Spinoza and Totality

Notes by Erik Empson, 2002

1. The organic totality: unity of substance

“By the association of parts…I merely mean that the laws or nature of anyone part adapt themselves to the laws or nature of another part, so as to cause the least possible inconsistency. As to the whole and part, I mean that a given number of things are parts of a whole, in so far as the nature of each of them is adapted to the nature of the rest, so that they all, as far as possible, agree together. On the other hand, in so far as they do not agree, each of them forms, in our mind, a separate idea, and is to that extent considered as a whole, not as a part.” Letter XV (Dover 1 pp 290)

“When awareness of needs of parts for one another is realised, love for each other follows immanently”. Spinoza uses the metaphor of the body; the lung does not act for heart altruistically.

The above suggests that parts are considered as pre-existent to the whole, the latter considered as the association and the harmonic interaction of parts that adapt themselves to one another. This is clearly different from contradictions as the central principle of dialectical considerations of totality.

Of interest in this regard are Althusser’s statements in a section of his Essays in self-criticism (NLB 1976). Althusser elaborates here the reason for his seduction by Spinoza. He was looking for a philosophical grounding for materialist positions. He says that Spinoza was a detour taken in order to arrive at a better understanding of Marx as well as a means of exposing Hegelian idealism. In Spinoza Althusser says he found the first systematic elaboration of a theory of ideology, although he was to later realise that that which he formulated as a consequence was trans-historical and did not take into account the class struggle within ideology. The absence of contradiction, in Spinoza too, “had taken its toll” (pp 141).

Yet Spinoza was eminently foundational to Althusser’s and his followers understanding of the totality. Spinoza offered a means of formulating a Marxist topography absent from Hegel’s dialectics, which only constructed shapes in order to shatter them in the dialectic’s progressive movement to its telos:

“…the position of the Marxist topography protects the dialectic against the delirious idealist notion of producing its own material substance: it imposes on it, on the contrary, a forced recognition of the material conditions of its own efficacy. These conditions are related to the definition of the sites (the “spheres”), to their limits, to their mode of determination in the “totality” of a social formation. If it wants to grasp these realities, the materialist dialectic cannot rest satisfied with the residual forms of the Hegelian dialectic. It needs other forms, which cannot be found in the Hegelian dialectic. It is here that Spinoza served us as a (sometimes direct, sometimes very indirect) reference: in his effort to grasp a “non-eminent” (that is, non-transcendent) not simply transitive (a la Descartes) nor expressive (a la Liebniz) causality, which would account for the action of the Whole on its parts, and of the parts on the Whole – an unbounded Whole, which is only the active relation between its parts: in this effort Spinoza served us, though indirectly, as a first and almost unique guide”.

Spinoza looks at the connection between things, and hence is strongly opposed to neo-positivist currents that argue for the isolated seperateness of phenomena and false believe that it is only the power of thinking and the ‘concept’ that can unite this infinite plurality (see Ilyenkov pp 18-20)

2. Totality and adequacy – adequate ideas of a thing

Breaking with the mind/ body dualism of Descartes (See Ilyenkov essay for expanded treatment of Spinoza’s relation to Descartes); Spinoza through of thought and extension, not as separate entities, but attributes of the same substance, that is to say, nature. Thought is the way that nature thinks of itself, and the conscious knowledge of things: the development of adequate ideas that exactly reflect them, is the body’s means of being in the same state as those things, of coming closer to its own reality as substance as part of nature. Its capacity do this is given by the extent to which it has commonality with things (artificially posited as outside the human brain/body).

Ilyenkov describes it thus:

“Descartes’ dualism between the world of external objects and the inner states of the human body thus disappeared right at the start of the explanation. It is interpreted as a difference within one and the same world (the world of bodies), as a difference in their modes of existence (‘action’). The specific structure of the human body and brain; is here for the first time, interpreted not as a barrier separating us from the world of things, which are not at all like that body, but on the contrary as the same property of universality that enables the thinking body (in contrast to all others) to be in the very same states as things, and to possess forms in common with them.”(pp 22)

“There will exist in the human mind an adequate ideas of that which is common and proper to the human boday, and to any external bodies by which the human body is generally affected of that which is equally in the part of each of these external bodies and in the whole is common and proper…hence it follos that the more things the body has in common with other bodies, the more things will the mind be adapted to percieve.”

Through this we come to a more and more adequate idea of God, increased through the knowledge of more and more of his infinte instances in indivual things. But the world of man is clearly apparent to this too, the universal forms of human activity in other bodies, itslef becoming more visible through the ‘emmendation of the intellect’ as opposed to the imagination. The funcitonal role of thought, will become apparent to philosophy if it ceases to speculate on what occurs within the thinking body (this is the proer area of concern of physiologists and doctors) and looks at the objective determinations of thought, that is to say, the body and its position in the material unvierse of nature, of whose active function is thought.

An adequate idea for Spinoza is one that then reproduces the characteristics of the thing, of the body, through thought. Hence a hand that describes a circle is coming ito a relation of identity with ‘the form of the circle’ outside ones body. This is different to defining the thing through its internal affects on our imagination, through the sense perception caused by the reflection of its light on our retina. This passive receptivity, mistaken for the thing itself, errs greatly. Only by expadning the role of the body and its activity the more adequate would ideas become. Here totaltiy appears as very much the goal of susbtance thinking itself, and the more activity the thinking body does, the closer it approximates to its own nature. Hence for Spinoza, the development of adequate ideas is intrinsically linked to an expansion of activity, and a broadening of horizons to encompass more of the world of things.

Ilyenkov: “Man’s thinking could achieve ‘maximum perfection’ (and then it would be identical with thought as the attribute of substance) only in one case, when his actions conformed with all the conditions that the infiintte aggregate of interacting things, and of their forms and combinations, imposed on them, i.e. if they were built in accordance with the absolutely universal necessity of the natural whole and not simply with some one of its limited forms.”

Finite thought does not of course reach this state of perfection, so it must be ‘built in the image and likenes of thought in general’, and ideal model to which we must approximate.

3. Spinoza and the geometric method

From introduction à L'Ethique ; la nature des choses (Pierre Macherey)

The geometric order

More maybe than any other passage in the oeuvre of Spinoza, the ‘on God’ is a text that one must reread a certain number of times to be able to read it simply: in the sharp rapidity of these 36 propositions, that do not follow in the appearance of a linear manner, it seems to escape a direct or first degree comprehension. In fact, the difference with the rest of his book is Spinoza does not speak here of this or that determinate aspect of reality, but of everything, all at one time, taken as everything, and this is according to the due order, where it comes to be the question, the ‘concerning God’ proposes to give itself a rational basis for studying th whole of reality, not only secundum fieri, due to the fact that deploys itself in the order of existence, but sucundum esse, for the reason that it is in its own being. In this sense, the ‘concerning God, which is in fact about  ‘the cause of all things’ could have been intitled ‘about all things’ or ‘about the nature of things’ (1). But, how can we recognise within the ensemble of the real thus given, straightaway a totality as object of philosophical investigation. How can one untangle an intelligible order from the indefinite web of particular determinations that immediately constitute the real? The 36 propositions of ‘concerning God’ have precisely as their object the reconstituion of this concealed order, that provides as a plan (or global diagram) of all reality, and allows for this necessary reconstruction of approach.

To present this system of reality (or nature of things), Spinoza adopted a demonstrative mode of expositon where the model is foramlly borrowed from geometry, supposedly under the exemplary form that he had been given in Antiquity by the books of Euclides. The Ethics is within his ensemble, and not only in his first part devoted to God, “expressed according to geometric order”, just as is expressly indicated in the same title of his book. In choosing to give to a philsophical discourse this very particular form that, in the whole history of the tradition of philsophy, he was the only one to have used, Spinzao had without doubt searched for the maximum clarification of his ideas and facilitated the assimilation: and yet he found that, by his choice, he had taken the risk of exposing his manner of philsophically looking at things to a number of attacks and objections that would either confuse the form and the foundation, or, definitely have been redirected back to back without seeking to comprehend the conditions of their articulation; On the other hand he had, in a manner that one could judge artificial, created an obstacle, and by the same token enlivened a resistance to the assimilation of his thesis, the content of which many of his readers had been tempted to grant (accede), by going around the constraints of the demonstrative expositon, hence by economising on the demand for rigour that Spinoza had literally incorporated in the framework of his text. This is why certain explications are indispensible concerning the stakes attached to this form of expression often contested in his presuppositions and, in that which concerns the details of his procedures, misjudged, itself even ignored.

(1) In the perspective perculiar to Descartes, the euclidian figure of rationality had expired, and it was on all other bases that, in the rupture with euclidianism, he had constructed his conception of geometrical analsysis developed in this Geometrie of 1637…. L.Brunschvig inists on this point (1929). In this point of view, the choice of the euclidian model operated by Spinoza can be interpreted as reactive, in so much that it represents some sort of return on this side of the Cartesian position.

4. Spinoza’s God

Spinoza’s major work, the Ethics, begins with 36 propositions concerning God. (for a discussion of the importance of this to his general philosphical conception, see Macherey 1998.

“All thing follow with inevitable necessity from the nature of God”.

God is a being of infinite attributes (letter 2 pp 277), ‘supremely perfect and absolutely infinite’. Furthermore, each attribute of God is infinite or supremely perfect after its kind.

Definition VI: “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite – that is, a substance consisting in infinte attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality” – “Explanation – I say absolutely infinite, not infinite after its kind: for, of a thing infinite only after its kind, infinite attributes may be denied; but that which is absolutely infinite contains within its essence whatever expresses reality, and involves no negation.”

‘God is of all things the cause immanent, as the phrase is, not transient’. ‘All things are in God and move in God, this agreeing with Paul and, perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers.’

‘The revelation of God can only be established by the wisdom of the doctrine, not by miracles, or in other words by ignorance.” (Letter XX1 pp 299)

“All thing follow with inevitable necessity from the nature of God”. Thus God is by his essence everywhere.

Problems with Spinoza’s God

Q. But if God is the primary cause, and if we must know god before all else, how is this not a transcendental philosophy

A. Macherey:

“nous ne pouvons rien comprendre au sujet de la nature, si nous ne développons pas en même temps la connaissance de la première cause, c’est-a-dire de Dieu”(from ammendment of the Intellectual, quoted in Macherey (1998) pp 11

Macherey says of this that the important term is ‘en même temps’: “ La connaissance de Dieu ne précède pas l’appréhension rationnelle de la réalité… mais elle lui est simultanée.

“Tous doivent en vérité accorder que sans Dieu rien ne peut être ni être conçu. Car il est incontesté pour tous que Dieu est l’unique cause de toutes choses, tant de leur essence que leur existence, c’est-a-dire que Dieu est cause des chose non seulement, comme on dit, selon qu’elles sont faites, mais selon leur être”

A. Montag:

“Thus Spinoza’s repeated insistence in the Ethics that we must know things through their cuases, and that the knowledge of God must therefore precede knowledge of the world, which would seem to affirm a kind of transcendentalism, that is notion of the primacy of the supernatural over the natural, takes on an opposed meaning when we learn that God is the kind of cause that does not exist outside of and prior to his creation, and that God’s unity is not only epressed as but is constituted by the diversity of an infinity of singular essences.” (from Masses, Bodies, Power, pp. 4)

Spinoza understands the resurrection of Jesus as spiritual or allegorical:

“…scripture, when it says that God is angry with sinners, and that He is a Judge who takes cognisance of human actions, passes sentence on them, and judges them, is speaking humanly, and in a way adapted to the received opinion of the masses, inasmuch as its purpose is not to teach philosophy, nor to render men wise, but to make them obedient’.

5. Spinoza on scripture

Spinoza insists on the materiality of the text, and its historicity. He thus accounts for the changing modes and historical circumstances in which scriputres authors communicated differing messages. He is strongly opposed to most interpretative methods, that seek a inner unity in scripture.For Spinoza’s views on scripture, its interpretation and opposition to biblical hermeneutics. (See Montag, Masses, Bodies Power pp 4)

Facts and discrepancies in Scripture that can not be understood through scripture alone, must remain unanswered. Spinoza is extremely hostile to the metaphorical interpretations of scripture which are for him, disingeuous attempts by subsequent theologians &c to impose their own imaginative fanciful consrutctions of its meaning on the text. That ancient hebrew, especially in its various adaptions over time, is in some parts inaccessible, is percieved by Spinoza to be an irreconcilable misfortune.

“Severed from their origins, associated together at a later time in such a way that the meaning of each text was modified by its proximity to the others, as well as by its place in the order of the narrative, these divergent texts, each heterogenous itslef and made up of an element only partially intelligible, form a factitious totality that can only be described as ‘fault, mutilated, adulterated , and inconsistent’” (Montag, pp 13)'

Hence as Montag says, whereas most interpretations of scripture ended up by some means to present Scripture as having a doctrinal unity, Spinoza finds it disordered, contradictory and imperfect. Even Maimonides approaches the text as if the prophets were of the same voice, and in ‘agreement on all matters’. The pervasiveness of this idea is what leads to active distortions of the orginal texts by its interprators. Elements that contradict one another are either left out, or their meaning changed so as to conform to a principle expressed wel by Alfakhar that for the internal consistency of the text, nothing which is affirmed or negated in one place should be contradictorily affirmed or negated in another.

Definitions of Spinoza’s categories

N.B. The particular form of presentation of the Ethics is similar to Euclid’s elements; definition, common notions (Spinoza’s ‘thing of a kind’?) postulates, propositions. However a number of these defintions are similar too to the system used by Descartes so should not be understood as necessarily original to Spinoza.

Attribute:“that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance” E I Definition IV

Self-caused: “that of which the essence involves existence, or that of the nature is only concievable as existent” E I Def I

Substance: “that which is in itself, and is conceived throught itself: …that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception” E I Def III

“the points to be noted concerning substance are these: First, that existence appertains to its essence; in other words, that solely from its essence and definition its existence follows….as a consequence of the above, that substance is not manifold, but single: there cannot be two if the same nature. Thirdly, every substance must be concieved as infinite.” Letter xxix (pp 318 Dover)

                   Substance pertains to infinite being.      

Mode: “the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is concieved through, something other than itself” E I def V

The definition of a mode…"cannot involve any existence." Modes are perishable.

Conatus: the striving to exist.

Extension: the physical world must have the character of a ‘self-sufficient’ system and set of general causal laws of dependence. Ideal science of physical gives knowledge of essence and its substance. Extension is attribute of God. (cf: Scruton, pp 45)

Potestas: power delegated by a rightful superior e.g. God. The sphere of power/ authority.

Duration/eternity: Duration is only applicable to the existence of modes (we cannot infer from their existence today that they will exist tomorrow. On the other hand eternity pertains to the existence of substance that is to the infinite faculty of being.

Criticisms of Spinoza

Fichte: “He does not deny the unity of empirical consciousness, but pure consciousness he completely rejects. On his view, the whole series of presentations in an empirical subject is related to the one pure subject as a single presentation is to a series. For him the self (what he calls his self, or what I call mine) does not exist absolutely because it exists, but because something else exists. – The self is certainly a self for itself, in his theory, but he goes on to ask what it would be for something other than the self. Such an ‘other’ would equally be a self, of which the posited self (e.g. mine) and all other selves that might be posited would be modifications. He separates pure and empirical consciousness. The first he attributes to God, who is never conscious of himself, since pure consciousness never attains to consciousness; the second he locates in the specific modifications of the Deity. So established, his system is perfectly consistent and irrefutable, since he takes stand in a territory where reason can no longer follow him; but it is also groundless; for what right did he have to go beyond the pure consciousness given in empirical consciousness? – It is easy enough to see what impelled him to his system, namely the necessary endeavour to bring about the highest unity in human cognition. This unity is present in his system, and the error of it is merely that he thought to deduce on grounds of theoretical reason what he was driven to merely by a practical need: that he claimed to have established something as truly given, when he was merely setting up an appointed, but never attainable, ideal. We shall encounter his highest unity again in the Science of Knowledge; though not as something that exists, but as something that we ought to, and yet cannot, achieve. – I further observe, that if we go beyond the I am, we necessarily arrive at Spinozism (that, when fully thought out, the system of Liebniz is nothing other than Spinozism, is shown in a valuable essay by Solomon Maimom: Uber die Progression der Philosophie, etc.); and that there are only two completely coherent systems: the critical, which recognises this boundary, and the Spinozistic, which oversteps it.” (Fichte The Science of Knowledge – pp 101-102 CUP 1970)

            (Thus Spinoza grounds the unity of consciousness in a substance wherein its unity is necessarily predetermined alike as to matter (the determinate series of presentations) and as to form. But I ask him what it is, once more, that contains the ground for the necessity of this substance, both as to content (the various series of presentations it contains), and again as to form (whereby all possible series of presentations are alleged to be exhausted in it, and to a form a complete whole). But for this necessity he offers me no further ground, telling me merely that it is absolutely so; and this he says because he is compelled to assume some absolutely primary, ultimate unity. But if this is what he wants, he ought to have stopped forthwith at the unity given him in consciousness, and should not have felt the need to excogitate (think out – ed) a higher one still, which nothing obliged him to do.) (ibid. pp 118).

Levinas: Levinas generally critiques Hegelian dialectics for reducing the other to the self. This is relevant to Levinas’s comments on Spinoza as he appears to see him as an Idealist in the same manner as Hegel. This contradicts greatly the materialist interpretations of Spinoza we have become familiar with in the post-Althusserian French schools. Levinas’s problem with Spinoza and Hegel is that the will is identified reason and the conflict of the I with the other resolves into neuter – separation and difference are abolished. Levinas asks rhetorically, what would two entirely rational beings say to one another! By this he means to challenge the basic identities between will and reason as manifested in the dialectical subsumption or neutralisation of the other.


Essential Primary Reading

Spinoza: The Ethics

Tractatus Theologico- Politicus – theological political treatise

                                 The Political Treatise   

                                   The treatise on the emendation of the intellect

Secondary Reading

Etienne Balibar: Spinoza and Politics (translated from the French Spinoza et la Politique (1985) by Peter Snowdon), Verso 1998

Antonio Negri:   The Savage Anomaly

Pierre Macherey:   Hegel ou Spinoza – if anyone has this book I’d love to borrow it.

Introduction a L’ethique de Spinoza – la premiere partie, la nature des choses – (1998)

                               Avec Spinoza: etudes sur la doctrine et l’histoire du Spinozisme

Warren Montag:    Bodies, Masses, Power – Verso

Ted Stolz (ed): The New Spinoza

Hegel:                     History of Philosophy 3

Hegel:                       Science of Logic

Althusser:                   Essays in self-criticism, NLB 1976, pp 132-142

Evald Ilyenkov:  Spinoza; Thought as Attribute of Substance – Dialectical logic, chapter 2 (current on 07/08/02)



Spinoza’s God

Scruton:             Spinoza


Plus peut-être qu'aucun autre passage de l'œuvre de Spinoza, le de Deo est un texte qu'il faut relire un certain nombre de fois pour pouvoir simplement le lire : dans la rapidité tranchante de ses trente-six proposi- tions, qui ne se suivent qu'en apparence de manière linéaire, il semble échapper à une compréhension directe et de premier degré. En effet, à la différence de ce qu'il fera dans la suite de son livre, Spinoza parle ici non de tel ou tel aspect déterminé de la réalité, mais de tout, de tout à la fois, pris comme tout, et ceci selon l'ordre dû, l’ordo philosophandi dont il vient d'être question : le de Deo se propose de donner ses bases rationnelles à l'étude d'ensemble de la réalité, non seulement secunâum fieri, du fait qu'elle se déploie dans l'ordre de l'existence, mais secunâum esse, en raison de ce qu'elle est dans son être même. Dans ce sens, le de Deo, qui est en fait un de Causa omnium rerum, aurait pu s'intituler de Omnibus Rébus ou de Natura rerum (1). Or comment se reconnaître dans l'ensemble du réel ainsi donné d'emblée en totalité comme objet à l'investigation philosophique? Comment dégager un ordre intelligible de l'intrication indéfinie des déterminations particulières qui constituent immédiatement le réel? Les trente-six propositions du de Deo ont précisément pour objet de reconstituer cet ordre caché, qui donne comme le plan ou l'épure globale de toute la réalité, et permet d'en reconstruire la marche nécessaire.

Pour présenter ce système de la réalité ou nature des choses, Spinoza a adopté un mode d'exposition démonstratif dont le modèle est formellement emprunté à la géométrie, sous la forme censément exemplaire qui lui avait été donnée dans l'Antiquité par les Livres d'Euclide' : L’Ethique est dans son ensemble, et non seulement dans sa première partie consacrée à Dieu, « démontrée selon l'ordre géométrique » (ordine geome- trico demonstrata), ainsi que cela est expressément indiqué dans le titre même de l'ouvrage. En choisissant de donner au discours philosophique cette forme très particulière que, dans toute l'histoire de la tradition philosophique, il a été le seul à utiliser, Spinoza a sans doute cherché à clarifier au maximum la présentation de ses idées et à en faciliter l'assimilation : or il se trouve que, par ce choix, il a d'une part pris le risque d'exposer sa manière de voir les choses philosophiquement à de nom- breuses attaques et objections qui soit ont confondu la forme et le fond, soit les ont renvoyés définitivement dos à dos sans chercher à comprendre les conditions de leur articulation ; d'autre part, il a, d'une manière qu'on peut juger artificielle, créé un obstacle, et du même coup suscité une résistance à l'assimilation de ses thèses au contenu desquelles beaucoup de ses lecteurs ont été tentés d'accéder en contournant les contraintes propres à l'exposé démonstratif, donc en faisant l'économie de l'exigence de rigueur que Spinoza a littéralement incorporée à la trame de son texte. C'est pourquoi quelques explications sont indispensables à propos des enjeux attachés au choix de cette forme d'exposition souvent contestée dans ses présupposés et, en ce qui concerne le détail de ses procédures, méconnue, voire même ignorée(3).

La formule «la nature des choses» {naturel rerum), dont Lucrèce s'est servi pour intituler son ouvrage dont Vîîthique se trouve proche à bien des égards, apparaît dans le texte de Spinoza, par exemple dans l'énoncé de la proposition 5 du de Deo. Elle a été reprise comme titre du présent volume de commentaire en vue de restituer à la présentation que tait Spinoza du concept de Dieu la plénitude de son envergure philosophique qu'évoque aussi la formule Deus sive natura.

Dans la perspective propre à Descartes, la figure euclidienne de la rationalité était périmée, et c'est sur de tout autres bases que, en rupture avec l'euclidianisme, il avait édifié la conception de l'analyse géométrique développée dans sa Géométrie de 1637 (c'est un point sur lequel L. Brunschvicg a beaucoup insisté, en particulier dans Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique, Paris, éd. Alcan, 1929). De ce point de vue, le choix du modèle euclidien opéré par Spinoza peut être interprété comme réactif, en tant qu'il représente une sorte de retour en deçà de la position cartésienne.

Parmi les lecteurs de l'Ethique qui ont été les premiers à attirer l'attention sur l'importance proprement philosophique de la forme d'exposition démonstrative adoptée par Spinoza, on peut citer principalement Lewis Robinson (Kommentar zu Spinozas Ethik, Leipzig, 1928) et Martial Guéroult (les deux volumes publiés en 1968 et 1974 de sa monumentale étude sur la philosophie de Spinoza, t. 1 : Dieu, t. 2 : L'âme, Pans, éd. Aubier-Montaigne).

Notes on Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics

Fundamental, is that Spinoza thinks politics from within philosophy. Secondly of great importance is the separation made between Theology and Philosophy/ reason.

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