On the Principle of Translation

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Levi has been developing a version of object-oriented philosophy which he calls ‘onticology’. In doing so, he recommends understanding objects as ‘actors’ which produce ‘differences’ in each other. Significantly, these modes of production include but are not limited to causality, such that anything which produces differences counts as acting. I am not sure exactly what sorts of non-causal production Levi wants to allow here, but we might think of examples like individuation, such that something counts as information, say, because of its place in a informational network even if it does not have to be in causal relations with all the parts that make up the network. So, objects can act in both causal and non-causal ways. Levi thinks that we should understand this action in terms of translation:

The Principle of Translation states that there is no transportation without translation. What I mean by this is that when the difference of one object acts on another object it translates or transforms that difference in a way unique to the receiving object. Thus, for example, my pepper plant “translates” the difference of sunlight producing energy in the form of sugars that it uses to produce its fruit and leaves. The process of translation thus transforms the differences of other objects in a way particular to the object doing the translation.

A second way in which Levi expresses this idea is in terms of affect (in Spinoza’s sense). The affective aspects of objects are those through which it can act and be acted upon. If influences upon objects must be transmitted through their affections, then there is a sense in which the production of difference in an object must be particular to it. Levi’s example of this is the neutrino, whose small mass, high speed, and lack of charge leaves it with a limited set of causal powers to act and be acted upon.

Thirdly, Levi frames his Principle of Translation in terms of an extreme radicalisation of the Kantian insight about the activity of the subject, which he claims “transforms data of the world such that it does not represent the world as it is “in-itself””. The polemical suggestion is that Kant did not go far enough — why stop with subjects? So, Levi advocates a “generalized Kantianism of objects”. All objects are active because they transform what affects them, just as Kant rejects the Lockean idea that the mind is passive with respect to what effects it. This forms part of the call for a flat ontology, which develops a univocal analysis of objects which treats subjectivity and sociality as contiguous with everything else.

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There is something to be said for a flat ontology. We ought to be wary of supposing that reality contains discrete levels, where the relations between them become hard to fathom. For instance, Cartesian dualism is reviled for good reason; it is understandable how it arose in response to the pressures of a mechanistic philosophy of nature, but it nonetheless invites mystification. So too, more recent appeals to sociality risk reprising its mistakes in another key. Latour has done much to expose the emptiness of those sorts of social explanation which do not pursue to the composition of the social itself, and which he sees as the primary task of sociology. Levi introduces a further worry, that we turn to a vertical ontology, where one ontological level dominates — subjectivity being present in all relations, for example, as certain ‘correlationists’ are meant to believe (though see my previous posts on Meillassoux for my reservations about the charge of correlationism). But I think this should be kept distinct from the epistemological problems which would be created from a discontinuous ontology, which appear to force on us the explanatory task of showing how these distinct levels of reality interact. This kind of gap-bridging task — which rarely fares well — is the main fallout of non-flat ontologies.

Even with these difficulties in mind, I think that some of the aspects of Levi’s attempt to construct a flat ontology ought to be resisted. There is something distinctive about subjects which makes some forms of flat ontology problematic. We can talk both about objects translating objects and about subjects translating objects. But the translations of the subject include those of a unique kind, which are not adequately addressed by simply increasing the complexity of a unitary flat ontology. So, there is no objection to saying that objects are active and possess affections which translate influences upon them in particularised ways. But there is a highly significant type of activity which subjects engage in, which the Kantian tradition characterises as spontaneous. It is in virtue of their spontaneity that subjects are responsible for the translations which they undergo: and this brings with it many of the traditional distinguishing traits which have been used to mark out subjects, namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality. In the next post, I shall say more about how we should understand the spontaneity of subjects and how that impacts upon metaphysical issues.

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25 thoughts on “On the Principle of Translation

  1. Thanks for the post, Tom. One important point worth making, I think, is that in no way does the ontology I’m trying to construct suggest that all objects translate in the same way. “Flat ontology” does not mean “equivalent”. Snakes translate much of the world through smell. Rocks translate other things in the world in very ordinary causal ways. And, of course, humans translate the world in ways that involve normativity. One aim of onticology is not to deny or diminish these differences, but rather to open a space of ontological thinking where every question of ontology isn’t posed in terms of the subject, culture, language, etc. However, in opening up this broader domain it in no way follows that things such as subjects, culture, language, history, economics, and all the rest cease to be important systems of translation for humans.

  2. I have tried to take this point on board already, especially as you take pains to distinguish your project from those with a more scientistic or eliminativist bent. In this way, I see you proceeding in the spirit of Latour, only with the more ambitious metaphysical aspect that Graham Harman tries to coax out of him.

    What I take to be at issue is how deep R7 runs: “The human/world relation is just a special case of the relation between any two entities whatsoever.” This hinges on what counts as a special case of the same type of relation and what counts as a new sort of relation. I think that this is more than a linguistic issue and can effect the structure of both metaphysical and epistemological inquiries. Hopefully this should become clearer in my next post.

  3. I don’t take it that R7 is asserrting an issue that is merely “linguistic”. Metaphysics investigates being qua beings. The whole problems with the privileging of the subject (or any human phenomena you care to plug into that predicate spot) is that it ends up transforming the question of being qua being into being qua human. As such, it only manages to attain regional ontology, rather than ontology proper.

    • Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough. I did not mean to imply that you thought that R7 was a linguistic issue. Instead, my claim is that R7 is ambiguous, because there are different ways of understanding what it would be for the human/world relation to be a special case of the relation between any two entities. Some would classify it as a special case of the same relation, whilst others would classify it as a different sort of relation. So, more content needs to be given that would allow us to settle the case (and some of this is provided by other parts of your project).

      One retort was that this could be dismissed as a ‘linguistic issue’ in the sense that whether we call the mind/world relation a special case of the same relation or a new sort of relation just depends on how we group different relations together, such that not much hinges on it. But I take myself to be agreeing with you that there is more at stake here than how we group relations — that is, whether we merely call it the same type or a new type of relation. We are interested in the character of the relations themselves.

      My concern is that an ontology which treats all objects as active risks missing the specific sort of activity characteristic of the subject’s translations. I think there is a kind of break or quantum leap which is required to characterise some aspects of human/world relations, which I suspect may be in tension with your project.

      Now, I accept that your aspiration is to preserve differences. Indeed, this might be best seen the other way around, since the Ontological Principle asserts that anything that makes a difference is real. So, I can see that you are happy for there to be many different types of translation (your discussion of affection and its particularisation of transportation also brings this out). But some of the things you say suggest otherwise, such as:

      “What Onticology objects to is the thesis that mind is somehow special in this regard or that minds must be included in every relation.”

      The second half of this claim — aimed at correlationism — we can agree on: minds do not have to be ‘included’ in every relation. But the first half is problematic. We can say that mind is not special in virtue of that it translates, since all objects can be taken to translate. But the kind of translation which they undertake is unique, or so I shall claim. It is my account of this uniqueness — not merely difference — which I think complicates matters. Your language of “infinitely open[ing] the field of ontology so a proliferation of different forms of translation become open to investigation” suggest that this might not be the case, but I am not sure. Perhaps this will not be apparent until I spell out my position though.

      • Tom,

        It sounds to me like we’re largely in agreement. When I say that humans are not special, all I am saying is that they are not included in every relation. That said, they do have their own structure of translation that differs from other types of objects and are, in this sense, “special”. One of the things I’m targeting with my ontology is what could be called “humanistic reductionism”. Now I realize that a number of contemporary theorists like to call themselves “anti-humanists”, but what they usually mean is that we are not atomistic individuals with a transparent relation to our minds, but rather are products of power or language or history or whatever else you might like to put in the predicate spot. In other words, human phenomena, broadly construed, still have central place.

        Now my problem with this isn’t that things such as language, power, minds, etc., play a significant role in translating the world, but rather that all of the other types of differences tend to get ignored or reduced to the pet human difference. Take the example of Derrida or Lacan. In their linguistic idealism, they reduce all other objects– including the human individual –to vehicles of differences in the signifier. I do not deny that language plays a significant role in how we translate the world, but I also reject the thesis that all other objects can be treated as mere vehicles of linguistic differences without contributing differences of their own. This sort of confusion is what allows Lacan, for example, to completely ignore neurology in his discussions of the subject, as if brain contributed nothing and was just a passive matter for the reception of linguistic difference which provides active form. No way!

        This might mark my point of disagreement with the correlationists. The usual correlationist move is to treat one set of differences as uni-laterally overdetermining the rest. For example, in Kant, mind plays the active role with objects-in-themselves that affect mind being more or less a passive matter that receives the form that intuition, understanding, and reason imposes on it. Similarly, world, for Lacan, is a passive matter that is actively in-formed by language. The process of determination is uni-lateral.

        By contrast, I hold that processes of translation are multi-lateral or bi-lateral. They move in both directions simultaneously. While my mind-body certainly translates data of the world, I am also translated by this date. My grandfather is a good example here. He spent his life at sea, building bridges for the state of New Jersey and towing barges on tugboats, etc. Were you to meet him you would notice that he has a unique sort of gait. This gait is a result of life at sea and maintaining balance while standing on a boat being pushed to and fro by waves. Now, his gait is the result of how his body and neural system translated the gravitational dissonances produced by these waves, but his body is also translated by these waves. My point is that a uni-lateral account of phenomena that has determination moving in only one direction will always be truncated and lacking. What you need is a multi-lateral approach that sees certain capacities and abilities as emergent results of interactions rather than one way determinations.

      • Further point, for the object-oriented ontologists it’s definitely not a linguistic issue of how we group things, because the claim being made is that translation takes place between objects regardless of whether or not humans are involved. Many thanks for clarifying this issue over at PE.

  4. Tom: “But there is a highly significant type of activity which subjects engage in, which the Kantian tradition characterises as spontaneous. It is in virtue of their spontaneity that subjects are responsible for the translations which they undergo: and this brings with it many of the traditional distinguishing traits which have been used to mark out subjects, namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality.”

    Kvond: As a pre-Kant thinker Spinoza make a great focus of his metaphysics the building of an ethics out of just this sort of non-subjective material. I am curious, do you find Spinoza’s account of ethical responsibility simply non-pertainable? That is, if Levi is not to emply an Spinozist metaphysics of affect, going all the way down far below the human being, one would think that he also would have available many if not all of the same arguments towards sociability, normativity, rationality, mutuality and freedom that Spinoza had. So if you could center your attack upon Spinozist ethics you would probably have something of a death-blow on Levi’s otherwise flat world.

    I’m still not sure how much he borrows from Spinoza and how much he leaves out (Spinoza’s world is not really so flat after all, but there are definite planes), but it seems that this is a question to be answered.

    Relatedly, I would ask, are not “namely freedom, normativity, rationality and intentionality” implied in all intentional, mental-predicate ascription we have when applied outside the fully adult human sphere? And where intentionality is not ascribed, do not we respond though our concept and experience of utility to the spontaneous events of interaction between objects of the word which hold some use-meaning for us (their stabilities and capacities serve to help us see the world and its consequences more clearly), such that “good” and “bad” work as an underbed conception that stabilizes our own ethical stances towards humans?

    • I think Spinoza is a first-rate philosopher and I am sympathetic to many aspects of his approach. For example, I think he is correct to dismiss the traditional problem of free will and to develop a conception of freedom as self-determination. Indeed, I follow him in this, albeit with a different understanding of the conditions on self-determination, which include a non-Spinozistic treatment of rationality. This is one of the areas where I think he falls short (and where Kant surpasses him), insofar as his conception of rationality remains too embedded in a causal framework. So, as I understand him (though it has been a long time since I last read the Ethics), he takes rationality to consist in self-knowledge, where that is an understanding of oneself as a cause in nature, from which one can thus act with greater freedom from external causes, and so act more freely. But knowledge of oneself as a cause fails to sufficiently answer the question of what one ought to do — it addresses us from a third-person perspective, rather than as a deliberative agent (although this formulation is not quite fair). Spinoza is insufficiently attentive to the practical standpoint where, as Kant puts it, we operate ‘under the idea of freedom’, whatever the truth of determinism. It is by tugging on these threads which I think Spinoza’s project unravels. I can’t pursue this here, and am aware that many details could be added (e.g. with respect to his perfectionism), but that is the gist of my thoughts on Spinoza.

      We do apply certain intentional, rational and normative locutions to people, animals and things who are not compos mentis human adults. Some of this language is analogical or metaphorical, such as ‘my car hates me’ or ‘that cat thinks she deserves a more dignified food bowl’. Other parts of it pick out sentient but not sapient behaviour (to borrow Brandom’s Sellarsian distinction). For example, babies can be conscious and engage in purposive goal-directed behaviour, but significant as this is, it does not amount to the complex reason-mongering kind of awareness which I think is distinctive of many human practices. So, I want to claim that the differential responsiveness to stimuli which we find in everything from thermostats to squirrels, whilst crucial, does not amount to spontaneous activity, the significance of which I hope to go on to outline.

  5. Tom: “But knowledge of oneself as a cause fails to sufficiently answer the question of what one ought to do — it addresses us from a third-person perspective, rather than as a deliberative agent (although this formulation is not quite fair). Spinoza is insufficiently attentive to the practical standpoint where, as Kant puts it, we operate ‘under the idea of freedom’, whatever the truth of determinism.”

    Kvond: Well, arguing the centrality of the Kantian “ought” question and Spinoza’s inattentiveness to it, is like arguing the centrality of the Hegelian “Negation” question. This is simply a different framework. The question is can an Ethics be constructed from within spinoza’s framework, one which does not take “ought” as the groudwork of ethics. And Spinoza provides plenty of this. For instance he argues that we “ought” work towards the freedom of others (in mind and body) but not because we “ought” to, but because it is most rational and freeing of ourselves to do so. And the kinds of freedoms he makes for ourselves are really self-grasping an awareness of processes that make us less active. So, it is not so much because I “ought” to that I refrain from killing another person in anger, but rather if I truly think about it, my anger is fundamentally a sad and passive state. Honestly, except for the proviso that “ought” is the very core of what ethics is (something I would reject), a person who refrains from killing someone out of anger due to self-transformation and awareness of self is far more “ethical” than the one who does it because they “ought” to. In fact it seems to me that Spinoza outstrips the entire ought dimension. For someone arguing a Flatish Ontology, unless you simply require them to BE Kantian in their framework (that is, make a Kantian conclusion), it strikes me that the problem of an ethical theory isn’t really a problem.

    Tom: “So, I want to claim that the differential responsiveness to stimuli which we find in everything from thermostats to squirrels, whilst crucial, does not amount to spontaneous activity, the significance of which I hope to go on to outline.”

    Kvond: Well, this would simply assume a primacy of an ontological spontaneity, which ultimately for a Spinozist who denies freedom of will would be very hard to locate. All I can say is that there are semiotic events that are located within the horizon of an object which becomes central to our understanding of the object’s reportability capacities. Calling these spontaneous or not adds very little from my point of view. They are simply events immanent to that internal horizon. I would refuse the notion, therefore, that our mental ascriptions to things non-human are some kind of projection from some “real” human adult state. On the contrary, the human adult state comes out of, flows out of, the entirity of semiotic differentials which pervade the organization of the world. In otherwords, I see no reason to centralize what you centralize.

    • My point is that Spinoza does not adequately address the normative dimension of action. So, I think that his conception of practical and theoretical rationality is oriented by the wrong concepts. Within his deterministic framework, it is self-knowledge as a natural cause which he seems to think will tell us how to act. But this strikes me as an impoverished framework to bring to bear, since even if we grant his conception of nature as a deterministic network of causes, we can legitimately introduce normative concepts which are not reducible to causal ones. I take this to be part of Kant’s attempt to show that we must act ‘under the idea of freedom’ — that, whether or not we are determined, and whatever our theoretical conclusions on the matter, action requires a practical attitutde which treats ourselves as free.

      The resources with which Spinoza address these issues are, I think, inadequate. So, he extracts an ethics from perfectionist considerations, which characterise the essence of beings as being a striving for existence (conatus). Given his slim starting point, he does a good job of reconstructing some sort of ethics. But I think there is no real pressure to reconstruct an ethics at all — we are not compelled to follow Spinoza here, even if we follow him in rejecting the idea of free will (which I do). Furthermore, his perfectionism is built on false premises. The essence of all beings is not to strive for existence, and even if it were then this is not yet a reason to so strive.

      Secondly, the vocabulary of ‘ought’ should not be taken to imply some extreme platonistic rigorism. Even a robust realist about ethics (or normativity as a whole) is not reduced to answering the question ‘why should I do this?’ with ‘because you ought.’ They can appeal to all sorts of considerations about value, justice or autonomy, which they can go on to demonstrate we already care about or are somehow committed to caring about.

      Thirdly, I don’t have a metaphysical understanding of spontaneity. Indeed, I reject libertarianism about free will, just as Spinoza does. Instead, I characterise spontaneity in terms of the responsiveness to reasons which human practices with a complex historical and communicative character possess. Our capacities for differential responsiveness to our environments, which we share with others animals and many other objects, have a central role to play here. But there is something distinctive about some types of activity which take place against a socio-historical backdrop. Again, I have not said much about this yet, but hope to do so in another post in this series.

  6. Tom: “Within his deterministic framework, it is self-knowledge as a natural cause which he seems to think will tell us how to act.”

    Kvond: I’m not sure where you get this (or, how you conceive of this), you have said it more than once. Ultimately in Spinoza there is no “self” so how do you qualify “self-knowledge” as the foundation for “telling us how to act”.

    In fact, the “how we should act” construct is pretty much alien to Spinoza. All our thoughts are already actions. That is his entire point. They are affirmations of degrees of being.

    Tom: “Furthermore, his perfectionism is built on false premises. The essence of all beings is not to strive for existence, and even if it were then this is not yet a reason to so strive.”

    Kvond: Why does one need a reason to strive? Do you feel that the Universe needs a “reason” to exist?

    Tom: “I characterise spontaneity in terms of the responsiveness to reasons which human practices with a complex historical and communicative character possess.”

    Kvond: This is a nice theoretical construct, but the reasons why someone acts (in REAL life)…and I assume that you mean reasons as opposed to causes…are forever descriptions and explanations we put upon those actions. They are explanations. And the reasons given have no priority over later offered reasons, or those never discovered.

    By and large though it seems that you reject flat ontologies because they do not favor the kind of explanations that you prefer. I mistook your point about ethical considerations to be a general one, rather than, “that theory is not my theory (which requires a priority of reasons over causes and an emphasis on normativity)”. I can accept such a requirement as a matter of taste, but as the cashed-out value of an ethical theory is found in its explanations and valuations of behavior, I would want to know: What is it exactly you can claim about what is ethical other than “human beings and what they do is special and categorically unique”. I see no ethical advantage to such a qualification, other than the usual thought that human beings are at the center of all descriptions (and therefore the universe).

    • It is deeply misleading to suggest that Spinoza cannot advocate self-knowledge since he thinks there is no self. He may not understand the self in the traditional Cartesian sense, but that is hardly surprising. Each individual is part of nature, submerged in a network of causes with respect to each attribute, but there is still an identifiable self within these terms. There are plenty of references to what ‘we’ are like — just consider the propositions of the third part of the Ethics — and Spinoza has his own psychological theory (summarised here).

      So too, Spinoza does give self-knowledge — a knowledge of what we are and our place in nature — a central ethical significance. Take his ‘On the Improvement of the Understanding’ for example, which argues that the more we learn about nature then the more we learn about our own mind. Here is a quote in which Spinoza explicitly talks about this self-knowledge:

      Now it is clear that the mind apprehends itself better in proportion as it understands a greater number of natural objects; it follows, therefore, that this portion of the method will be more perfect in proportion as the mind attains to the comprehension of a greater number of objects, and that it will be absolutely perfect when the mind gains a knowledge of the absolutely perfect being, or becomes conscious thereof. Again, the more things the mind knows, the better does it understand its own strength and the order of nature; by increased self-knowledge, it can direct itself more easily, and lay down rules for its own guidance; and, by increased knowledge of nature, it can more easily avoid what is useless.

      I have already indicated how I see self-knowledge playing a role in Spinoza’s ethics. Although I have not got around to reading it, I am sure you will find a fuller account in Genevieve Lloyd’s Part of Nature: Self-Knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics.

      Again, I agree that Spinoza has a distnctive understanding of ethical matters — his ethics stems from his metaphysics, where this precludes a traditional conception of freedom. So, in some sense, the question of how we should act no longer makes sense: we act as it is necessary for us to act as a part of nature. But Spinoza’s inquiries are still oriented by an ethical dimension — the results are intended to get us to do different things than if we had not come into contact with them. Again, see the soul-searching which Spinoza undertakes in the opening pages of ‘On the Improvement of the Understanding’, where he is asking himself how he should live.

      My point has been that the framework within which Spinoza imposes restrictions on ethical inquiry is too narrow. He restricts himself to appeal to the idea of perfection, acting from one’s essence, and avoiding being determined by external causes. My brief appeal to Kant’s idea of acting under the idea of freedom was meant to suggest why I think these restrictions are unwarranted and why recommending them will impoverish our ethical reflection. There is a whole account of action underlying this, and naturally much could be said. All I intended to do was to indicate the general line of thought I endorse. I have repeatedly said that I have not yet provided a full account here but will say more in due course.

      Lastly, your remarks about reasons strike me as mistaken. We do give reasons in explanation — that is, we rationalise behaviour post-hoc. But this does not preclude reasons being operative in directing behaviour. In other words, reasons are not causally inert. Part of the point of rational behaviour is that it will effect what we end up believing and doing. Indeed, that is why rationalising behaviour — thinking of someone as goal directed, for example — can help us explain and predict.

      • So if what you mean by “self knowledge” is “knowledge of nature”, as in…

        “‘On the Improvement of the Understanding’ for example, which argues that the more we learn about nature then the more we learn about our own mind.”

        then it is pretty odd to be saying that self-knowledge is key to ethical positioning. Self-knowledge IS knowledge of Nature, and this is distinctly NOT what is meant in most cases of “Self-Knowledge” which implies some sort of internalization of investigation. You might as well have said that key to ethical positioning is knowledge of Nature, and then we would not have had much disagreement.

        As to the insufficiency of the idea of perfection, I’ve yet to really hear from you how degrees of perfection differ in result from a Kantian “acting under the idea of freedom”. In fact Spinoza’s entire orientation toward perfection is just that, acting under the idea of freedom.

        Reasons are certainly causal to behavior (or explanations of it) but they are ever revisable. You may THINK that that is the reason why you are doing something, but it may be revealed to you later what your REAL reasons were.

  7. Or Tom, if I could really put it very precisely:

    Could you give me a real world situation in which there is a real difference in the action that would be argued for (forced) under your thinking, that would not be argued for (forced) under Spinoza’s description?

    • I have not yet said anything about my substantive ethical position, but have outlined some aspects of a metanormative approach. But already, from my rejection of Spinoza’s perfectionism, some differences in our ethical outlook should be clear. For example, Spinoza’s perfectionism leads him to argue that we should not feel pity for others, since pity is a type of sadness, and sadness decreases one’s powers to strive for existence. But I think this is deeply mistaken. Since I reject perfectionism and Spinoza’s notion of conatus, then I do not think the conclusion has been demonstrated (I recall that Spinoza gives little argument for the idea of conatus). So too, I think pity (commiseratio — sadness at injury to others) has an important role to play in ethical thought and practice. For one, it encourages a valuable empathetic disposition which is important in navigating most ethical issues. So, I think, contra Spinoza, we ought to cultivate a capacity to feel pity, even if mawkishness is also a risk here too.

  8. Tom: “For example, Spinoza’s perfectionism leads him to argue that we should not feel pity for others, since pity is a type of sadness, and sadness decreases one’s powers to strive for existence. But I think this is deeply mistaken.”

    Kvond: So for you what falls under ethical behaviour is how we should “feel”? You want to ethically regulate how we feel rather than act towards others? In order to fully assess an ethics it is not towards the “feelings” that we should have, but the actions we should have that we direct ourselves. For instance, if there is no action that “feeling pity” would ethically produce that Spinoza’s elevated “not feeling pity would still produce” I don’t know how you can regard one theory as more ethical than another.

    As for the foundations of “empathetic disposition” Spinoza is completely King of this. His imaginary “imitation of the affects” makes the entire glue not only of ethical behavior, but the social field and epistemology itself, the essential and bodily experience of the affects of others as our own. But having the same affects as others do and having reactive “pity” are very different things. Empathy is not pity.

    So is it that aside from how people feel inside you can find no situational difference from a Spinoza ethical imperative, and your own? That is, someone getting advice that they follow from you, and from Spinoza would ACT no differently?

    • I am not finding this a fruitful discussion since you are making consistent uncharitable leaps from the things I say. Rigorous and constructive debate is one thing, but a stream of half-formed staccato objections to positions that I have given no indication I even hold is another. Objections are welcome, but if you are going to comment, I would ask that you read and write with more care and engage in a more constructive form of dialogue. At the moment, your contributions seem more like attempts at upsmanship. I appreciate that people have different styles of engaging with these issues, but as it stands I do not think we will have a productive discussion.

      For example, you ask me to provide an example of an ethical difference between me and Spinoza, and I take the example of pity. But then you adopt an accusative tone and imply that I want to relegate all ethics to the regulation of feelings rather than actions. Obviously, I advocate nothing of the sort. Even a modicum of patience should enable you to see this.

      Similarly, when I follow Spinoza’s description of his position in his own terms, namely ‘self-knowledge’, you attribute the cause of our disagreement to me. All the while, you gloss over the important connection that Spinoza sees between knowledge of nature and knowledge of myself as a part of nature. Or again, you claim that you can see no difference which my appeal to Kant makes and how it differs from Spinoza, when I have said repeatedly to the point of monotony that I am going to address the topic of spontaneity in an upcoming post.

      I do not mean to be high-handed here, but I am finding it hard to muster the patience to reply to your comments given their tone and scattergun approach.

  9. If I can point out the difference between pity and the imaginary sharing of affects itself.

    Spinoza tells us;

    “Pity is pain accompanied by the idea of ill that has happened to another whom we think of as like ourselves.”

    First of all, the Latin word Spinoza uses is “Commiseratio” which in Spinoza perspective carries something of our cognate “commiseration”.

    Key, I believe though, is separating out the empathetic experience from the idea of its cause. We have grown sad and weaker because of a particular “malum” that is not only weakening others, it is weakening ourselves. At first glance this seems core to being able to address evils in the world, finding what is to blame for our lessing states.

    But for Spinoza such a bleeding out of affects and sadness has to be un-woven so that we don’t become either depressed or reactionarily angered.

    1. We are to realize that the weakening of our body and mind comes about through the way in which we are affirming our own flesh, that is through our conceptions of the world we have actively affirmed a vision of the world which includes our own sadness.

    2. This realization allows us to make a break from the chain of sadness and re-orient ourselves toward a more active state (it is only our Idea of what is happening which is governing our passivity).

    3. Affirming our own power to act when are then more free to readdress the fundamental connection which allowed the affect to pass from one person to ourselves, the realization that those suffering others are like ourselves.

    4. This leads to our active investment in their own freedom, for our fundamental affective and rational combination with others determines that our freedom is reliant upon the freedom of others.

    5. This return investment into others actually works to alleviate the weaking of others under the malum that seemed to be bringing others into sadness and passivity.

    6. Key to the entire key is that our ethical action is couched within a deeper sense of what investment and freedom is. That is to say, “pity” may very well cause us to join others in acts of hatred and anger against the perceived evil, a rather reactive state, or might move us to reach out and offer some sort of aid. But Spinoza’s lack of pity which really works pragmatically as a corrective AFTER we have experienced pity, allows us to disengage from a chain of sadness and anger and bring about constitutional changes both in shared subjectivities, but also in the world itself.

    9. Not only can we under a Spinoza view offer our anger or compassion, we are obliged in a certain sense to offer as well a path out of oppression itself, a method to break the chain of pain between others and events in the world. This can take the form of either getting others to understand where sadness comes from, or from pragmatically separating oneself from events in the world which are not good for you, whose combination with are detrimental.

    Spinoza assumes that the empathetic glue between persons is the regular background under which almost all of our valuations occur. Ours is predominantly an affective, imaginary world. What he provides is a way in which to critically break more reactive chains of pain, and not just charge situations with “blame”.

  10. Tom,

    It is perfectly fair to beg off the discussion. Perhaps others will find the outline between us more fruitful than either you or I do.

    As to my uncharitable reading of your example of “pity”:

    [tom]“For example, you ask me to provide an example of an ethical difference between me and Spinoza, and I take the example of pity. But then you adopt an accusative tone and imply that I want to relegate all ethics to the regulation of feelings rather than actions. Obviously, I advocate nothing of the sort. Even a modicum of patience should enable you to see this.”

    The reason why I read this so uncharitably is because I took it as a distinct evasion of my question (whether it was intentional or not).

    I asked you specifically for “a real difference in the action” and you responded to the feeling of pity. This lead me to the obvious conclusion that there was not a ready difference in action that you could turn to, but that what mattered was some kind of ethical feeling that someone should have. Is it really my fault that I read your answering of my request for a difference in action, with a difference in feeling, as the really substantive one? If you had wanted me to understand the difference in action I assume you would have answered my request for a difference in action with just such a difference.

    Just the same, feel free to back off from the discussion and from my questions.

    Cheers.

    • This may be more a matter of style than anything else, though I still take that to be important. I tend to think that the issues are difficult enough in themselves to merit the discussion of them being constructive, focused and considered, though I know the blog format is not always conducive to this and other people are more suited to adversarial rapid-fire exchanges.

      I chose pity as it was the first vivid example which occured to me (and it has been a long time since I read the Ethics, as I said). My suggestion was action based, insofar as I called for pity to be cultivated (e.g. through appropriate relationships and ways of responding to people). Moreover, I tend to have an action-oriented conception of emotion, such that I take it to have a crucial role in ethical reasoning and ethical perception (where Martha Nussbaum demonstrates this wonderfully). So too, I reject the idea of emotions as passions which we are brutely subject to. Instead, I think of them as having an active component, such that there is an extent to which we can be held responsible for what we feel. In light of this, it did not occur to me that you might think I was evading your question.

      Other examples would have been Spinoza’s recommendation to study nature if we are to attain blessedness, or any of the other consequences of his perfectionism. To take this example, I do not think the contemplation of nature leads to blessedness, so I would not advise most people to devote their time to studying it. There are plently of other examples connected to perfectionism too, of course.

      For all these cases, to route all questions of value through what would make the individual themselves more perfect seems like a mistake. I take it to flow from Spinoza’s rather anti-realist approach to value (i.e. all value is relative; nothing is valuable in itself), which I think he does not do enough to motivate. One worry would be that it does not do justice to the phenomenology of value — arguably our experience of acting morally, say, has more to do with finding other people valuable than with ensuring we reach greater perfection. Another concerns the coherence of the idea of perfection and whether it even makes sense to suppose there is a perfect version of ourselves or nature which we can approach — metaphysical scruples might suggest not. A further worry would be epistemological, namely how Spinoza can know about essence. And so on. I have a hard time buying a perfectionist ethic, and I suspect Levi would too, although he does make the occasional approving reference to conatus.

  11. Tom,

    I agree that it is a question largely of style, and I also agree that style is *very* important. It seems that we have sketched out enough of our relative positions to provide a standing point, and at the very least the kind of criticism you would make towards flat ontologies (of which Spinoza’s isn’t really).

    The only thing I would add is that:

    ” I take it to flow from Spinoza’s rather anti-realist approach to value (i.e. all value is relative; nothing is valuable in itself), which I think he does not do enough to motivate.”

    I really have to question this as Spinoza is incredibly realist in terms of value. He makes any and all valuations to be REAL changes in ontological power to act. Each and every assessment of the good and bad of something in the world is intimately and significantly REAL change.

    As for perfectionism, I see no difference between this kind of aysymptotic relation and a Kantian approach to rational coherence and the CI. One does not become perfect, one becomes more or less active, more or less joyous. A position very similar to that held by Nietzsche, (hence Deleuze’s appeal to both thinkers for his ethics and epistemology).

    The best to you, always enjoying your blog even though our discussions often end in knots.

    • Some final comments then:

      Value tracks real changes, namely in the power to act, as you say. But I think Spinoza has an anti-realist dimension too (though I don’t suppose the labels matter much as long as the position is clear).I say this because an object’s adding to our power to act produces value only in light of our essence being to strive to exist. This means that different things can be good or bad relative to different individuals, and nothing is valuable in itself. I take the theory to be perfectionist (and Spinoza often talks about approaching ‘perfection’), insofar as he thinks that acting from our essence, through maximising our power to act, we are more fully realizing our natures. For example, take IIIp11: “We see, then, that the mind can undergo great changes, and pass now to a greater, now to a lesser perfection.” So, I think Spinoza thinks we do become more or less perfect insofar as one becomes more or less active and more or less joyous.

      At a higher level, we might give a realist explanation of the value of increasing our power to act. So, given that increasing our power to act makes something valuable because that thing helps us realise our essential natures, we might take realising our natures (and ultimately the universe realising its essence) to be intrinsically valuable. However, I don’t think Spinoza pursues this line of thought (though I could be wrong).

      The same choice faces Kant scholars who seek to explain the value of autonomous action. Some give it a realist gloss — freedom is valuable in itself, so actions in accord with the categorical imperative, which thereby preserve freedom, derive value from this independent source of value. Allen Wood reads Kant and Hegel in this way. Others try to give a more anti-realist explanation of the value of freedom which does not rely on a realist account of this value. This is the approach to Kant taken by radical constructivists like Christine Korsgaard. I think both these positions are interesting ones.

  12. Tom: “I say this because an object’s adding to our power to act produces value only in light of our essence being to strive to exist. This means that different things can be good or bad relative to different individuals, and nothing is valuable in itself.”

    Kvond: I just don’t understand this. Spinoza gives value to each and everything at any number of registers. To name a few…

    1. Each thing is “valued” as an expression of Substance, so it is already in community with us.

    2. More significantly, each and every person is highly valued on their own right because in combination with US, because we share a kind of essence, is of the greatest value. In fact Spinoza inverts Hobbes “man is a wolf to man” to “man is a god to man”. I can think of no higher value Spinoza could confer.

    3. For things that may or may not be “good” for us contingently, indeed we each have histories and things in the world may affect us differently, but I can’t see how one should not be contextual about this. Oxygen is very good for us, generally, but there are times and amounts when it would be very deadly.

    Tom: “So, I think Spinoza thinks we do become more or less perfect insofar as one becomes more or less active and more or less joyous.”

    Kvond: Very much so. I did not mean to deny that he uses perfection as a scale, but one has to keep track of all the equivalences that qualify what perfection is. Essentially increases in perfection are becomings more like Substance, more self-determining, more active, more incorporative of other things.

    Tom: “At a higher level, we might give a realist explanation of the value of increasing our power to act. So, given that increasing our power to act is valuable because it realises our essential natures, we might take realising our natures (and ultimately the universe realising its essence) to be intrinsically valuable. However, I don’t think Spinoza pursues this line of thought (though I could be wrong).”

    Kvond: This seems very much like Spinoza to my ear (with the exception of the idea that the Universe is in a progressive process. Each and every moment of the Universe, include all our moments, are already perfect).

    I will say that I do see an Anti-Realist aspect of Spinoza, but only in the sense that human beings are denied completely adequate ideas (or so I and others interpret). In this way true ideas are achieved much more via their coherence with other ideas, rather than by any sort of correspondence. But all changes in value and knowledge are REAL changes.

    • This seems like a plausible way to read Spinoza, and makes him more attractive to me on independent philosophical grounds. As I say, I am open to this more realist reading of Spinoza, though I don’t remember him explicitly going down this route such that I would be confident enough to nail my colours to the mast. I’ll keep it in mind when I re-read the Ethics though.

      I take myself to be following Spinoza’s own formulations in saying he thinks that different things can be good or bad relative to different individuals and that nothing is valuable in itself. For example, in the Preface to part IV of the Ethics he says:

      As far as good and evil are concerned, they also indicate nothing positive in things, considered in themselves, nor are they anything other than modes of thinking, or notions we form because we compare things to one another. For one and the same thing can be good, and bad, and also indifferent. For example, Music is good for one who is Melancholy, bad to one who is mourning, and neither good nor bad to one who is deaf.

      This may just be a contextualist claim, as you suggest. If so, it could be combined with the claim that everything is good for us to some extent because it is an expression of substance and it shares our essence (like other people do).

      I think some of the difficulty in understanding the position might come from talking in terms of objects. So, as you say, oxygen can be both good and bad, depending upon the situation. But if we switch to talking about states of affairs — that is, objects standing in determinate relations at a determinate time — then we might be able to frame things more clearly.

      In a given state of affairs, the same music may be good for you and bad for me. So, we may both be at a concert where I’m melancholy and you are mourning, to stick with Spinoza’s example. But can the state of affairs be good (or bad) in itself? I am not sure what Spinoza’s theory of value would say, and whether it would allow us to talk of value in a non-perspectival fashion, or at least from the perspective of Nature as a whole. I don’t know how much it matters itself, but it would clarify how the account of value is meant to work.

  13. You may be interested in perusing Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics, in particular his

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/04/03/balibars-spinoza-and-politics-the-braids-of-reason-and-passion/

    In particular the chapter called“The Ethics: A Political Anthropology”which speaks directly to the foundations of the social, ethical, political.

    In the link above I provide a PDF download link, but also Balibar’s diagram of the relevant passages in the Ethics

    Thanks for seeing us through our stylistic tensions.

    Cheers.

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