Saturday, February 14, 2009

Philosophers, above all, need their rivals. These rival positions function as a fertile soil

Spinoza, Substance, and Affections
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

The trick is to instead begin with the appendix to Part 1. On the one hand, the first sentence of Part 1 summarizes what he believes he has demonstrated about the nature of God, while the remainder of the appendix– a beautiful critique of superstition –outlines the consequences that follow from this understanding of God and God’s relationship to its creatures. In this way the reader is given something like a thesis, helping to guide him through the text. [...]

A philosophy such as that we find in Spinoza or Leibniz is so strange and exotic with respect to our commonplace understanding of the world that it comes to serve a heuristic function by calling that world into question and leading the student to both make their own positions explicit and seek grounds for that position in response to the strange world of the philosopher. [...]

One of the things I’ve found most amusing in my interactions with Graham and in observing Graham interacting with others– especially Kevin –is just how viscerally he reacts to Spinoza. When a philosopher reacts this strongly to the positions of another philosopher it’s a fair bet that the stakes are high and fundamental. And indeed, in the case of Graham’s ontology, this would certainly be true, for if Spinoza is such a prime target, then this is because, in many respects, Spinoza is the anti-thesis of Graham’s object-oriented philosophy. Where Graham asserts the independence of objects almost to the point of madness (philosophical madness being a sign of deductive fidelity in my book), Spinoza is the great thinker of the One, where objects are not independent but are rather affections of the One substance.

What we have here, then, is a sort of fault-line in philosophy between the One-All and the radical independence of objects. In the spirit of the Clark/Leibniz debate over motion, we could call this particularly fault-line the Spinoza/Leibniz debate. Here the debate centers on whether there is one substance (Spinoza) or an infinity of substances (Leibniz). Graham, of course, would be the neo-Leibnizian, which is not to say he adopts Leibniz’s particular metaphysics, but rather that his ontological commitment is to that of a radical pluralism of substance.

It is worth noting that philosophers, above all, need their rivals. These rival positions function as a fertile soil from which concepts, arguments, and positions are developed, introducing a fundamental instability into ones thought that perpetually haunts it, spurring it on to develop further. There are few things worse for a philosopher than the loss of a sophisticated and serious rival (as opposed to trollish defenders of commonplaces against a philosophy as in the case of those critics of idealism that invited idealists to jump off a building). [...]

Spinoza is not an object-oriented philosopher not because he isn’t a realist– he is –but because he doesn’t affirm the independence of objects, but treats them as affections of substance. In order to qualify as an object-oriented ontology (and it could turn out that object-oriented ontologies are just wrong and horribly confused), it is necessary to affirm a pluralism of substances or that there are many independent substances.

Likewise, Kant’s thought cannot qualify as an object-oriented ontologist because for him substance is not things, but is rather a category imposed by mind upon things like Badiou’s operations of the count-as-one. You could then have conservative and radical Kantians. The former would claim that substances may exist independently of mind but that we cannot know whether this is the case, while the latter would claim that while something besides mind exists in its own right it certainly cannot be substances as substance is merely a category imposed by mind on a manifold of intuition somehow produced through this radical alterity affecting our minds.

  • Graham argues that substances exist in their own right and are absolutely independent, but only as infinitely withdrawn, leading one to wonder (or leading me to wonder, anyway) whether these vacuum packed substances are not bare substrata without any internal differences of their own.
  • Latour, by contrast, individuates entities or substances as temporal instants or events, each of which is a unique and singular individual independent of all the others. I think there are a number of assumptions about the nature of time or duration here that are problematic.
  • Finally, I am inclined to argue that substances are nothing but their affections related together as a sort of time-space worm in irreversible time.

In other words, I am inclined to reject Spinoza’s definition of substance from the get-go, along with his conception of the relationship between substance and affections, instead seeing substance as an unfolding process in which each succeeding moment is related to its prior moment. This, of course, requires me to give an account of how objects or substances achieve closure or some degree of autonomy or independence from other objects, as well as the principles presiding over relations among affections (I presume these principles will differ depending on the sort of object or substance being considered).

larvalsubjects Says: February 14, 2009 at 12:45 am I don’t think Spinoza’s Ethics is simply a pedagogical device. Certainly Spinoza is a deeply important thinker for me, one whom I’ve been reading off and on for about twenty years now (though not with the depth you’ve read him). In a number of respects, Spinoza is my model of the “ultimate philosopher”.

larvalsubjects Says: February 14, 2009 at 1:39 am I am weakest in my understanding of Spinoza with respect to my understanding of his epistemology, my primary fascination with his work over the years revolving around his metaphysics and its holism, along with his naturalistic psychology as presented in Part III.

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