that we don’t. To begin with, without claiming to be an expert in the subtleties of Latin grammar, I don’t think actual-existence-versus-actual-nonexistence is sufficient to justify the terminological switch here. Certainly this wouldn’t fit at all with how the distinction definitely is mobilized most of the time: it’s not as though the power of the State is potentia when it’s actual and potestas when it’s not. In any case, it seems clear that, here in this demonstration, the selective usage of potentia and potestas is not a function of the kind of power being described.

Let’s take a look at the other instance, from the demonstration for V P42:

‘Next, the more the Mind enjoys this divine Love, or blessedness, the more it understands, i.e., the greater the power it has over the affects, and the less it is acted on by evil affects’ (Deinde quo mens hoc amore divini seu beatitudine magis gaude, eo plus intelligit, hoc est, eo majorem in affectus habet potentiam et eo minus ab affectibus, qui mali sunt, patitur). ‘So because the Mind enjoys this divine Love or blessedness, it has the power of restraining lusts‘ (atque adeo ex eo, quod mens hoc amore divino seu beatitudine gaudet, potestatem habet libidines coercendi). ‘And because human power to restrain the affects consists only in the intellect, no one enjoys blessedness because he has restrained the affects. Instead, the power to restrain lusts arises from blessedness itself’ (et quia humana potentia ad coercendos affectus in solo intellectu consistit, ergo nemo beatitudine gaudet, quia affectus coercuit; sed contra potestas libidines coercendi ex ipsa beatitudine oritur).

Here we see that one and the same power, that of the mind to restrain lusts, is being spoken of as both a potentia and a potestas; there is no sense in which what is at stake is a power of the mind that we may or may not have. So this case provides us with grounds to think that the terminological shift doesn’t have to do with the presence or absence of the same kind of power. Moreover, one could even argue that the kind of power here is restrictive in the same sort of way that political potestas is typically supposed to be, but this restraining of the affects is called a potentia of the mind.

Now Matheron doesn’t really say too much about this. He says only that these cases can be adduced to show that the potestas-potentia distinction isn’t as hard, for Spinoza, as some have claimed; and he does so in order to defuse objections predicated on this distinction raised against his (highly interesting) reading of the Spinozist concept of individuality, and the question of whether it is applicable to the State such as Spinoza understands it (yes, it is). In short: if you think you can take down his reading by invoking this distinction, think again.

But it seems to me that it is significant that this distinction, which had a certain consistency in earlier parts of the text, begins to collapse here, in Part V. I follow Deleuze in reading the Ethics in the prior parts as being written from the perspective of the second kind of knowledge, adequate knowledge through common notions, whereas Part V is written from the perspective of the third kind of knowledge: intuitive knowledge of singular things, beatitude, or the intellectual love of God. And as Deleuze says, this is what accounts for the ‘infinite speed’ of this fifth part; sub specie aeternitatis, we are able to recognize immanent identities where finite understanding, in and of duration, may have led us to think we encounter real distinctions. What I am suggesting is that, from the perspective of the common notions, potestas and potentia constitute a genuine opposition; whereas from the perspective of the third kind of knowledge, they amount to a kind of speculative identity-in-difference. And it would be worth exploring the consequences of this hypothesis.

Leibniz on Death

A friend recently asked me about Leibniz’s position on death. ​​Leibniz is very consistent on this question in his mature metaphysics (from the 1686 Discourse onward). Essentially, he denies death, affirming the immortality of the soul. In part, this is due to his commitment to the substantiality of minds or monads: monads must be individual substances, because there is unity in formed matter, but matter has no principle of unity in itself; and substances are by definition imperishable. (He even says at some point: it’s not so weird to insist that monads are indestructible, with no beginning or end; it’s no different, after all, from what the Gassendists say about their atoms.)

Each soul/mind/monad is characterized — this is literally its principium individuationis — by a proportion of clarity-distinctness and obscurity with regard to the expression or perception of the actual infinity of the world. In other words, you and I both perceive-express the same whole, but we express different parts of it with different degrees of clarity, and the rest only obscurely (and obscurity also admits of degrees). What we call death is when that ratio skews almost entirely in favor of the obscure, or, we might say, when the ratio of clear to obscure perceptions itself becomes infinitesimally small.

I like to imagine each soul as represented by a downward facing parabola; the height of the curve indicates the level of activity or freedom of the soul, since it clearly expresses everything beneath it. And freedom is essentially a function of the degree of understanding or intelligence, i.e., how much is clearly perceived. As we move right the y-value of the curve approaches -∞, or what is the same, the ratio of obscure perception (above the curve) to clear perception (beneath the curve) approaches ∞. And for the same reasons the level of understanding and freedom of the mind becomes infinitesimally small, as its confusion becomes infinite and it becomes infinitely passive. This process is indexed to the dissolution of the soul’s body, and we call it death. But the soul never finally goes out of existence, and it seems to follow that there is no kind of afterlife or otherworld.


That said, it’s not especially obvious how to square this conception with his Christological proclamations about the ‘great future’ of the City of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, which he says we know of not through reason but through revelation. Sometimes his language suggests that this world just is the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the moral order of grace, with its just punishments and rewards, is a fait accompli, whether we recognize it or not; at other times it’s hard not to think he has in mind a more classical notion of a Christian afterlife, even though he is quite explicit in arguing that the soul is inseparable from the body.

Here are some relevant passages.

“What becomes of the souls or forms at the death of the animal or at the destruction of the individual unit of organized substance? This question is the more difficult, insasmuch as it hardly seems reasonable that souls should remain, useless in a chaos of confused matter. This led me at length to conclude that there is only one reasonable view to take — that of the conservation not only of the soul but also of the animal itself and its organic machine, even though the destruction of its grosser parts may have reduced this machine to a size so small that it escapes our senses just as it did before birth. Moreover, no one can mark exactly the true time of death, which may for a long time be taken to be a simple suspension of observable actions and in the last analysis is never anything but this in the simple animals. Witness the resuscitation of flies which have been drowned and then buried under powdered chalk, and a number of similar examples which suffice to show that there would be other resuscitations, in cases much further gone, if men were in a position to restore the mechanism. … It is natural, then, that animals which have always been living and organized (as people of great penetration are beginning to recognize) will also always remain so. And since an animal has thus no first birth or enitrely new generation, it follows that there will be no final extinction or complete death, in a strict metaphysical sense, and that as a result, there is no transmigration of souls but only a transformation of the same animal, as its organs are differently folded and more or less developed.” (New System on the Communication of Substances §7)

Leibniz constantly reiterates that ‘the Cartesians’ (he also means to implicate the occasionalists) don’t distinguish between perception and apperception, and so don’t realize that there are perceptions of which one is unaware. This “led them into the popular confusion of a long stupor with death in a rigorous sense, which made them support the Scholastic prejudice that souls are entirely separate, and even confirmed some ill-balanced minds in a belief in the mortality of the soul.” (Monadology §14)

“When there is a large multitude of small perceptions with nothing to distinguish them, we are stupefied, as when we turn continuously in the same direction several times, so that a dizziness overcomes us and we grow faint and can distinguish nothing. Death can produce this state in animals for a time.” (M §21)

“The soul only changes its body little by little and by degrees, so that it is never deprived of all its organs at once; there is often metamorphosis in animals but never metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls. Neither are there entirely separated souls or higher spirits without bodies.” (M §72)

“It is because of this, too, that there is never complete generation, or, strictly speaking, perfect death, consisting in the separation of the soul. What we call generation is a development and an increase, just as what we call death is an envelopment and a diminution.” (M §73)

“These same Cartesians think that only spirits are monads and that there is no soul in beasts, still less other principles of life. And after having defied the everyday opinion of men too much in denying that beasts have feeling, they adjusted their views too far to popular prejudices, on the other hand, when they confused a long stupor coming from a great confusion of perceptions with death in the rigorous sense, in which all perception would cease. This has confirmed the poorly grounded opinion that certain souls are destroyed and has supported the pernicious view of certain so-called free-thinkers who have denied the immortality of our souls.” (Principles of Nature and Grace §4)

“Just as animals in general are not completely born in conception or generation, neither do they completely perish in what we call death, for it is reasonable that what has no natural beginning also has no end within the order of nature. Thus, abandoning their masks or their rags, they merely return, but to a finer stage, on which, however, they can be as sensitive and as well-ordered as on the larger one. And what has been said about grosser animals takes place also in the generation and death of spermatic animals themselves, that is, they are enlargements of other smaller spermatic animals, in proportion to which they can be considered large, for everything in nature proceeds to infinity. Not only souls, therefore, but animals as well, cannot be generated or perish; they are only developed, enveloped, reclothed, stripped, transformed. Souls never leave the whole of their bodies and do not pass from one body to another entirely new to them.” (PNG §6)

Travails of Translation (Macherey, Hegel, Spinoza)

In Avec Spinoza, Pierre Macherey has a lovely little essay called “Le Spinoza idéaliste de Hegel”. In it he makes some fascinating arguments about the sort of interpretive work the German idealist needed to do in order to make the savage anomaly assimilable into his system, focusing mostly on Hegel’s comments on Spinoza in the third volume of the Lectures on the History of Philosophy.

Now when producing a translation, you should cite whatever the author’s quoting in the language being translated into, rather than the original, whenever possible. So, for example, Macherey typically cites Garniron’s French translation of the Vorlesungen as the Leçons sur l’histoire de la philosophie. And when he cites Hegel’s original German, he goes to the Sämtliche Werke edited by Glockner. But readers of this essay in English aren’t likely to have those lying around (I don’t). They are much more likely to have the English translation of the Lectures—maybe the older one by Haldane and Simon (HS)—which, incidentally, is also the version of the Lectures you’ll find for free on—maybe the more recent one by Brown and Stewart (BS). So when Macherey quotes from the Leçons, the thing to do is to find the same passage in the English translation and quote from one or both of those. That way your readers don’t need to go looking for books in other languages, and if they’ve got them in English, your references will actually be helpful.

All good! The principle makes sense, and the texts are clear.

Er—well, they start out clear. It doesn’t take long to realize that the two English translations are pretty seriously out of sync with one another. For example, Macherey says that the following is the first line from Hegel’s chapter on Spinoza, which should be helpful:

“Le rapport de la philosophie spinoziste à celle de Descartes est seulement celui d’une développement, d’une accomplissement consequent du principe de cette dernière.”

BS: “Spinozism is related to Cartesianism simply as a consistent carrying out or execution of Descartes’ principle.”

HS: “The philosophy of Descartes underwent a great variety of unspeculative developments, but in Benedict Spinoza a direct successor to this philosopher may be found, and one who carried on the Cartesian principle to its furthest logical conclusions.”

The BS is a solid, near-direct translation. The HS seems to have the same idea at the end there, but where’d the rest come from? It’s definitely not in the French that Macherey’s looking at. The HS seems to have a bunch of extra stuff in it in general: after that single line, the BS moves on to a new paragraph that starts talking about Spinoza’s biography; the HS goes on for six or seven more sentences, and then moves on to what looks like the same biographical material. So, it looks like the BS is a closer match to the Garniron.

But then there are quite a few quotes that don’t have clear correlates in the BS, but which do have corresponding lines in the HS. Macherey quotes Hegel:

“La pensée simple de l’idéalisme spinoziste est : ce qui est vrai n’est purement et simplement que la substance unique don’t les attributes sont le penser et l’étendue (nature) : c’est seulement cette unite absolue qui est effective, que est la réalité effective—c’est seulement elle qui est Dieu. C’est comme chez Descartes, l’unité du penser et de l’être, ou ce qui contient en soi-même le concept de son existence.”

Don’t go looking for this passage in the BS; you won’t find it. Nowhere is there anything about ‘Spinoza’s simple idea’, followed by that (pretty complex) way of attempting to sum up the whole of Spinozist philosophy; and here’s the real kicker: at no point in the BS do we find anything like ‘extension (nature)’, a parenthetical identification of two terms that are very different for Spinoza (extensio sive natura?!), which Macherey’s argument makes a big deal out of.

Meanwhile, in the HS we find:

“The simple thought of Spinoza’s idealism is this: The true is simply and solely the one substance, whose attributes are thought and extension or nature: and only this absolute unity is reality, it alone is God. It is, as with Descartes, the unity of thought and Being, or that which contains the Notion of its existence in itself.”

Well, that looks…exactly right. So it looks like the Garniron corresponds with the BS sometimes and the HS other times, and we’ll just have to be casuists about it.

(In an extra twist, the BS, which has nothing to correspond with, it turns out, a lot of quotes that Macherey pulls from the Garniron, is apparently a translation of the Felix Meiner Verlag edition of Hegel’s Vorlesungen, which is edited by Walter Jaeschke and… Pierre Garniron. Hmm.)

Then, check this out. Macherey thinks that Hegel really botches his translation of Ethics I, Definition 6. That, for reference, reads:

“Per Deum intelligo ens absolute infinitum, hoc est substantiam constantem infinitis attributis, quorum unumquodque aeternam et infinitam essentiam exprimit.”

Naturally, Machery quotes the French translation of Hegel’s allegedly problematic German translation of Spinoza’s Latin:

“Dieu est donc l’essence absolument infinie, autrement dit la substance qui consiste en d’infinis attributs.”

The BS provides us with the closest match, where Hegel writes:

“God, therefore, is the absolutely infinite being or the substance that consists of infinite attributes.”

But is it a close match? Because wait, how was this supposed to be problematic here? Macherey: “comme si Spinoza avait écrit essentia à la place de ens…” So now we check the Werke, and lo, Hegel writes: “Gott ist das absolut unendlich Wesen…” Wesen is essence, but it also could be being; if Hegel hadn’t written hundreds of pages on the doctrine of being (Sein) and an entirely distinct doctrine of essence (Wesen), the slip would be understandable. But Macherey’s right: Spinoza didn’t write essentia, he wrote ens.

And that’s how I found out, by trying to translate Macherey’s French essay on Hegel and Spinoza, that the English translations of Hegel’s translation of Spinoza’s Latin into German, in which he makes a serious error (ens -> Wesen), just go ahead and fix that error (Wesen -> being) without saying anything.

Language, huh?

My translation of the essay is here.

No Sophistication

At some point during my political education, I learned what I thought was an important lesson about motivation and complexity. Popular culture teaches us from a young age that there are Good Guys and Bad Guys. But this, of course, turns out to be ridiculous, for a host of reasons. That the world’s entire range of people is not captured by different kinds of ‘guys’ is just the beginning. There’s also the realization that the Manichean parsing of social antagonism is untenable.

That is, at some point you realize that here, in Real Life, the villains aren’t people who wake up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror, stroke their goatees, and say: Ah, it’s a good day to commit some Heinous Acts! Today, Evil will triumph!

No, as a sophisticated and mature thinker of the complexities of real politics, one is encouraged to recognize that nobody is evil in that easy sense; everyone does what strikes them as good, and it does a disservice to these people and these complexities to imagine anyone as a cartoon villain. Disservice is one thing, but the main thing is that you’ll be botching it: the imaginary of the cartoon villain is not an accurate or faithful way to picture the world.

So, you learn: it’s not as simple as Disney made it out to be; the villains are people too, and it would surely be better to understand than to simply condemn them. Whenever you condemn, what you’re condemning is a caricature. And that’s to stay all-too-comfortably at the level of imagination or inadequate knowledge. At my best, I think—I hope—I follow this Spinozist ethos in evaluating political actors.

Then you hear that the new Republican budget plan includes eliminating federal funding for PBS and NPR; they want to slash funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities. They want to put a stop to the arts and humanities; they want to kill This American Life and Sesame Street. They suggest that we cut funding from the EPA, the CDC, and the Department of Education: ah yes, climate scientists and public school teachers, they’ve gotten a pass for too long. Never mind that this won’t actually ‘balance’ anything, as though that were really the goal; these sorts of cuts are the policy goal.

These people are making me unlearn my sophistication. What good are the lessons of subtlety in the face of such simple, stupid kinds of hatred? They are the cartoon villains I was told didn’t really exist. Who the hell wakes up with an enthusiastic love in their heart for the fight against educational programs and public health research? Who wants to make sure there’s not even any new art to contemplate as the rising seas sweep our decadence into oblivion? These desires are directly evil. No surprise they’re actual Nazis.

Malebranche’s critique of Aristotelian physics

The Search After Truth has many virtues—including scathing, robust critiques of Aristotelian/scholastic/medieval approaches to physics and natural phenomena—but it really can’t be said that brevity and concision are among them. The following is a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of Book Six, Part Two, Chapter Three.

The general rule concerning the subject of our studies. That the school philosophers do not observe it, which is the cause of several errors in physics.

[1] ‘We must reason only on the basis of clear ideas.’ Hence start with and dwell on what is maximally simple before proceeding to anything complex, and do so only on the basis of the former.
[2] Yeah, sure, you say—this may even strike you as obvious. But maybe you’ll be surprised to hear that almost nobody (read: the scholastics) actually follows this rule.
[3] Aristotle is the absolute master in this regard. (Malebranche says, words dripping with scorn, that he ‘justly deserves the status of Prince.’) Most of his ‘concepts’ are actually just vague terms that, because they are equivocal, don’t clearly and distinctly represent anything. The Physics is the worst: it says nothing, means nothing. There will turn out to be two kinds of equivocal terms to be distinguished.
[4] The first are equivocal is because the terms involved ‘arouse only sensible ideas’—i.e., they refer to sensation. Doing any work on their basis leads invariably to error.
[5] NB some equivocal terms aren’t really a problem: nobody mistakes the constellation for the animal when diagnosing an allergic reaction to fish. But ‘terms of sensible ideas’ are equivocal in much sneakier ways.
[6] So: ‘fire is hot’ in the scholastic mouth means ‘fire contains what I feel when I am warm’; ‘grass is green’ means ‘grass has on it the colors I believe I see there’. Thus they confuse modes of bodies with those of minds.
[7] Descartes teaches us to make the proper distinction here. If ‘heat’ is ‘the movement of insensible parts of bodies’, then the fire is hot. But if ‘heat’ is ‘what I feel near fire’, then the fire is not hot—rather, I am. Of course some people think that what they sense is the same thing that is in the object. But then everything falls apart, and you’ll never make your way back to clarity. Here’s why.
[8] First. Things feel differently to different people, and even to the same person at different times. You think this is bitter, I think it’s sweet—how can bitterness and sweetness both be in the same thing (at the same time and in the same way)? (My new favorite example of this, because maximally tragic, is the taste of cilantro.) This room seems hot to me because I’ve just come in out of the cold, but also cold when I’ve just gotten out of a hot shower—how can it itself be both hot and cold? Classic paradoxes of sensate becoming.
[9] Second. We abstract the sensation confusedly. Paper, sugar, and salt are all ‘white’. Is it the same ‘whiteness’ in each thing? Then its universality suggests that it is ‘in us’, and yet it must be ‘in the thing’ if our determination of that thing is to be valid.
[10] Third. Some nearly identical bodily qualities cause nearly opposite sensations; some radically different bodily qualities cause nearly identical sensations. The difference between tickling and torture has got to be one only of degree. Directly identifying the quality in itself and for us leaves us without a way to resolve this sort of problem.
[11] So people judge sensible qualities on the basis of sensations; then they determine objects based on these judgments of sensible qualities based on sensations. How could this not be a mess? Wheat and flour are determined to be essentially different because the sensations we have of them are quite different. But flour is just ground wheat. And so on.
[12] Upshot is that ‘terms for sensible ideas are completely useless for the distinct proposal and clear resolution of questions, i.e., for the discovery of truth.’ But Aristotle and the Aristotelians propose their questions and try to resolve them precisely in and through using just these kinds of equivocal terms.
[13] This approach has (by the 1600s) congealed into a kind of philosophical common sense. Ask the Aristotelian whether water is moist or fire is hot; they’ll answer immediately, having consulted nothing but ‘the impressions these objects have made on their senses, or those which their reading has left on their memory. They will not see that these terms are equivocal.’ M says: this common sense leads them to multiply distinctions that confuse things, and leave admixed the things that ought to be distinguished.
[14] Now if we subtract everything based on such equivocations, most of Aristotle and the scholastics falls away. But the same isn’t true of Descartes, who ‘explains the principle effects of nature in a clear, obvious, and often demonstrative manner using the only ideas that are distinct, i.e., those of extension, figure, and motion, the principle effects of nature.’
[15] So much for terms that are equivocal because they have to do with sensation. There is another category of equivocal term, which have to do with logic. Malebranche’s enumeration shows these to be transcendentals: ‘genus, species, act, potency, nature, form, faculties, qualities, cause in itself, and accidental cause.’ The Aristotelians don’t even realize that these words refer to nothing real. Worse, and this gets to the real heart of the problem: they have no real explanatory power. Hence ask the scholastic how and why we digest food, and they’ll invoke our ‘digestive faculty’.
[16] Those who go down this route are typically not wrong—because they’re taking no chances, since there’s nothing at stake in building propositions out of nothing-terms.
[17] ‘Fire heats, dries, hardens, and softens because it has the faculty to produce these effects.’ Bread nourishes because it has the nutritive quality. You can’t go wrong! But also, you’re not saying anything; you’re turning the question directly into the answer. Why/how does x do y? Because x has the y quality. ‘These or similar ways of speaking are not false: it is just that in effect they mean nothing. These vague and indeterminate ideas do not involve one in error, but they are completely useless for discovering truth.’
[18] We can see how useless this sort of claim is when we try to obtain new knowledge with one. Say we grant a substantial form of fire that involves a host of faculties like heating. Will exposure to fire lead to hardening or softening a given object? There’s no necessary connection if the question is posed in this way: fire hardens mud, but softens wax. Experience gives the answer, but that experience also has nothing to do with any such substantial form or causal faculties.
[19] Contrast this with the Cartesian claim that extended bodies are modified by the rates of movement and the organization of the particles that constitute them. For there is a connection between the hardness/softness of mud or wax, and the heat of fire—hardness, softness, and heat are all understood in terms of particulate velocity, and thus can be meaningfully related. This means that the knowledge involved in understanding fire in this way has predictive value (e.g., I can predict that exposure to fire will soften wax and harden mud), whereas there is nothing of the sort in Aristotelian-scholastic positing a ‘dilating faculty’ or ‘hardening faculty’.
[20] This is what happens when you posit substantial forms in your reckoning with natural phenomena. And there’s no stopping point: you’ll posit a substantial form or causative faculty for every sensation you receive. This is like throwing Ockham off a thousand cliffs (just one would have been sufficient).
[21] This gets us back to the rule: reason only on the basis of simple, clear ideas. ‘If we ask the philosophers what sort of entity is fire’s illuminating faculty, they will answer only that it is the being that causes fire to be capable of producing light. So their idea of this faculty is no different from the general idea of cause and the confused idea of the effect they see.’ There just are no clear ideas to be found here. Physics demands better.

Hume’s Moral Enquiry

Hume says that we make moral distinctions. That is, we distinguish between right and wrong. Now Hume knows that some people deny that there is such a distinction: there are moral relativists, people who claim that there really is no right and wrong. But Hume says: these people may claim they think this, but they’re either lying to us or are really lying to themselves. At the end of the day, the avowed relativist does think that some things are right and other things are wrong. And Hume’s basic gesture is to say: don’t even engage with these people. You won’t win that argument, and it’s not worth even trying. This is, by the way, not dissimilar to a claim Sartre will make about the anti-semite: trying to have an argument with them is basically a waste of time; you have to respect the rules of debate and discussion, but they don’t. Continue reading “Hume’s Moral Enquiry”