Today is the fourth episode of the ‘Spinoza week’ (which will last a bit longer than a week as you probably already understood) and the third article dedicated to the exploration of Spinoza’s conceptology. Today’s text will be (once again) very influenced by the interpretation that Gilles Deleuze makes of Spinoza’s writings. In this regard, it might be important to observe that Deleuze spent the first part of his life by creating his own philosophy through the interpretations of others (Hume, Nietzsche, Bergson etc.) and that each of those interpretations he makes are very personal. There are therefore other way of approaching the philosophy of Spinoza but I am not as familiar with them as I am with the Deleuzian one.
During this week, we have not explored so much the concept of substance which is for Spinoza the only and necessarily perfect thing that exists and that can be considered as a whole under the name ‘God’. Expressed in a very simple way (maybe too much), and to somehow borrow Leibniz’s concept of monad, we need to see the world as a gigantic assemblage of infinitely small pieces of matter (calling them atoms would be erroneous but useful to make it understandable) that are all involved in more or less fast movement. These small elements of matter composes bodies that are perpetually striv[ing] to persevere in its being (Ethics, part 3, prop. 6). This property is called conatus and we will explore it in the final episode of this week. Those bodies are continuously interacting with each other and thus systematically affect each other. What it means in a very simple way, is that when you cut a piece of butter with a knife, of course, the knife affects the butter since you can see that the latter is being cut; however, the knife as well is affected by the butter and has to ‘resist’ the butter’s characteristics that attempt to make it persevering in its being.
Spinoza distinguishes several degrees of knowledge (modes of perception) depending on how we, as bodies, get affected by other bodies (see my essay Architectures of Joy for more on that). Deleuze uses the example of the wave to make himself understood in his description of these three degrees (see previous article with the translation of Deleuze class). Somebody who is said not to be able to swim is someone who does not experience the wave in another way than a very passive one. The water encounters her/his body as an obstacle to its flow and it results a violence between the two bodies (wave/human). The second degree of knowledge is express by someone who is said to be able to swim. (S)he positions her/his as a body in ‘accordance’ with the flow of the wave and therefore composes harmonious relations with the water. While this second degree is strictly empirical (one has to experience the wave, adjust, experience again, adjust again etc.), the third one is rational in its most powerful meaning. It consists in an understanding tending (but probably never reaching) towards perfection of the ensemble of relations that are operating in the matter. In other words (again, simplifying involves a certain degree of inaccuracy but it allows a first level of understanding), this degree of knowledge can be seen as a sort of visual (or tactile) layer superimposed on one’s vision which would bring such a ‘resolution’ than one would be able to perceive the infinitely small parts of matter and the various vectors of forces applied on it. This mode of perception is therefore only an horizon and cannot really be fully acquired but, if we keep using the example of the wave, we can probably say that the best surfers are probably close from this degree of knowledge of the sea.
As fallible bodies, we cannot however compose harmonious relations with every body we come to encounter. Such truth is, for Spinoza, the essence of the Genesis’ mythical mystery. Despite the era he was living in, the philosophy Spinoza develops makes it impossible for us to think that he was creationist (calling him an evolutionist would be however an absolute anachronism, he rarely thinks in terms of history actually). In his famous epistolary exchange with Bleyenberg, he however ‘play the game’ to interpret the Biblical myth to unfold his conceptual work. Spinoza accuses the three biblical religions to have told this story through a judgmental approach: God forbids Adam to eat the fruit, he eats it, he is punished. Spinoza approaches the same narrative through a different spectrum. God ‘tells’ (of course, the personification of God does not correspond to anything in Spinoza’s philosophy) Adam that the apple is poisonous (in other words, Adam has the intuition or the instinct that the apple is bad for him), he eats it anyway and become sick. The fruit was poisoned i.e. it could not compose harmonious relations with Adam’s body/stomach. The result of this encounter is that Adam is sick or should we say to use the Spinozist terminology, he lost a bit of his power (potential), he experiences a sad affect. For each of these encounters between bodies, it results either an joyful affect that construct a sort of third body for a moment, composed of the two original ones in the state of symbiosis, or a sad affect that decomposes the relations of both bodies (not necessarily in a symmetrical manner however).
The letters of Spinoza with Bleyenberg are known as the letters about evil. This notion of evil, and therefore of moral is foreign to the philosophy of Spinoza. There is no good/evil that would be dictated from a transcendental law that would categorized each event or behavior within those two categories; there can be only good and bad (we can say joyful and sad) within the context of each body’s ethics. The latter is not a voluntarily self-constructed set of rules like we usually mean it (let’s recall that there are no freedom as such for Spinoza) but rather, the experience of each affect as potentially and effectively harmonious and disharmonious with our own material assemblage i.e. our body i.e. us.
For more about the Spinozist interpretation of the myth of Adam and the apple as explained by Deleuze in the Universite de Vincennes, read his class from January 13th 1981 on his student, Richard Pinhas’s website, webdeleuze (also available in English)