God wills it all, or it is what it is

I was writing another essay, which led me to crawl through Baruch Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’. There is this bit in Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ where he (lvi) makes note of people’s tendency to attribute whatever it is that they fail to explain to the will of God. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve mentioned this issue only in passing. I haven’t really delved into how Spinoza addresses this issue, which is pretty much the crux of his book.

Before I take a closer look at his book, starting from the beginning, I’ll introduce the issue, as it discussed by Spinoza in the appendix to the first part of the book. I could, of course, just start from the beginning, but I think he is more approachable when he isn’t going through it all in his rather cut and dry manner. I think he contextualizes things better when does it in prose. Anyway, so, he (75) makes note of the way people tend to conceive God as a willing being behind everything:

“It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal[.]”

He wonders why that might be. He (75) mentions that he will address this by expressing certain underlying presuppositions. Firstly:

“[People] are born ignorant of the causes of things[.]”

Secondly (75):

“[They] have the desire to seek for what is useful to them[.]”

Thirdly (75):

“[T]hey are conscious of such desire.”

Which leads him (75) to state that:

“[People] think themselves free inasmuch as they are conscious of their volitions and desires, and never even dream, in their ignorance, of the causes which have disposed them so to wish and desire.”

And (75):

“[People] do all things for an end, namely, for that which is useful to them, and which they seek.”

He (75-76) then adds to this that when it comes to making sense of something, what might have happened and what might have caused it, people seek to get to the bottom of things, to understand “the final cause of events”. If they get to the bottom of things, or, well, I guess, if they think they do, they are happy and move on. If they don’t get to the bottom of things, they move from what’s out there to themselves, to reflect on what might have made them “to bring about the given event”, followed by extending this way of thinking about themselves to the behavior of others. There is, of course, a lot of which doesn’t seem to make much sense and has little use to people, as such, on their own, which pushes them to think that things are the way they are, because someone else, some other entity made it so, if only so that the things that do seem to make sense to them and have utility can be used to make use of the things that do not seem to make much sense or have much utility. In other words, people are in the habit of explaining why things are the way they are and why this and that happens by attributing it to some otherworldly cause (76):

“As [people] look upon things as means, they cannot believe them to be self – created; but, judging from the means which they are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use.”

So, people tend to think that things are the way they are not because they themselves created them, which I reckon is partially true (like you don’t create your own body, or its parts, like the eyes which allow you to see, but then again, in a way, your parents did, and so did their grandparents etc.), but because someone else created them for the people, so that they would be of use to the people, directly or indirectly, even though this logic of utility to people comes from the people themselves, what they find useful to them. He (76) further clarifies this, how it is that people come to project themselves as these otherworldly entities:

“[People] are bound to estimate the nature of such rulers (having no information on the subject) in accordance with their own nature, and therefore they assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honor.”

To paraphrase this, people come to fill in the blanks by explaining that things are the way they are because it wouldn’t seem to make any sense to them otherwise. Simply put, people come to think that things are the way they are because that’s the way they find it to be useful to them, that is to say what’s desirable to them, but without acknowledging, without making it clear to others, that they themselves are responsible for this logic. In his (76) words:

“Hence also it follows, that everyone thought out for [one]self, according to [one’s] abilities, a different way of worshipping God, so that God might love [one] more than [one’s] fellows, and direct the whole course of nature for the satisfaction of [one’s] blind cupidity and insatiable avarice.”

So, there are certain desires that come to influence what people think and do (or just do if we considering thinking as doing). When people turn to themselves, to ponder what it is that they desire, they may end up conflating what they think they desire with what they actually desire, which is not the case. Anyway, things don’t seem to make much sense, on their own, only in relation to what people find to be of use to them, that is to say desirable to them, yet they can’t explain why that is, which is why some otherworldly entity must have made them so, so that they are that way, useful or desirable. That’s why people wish to be favored by these otherworldly entities. It’s also why, conversely, people don’t want to fall out of favor with them. As he (76) goes on to specify, when something is negative or, rather, when something negative happens, it’s because people had it coming, because they acted against the otherworldly entities. It’s really just about confusing what you want, which you can’t know, except, perhaps, intuitively, with what you think you want, hence the aforementioned projection. He (78) exemplifies this way of thinking:

“[I]f a stone falls from a roof on to someone’s head, and kills him, they will demonstrate … that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God’s will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances … have all happened together by chance?”

In other words, there’s a lot involved in whatever it is that happens. That’s called contingency. It happened but there was nothing necessary about it. It’s all circumstantial, as he (78) points out. It could have also happened if the circumstances were different, which is why he (78) states that “there are often many concurrent circumstances”.

In this case the most likely scenario involves wind that blows the stone from the roof and a man who happens to walk by the building, as he (78) points out. That said, the people he is talking about, those who attribute things to the will of God, won’t be satisfied with that answer because, as he (78) sees it, in their view, that doesn’t explain what caused the wind to blow, nor what made the man walk by that building at that time of the day. You could answer that the most likely scenario for this involves a sudden shift in weather while the man was not at home. The wind was strong enough to dislodge a stone from the roof because of a clear difference in atmospheric pressure had developed quite rapidly and the man had no other options but to return home. He (78) notes that this won’t satisfy the people he is talking about either. They’ll want to know what resulted in those differences in atmospheric pressure and what made the man leave his home, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum, so that they can say: ‘ha, see, God willed it!’ That’s what he (78) calls the sanctuary or asylum of ignorance.

Of course, he (77) isn’t buying this final cause argument. He (77) finds it absurd to think that some otherworldly entity, in this case God, “acts for an object”, because, if that were to be the case, then it wouldn’t be perfect, you know, like omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient (although, technically it cannot be any of these, as it just is what it is) because it would be desiring something that it lacks. In short, something perfect needs nothing and thus can’t desire or will anything. If it did, then it would not be perfect. It would lack something and the act of desire or will would be directed to perfecting itself.

To him (46), a thing always exist as “in itself or in something else”, which, of course, also exists in itself or in something else, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. Conversely, if a thing doesn’t actually exist, it still can be understood as non-existing. So, in other words, the presence of something can be understood in terms of its absence. Something can appear missing. For example, a dead person doesn’t actually exist, as such, but the person can be conceived as non-existing. As he (51) goes on to clarify this, everything exists or happens for a reason, there being a cause, and even if something doesn’t exist or happen, it also doesn’t exist or happen for a reason, there being a cause for it to not exist or to not happen. In other words, the negative is to be understood as negated from the positive. So, for example, I’m here, writing this essay, but I can also be understood as not existing somewhere else. Being here makes it so that I’m not somewhere else. If I weren’t here but somewhere else, I’d be non-existing here because me being somewhere else “prevents it from existing, or annuls its existence”, as he (51) puts it.

To make more sense of his way of thinking, it’s worth covering his (45-46) definitions of substance, attribute, mode, God, freedom and constraint If a thing exists in itself, if it can only be conceived through itself, independently from anything else, it is a substance. The essence of substance is understood as constituted by an attribute. If a thing does not exist in itself or it is understood through something else, it is a modification of substance, a mode. A substance that consists of infinite attributes, that is to say infinite essences or essentiality, is what he calls God. It’s also worth noting that something that has existence or non-existince, having had existence or not yet having existence, is finite, but only after its kind, so that a body (in the broadest sense of the word) is only finite because it is always (de)limited by another body, which it is not, and a thought is always (de)limited by another thought, which it is not, but never so that a body is limited by thoughts or a thought is limited by bodies as they are not the same kind. In stark contrast, God is infinite because it is not conceived in terms of something else besides itself. To be clear, God is also absolute in its infiniteness, because it is not restricted by its kind. If it were infinite after its kind, it wouldn’t be absolutely infinite. What exists in itself and acts on its own is free, whereas something which is determined with respect to something else, something other than itself, is constrained.

He (54) shifts from speaking of a substance or substances to substance, there being only one substance. Therefore, for him (54-55), substance is God or, conversely, God is substance. I reckon that I probably fail to explain his views properly, but this would appear to make sense, considering that if God exists as this absolute and infinite substance, being constituted by all the attributes, in their infinity, no other substance can exist because it would have to share the attributes with God, but that can’t be because those are attributes of God. If God is constituted by infinite attributes, there can be no other substance as there are no attributes that aren’t constitutive of God. That’s why there can be only one substance, not many. It’s already built into the definition. To make more sense of what was mentioned earlier, and to get somewhere with this, to him (55-56) bodies and thoughts, what he also calls extension (corporeality) and thought (incorporeality), are attributes.

He (46) also reckons that there are causes and effects or, conversely, we understand effects only because we understand their causes, like in that stone falling from the roof example. If there is no cause, there is no effect, so had there been no wind, that stone would not have fallen from the roof or had the man not walked by the building, the stone would not have landed on his head. Of course there can be other causes that lead to the same effect. It doesn’t really matter that it was wind that dislodged the stone, nor that the man was visiting a certain house from which he had to return as what matters is that the falling stone ended up killing the man. Sure, the actual circumstances do matter as they constrain the situation, creating a certain scenario, but they are not to be understood as a necessity, ordained by a divine will.

In summary, when it comes to Spinoza’s God, there is no negation, no lack, no imperfection. As negative is to be understood as secondary to positive, negated from it, as already discussed, and God is absolute and infinite, it cannot be imperfect, as he (53) goes to point out. So, yeah, I’d say Spinoza is right when he asserts that there is no recourse to a final cause, to the will of God, because if God did indeed will it, whatever that may be, for example that the man be killed by a stone falling to his head from the roof of a building he happens to walk by, God needed it to happen, to fulfill a will or a desire, which would make God imperfect, that is to say not God.

Now, Spinoza is not saying that God or substance (if you prefer the non-theistic term) is irrelevant when it comes to assessing how things are. He clearly states the opposite, when he (61, 66) argues that “God is the efficient cause not only of the existence of things, but also of their essence” and, more specifically, that “God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things.” In other words, God or substance is immanent, that is to say imbued within everything, not transcendent, that is to say not existing on some other plane of existence. So, yeah, you could, of course, say that things are the way they are or things happen the way the do because of God, but that’s only because there is nothing that exist or non-exists, nothing existing nor non-existing, without substance, without God, as already discussed. As he (55) points out, “Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” So, as he (65) goes to phrase it, “[h]ence it follows that God is not only the cause of things coming into existence, but also of their continuing in existence, that is, in scholastic phraseology, God is cause of the being of things (essendi rerum).” He (88-89) further clarifies this by stating that God is indeed the cause of this and/or that, but he is the cause of the cause, ad infinitum, because modes are always understood through something else. If you ask me, the only way that can make sense, without infinite regress, is the aforementioned immanence, so that it’s all simultaneous, so that the existing modes are always reciprocally presupposing the other existing modes.

Simply put, without God or substance there is nothing, not even nothing. Things are the way the are because without it, they just wouldn’t be. It’s as simple as that. Of course, that’s clearly not the same thing as saying that this and/or that is the way it is or that this and/or that happened because God willed it. If there is some will or desire involved, it’s immanent, not some external final cause. So, if a stone or, to be more contemporary, a roof tile lands on your head from a roof when you are walking home on a windy day, you could curse God for making it possible, for having conditioned the world in such and such a way that it can happen, but not for singling you out, for fucking you over just because.

He (68, 71) specifies the terms necessary or necessity and contingent or contingency. Something is necessary because otherwise it wouldn’t be the way it is. It would be impossible for it to be anything else, which is why it’s necessary. If something isn’t necessary, it’s only because our understanding of the states of affairs, why something is the way it is or, rather, appears to us the way it does, is limited. It’s the same with when we are assessing something that happens. So, something is contingent when we are in doubt of whether something is necessary. For example, if a stone or a roof tile lands on your head, all that matters is that it did land on your head and something happened for it to land on your head. Either it did or didn’t land on your head. This also means that either something happened for it to land on your head or something which would have let to it didn’t happen. That’s necessity and impossibility in a nutshell. Of course, it might have been a stone or a roof tile, or something else, that landed on your head and killed you, but we simply don’t know what it was because there’s nothing that would indicate this in the proximity of your body, no stone, no roof tile, or whatever it might be, to be found by your dead body. We do know that something killed you, that something must have happened for you to die, that’s necessary, but we don’t know enough to be sure, so the circumstances of your death remain contingent. There are many possible scenarios. In short, inasmuch as we know something to be the way it is or to have happened the way it happened, we are dealing with necessity, but inasmuch as we don’t know something to be the way it is or to have happened the way it happened, we are dealing with contingency. This all makes sense and I agree with him on this. That said, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that we can never be certain of what’s what, nor what happened, because we are finite beings, limited in many ways, which, I’d say, makes everything appear contingent to us. I think he is right about things being necessary, actually so and so, but to us they are only virtually so and so because we can’t know for sure, hence the contingency. He is actually very explicit about this later on, when he (116) states that things truly are the way they, never contingent, always necessary, but when “we consider things, whether in respect to the future or the past,” we consider them “as contingent.”

Moving from that example, when it comes to finite things, us humans included, they are always conditioned and thus owe their existence and their capacity to act by something other than themselves, which in turn is conditioned the same way by something other than themselves, ad infinitum, as he (67) points out. These are the aforementioned modes. This makes sense, considering that, according to a dictionary, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, a mode is not definable in itself but only through something else, as a mode of something (OED, s.v. “mode”, n.).

He (82) also clarifies that a body is a mode, but not all modes are bodies as an idea is also a mode. To him (82), a body is also an extended thing, whereas a thing is whatever makes us understand it as a thing, so that if whatever makes us understand it as such, its essence, is removed, it’s no longer a thing. He (82) adds that an idea is also a thing, but it is not an extended thing. It’s a thinking thing or, as I would call it, a thought. He (82) stresses the importance of understanding ideas as conceptions as opposed to perceptions because the former implies active involvement whereas the latter implies passive reception. In short, bodies are modes of extension, whereas ideas or thoughts are modes of thought. That said, while they can be distinguished from one another, as they clearly are, he (86) notes that, in a way, they are “one and the same thing” because there is only one substance. What differentiates or distinguishes them from one another is that they are “expressed in two ways”, through two different attributes of the same substance, as he (86-87) goes on to add.

He (83) adds a couple of further clarifications, which I won’t cover here in full detail. I’ll skip some, just like I did with eternity when providing other definitions related to the perfection of God or substance. He (83) mentions duration, which “is the indefinite continuance of existing.” This should be familiar to you if you’ve ever read something written by Henri Bergson. Anyway, Spinoza (83) defines duration as necessary for the existence of things, but it’s indefinite because it can’t be understood by assessing this and/or that thing, because, well, things are definite, not indefinite. He (83) equates reality and perfection, which means that reality is substance, because substance is God and God is perfect.

Particularly importantly, he (83, 95) also adds that a number of particular things can also constitute another particular thing, a compound, inasmuch they co-occur, so that they are an effect, not separately but together. He doesn’t specify it here, but following his own definitions, this means that they can be bodies and/or ideas and that any a number of particular things can be understood as a thing, which, in turn, can understood as a part of another particular thing with other particular things, and so on and so on. So, for example, a chair is a chair as what makes it a table makes it a chair and not something else, let’s say a stool or a bench, but when we assess these particular things, the chair, the stool and the bench, they can be considered to be seats. Seats can also be understood to be other particular things, as furniture, if we consider them in combination with other particular things, for instance, long flat surfaces that hold items, such tables, desks and shelves, or people, such as beds. We could also work our way back, to assess which things result in things we know as chairs, stools, benches, tables, desks, shelves or beds, followed by further assessment of what makes those particular things constitute other particular things. In addition, we could take something like an A4 sheet of paper and fold it a number of times, in a certain way, so that it becomes a leaflet, a pamphlet or a booklet (although the more you fold it, the smaller the pages become so that it’s a bit questionable whether you can render an A4 sheet of paper into a booklet), the point being that the thing in question, the sheet of paper, does not change much, but it changes enough so that our conception of it changes. In other words, it would appear that particular things can and do consist of not only bodies but also ideas. I reckon this makes sense, considering that, in a way, one is talking about the same thing, but only in two ways, through the two attributes, as already mentioned.

When it comes to humans, he (83) states that they exist or don’t exist, inasmuch as they do or don’t, just like any other body or extended thing. That said, what makes humans humans and not, say, chairs, is that they think, as he (83) goes on to add. It’s worth keeping in mind that, for him, extension and thought are attributes. This means that humans can be understood as existing in two modes, which, in turn, means that without a body, there is no human. It also means that without thinking, there is no human. But what does he mean by thinking and thoughts? Are thoughts or ideas what someone thinks, what they focus on, or so to speak, or is it anything that just comes to you, somehow, willingly or unwillingly? He (83) clarifies this by adding that there are several modes of thought or thinking, for example love and desire. In other words, thought or thinking is much more broadly conceived by him than what people might generally associate with thought or thinking, which is also the case with bodies, as already discussed. He doesn’t specify this, but he (83) does note that bodies can be “affected in many ways”, but always involving bodies and/or modes of thought, because those are the only modes of the attributes that humans have access to.

When it comes to bodies, that is to say extended things, he (93-94) emphasizes how they are in movement, moving or resting, at various speeds, quickly or slowly, which is what distinguishes them from one another. This aspect is important because if this wasn’t the case, each body or extended thing would simply be the same, sharing in the same attribute, which in this case is extension. It’s also worth noting that when we think of the movement of a body, we shouldn’t think of it in isolation from other bodies. In other words, it’s important to realize that the bodies are in relation to one another, some moving slowly, others moving quickly, coming together to a certain extent, composing and decomposing into various compounded bodies that may also compose and decompose into various compounded bodies, ad infinitum, so that we can think of reality as this ever composing and decomposing infinite set of bodies, as he (96) goes on to note.

I’m skipping ahead again, to a point where he (107) notes that when it comes to duration, all things, humans included, not only do they have finite existence, but they also exist for as long as they do, until they don’t. Our understanding of the duration of their existence is limited and, in his (107) words, “very inadequate”. Anyway, what matters is that he (107) states that “all particular things are contingent and perishable.” This only makes sense, considering that if this was not the case, if things didn’t have finite existence, bodies would not be able to compose and decompose.

But what about what makes this or that thing appear to us as distinct from some other thing? Well, he (109) reminds us that things are the way they are, perfect in their own right, so this and/or that is distinct from what else is there, because, well, reality is, in itself, always perfect. That said, he (109) also reminds us that insofar as we humans are concerned, it appears to us inadequately, as a confused mass of a bit of this and a bit of that. He (109) notes that this has to do with the very definition of a finite thing, which, as already discussed, can only be understood through some other thing, which, in turn, can be understood through some other thing, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. What’s here important here is that this also means that things are distinct, yet they are alike, some more, some less, as he (109-110) goes on to explain. He (111) also adds that we humans understand things better, distinctively as this or that, the more we have in common with what else is there.

What I find particularly interesting about this aspect is what he (111-112) mentions in passing, in a two page long side note. He (111) states that we can only imagine, to recollect or bring back, so a limited number of images because the number of images we can produce is limited. That makes sense, considering that we are finite things, just like everything else, hence our imagination is going to be limited as well. Humans are imperfect. That said, we do encounter a vast number of things all the time. We don’t run into problems stating that. I know what’s what and I can comprehend the vividness of reality. Instead, we run into problems when we try to keep tabs with it all. That’s when things get confused. What he (112) means by this is that there’s just so much detail to that we encounter that we have a sensory overload, which forces us to reduce the complexity of reality into limited sets of things and to rely on various generalizations that we get from our experience, which, of course, varies between people. Simply put, we rely on notions such as “man, horse, dog”, and the like, as he (112) points out, even though they are pretty senseless when you think of it. They are, of course, useful, but the images they conjure are quite generic.

Summarizing this, as he (1139 does, we get knowledge from our experiences. This can be gained through our senses, but it can equally well be gained through existing knowledge that is shared with others, typically either in spoken or written form, as he (113) points out. This makes sense, considering that what other express is also based on they’ve learned from others or sensed themselves.

There are three kinds of knowledge for Spinoza. In his (113) view, the first kind of knowledge is based on opinion or imagination, the second kind is based on reason and the third kind is based on intuition. Highly importantly, the first kind of knowledge is always inadequate or confused to some extent, for reasons already discussed, whereas the second and third kinds of knowledge are always adequate, as he (114) goes on to point out.

He (66, 260) further comments on knowledge, stating that “[t]he more we understand particular things, the more we understand God”, that is to say substance or reality, considering that “[i]ndividual things are nothing but modifications of [its] attributes …, ore modes by which the attributes … are expressed in a fixed and definite manner.” So, the more experience you have of the world, the more it would appear that you know. The good thing is that there is no shortage of this first kind of knowledge. The bad thing is that this kind of knowledge is always in the making. It’s always incomplete, muddled and confused. In other words, while you can learn to better understand the world through examining its particulars, that’s going to be a never ending task. You can never be entirely sure whether you understand it all, whether you managed to piece it all together. It’s all so particular that it’s never going to be adequate. This is also why he prefers the second kind of knowledge (reason) over this first kind of knowledge (imagination).

For him (109, 113), what’s in common between the particulars, what we can reason from them, is much more important and useful than assessing each particular, one by one, in order to understand reality. I’d say it’s also far more efficient and makes a whole lot more sense than compiling a list of various particulars. That said, he (93, 109) realizes that, on its own, this kind of knowledge is kind of pointless because it doesn’t pertain to anything particular, because whatever happens to be “common to all”, for example that “[a]ll bodies agree in certain respects”, “and which is equally in a part and in the whole, does not constitute the essence of any particular thing.” Simply put, while certainly useful, this kind of knowledge doesn’t tell us about anything particular. It’s more like focusing on the relations between things, what does and doesn’t connect them, than about the things. It’s interesting, yes, but what do we do with that? What do we do with, for example, all bodies agreeing with one another in certain respects? Where does that lead us? How does it help us to make sense of the world?

This lack of specificity in the second kind of knowledge (reason) leads him (260) consider the third kind of knowledge (intuition) as the most useful and the most valuable to people. Now, the problem with intuition, what Spinoza calls the third kind of knowledge, is that it’s very hard to explain. What is it? I wouldn’t say it’s this or that, but rather something that just happens. So, to me, intuition is something immediate. Either you get it or you don’t. You can’t really explain it. Everything just is, everything just appears to you, without any explicit reflection, you know, like a singularity. It’s highly useful, on a personal level, considering that all the sudden things make perfect sense, but being irreducible, it’s not something that you can render into other uses, which will probably bother people who don’t get it.

I’ll let someone smarter than me explain what’s the deal with intuition. Deleuze explains this in the second known session of his course on Spinoza (dated December 2, 1980, available as part of ‘Seminar on Spinoza: The Velocities of Thought’). In short, Deleuze likens intuition to “a bolt of lightning.” He considers Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge to be present when things are “going at full speed.” He jumps into something else, sort of related, only to return to discuss intuition on his ninth lecture of this seminar (dated February 3, 1981).

Right, Deleuze makes note of Spinoza’s three kinds of knowledge (imagination, reason, intuition), as already discussed. He comments on the first kind, noting that it deals with an aggregate that he calls “the world of signs”. He also comments on the second kind, noting that it also deals with an aggregate, but this time it’s the aggregate of “common notions”. To make more sense of common notions, Deleuze asks his audience to keep in mind that an abstract idea is not the same as a general idea. For him, an abstract idea involves abstraction, which has to do with “an operation that consists of separating through thought what is inseparable in the representation”, whereas a general idea involves “a relation that suits several things.” So, the problem with abstract ideas or abstractions is that there are none, as he goes on to point out. That’s why they are always empty. They don’t work because they involve separating what’s inseparable, which results in something that just doesn’t make any sense, as he also points out. Anyway, to get back on track here, common notions are not to be confused with essences, which appear to us through the third kind of knowledge, through intuition, what he calls “the knowledge of essences.” This is the aforementioned lack of specificity that plagues the second kind of knowledge (reason).

It’s also important to note that we move from one to the other, from the first kind to the second kind by making note of what’s common between this and that, and from the second kind to the third kind by realizing that while we may have all kinds of things in common with one another, we, “you, me, this table, … the little cat, the dog”, etc., are all nonetheless distinct, singular, if you will, as Deleuze points out. This can also be explained the other way around, as he does, as “you are not only a singular essence” but also “an aggregate of relations” so that everything is, me and you included, an aggregate of parts, which are themselves aggregates of parts, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum, composed in certain way that expresses its essence. What’s curious or interesting about this is that the parts appear to depend on the relations rather than existing on their own, so the parts may change and do change, but in a way that the essence is retained, as he goes on to point out. We are great examples of this. Our bodies appear to regenerate, to a limited degree of course as our lives are finite, but, oddly enough we appear to retain our essence, as also mentioned by him as an example.

The superiority of this third kind of knowledge should by now be apparent from what I’ve covered from Deleuze’s lectures. The way I would put it is that you no longer define this or that, whatever it is that you encounter, as representing some abstract idea, but as a “composed relation”, as “a collectivity”, as he might put it. So, as strange as it might sound, there is no objectivity, nor subjectivity, no objective views, nor subjective views, only collectivity and collective views. This does not, however, mean that there is only one collective, but a plethora of collectives that we are composed of. So, oddly enough, you are you, just as I am I, not because you are one and I am one, as a given, but because what makes us one is that we are always many. As Deleuze (3) puts it, alongside Félix Guattari (3), in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, “[w]e are no longer ourselves”, yet “[e]each will know his own” as “each of us [is] several”.

Deleuze returns to this issue of parts and composition in the following lecture, lecture ten (dated February 10, 1981). He states that there are three dimensions or layers to what constitutes something, for example an individual, like me or you. Firstly, for Spinoza, this or that consists of parts, which, in turn, also consist of parts and so on, and so on, ad infinitum, as already discussed. If you ask me, this isn’t all that surprising. It just makes sense, which is why I’ve applied this logic in my own work. Secondly, these parts belong to whatever they constitute inasmuch as they do, according to whatever it is that retains them as distinctively this or that. In other words, the relation of the parts is what defines the essence of this or that, not the parts themselves. Deleuze acknowledges that it’s not clear cut to assess what it is that makes this or that, for example a particular table that particular table. I agree.

To expand on his example, if I were to replace one of the legs of my table with another leg, would it still be the same table? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure how assess that, what the criteria for that would even be. He wonders “what does this question mean?”, only to answer his own question with a question: “It means, according to what reasons do any parts whatsoever belong to a given body?” Now, that doesn’t give you any clear criteria, so how do you deal with it? My answer is that you just do. It’s intuitive. If it seems right, it is right, and if it doesn’t seem right, it isn’t right. If you struggle with this, I reckon it will make more sense if you exemplify this with someone you know instead of some table that probably doesn’t mean that much to you anyway. What is it that makes that person that person?

Thirdly, not only do things consist of parts, which also consist of parts, but they are also themselves parts. This also means that as everything is a part of substance that is, in Spinoza’s view, all powerful, so that each part is not only extensive, having certain dimensions, but also intensive, having certain power, that is to say a certain capacity to act (in the broadest sense of the word), if I’m not mistaken. If that’s hard to comprehend, it’s worth keeping in mind that you can always divide something that is extensive, but not something that is intensive. That’s the difference between something that is divisible, a dividual, and something that is indivisible, an individual. This is also not about this or that quality, nor about quantity, as qualifying something as this or that already involves qualifying it as a part, which consists of parts and functions as a part of something else. This does not mean that things, people included, don’t have extensive parts, that they aren’t constituted in a certain way, but rather that you can’t explain them simply as sums of their parts. He jumps through a lot of hoops to explain this during the lecture, that Spinoza’s formulation is not about sums, but about relations, how something is composed or decomposed. That doesn’t negate the parts, as you do need them, only subordinates them to relations so that the parts only make sense relationally.

Deleuze further comments on Spinoza’s take on parts and wholes during this tenth lecture. So, as already mentioned, something can function as a part of something else, forming a compound, but it can also be understood as a compound consisting of parts. When Spinoza mentions great number of this or that, as he does in ‘Ethics’, he isn’t giving us any clear number, only a number that is so large that it exceeds what can be expressed in numbers. That’s infinity. Anyway, to get to the point, Deleuze stresses the importance of understanding parts and wholes in terms of sets or collections that are infinite. That means that there is no smallest nor largest set of sets or collection of collections. There is no end to it, as even the ends are always infinite, as he goes on to clarify. Simply put, something can always be smaller or larger than something else. He also warns us not confuse this with what we can sense as it appears that we do have certain limitations. I think Spinoza would agree with this, considering that, for him, humans are indeed limited certain ways and thus have a limited capacity to act. Anyway, so, Deleuze makes note of a threshold which seems to exist for us, so that we can only sense and think of something that is so or so small, the atom minimum, but we can’t go beyond that. Then again, that’s only because you aren’t thinking in terms of relations. This is also why Deleuze emphasizes the importance of realizing that infinity or “actual infinity” has no beginning nor an end, that is to say that it has no ends, in plural. It stands in opposition to finity, which has a beginning and an end, that is to say that it has ends, and to indefinity (indefiniteness), which has a beginning but no end, that is to say it has an end but not the end.

If this no beginning nor end business seems familiar to you, it’s, perhaps, because it is. For example, think of how Deleuze and Guattari, (21-22) state in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ that “[a] plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end” and that “Gregory Bateson uses the word ‘plateau’ to designate … a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities who development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end.” Think also how they (21, 25) state that “[a] rhizome is made of plateaus” and that “[a] rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo”, as well as how they (263) state that “[a] haecceity has neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination”, as “it is always in the middle”, “not made of points, only lines”, which makes “[i]t … a rhizome.” This also means that, for them (25), questions such as “[w]here are you going?”, “[w]here are you coming from?”, “[w]hat are you heading for?” and the like “are totally useless questions.” It’s also why it’s very important for them (25) that the middle, what they (21, 426) also call milieu, is never localizable, between this and that thing, but just in between. They (507) even mention Spinoza as someone who surveys everything in the middle.

Moving on, Spinoza (115) further specifies how knowledge works. So, for example, when we assert something, let’s say that a roof tile landed on a man’s head and killed him, it is true, in itself. Note that this is not a statement of facts. Maybe Spinoza has witnessed such, but I haven’t. This is a made up example. We only consider whether that holds on its own and it most certainly does. We can’t go against that, saying that it didn’t kill him or that it didn’t land on his head because then we aren’t even saying the same thing. We are then saying another thing, which, in itself, of course holds, in its own light, of course. This is why he (115) stresses the importance of “the very act of understanding”, that, in order to be “sure of a thing”, we need to “be first sure of that thing”. In other words, the truth of the thing is immanent to the act, so that light is light because it is light, understood as such, and not darkness, as he (115) points out. As truth is immanent to the act, this of course also means that “a true idea has no more reality than a false idea”.

If this also seems familiar to you, it’s probably because it is, at least sort of. I don’t know about others, but this makes me think of what became known as Speech Act Theory. In Spinoza’s treatment, we aren’t simply presenting information, as if we recognized this and/or that as something and not something else, thus confirming or denying its presence, but doing things with words, as J. L. Austin might express it.

Spinoza (123, 125) exemplifies this with someone who speaks of “a winged horse”. We know that there are no winged horses or, rather, that there are no winged horses that we know of. We have never actually encountered winged horses. We have no experience of such. That said, that doesn’t mean that there are no winged horses or, rather, that there has never been winged horses or that there will never be winged horses. Maybe, maybe not. This is all contingent because knowledge is based on experience, as already discussed. This means that it’s always correct to speak of winged horses, regardless of the circumstances, whether such exist, have existed or will exist, as what matters is that winged horses are immanent to the act of speaking about winged horses. There’s no claim beyond to what is said. This also means that it is correct to speak of winged horses if the circumstances permit to speak of such and claim that they do exist. What are such circumstances then? If there appears to be winged horses, then, well, there are winged horses, unless there is something else that makes it apparent to us that there aren’t winged horses, as he (125) goes on to point out. In his (125) exact words:

“For what is the perception of a winged horse, save affirming that a horse has wings? If the mind could perceive nothing else but the winged horse, it would regard the same as present to itself: it would have no reasons for doubting its existence, nor any faculty of dissent, unless the imagination of a winged horse be joined to an idea which precludes the existence of the said horse, or unless the mind perceives that the idea which it possess of a winged horse is inadequate, in which case it will either necessarily deny the existence of such a horse, or will necessarily be in doubt on the subject.”

As this is or was just me or my take on this, I did a quick search. It appears that at least George Henry Radcliffe Parkinson and Jack MacIntosh seem to agree with my take. MacIntosh makes note of this in ‘Spinoza’s Epistemological Views’. He (38) argues that “for Spinoza ideas had, and could not but have, illocutionary forces attached to them”, so that:

“If you have such an image or perception, Spinoza is suggesting, this, in the absence of some countering notion, amounts to an affirmation that there really is such a horse within your visual field.”

In other words, if it appears to be the case then it is the case, unless it doesn’t appear to be the case, which means that then it isn’t the case. It may also be that the conditions change so that something no longer appears to as such, so that it appears to us as something else, which, of course may also come to appear to us as something else if the conditions of its apparition change. This is why Parkinson (39) points out in ‘“Truth Is Its Own Standard’: Aspects of Spinoza’s Theory of Truth” that a chimera may exist, inasmuch there is a body that is in a certain state. So, if there is a thing, let’s say me, that comes to think that such a creature exists, it exists, not because chimeras really exist, to the best of our knowledge that is, but because whatever things push me come to think that it exists.

Parkinson (42-43) also warns us not to oversimplify things, to assert that what Spinoza is saying is the same what Austin is saying. That said, there is a certain familiar ring to Spinoza if you’ve read Austin. There’s a degree of affinity between them. That’s how I’d put it. Parkinson (42-43) points out that this has to do with how Austin assesses speech acts in terms of their happiness/unhappiness or felicity/infelicity. To make sense of that, if you are not familiar with it already, we make sense of what’s been said on the basis of the context, on the basis of what else is there, or so to speak. This means that we may even encounter someone saying something that we can comprehend, okay, but it just doesn’t make sense in that context, as he (43) points out. For example, I can say something like “I sentence you to prison for eight eight years for …” but it won’t have an effect on you because I’m not a judge, nor are you on trial. It would take a judge and you being on trial for that to make sense. Now, as noted by Parkinson (43), I’d say that Spinoza isn’t really concerned with who can say what and in what circumstances, for it to have an effect or no effect, legit or not, but with whether this or that holds in its own right, whether chimeras exist or not, which is a much more general concern.

Spinoza (108-109) also notes that people tend to have a certain way of thinking about freedom, which he disagrees with. This also makes sense, if one considers what I’ve already covered about freedom in this essay. So, he (108) reckons that people tend to think that freedom is about having consciousness of one’s own actions, about willing this and/or that. The problem with that is that it ignores what conditions each and everyone of us, so that, as he (108-109) puts it, freedom is merely about “ignorance of any cause for [one’s] actions.” As he (109) goes on to point out, this is particularly problematic because it’s basically attributing one’s actions to an empty abstraction. It’s empty because it’s never explained what will is. In other words, attributing your actions to your will functions just like attributing something to the will of God.

Right, I went through parts one and two of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ and some bits from the other books. I previously hadn’t given much thought to going through this book, definition by definition, proposition by proposition, proof by proof, postulate by postulate, axiom by axiom, lemma by lemma, note by note, followed by going back and forth between it all, because the way it’s written, in Euclidian fashion, appeared dreary to me. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by how I liked the way it is written, even though I still think that it’s a bit of a bore. It’s a tough read, that’s for sure, but not as tough as I expected it to be. You just sort of have endure the boring and convoluted bits, which will then be further clarified in the more loosey-goosey notes. I’m also not entirely sure that I understand it all. I hope I do, but, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something that’s off in this essay. In terms of the content, what I got out of this, it’s interesting how some of the stuff reminds me a lot of what’s discussed in the 1900s and the 2000s, some 300 years later. I think it’s fair to say that this book was far ahead of its time and probably still is.

But why go through the effort of reading his work to discuss whether God wills it or not? Well, my answer is that it’s irrelevant what it is that we ground our arguments on, whatever it is what we call it, if it functions the same way. You can substitute God or god(s), feel free to choose your deity, with something like nature, culture, humanity, ideology, structure or economy and nothing changes. I’d say that even landscape and discourse can be put into use the same way. Alfred North Whitehead explains the issue with such aptly in his book ‘Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology’ when he (20) notes that:

“It is a complete mistake to ask how [a] concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals.”

What one needs to do instead is to do the exact opposite, as he (20) points out:

“[T]o explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things.”

In more simple terms, when we deal with abstractions, if we have to, we are always tasked to explain them, from what they are abstracted from. If we look at a dictionary definition for abstract (OED, s.v. “abstract”, adj.), it is typically used as the opposite of concrete, so that we might as well talk about concepts. It (OED, s.v. “abstract”, n.) can also be used in the sense that it’s a summary form of something, like when you abstract or extract something, for example through distillation or condensation (OED, s.v. “abstract”, v.). So, Whitehead (20) is basically saying the same as Deleuze (or, rather, the other way around, Deleuze says the same as Whitehead, not to be anachronistic), that abstractions don’t exist as such, a priori, because what we consider to be abstractions are always abstracted from something. To put this in Spinozist terms, we are never dealing with abstractions. Instead, we are always dealing with common notions, the second kind of knowledge that we get to through the first kind of knowledge by making note of what’s common between this and or that.

To wrap things up, for now, as I might delve deeper into this later on, going through the other parts of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, I think it’s also worth noting that like with everything else, you don’t have to agree with everything he has to say about whatever it is that he is dealing with in this book. It’s the same with this essay. For example, I wish the movement from one kind of knowledge to another would be explained in more detail. I felt like I was left hanging. I had to piece it together by myself. I don’t mind that, as such, as it makes me think, but I felt it was a bit sloppy of him, considering the rigor of his approach in this book.


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