August 03, 2004

Emotional engineering


Spinoza is the prince of philosophers; really, the only one you need.

He took for granted what would later become the first principle of Marx’s thought - that it was more important to change the world than to interpret it. His project of systematically rooting out the underlying motivation for irrational behaviours was effectively psychoanalysis three hundred years early. Freud, whose written acknowledgments to Spinoza were few, nevertheless admitted in his correspondence to being thoroughly indebted to Spinoza’s framework; Lacan was more explicit in his homage, comparing his own excommunication from Psychoanalysis to Spinoza's banishment from the Amsterdam Synagogue. Deleuze’s thought is unimaginable without Spinoza.

Even when there's no influence, there's often an affinity. I doubt know whether he ever read Spinoza, but Burroughs was a Spinozist through and through. So is Luke.

Philip K Dick wrote on Spinoza, and the vision Dick bequeaths to cyberpunk: of simulated worlds stimulated by drugs, mood and technology - the Gibsonian concept of ‘simstim’ - is Spinozist through and through.

These reflections have been prompted by my accidentally coming upon Antonio Damasio’s Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain on the secondhand book stalls outside the NFT while strolling along the South Bank on Saturday with Siobhan. (Discovering books by accident is of course the best way to come upon them).

Damasio's book is an incredible achievement. Not only does it bring together Spinoza's account of the relationship between body and mind with his program for increasing human happiness and freedom, it also draws upon up-to-the minute scientific knowledge - Damasio is a neurologist - to establish that Spinoza's conceptual framework is remarkably attuned with contemporary neurobiology.

Academic philosophers often treat Book V of Spinoza's Ethics - ‘Of the Power of the Human Intellect, or of Human Freedom’ - as little more than an embarrassment, sometimes derisively referring to as a 'self-help manual'. So it is - but this is a strength, what makes Spinoza's philosophy more than mere contemplation. (I've often thought, actually, that a killing could be made by translating Spinoza's insights into a Pop Therapy book).

At the same time, non-philosophical readers are likely to be scandalized by Spinoza's sober and geometrical treatment of human emotions. Vernacular psychology has it that emotions are irreducibly mysterious, too fuzzy and indistnct to analyse beyond a certain point. Spinoza, on the other hand, maintains that happiness is a matter of emotional engineering: a precise science which can be learned and practiced.

In place of the 'right' and 'wrong' a vulgarized Kantianism and vestigial Christianity has inculcated into us, Spinoza urges us to think in terms of health and illness. There are no ‘categorical’ duties applying to all organisms, since what counts as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is relative to the interests of each entity. In tune with popular wisdom, Spinoza is clear that what brings wellbeing to one entity will poison to another. The first and most overriding drive of any entity, Spinoza says, is its will to persist in its own being. When an entity starts to act against its own best interests, to destroy itself - as, sadly, Spinoza observes, humans are wont to do - it has been taken over by external forces. To be free and happy entails exorcising these invaders and acting in accordance with reason.


It is Burroughs’ obsession with alien takeovers and viruses that makes him so utterly Spinozistic. Whether hungering for a drug, for orgasm or for images, the principal figure of human bondage in Burroughs’ universe - the addict - is enslaved to exogenous forces.Spinoza makes it clear that while reason is necessary in the quest to regain control, it is is not sufficient. Reason can set the goals, but emotions can only be overcome by the cultivation of stronger emotions.

Damasio begins by explicating and exploring Spinoza’s claim that ‘the mind is the idea of the body’. He moves on to distinguish between ‘emotions’ and ‘feelings’ (which together are termed ‘affects’). Emotions are presubjective response-tendencies whereas feelings are the conscious processing of these reponses. An analogous distinction in Spinoza’s thought is that between appetite - the impulse towards a certain object - and desire - the conscious awareness of that impulse. Damasio demostrates that, remarkably, Spinoza’s diagram of these relations is borne out by neurobiology. As he puts it, the sublimity of the mind is matched by the sublimity of biololgy.

While, fittingly, Damasio’s book is a joy to read, I think it could usefully be put into dialogue with Deleuzianism. Where Deleuze and Guattari treat Spinoza as the great prophet of the Body without Organs, Damasio concentrates on the organic, perhaps fatally equating Spinoza’s ‘body’ with the organism. Moreover, Damasio’s claim that bliss is to be attained through achieving homeostasis (oddly, after admitting he prefers the term ‘homeodynamics’, he never uses it again!) would put him in tension with D/G’s emphasis on the plateau.


It is in Spinoza’s account of God that we encounter his vision of the Body without Organs. Many of Spinoza’s champions like to position him as a forerunner of humanist enlightenment, as if his famous formula, ‘God = nature’ and his claim that the greatest form of joy is only possible through ‘intellectual love of God’ were obfuscations, codes designed to conceal an underlying atheism. If they were conceived of in such terms, they failed: Spinoza’s denial of the personal God, his contention that God could not intervene in the world and neither assigned praise nor blame, offered reward nor punishment, saw him viciously pilloried and ostracized, with an attempt even being made on his life. But to think of Spinoza as a covert atheist is to repeat the same mistakes his contemporary religious critics made (and to reiterate their insult). Spinoza’s God is beyond even indifference, gloriously, desolately without interests of any kind. Intellectual love of God is effectively an identification with the cosmos as BwO. Spinoza’s conviction that awe, wonder and dread - not worship - are the only appropriate responses to a God that is the Great Zero, means that his thought can offer us a pitilessly materialist spirituality that is as important a legacy as anything else he has left us.

More by me on Spinoza


Me on Kubrick, Spinoza and coldness at alt.movies.kubrick (this thread contains one of my proudest moments ever --- gaining praise from Gordon Stainforth, who edited The Shining).

If you’ve a spare few minutes and want a laugh have a look at this thread from amk in which I debate Spinoza’s concept of God with Leonard Wheat, the author of this stupefyingly ridiculous book on Kubrick's 2001.

Posted by mark at August 3, 2004 12:04 AM | TrackBack

"it was more important to change the world than to interpret it" = actually the *eleventh* principle of Marx's thought! ;-)


Posted by: Angus at August 3, 2004 02:30 AM

Lol! But first in IMPORTANCE, Angus!

Any way, nice to hear from you!! It's been a while...

Posted by: at August 3, 2004 04:10 AM

Yeah, sorry about that, my blog-reading has been falling behind in general lately.

You're right about Marx of course--you have to respect a thinker who understands the principle of the punchline!

Posted by: Angus at August 3, 2004 07:31 AM

‘the mind is the idea of the body’
cool! that'd make a nice t-shirt slogan.
all this is v. interesting.

Posted by: wbtnk at August 3, 2004 08:54 AM

as coincidence would have it, i've just got spinozas ethics out the library. i wasn't going to read it, just going to let the prestige of it soak into my skin, but maybe i'll give it a crack if i can email you and demand explanations of opaque passages.

Posted by: luke.. at August 3, 2004 09:43 AM

But of course Luke!!!

and thanx matt

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 09:54 AM

loved the piece, one of the best things you've written. When your'e feeling sad on a lovely summer day, there's little better than to sit in the garden reading the Ethics. Your'e almost certain to feel better (St Augustine is good for this too - it was Ian Penman who turned me onto him).As Zizek asked recently, is it impossible not to love Spinoza? Just ordered the Damasio book from Amazon, it looks v. interesting.

Posted by: gary at August 3, 2004 11:34 AM

Thanks Gary, the Damasio book is very good buy --- clear, well written, inspiring, a real page turner....

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 01:25 PM

As regards Spinoza as 'self-help manual': I often read Nietzsche in this regard, as being a producer of joy in life.

I've read little Spinoza, but there would also seem (at least from your account) to be somewhat of a parallel with Nietzsche, in his use of the categories 'illness' and 'health'. What makes (the collective) you of this?

Posted by: Catherine at August 3, 2004 03:14 PM

Yes Catherine, you're completely right, and just this morning remembered that I'd meant to mention Spinoza as a precursor of Nietzsche... Unaccountably forgot ....

Nietzsche himself was at times sniffy about Spinoza, at times effusive (counting him as his only real forebear). Methodologically, they couldn't be more different (or so it wd appear); Spinoza ultra-systematic, quasi-geometrical, proceeding by means of demonstrations and proofs --- (Nietzsche mocked Spinoza for this in Beyond Good and Evil). Nietzsche by contrast systematically unsystematic, no patience for argumentation (philosophers wasted too much time telling us how they came to their view rather than what they thought), aphoristic.

And yet, Spinoza's practical orientation - contemplation to serve the goal of increasing joyful encounters - was what delighted Nietzsche. And yes, the same language of sickness and wellbeing (Spinoza already beyond good and evil).

I prefer to think of both Spinoza and Nietzsche less as self-help manuals than as manuals for dismantling the self (and making a Body without Organs)...

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 03:40 PM

I prefer to think of both Spinoza and Nietzsche less as self-help manuals than as manuals for dismantling the self

Too right; more Haynes than Alain de Botton [sp?]. I always think that people who feel better after reading Spinoza or Nietzsche are missing the point somehow...

Posted by: johneffay at August 3, 2004 04:26 PM

PPl interested in this might enjoy the similar-themed post I've just put up at hypersition:

Posted by: mark at August 3, 2004 05:23 PM

Nice to see the same arguments still being rehearsed after almost three years.

Posted by: The Great Conciliator at August 4, 2004 09:22 AM

Nice to see you reading so attentively. Read again, GC.

Posted by: mark at August 4, 2004 02:10 PM

I have. Same arguments, same basic political/philosophical positions. Although Alf Garnet's maintaining the guise of civility commendably well.

Posted by: The Great Conciliator at August 4, 2004 02:33 PM

Yr being negative I think. You can't expect ppl to just abandon their convictions, but it's not as if the debate is simply going round in circles, or incandescing into inchoate fury as it did 3 years ago.

Posted by: mark at August 5, 2004 10:10 AM

Yr being negative I think.


it's not as if the debate is simply going round in circles, or incandescing into inchoate fury as it did 3 years ago.

On the contrary, people set out their positions with admirable clarity and honesty. Hate's not your enemy...

Posted by: The Great Conciliator at August 5, 2004 11:04 AM

I get johneffay's point. I don't mean you should just passively consume Spinoza (and N.) in order to "feel better". More like you said Mark about using them as "manuals for dismantling the self", tool kits to create for yrself a BwO. Catherine's point about "increasing joyful encounters" - mmmm, I do like that.

Posted by: gary at August 5, 2004 12:05 PM

I don't mind the 'feeling better' thing coz - contra the Great Conciliator I think being negative is not admirable - but it's a question of what is doing the feeling (i.e. not you anymore).

Posted by: at August 6, 2004 10:54 AM

Not so much "admirable", as an occasional tactical necessity.

Posted by: The Great Conciliator at August 6, 2004 02:30 PM

Interesting piece about Spinoza, Borges and philosophy here.

Posted by: infinite thought at August 10, 2004 02:03 PM

Who does the concillator think he is? I'd like to read his Essays and then we'll decide just how grat he is!!! Its very easy to criticise others views and ten times easier when you don't put your own on the line for criticism.

Posted by: at September 29, 2004 07:54 PM

So, Mr Caesura, you think "unilateral militarized anglosaxon-style zionist hyperliberal technomaniac globalization" is a serious and worthwhile position we could potentially explore?

Posted by: The Great Conciliator at October 11, 2004 08:13 PM