Law and Infinite Debt

by | 20 Apr 2011



In his critique of free will, Spinoza’s first argument against his opponents, named (Heereboord) and unnamed (Descartes, Aquinas, Burgersdijk) is that the intellect is not only the same as the will, but that in no way can the will be said to exceed the intellect.1Ethics II Proposition 49, Scholium. The position is characterised as the claim that the will is capable of assenting to an infinite number of things which could be perceived, but the intellect must be added to if it is to perceive anything more than it does. The will is infinite; the intellect is finite. Upon this ground is founded a philosophy of law in which the power of the will is concretised as a faculty, one which may be led by finite right reason to its application in the correct manner. The manner of this leading, however, operates according to Aquinas2Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae q.106 a. according to which law is given, the Old or the New.

Under the Old Law, the concretisation of the faculty of understanding, moves with the greatest possible speed from a stream of erroneous perceptions to a form of the intellect signified by natural laws, laws of thought which can only exist at that level where “man is a thinking thing”. The scalar finitude of the intellect stands as nothing before the magnitude of the formal intellect of right reason, which is revealed in its force and externality by the teacher. Aquinas’ move is to determine that the New Law rather operates still at the finite level of the intellecting faculty, by means of opposing the infinite will to the sovereign legislator of the intellect, which determines not only the proper good, but the means by which it may be achieved3Ibid. ad Cor., 3, 3.. The force of this interior legislator derives not from fear of a ‘childishly perceived’ force, but from the power of the sublime disclosed by end that is the summum bonum4ST Ia-IIae, q.99, a.6.. We must accept that the intellect remains powerless in itself, being finite before the will. ‘Correct’ ideas do not of themselves generate power; rather the intellect constructs ideas in order of instrumentality, whereby the light is better perceived, and the infinite will stands before the divine will as universal legislator. The New Law is thus characterised by the internalisation of law-making capacity, but the continued externalisation of the ultimate enforcing power.

The reversal Kant undertakes here stems from the positing of the forms of understanding as infinite in themselves, thus constituting a vessel in which intuitions are at once laid out and perhaps also a little lost. The infinitude of the understanding now opposes that of the will, but whereas in Spinoza the infinitude becomes a ground for declaring their equality (volitions = ideas), in Kant the determinate form of the will is infinite in its unconstrained autonomy, whereas the forms of the understanding are infinite in potentiality (autonomy finds its lawfulness). These forms extend forever and can never be filled by any volition. But in this case, why do we not learn very quickly that obedience to the laws dictated by reason is a Sysiphan task? Aquinas’ doctrine places enforcement at the level either of an earthly authority or in the power of the vision. The radical autonomy of the Kantian faculties raises the question of how to proper internalising enforcement, without, however, resorting to Hobbist or Spinozist theories of the conatus as the locus of a material power in the body. Deleuze’s reading5Essays Critical and Clinical (1998.32) of Kant here alerts us to the terrible genius of the Kantian solution: avoiding the mechanist doctrines that scandalised the C17th, a theory of internal power/force is not designated as the means of enforcement of some idea. Instead, Kant embraces the very unquenchability of the infinite understanding. The categorical imperative then stands as the emptiest idea of morality – devoid of content, it is a void which always remains a pure “you must!” which escapes its determinations at every instance – a resolute non-being which plays on the surface of each act as the sign of lack. Even the ‘good acts’ one wishes to undertake fail by this measure, not just in their material corruption of the ‘concept’, but in paradoxical demand that one must do what one ought to do, but that one must not desire to do what one must do, because then one would not be being forced to do it. In these circumstances, Deleuze writes:

the more we observe the law with exactitude, the more severe it becomes. … It never acquits us, neither of our virtues nor of our vices or our faults: at every moment there is only an apparent acquittal, and the moral conscience, far from appeasing itself, is intensified by all our renunciations and pricks us even more strongly.6Deleuze (1998:33).

This ‘slow death’ that is the constant ‘deferral of judgment’, this Deleuze terms the ‘infinite debt’. We might add that in this debt the categorical imperative parallels the rise of the effort to judge that constitutes the synthetic unity of apperception, from these particular perceptions (me, in act), to the always beyond that brings all states of perception under the concept of the self – the point of view of ‘everybody, always’.7Longuenesse (1993:395). We are each of us, without fail, granted our own debt, an irredeemable debt that we owe to our ‘selves’, an irredeemable self that is everybody, always. The efficacy of enforcement derives not only from its non-exercise, but more importantly from a confusion – a disempowering – of the faculties as they dissolve in the ever-receding paradox of the ought.

The keenness of the Deleuzian critique should not distract us from its own origins. Can we not discern in the capacity of the categorical imperative a void which lacks place, yet always becomes placed as the universe expands into it. In this model, the critical question becomes one of the nature of this void, from which is cut out the bodies of the world. Is it simply lack, or unformed potentiality, and if the latter, what is the criterion of distinction? The matter is not one of a choice of inverses, but rather slides between the two. The temptation to read the void as that which englobes the universe passes immediately to the treatment of the centre of the universe in that void. If void is non-place, then the linked claim, reported by Diogenes Laërtios, that the universe occupies the void’s centre, must be understood from the perspective of the universe. Being place, it determines its own place and that of the void, and with that we are forced to examine our own perspective. Is it the case that in determining the place of the void, place expels the void to its limits, or is have we been led to ignore the continued presence of the void in every place? If the primacy of each thing determines the whole’s place, then we must also look to that thing for the origin of this placing of non-place. In this manner, each thing has at each moment of its becoming the void into which it becomes. When Spinoza dismissed what he believed to be the Stoic conception of a porous world surrounded by the void, it was perhaps because he realised that the void was in fact always being generated and disclosed in finite particulars, as an infinity of rectangles may be disclosed in a circle bisected by two chords.8Ethics II Proposition 8 Scholium. This void could only not be here if this circle had been determined to exist. The emptiness of the circle amounts to the fullest principle of the void espoused, and we find ourselves having traversed the nothing of the beyond to the excess of the future over the present.

One may well wonder whether, in replacing the indefinite and empty universal of the sovereign legislator with the full, but otherwise equally indeterminate singular Whole, we have not replaced an eternal debt with an infinite credit. If debt may be characterised as lending so that the lent money be recouped with interest, finance credit must be characterised by its lack of interest in debt recovery. The purpose of credit in modern financial capitalism is as a substrate for initiating deals and recouping fees in the initial phases of credit issue and drawdown. Repayment becomes a virtuality: no one expects to repay, only to refinance. The relations that may characteristically express the capacity of capital are opposed to the vital force of that capital, which remains unmarked save perhaps by a certain degree of power.

If presenting the legislator without content as the model of enforcement achieves its aims precisely through the incommensurability of legislator and all content before it, then presenting content without a legislator runs the great danger, perhaps surprisingly, of denying the existence of the legislators that are really before us, or rather, that are virtually here, but are bodies somewhere else. Must we not ask ‘which legislator is expressed in this injustice? What are its symptoms, its catalysts, what is the cure?’.

Stephen Connelly is a law research student at Birkbeck.

  • 1
    Ethics II Proposition 49, Scholium.
  • 2
    Summa Theologiae Ia-IIae q.106 a.
  • 3
    Ibid. ad Cor., 3, 3.
  • 4
    ST Ia-IIae, q.99, a.6.
  • 5
    Essays Critical and Clinical (1998.32)
  • 6
    Deleuze (1998:33).
  • 7
    Longuenesse (1993:395).
  • 8
    Ethics II Proposition 8 Scholium.


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