dialogues at greenwich: February 26th: Spinoza and the Three "Ethics"

dialogues at greenwich

discussion and reports from the Volcanic Lines research group at Greenwich University

28 February 2007

February 26th: Spinoza and the Three "Ethics"

On the 26th of February 2007 the Volcanic Lines group discussed Deleuze's essay 'Spinoza and the Three "Ethics" from Essays Critical and Clinical, after hearing an introduction given by Matt Astill (Greenwich). What follows is a write-up of the introduction material along with some issues brought up in the seminar discussion.

In this essay, Deleuze focuses on the interrelationships between the three kinds of knowledge in Spinoza, and offers in tandem a reading of certain aspects of the Ethics. Concerning the first kind of knowledge, Deleuze links the affects with the Scholia; Concerning the second kind of knowledge, the common notions are linked with the geometrical style of the propositions, demonstrations, axioms and definitions; Concerning the third kind of knowledge, intuition is linked with the enthymemical style of the content of Book V.

The first kind of knowledge, which Spinoza calls 'knowledge from vagrant experience'(IIP40S), is an inadequate form of knowledge that can be characterised as 'affective': Deleuze notes Spinoza's use of Galileian physics of Book II to ground the first kind of knowledge in the affections or modifications engendered between colliding bodies. An affect is the resultant modification of one of these bodies, from its perspective alone (involving only the idea of that body). Affective knowledge concerns the nature of the modification of the subject body more than it concerns the nature of the object body, and cannot concern both (since the two bodies are separate, and the modifications made in the object body are not comprehended in the subject body).

For Spinoza, the human body is the object of the human mind, such that they are inseparably linked. The modifications of a human body parallels modifications in the mind that perceives that body (see IIP7). A crucial proposition for Spinoza (and for Deleuze's reading in 'Spinoza and the Three "Ethics"') is IIP24, which states, “The human mind does not know itself, except insofar as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body”. The affects, or what we might call emotional phenomena, is the source of our knowledge about ourselves.

Deleuze introduces the concepts of joy and sadness as vectorial affects that are tied to the duration of the mode (since it is finite), and that indicate a growth or diminution of its power relative to the exercise of its nature. All scalar affects thus have dimentions of joy or sadness depending upon the state of power of the mode in question; Different senses of modifications of the body are scalar after their own idioms, but joy and sadness are two vectors or lines of force, showing expansion and contraction of power as immanent affects relational to the amount of power a finite thing has as it is acted on.

Deleuze says that signs refer to signs (in terms of affects), and that effects refer to effects (in terms of modifications engendered between bodies). In Spinoza's terms this is the principle of external causality that rules the world of finite modes: We cannot understand something that has been caused externally except by reference to an infinite chain of external causes, of which only the infinite series is sufficient – as finite things with finite knowledge we always have only insufficient knowledge of other things (IP28). It is evident enough for us to consider that whatever series we propose in explaining some effect, our series is merely the effect of a further cause that lies external to the series, on force of principle. Thus we only ever have a certain collection of effects to explain other effects, and never anything sufficient to be called a ‘cause’.

The example of optics is used to show what can be meant by 'effects' - shadows cast upon bodies. The first kind of knowledge is thus a "limit of light" (p.141, Verso 1998), to which light is antecedent. The move from shadows as knowledge to light as knowledge is to move from knowledge of the first kind to knowledge of the second kind. The common notions in Spinoza are those things that are true of all bodies, but known through the immanent structure of the subject body (i.e. it follows a line of constitution from God - e.g. 'insofar as God constitutes the essence of the human mind'). The optical analogy for Deleuze means an optical geometry, in which the structure of external bodies are revealed as they are penetrated with light (for Spinoza, constituted by God through the human mind).

Deleuze gives an account of structure stressing a Heraclitean variability (structures have motion and change, and their structure is revealed in relation to the motion and change that our bodies undergo), and a necessary notion of multiplicities (grounded for Spinoza in the need to have more than one body for an affection to occur between them). These structures are constructed within logical infinities, which, pointing in the direction of the most complex level of construction, indicates the idea of the infinite mode (where shadow, by the combination of modes seen in relation to each other, disappears into primary whiteness).

Rembrandt and Vermeer are used to stress the difference between light being primary, with shadows being emergent from its interplay with bodies (Vermeer), and light being a secondary contrast with relative darkness (Rembrandt). Here are two paintings for comparison:


Vermeer "A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window"


Rembrandt "The Nightwatch"

In my view, the Vermeer painting suggests a scene in which the second kind of knowledge is lived as the girl reads the words of her letter by turning to the light.

Back in the essay, Deleuze asks the question whether the first kind of knowledge can be thrown away. For Deleuze, however, the preexistence of concepts prior to our having knowledge of them (knowledge of concepts Deleuze equates with 'common notions') suggests that they must be immanently realised through the selection of the affects in the first kind of knowledge, and that the world of shadow, by its brightenings and darkenings, gives us the requisite injections of power to move into relation with structures and constitute true universals. Chiaroscuro, which is a relative brightening or darkening, reenters the system as the distinguishing characteristic or principle of the relational values 'joy' and 'sadness'.

To foster joy is to enter into a constitutive relationship with the second kind of knowledge through our ability to resonate with other objects (to use Nietzsche's words this is to 'conquer'), and Deleuze here suggests the oblique nature of the selection of joy through the fact of ressentiment, and the suggestion of the Nietzschean typologies of the Tyrant (or Despot) and the Priest.

After this section, Deleuze introduces his reading of the Ethics as a text, such that the axioms, demonstrations etc. all form the second kind of knowledge, but, crucially, that the scholia indicate the first. It is through the scholia, the "...book of Anger and Laughter" that the text is infused with its necessity and its scope. The text is a model of the reader, or the reader is a model of the text.

The third kind of knoweldge, or intuition, is taken up by Deleuze as constituting Book V in terms of the text, and as the idea of "Pure figures of light" in terms of the optical analogy. Two ideas work in tandem here - the reading of Book V as having an enthymemic quality that "...will proceed by intervals and leaps, hiatuses and contractions, somewhat like a dog searching rather than a reasonable man explaining", and the extrapolation of the light analogy as now an absolute speed covering specific intervals in a single flash (these intervals are dissociated through the light having a greater or lesser magnitude). This reading is somewhat grounded in Spinoza in IIP40S, where he uses an example from Euclid to demonstrate the difference between the three kinds of knowledge: “Suppose there are three numbers, and the problem is to find a fourth which is to the third as the second is to the first”, he asks. We rely either upon following a procedure, applying demonstrated principles or formulae, or we simply intuit the answer. The latter is the kind of ‘leap’ that Deleuze characterises Book V as performing, and which he illustrates with allusion to the mathematician Galois.

Issues and worries:

- A clarification is necessary with Deleuze’s use of ‘chance’ and ‘fortuitous encounter between bodies’ on p.141. These terms seem to go against Spinoza's argument that “Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced” (IP33), which is true on pain of denying that there is only one substance to account for this alteration. However, the chance that D is speaking of here is only temporarily true insofar as we find ourselves among affects and not common notions - randomness is only true if we stay inside the first kind of knowledge.

- Investment of power issue in forming common notions - Is it a problem that the 'selection of affects' will not be sufficient to account for common notions? Is Deleuze assuming an empiricism on Spinoza's behalf? Initially it seems this is a problem for Deleuze. However his point is not that the affects will be sufficient to the common notions but that they are necessary to them. This is in line with Spinoza's criticism of the 'proper order of philosophising' at IIP10S, and we can still see that God is the only sufficient cause of the differences in kind. Deleuze's account of the selection of the affects is placed in Spinoza's system by virtue of Spinoza's arguments in the Ethics, moving from the principle of a single substance. There was also a worry that Deleuze is using the idea of the dark precursor to smuggle in an empirical ground - however it was pointed out that this is inconsistent with the account of the dark precursor in Difference and Repetition, where it is that by which the given is given, and not itself a discrete given.

- The discussion group found the notion of 'pure figures of light' intriguing, and much conjecture was levied at what this could possibly mean.

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