Conatus: political being and Spinoza

by | 16 Mar 2015


Vermeer's The Music Lesson

Part I – The nature and significance of the conatus

Spinoza’s ‘conatus’ is a signal concept of his thought and one which appears as an axiom of modern treatments, particularly those of a political nature. Famously, the conatus doctrine provides:

Each thing insofar as it is in itself, endeavours to persevere in its being.

PROPOSITIO VI. Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.

Traditionally the source of this doctrine has been identified as an amalgam of Hobbes and Descartes. From Hobbes Spinoza takes the view that this endeavour is an infinitesimal striving which characterises (human) individuality and is the origin of consciousness; from Descartes he draws the idea that this striving is explicable in entirely rational terms as a kind of inertia. The result is a mechanisation of consciousness in which our lived duration is characterised by the struggle of continued being—the resistance to annihilation.

From this reading a characterisation of Spinoza’s philosophy flows in which all is struggle, an indefinite State of Nature in which Natural Right is regarded as a claim that ‘might makes right’ — each thing has as much natural right as it is actually able to exercise in the world.

But, like the rule in Foss v Harbottle (1843), the conatus is actually two principles which seem to have been run together at the expense of one. In fact it is worse—I believe no-one in the modern period has ever remarked that Spinoza posits another conatus, which reads as follows:

In this life therefore we endeavour [conamur] above all that the body of infancy be changed [mutetur] into another body which is capable of a great many things, and which is related to a mind which is very much conscious of itself, of God, and of things. Ethics V Proposition 39

In hac vita igitur apprime conamur, ut corpus infantiae in aliud, quantum eius natura patitur eique conducit, mutetur, quod ad plurima aptum sit, quodque ad mentem referatur, quae sui et Dei et rerum plurimum sit conscia;

Of course it is not enough merely to have spotted this. The question is, why is it there and why should it be granted the architectonic integrality of the classic conatus? After all, this could just be the throwaway comment of a man known for his small Latin. It is this that I would like to explore, with reference to Spinoza’s theory of natural right insofar as this is treated by him as a cornerstone of his political theory.

Part II – The political as the cause of being

To do this I need to set the scene a little by trying to show what is at stake in Spinoza’s mechanisation of the conatus and the possibility of its becoming, and in doing so sketch out the consequences for his theory of natural right. To do this I am going to trace the ‘notion’ of command that founds natural right for some of Spinoza’s contemporaries. For historical reasons, the notion of command was tied up both with the will to obey and with the act of thinking and, it must be said, partly to avoid accusations of heresy we can see explorations of (dis)obedience taking place within epistemological debates.

Thirteenth century Oxford then, and developments in Scholastic epistemology, and here I draw broadly on the works of Anton Schuetz and Massimiliano Traversino, and Andre de Muralt. The Franciscan Duns Scotus proposed to escape to a certain degree the consequences of Aristotle’s philosophy—notably the perceived incompatibility of predestined final causes with God’s absolute power—by positing a division by God before time of the orders of the world into:

(i) the physical world of matter and form; and
(ii) a metaphysical world of specific and generic degrees.

This evidently creates a problem: by this difference the individual cannot be sure if what she imagines represented subjectively is what is there physically.

Duns Scotus was obliged to replace the problematic Aristotelean transcendental causes of unity between matter and form with a tertium quid—a screen as it were between the orders which ensured the coherence and unity of the two. In a certain sense it acted as the ‘orderer’ of the relation between the two orders; it is their reality.

At one level, the level of ordered power, the tertium quid permitted a causal nexus whereby things occurring physically would cause corresponding representations metaphysically. This dualism was clearly problematic, for what ensured coherence between the physical and metaphysical worlds?

Now tertium quid also allowed a subtle explanation of the possibility of true knowledge. For example, the tertium quid was the ‘place’ in which God could illuminate people i.e. God through His absolute power could cause a true representation – having objective being or esse objective – to appear in a mind. Such a representation which was true and, critically, self-evidently true. The screen, as it were, not only brought together the things of the world as the coherence of a thinker’s mind, but acted to illuminate the contents. The more intense the illumination, the more clear and distinct the thing became, the more reality and so truth it had. This revelation was for Scotus by the grace of God, for it was in God’s absolute power to choose to whom truth would be revealed by His intervention in the tertium quid.

Scotus’ follower, William of Occam, pressed this logic much further. He rightly asked how the physical world could cause representations in the metaphysical, and denied the same. Yet at the same time he denied the esse objectivo—after all de potentia absoluta God could create a representation that did not correspond with reality. We are left with nominalism and doubt: the subject is alone in a world of species and genera and must make do by attempting herself to establish truth via what Occam terms the experience of an intuitive notitia or notion.

Further critical explorations of the boundaries of hetreodoxy implied by the Scotist philosophy were undertaken by such as Nicolas d’Autrecourt and Gregory of Rimini, and the critical engagement with the tradition continued into Late Scholasticism and so informed the curriculum of the Jesuit schools. So we come to one of their pupils, Descartes, and the discovery of the one intuitive notion which must be true: the cogito, or at least, the thinking. The whole first meditation involving the evil genius is [and was understood at the time (by Voetius at al.) as] a debate with Occam’s God positing the false esse objective: the Deus deceptor that is summum potens & callidus. The contemporary significance of the cogito is that irrespective of God the finite subject can through intuition constitute its own representation of itself which has the radically different reality (truth) of the esse objective. This power is absolute in that it is first cause of self, irrespective of whether God is involved.

And this constitution by consciousness is this consciousness itself—the circularity is deliberate—and accordingly insofar as it is constituted it occurs irrespective of the fluctuations of the mind and the representations that pass across it. In other words it is self-sufficient and autonomous.

What does this have to do with command?

There is a direct parallel in this line of thought between ideas and the will. Duns Scotus holds that there is neither good nor evil in the physical or ‘metaphysical’ worlds and that the determinations of the subject are incapable of being described as such i.e. moral or immoral. God has created the order of the two worlds—their parallelism is ensured by what is termed God’s ordered power. In Scotist thought ordered power is clearly equated with the legal order as instantiated in medieval feudalism.

So where does morality come from, if it is not in the world? The ideas of moral truths come from God as moral laws in the tertium quid. They are chosen by virtue of God’s residual prerogative; His absolute power; God as supreme legislator could have chosen another law. He could change the moral law tomorrow by varying the tertium quid.

It is certainly not a question here of presenting a thing – a sign or symbol – to us stamped on the world which somehow informs of what is good or bad. The tertium quid is not the text, but the paper, and the divine commands are communicated by a continued folding of the paper whereby the textual elements are constantly permuted, combined, and varied, and done so according to degrees of intensity. On this model, which Leibniz would deepen, the combination to infinity is the most intense restructuring of the possibilities of a world. And for intensity read the power that caused it and so the reality that which is combined expresses. Hence the good is communicated by the structure of the tertium quid insofar as it recombines the the things of a world and implicates intensity into that combination. Revelation occurs not by the appearance of a supernatural thing, but by the intensification of a natural thing, which seems to shine forth (scheinen).

For those contemporaries who accepted free will as core to any orthodox theology, when we will, the will is called good only if it wills the Good as given in reality. A Scholastic claim, but already found in Seneca’s mitigation of Stoic doctrine for Roman tastes. Unsurprisingly, the Highest Good is deemed to be God as having the greatest reality towards which soul should turn. For the theologian the will should consider the world’s expression of this God (usually identified with God made flesh) and turn towards it as obediance to the highest command.

This is the nature of the command that comes down to Early Modern natural right theories—not specifically an order written somewhere, but a being of reality, of the screen that binds or (re-)ligatures thought to physical world. One will appreciate what is at stake politically in such a thesis, but the power of the doctrine itself was manifested not so much in orthodoxy and control, but in the extension of its logic beyond the limits carefully circumscribed by the Church.

Although ius (right) has always supported a multitude of meanings, we might broadly characterise the mainstream C17th theory of right as follows:

(Premise) a right is the fruit of a command;
(Premise) a command is given by a sovereign to a subject;
(Theological truth) God is the sovereign of the world;
(Consequence) The commands of God are rights and, by virtue of the supreme authority of the source, they are marked as natural rights, commanded at the beginning of the world and superior to every other right.

But what does the cogito mean for the command? Descartes hardly pursues the dangerous consequences of his thought, for if thought is free to constitute its own truth, is not the will free to give itself its own corresponding command, to love itself because for itself it is its own highest reality?

Spinoza has fewer such qualms. Ideas and will are bluntly equated and it is each thing thus making clear the political significance of his extension of the epistemelogical doctrine. And what is this extension? That while God or Nature is immanent cause of the being (and so reality of every thing), each thing is that causal nexus of God or Nature in the world, a truth evidenced by the highest relaity and truth of self-consciousness. The subject is placed at the heart of thought and of will as the cause of the structure of consciousness which assumes a role akin to the tertium quid. And this is a consciousness set in infinite motion as the effluxion of the affects of the attributes of God or Nature. In other words, the constant refolding of conciousness inherent in being the subject of God or Nature’s immanent power grants to the modern subject the absolute power of synthesising consciousness, and so of constantly moving to reorder its own will, its own immanent command.

As a corollary of his negative critique of the anthropomorphic God, Spinoza strips natural right of any legitimation through transcendent command. Yet he persists in deploying natural right as a keystone of his political philosophy now under a rigorous definition:

Natural right = finite and/or infinite power extended along a line
equals the transition (if any) of a certain proportion of: motion to rest [i.e. the power [potentia] of operating] of some machine defined by its willing of its: common nature, and particular nature, [i.e. the power [potestas] of existing] to the extent that this produces some actual, quantitative effect.

The core of this definition is this: that we produce our natural right, it is the product of our labour—it is nothing other than work.

As can be seen from the definition, a component of natural right is the power of existing. This refers us to the conatus doctrine that each thing endeavours to persevere in its being (unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur); a doctrine developed from Hobbes’ theory that the body endeavours to survive (resist) and the perception of this willing is called conatus. One of the chief results of our research (published as Spinoza, right and absolute freedom) has been to establish that Spinoza’s definition requires that there be two aspects to the conatus: (a) the well-established endeavour to persevere in being and (b) a previously overlooked endeavour to persevere in becoming.

But have these Cartesians, as Malebranche fretted, merely replaced one ineffable absolute with another? Is the modern condition instantiated by a free will which knows that it wants, but does not know what it wants?

My book is partly about establishing the depth of Spinoza’s response to this criticism even before it arose—Spinoza’s reality is structured and determinate, yet still allows freedom. Or better, freedom is the necessary and determinate consequence of an unremitting determinism. There are things we can say about the free will, about the aspects and variations of its being.

This is possible because Spinoza inverts power. For Scotus power is what God as first being exercises in choosing our reality—the prince exercising absolute power. For Spinoza the essence of God is His power (potentia) and all that is in His power (potestas), and as such power is determinative of God’s and our being.

It is power that determines consciousness as a field of degrees of reality. It is power that determines the Good. It is power that determines God.

This is why the thoroughgoing mechanisation of Hobbes’ political thought using a development of Cartesian mechanics is so important for Spinoza and so shocking for his contemporaries. Hobbes understands how power struggles order reality—in other words, as Paul Ricoeur might argue—how politics supersedes God as the ground of being.

In his 1973 paper What is Politics? Giovanni Sartori describes the historical autonomization process of politics vis-à-vis other social spheres—there arises a belief about politics that it is (1) different (2) independent (3) self-sufficient and (4) first cause, generating not only itself but given its causal supremacy everything else (including law).

Politics becomes the prime mover and so assumes the place of God. The question is what kind of God is this?

One school of modernity into which Hobbes might be said to fall holds on to absolute power. Politics as struggle determines reality in the State of Nature. A political order is required to end politics by constituting that order. A powerful sovereign will be required to make such decisions as a necessary to protect the political order by holding the door closed to politics. The command of this sovereign—his will—is the good to which the wills of citizens should turn to ensure their security. Their natural right in the state of nature is now modulated by political realities.

Another school, drawing on the potential of an Occamian, Franciscan theory in favour of the poor and dispossessed, would stress the absolute contingency of human laws and the freedom of humans to decide their futures with utter permissiveness. A version of this can be found in the English Revolution and espoused by Vaughan. Here permissiveness extended to all things deemed natural i.e. not directed in the Ten Commandments.

Spinoza operates a synthesis of the two. As I have indicated, following Descartes Spinoza claims that consciousness is constituted of each thing’s struggle to persevere in its being. This has two results:

To Hobbes Spinoza will state that the State of Nature—political struggle—continues in the city and can never end. Political struggle is the very condition of our reality. To latter day Occamists: political struggle is about constructing reality. We as Gods unto ourselves have the absolute power to constitute political reality. Remember, the orders of the world are neither good nor evil—the screen of consciousness is there where our absolute right will constitute our objective political being.

It is for this reason that when Spinoza defines the city as the highest civil right, or the highest authority of right [summarum potestatem ius], he is expressly not speaking of a particular political or legal order (democracy, monarchy, aristocracy) but the being common to all of these which derives from the citizens that make up this right (for more on being social see further Matthews & Mulqueen (2015)).

And in each case the common factor is that the right that constitutes the city is the right of the people en masse acting as if with one mind. So to underline this, Spinoza is looking for the constitution of a political order in popular consciousness, and is granting to the people who share that consciousness the capacity to determine its form, and thus the form which is willed by the people as their common Good.

Any group of people may in their interactions determine the good state as the very condition of their practical knowledge—as a form of consciousness which organises particular ideas.

But Spinoza does not stop here.

Part III – From political being to political becoming

The question always addressed to Spinoza is how in his determinist system anyone can choose otherwise than that which happens. Spinoza could have posited consciousness, with Descartes and others, as free will, but in fact consciousness is entirely determined by its struggle.

We need to return to our screen. I have talked a lot about Scholasticism but Spinoza is very widely read. He has not forgotten the question of Being. But he believes Being is constituted by power of two kinds.

Being must be considered according to these axes: potentia and potestas (see again the definition of natural right). That is the mechanical definition Spinoza gives because he is working using the physics of his time; but he is heroically trying to explain being using these constructions.

In essence he believes that in our mechanical being our consciousness is absolutely determined, and rationally we can consider this according to dynamics, but ultimately we need to start thinking in terms of necessary gradations of power. Part of the driver for these gradations is Spinoza’s need to explain how God or Nature can bear different characteristics. He spends a great time explaining to others that the appearance of our world as different types of matter is all down to variations of the same principles—that there is a spectrum along which there are jumps between material phenomena: transitions.

And the spectrum is determined by the interrelation of power.

On the one hand we have potentia: determination to act; an enlivenment or, Descartes would say, a contraction, of consciousness.

On the other we have the much maligned potestas: a thing’s nature; how this thing will necessarily act according to its natural laws. Coaction, as Seneca would say.

If we just take those two elements of natural right and ignore the specific work that is produced for a moment, we can draw a plane of the aspects of consciousness.

At the root of Spinoza’s claim, which at once physicalizes the Scotist metaphysical degrees of thought and places it as tertium quid, is that consciousness can go through great mutations as it varies as to power. This is to say that the quanta of power are not smooth; as a thing passes up the scale there are qualitative leaps in which the order of the thing, and so the content of its consciousness, is rearranged.

Remember, consciousness is conceived as the site of a particular ‘ordering’ of the relation of ideas and bodies. If consciousness admits of mutations—of distinct types of cognition—then as power increases the very order of reality of our world changes.

This leads us to reconceive the multitude as no londer a seemingly incoherent mob, only analogously of one mind, but now as itself consciousness in action under a qualitatively distinct degree of power. This new quality of consciousness, beyond rational cognition, is only revealed in the latter difficult stages of the Ethics, and no wonder. We can only appreciate and love multitudes if we can first understand their genetic link to the transitions of our own consciousness to teh highest form of knowledge: intuition. For intuition is the fostering, that is the love, of multitudes. Just as consciousness in intuition is able to nuture many different affects and so achieve creation, so the multitude is capable in its most intense moments of constitituting leaps in the political order. How can it be said that a multitude should be of one mind only when that characteristic which makes the emperor tremble – the sudden revolt – is defined as the passage of one mind to another? There is no glorying in this for Spinoza; it is a simple consequence of his principles – the ruler should never fool himself into believing that politics only comes from lawful, constitutional procedures. A political theory which discounts the multitude is mutilated, confused, and doomed to fail.

It is this structural possibility of transitions in mass consciousness that is a source for the materialist notion of consciousness raising.

It is not simply a case of placing objective ideas into consciousness as representations of the political Good. Consciousness must be raised through the intensification of political struggle-in which political actors synthesise the very tools with which they will increase their power-so that the existing order of the world is seen under a new light.

In fact certain of these mutations of consciousness occur every day between the affective realm of the passions and the first kind of reason. Something cosmopolitan occurs; we experience all of us these fundamental variations in the conditions of cognition and as such already are on the path to raised consciousness.

Consider Vermeer’s music lesson. The tutee concentrates fully on the keyboard in attempt correctly to play the exercise. The tutor stands at once formally, cane straight down, but rests one hand lazily on the harpsichord. Discomfort perhaps. Yet the screen – the mirror – does not simply reflect, but reorders this situation. The screen shows us the woman’s head turned towards the man; it is not a reflection at all but inconsistent with the present reality, but what is it? The present ‘reality’ is reimbued with the affective weight of this new information. In the older sense of reality, which is linked very much to the power of a thing, it is the screen’s reordering of the present which burns with a greater reality. Is this the will of the woman? Of the man? Has it been interposed by the creator of the scene, and how much are we implicated in the construction of this order by our reading of it?

Vermeer’s mirror/screen, I would say, discloses something deeper and more in tune with Renaissance thought. It is the music that is being played which is bending the screen. Or perhaps more correctly, we are asked to consider a modulation of our ‘seeing’ of this set piece. The screen’s power only makes sense if it has this or that form – this or that modality. The modes of the music played take up the information of the situation and mould them into peaks and troughs. Affect handles the ideas as the potter’s hand guides the clay. Nothing is added to the situation; it is simply, powerfully rearranged by a restructuring of the modes. By appreciating the significance of the screen in act we see music in its inmost: as the synthesis of ideas or bodies according to a modal ethic.

Spinoza has generalised this result, for modes are now everywhere, composing and recomposing in a discordant multitude. Yet as Vermeer shows, now and again a peak is attained in the cacophony and our consciousness resonates. It is because we have glimpsed with the eyes of our mind already the possibility of this path—that our reality has taken on varied modalities of the Good—that our will is bent towards the greater reality that we have encountered, and so on to the Highest Good.

Importantly in this regard Spinoza equates consciousness with desire. We produce our reality and in this reality we synthesise the Good. We desire this Good that we have made for ourselves and are moved towards it.

The human body is considered as a complex mechanism. It builds for itself new powers: greater strength, longer limbs, speech, thoughts, words, ideas. The human body produces for itself the conditions in the improvement of its own reality. This endeavour is that to which Spinoza refers in EVP39: this endeavour to bring about great mutations in the self. Yes we desire to persevere in our being, but also yes we desire to mutate ourselves, to become otherwise. The doctrine is already found in the Early Stoa, and takes up new life as the Nietzschean will to power. At the heart of Spinozism there is not a submission to being, but a struggle between a desire to be and a desire to reconstruct all the being that is in a new way.

Elsewhere in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione and the Tractatus politicus Spinoza is clear on the breadth of the means to this mutation.

The Ethics is (as Deleuze said) a machine whereby the reader is taken as if by the hand to experience the mutations of consciousness. The Ethics is a collection of concepts and concepts are for Spinoza tools, tools constructed as products of our natural right or work. It is by means of tools that we achieve more, construct better tools; soon machines construct machines. At each stage a machine is constituted by a rearrangement of bodies, leads to an increase of power, produces a re-foundation of the order of ideas. The modal harmony of the Renaissance is replaced by the material conditions or modes of production. The determinate conditions of production are deeply tied up with the capacity of a society in achieving a mutation of political consciousness.

So this is becoming in Spinoza’s thought. It is born of political struggle; it lives as the natural right of each in the city to constitute their political reality; though attempts to grasp it may be crushed it continues as the very horizon of politics itself sub specie aeternitatis.

Stephen Connelly is the author of Spinoza, right and absolute freedom (2015: Birkbeck Law Press, Routledge) and Assistant Professor at the School of Law, University of Warwick.


  1. This is very interesting – thanks Stephen for the post. For other viuews of conatus – and the relationship between conatus and natural law, see two recent books about which I am very enthusiastic:

    Eugene Marshall The Spiritual Automaton: Spinoza’s Science of Mind Oxford, 2013

    Andre Santos Campos Spinoza’s Revolutions in Natural Law Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

    Spinoza defines conatus at two locations in the Ethics – one of which is the citation by Stephen.

    IIIp6 “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being”

    and the following proposition:

    IIIp7 “The striving [conatus] by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing”

    Proof: “Therefore, the power of any thing, or the conatus with which it acts or endeavours to act, alone or in conjunction with other things, that is (Pd.6, III), the power or conatus by which it endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing but the given or actual, essence of the thing.”

    IIIp8 “The conatus with which each single thing endeavours to persist in its own being does not involve finite time, but indefinite time.”

    Spinoza’s work is very much a critique of Descartes, who said:

    Descartes: “By conatus to motion we do not understand some thoughts, but only a part of matter which is thus placed, and stirred to motion, that it truly would go somewhere, if it were not impeded by any cause.” (PP 3d3)

    Santos Campos comments:

    p.105 “Spinoza’s notion of endeavour… expresses the actual efficiency of active causal power. In individual things, active power is equivalent to this endeavour – as he puts it explicitly, ‘power or endeavour’ [potentia sive conatus].”

    And this is some of what he has to say about natural law:

    p. 14 “Spinoza’s Nature is mostly an all-inclusive self-causal productivity expressed in an infinite variety of attributes and modes, that is, an essential power for its own existence – the law is a conceptual modality of this power: hence, Spinoza’s philosophy of law translates into the formula jus sive potentia (law, or power).”

    In a passage transcribed in Latin by Karl Marx in 1841 Spinoza wrote: “By natural Law and natural order I merely mean the rules of the nature of each individual thing, according to which we conceive it as naturally determined to exist and act in a certain way”. (TTP, XVI, Fundamenta reipublicae)


    p.18 “Spinoza’s revolutions in natural law imply that his conception has nothing to do with the moral requirements of justice, but is rather a sort of project for individuals to become the most natural beings they can be.”

    p.84 Spinoza wrote: “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. (Ethics, 4 preface)

    Campos Santos: p.99 “Individual natural rights are the individual’s actual causal power in accordance with the individual’s natural laws. One has a right to do something if one does it – it is as simple as that.”

    That is the basis on which I am seeking to work up a materialist theory of (human) rights

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the detailed comment, which brings in some important points and great references. Funnily enough I am working with Andre at the moment on a book explaining Spinoza’s key concepts.

    I think what I am trying to stress above is both the duality of the conatus and the experience of that duality. Both Hobbes and Descartes use the conatus but on a core physical point they diverge, for unlike Hobbes Descartes stresses the dual motion of conatus. So there are two types of conatus at work in his physics, and this also manifests itself for example in his own theory of the passions.

    How I envisage this working through the Ethics is as follows: we have the initial confused point of view which is anchored in the endeavour to persevere in one’s being in Part III on the passions. This conscious being can be imagined forging into reality, until destroyed. This is the well-established understanding of the conatus, and while many have seen the possibility of a development of self in what follows, it is not in my view simply due to this conatus that we develop. In much the same way, it is not simply an individual’s raw power of existing which produces surplus value in Marx (taking up your link).

    There needs to be something more, and I claim this is the other conatus I have highlighted. It might be said that this other conatus is first encountered politically because it is nothing other than an individual’s encounter with the multitude i.e. with the chaos that is a mass of conatuses (society). To my mind it is in appreciating the conditions in which the multitude is possible that one can come to conceive of the other conatus. The multitude is put into such agitation that the individual conatuses not only move to encounter each other and resist, but they are constantly freed up into new encounters, creating a constant fluctuation of spirit (fluctuatio animi), in which the multitude combines and recombines and so explores its possibilities.

    The precise form of these possibilities for Spinoza, I claim, is the mode, for it is the mode which organises the affects of the mind just as the attributes organise the affects of the mind of God or Nature. We consequently must have two different species of conatus – the first kind which is anchored in the attribues of God or Nature, and which is the striving of things, and the second which is anchored in the affections of things, in their organisation at every level (the modes). Now because the modes operate as it were like an umbrella over groups of things, we cannot really assign their causality to individuals, but rather to the commonality of those individuals. This striving only appears in the result of common behaviour. The other conatus only appears to be our own because when we speak of the organisation of the passions into hate, love, etc., it is because it appears to take place in our consciousness, though that is in a sense to arrogate to ourselves what only arises because we have passions.

    Spinoza’s enumeration of the passions might be considered an exploration of the possibilities of affective combination in search of that exceptional moment, joy, which moves us beyond our current condition. One must so organise one’s mind, says Spinoza quite explicitly, as a place of fostering or nourishment. One comes to appreciate, in short, that the multitude and the passions are genetically linked as conditions of creation.

    The link to Marx, I would say, is firstly the appreciation that it is the alienation of this fostering capacity which is the source of surplus value. It is not enough to work, for machines do that; one must also turn one’s mind to the task, to will only that task and no other, and to do so along with others. Hereby the multitude as such becomes bound to the wheel – is this not industrial production itself: not labour, but the organisation of labour by capital?

    Secondly, it is in the theoretical role at various stages of the encounter between subject as striving individual and the world – the confrontation once again with the multitude and the attempt to impose laws upon its creativity by means of objects. If one is to become socially human, I would suggest Spinoza would argue that it is partly also a question of realising how social one already is, how much there is commonality and multitude in (or better as) one’s own mind, and how this multitude of affect must be conceived as free. To take Spinoza further, one must also consider the case of the organisation of the multitude of humanity and how by the means of organisation their commonality is chained. To take him much further, one must see what in a sense lies even beyond the multitude.

    Best wishes,


    • Dear Stephen,

      I’m honoured to get such a thoughtful response, and am greatly impressed that you are working with Andre – please keep me in the loop.

      And I’m intrigued by what you say – in a very Deleuzean manner, about fluctuatio anime. So I went back to the text

      PROPOSITIO XVII. Si rem, quae nos tristitiae affectu afficere solet, aliquid habere imaginamur simile alteri, quae nos aeque magno laetitiae affectu solet afficere, eandem odio habebimus et simul amabimus.

      DEMONSTRATIO. Est enim (per hypothesin) haec res per se tristitiae causa, et (per schol. prop. 13. huius) quatenus eandem hoc affectu imaginamur, eandem odio habemus; et quatenus praeterea aliquid habere imaginamur simile alteri quae nos aeque magno laetitiae affectu afficere solet, aeque magno laetitiae conamine amabimus (per prop. praeced.). Atque adeo eandem odio habebimus et simul amabimus. Q.E.D.

      SCHOLIUM. Haec mentis constitutio quae scilicet ex duobus contrariis affectibus oritur, animi vocatur fluctuatio, quae proinde affectum respicit, ut dubitatio imaginationem (vide schol. prop. 44. P. 2.); nec animi fluctuatio et dubitatio inter se differunt, nisi secundum maius et minus. Sed notandum, me in prop. praeced. has animi fluctuationes ex causis deduxisse, quae per se unius et per accidens alterius affectus sunt causa. Quod ideo feci, quia sic facilius ex praecedentibus deduci poterant; at non, quod negem, animi fluctuationes plerumque oriri ab obiecto, quod utriusque affectus sit efficiens causa. Nam corpus humanum (per postul. 1. P. 2.) ex plurimis diversae naturae individuis componitur, atque adeo (per axiom. 1. post lem. 3. quod vide post prop. 13. P. 2.) ab uno eodemque corpore plurimis diversisque modis potest affici; et contra, quia una eademque res multis modis potest affici, multis ergo etiam diversisque modis unam eandemque corporis partem afficere poterit. Ex quibus facile concipere possumus, unum idemque obiectum posse esse causam multorum contrariorumque affectuum.

      Fluctuatio is translated “vacillation” and Spinoza is clear that this is a condition of mind arising from two conflicting emotions, tristitiae, sadness or pain, and laetitiae, joy. You probably know the article by Hervé Maillochon, “La notion de fluctuatio animi chez Spinoza”, Maillochon concludes a long article by saying: “Dès lors, peut être que la fluctuatio animi est de ce fait le nom spinoziste de ce que Descartes appelle “ la suspension du jugement ” : non pas l’acte volontaire de cette suspension, qui évidemment supposerait une volonté libre, mais la perception d’un blocage du procès de mon expansion individuelle : “ La suspension du jugement -confirme Spinoza, est donc en réalité une perception, et non une libre volonté ” (II, 49 sc – “Suspension of judgment, therefore, is really a perception, not [an act of] free will”). Or un tel point de blocage est ontologiquement impossible dans une philosophie où tout est expression d’une actualité totale et sans reste, c’est donc une mutilation que désigne cette notion, comme l’est tout autant cette
      fameuse connaissance du premier genre qui n’a d’être que pour nous. D’où le caractère éminemment discriminant de la fluctuatio animi : cette perception problématique est susceptible de délivrer son sens, c’est-à-dire les moyens de son élimination, mais seulement à
      ceux qui en ont la puissance, tel l’homme libre qui, en en saisissant les causes, s’ouvre ainsi la voie d’une liberté plus essentielle.” I am not at all sure that can be right either. He draws on Matheron (Individu et communauté chez Spinoza, 1969) – while Duffy in “Spinoza now” presents Macherey’s strong disagreement with Deleuze.

      On the multitude, of which Negri and Hardt make so much, here is a useful web page with every mention of multitude in the Political Treatise –

      A very intriguing passage is (4:6): “Contractus seu leges, quibus multitudo ius suum in unum concilium vel hominem transferunt, non dubium est, quin violari debeant, quando communis salutis interest easdem violare. At iudicium de hac re, an scilicet communis salutis intersit, easdem violare, an secus, nemo privatus, sed is tantum, qui imperium tenet, iure ferre potest (per art. 3. huius cap.); ergo iure civili is solus, qui imperium tenet, earum legum interpres manet. Ad quod accedit, quod nullus privatus easdem iure vindicare possit, ;atque adeo eum, qui imperium tenet, revera non obligant. Quod si tamen eius naturae sint, ut violari nequeant, nisi simul civitatis robur debilitetur, hoc est, nisi simul plerorumque civium communis metus in indignationem vertatur, eo ipso civitas dissolvitur et contractus cessat, qui propterea non iure civili, sed iure belli vindicatur. Atque adeo is, qui imperium tenet, nulla etiam alia de causa huius contractus conditiones servare tenetur, quam homo in statu naturali, ne sibi hostis sit, tenetur cavere, ne se ipsum interficiat, ut in praeced. art. diximus.” – not civil right, but the right of war!

      • Bill it really is a pleasure!

        It’s good that you raise EIIIP17 Sch. as the suspension of judgement point is beautifully illusrative. As the Schoilum makes clear, Spinoza is considering the case of complex bodies, such as humans. As you know, in the Short Physics Spinoza builds up his notion of bodies from the simplest (substance), through composite (attributes), to complex (modes). The modes require a capacity to permit contradictory movements; complex bodies have a degree of latitude which Spinoza I think explains are due to the protection of sub-bodies within the ‘envelope’ of wider circulatory systems (which evidently is false, but it is an understandable hypothesis). It can thus come about that the same envelope may contain contradictory effects (in particular affects).

        But what is the form of this envelope, considered as it were in terms of its organisation of contrary affects? Well Spinoza is telling us – the mode. The question then is to consider which sort of mode accommodates or nourishes which set of contrary affects.

        Suspension of judgement is a great example of such a mode beacuse as the name suspension suggests, we can imagine the modal form as suspended between subject and object. I would call this caternary doubt. As we know, Descartes made the form of doubt hyperbolic, but Spinoza distrusted the hyperbola in optics and favoured the circle, so I would suggest that modes are constructed from the components of the latter. I touch on this in my book, but as an aside because one has to read heavily into Spinoza to get this far which also perhaps explains a little why Deleuze’s pursuit of these issues is also hard to follow in its detail.

        So yes Deleuze also is very much pursuing this view of the modes and their role in evolution, but there are certain core points where I would take different paths, and ultimately I would push beyond Spinoza’s modes as I said above. For example, I would say that the modes (like the attribues and substance) are qualities of the interplay of potestas and potentia, whereas I read Deleuze placing the modal forms directly in potentia. This could lead to modes being present at every degree of power, whereas the modes seem to be a subset of possible power. I don’t deny that power has ‘forms’ everywhere, but they aren’t modes in Spinoza’s sense. To equate the two, I think, blinds us to the possibilities of other qualities of power.

        Then of course there is the issue of causation and free will which dogs Deleuze. This is actually the main thrust of my book (hence the title) – the search for absolute freedom in a determinist system. One of the results is that I do think the freedom that Spinoza offers is of the sort that amounts to nourishing or accommodation of modes. Suspension of judgement returns newly conceived not as a vacillation but, when harnessed, as a constant power. It is not a question of its, or the passions’, elimination or execration, but of their understanding and embrace also as the finest part of this world.

        So no I can’t agree with Maillochon either. Macherey is definitely more to the point in critiquing Deleuze; the distinctions to be made are very fine and sometimes one must choose between the letter and the spirit of such a text.

        As for the multitude I do not find Hardt & Negri terribly useful and Negri’s assault on potestas in his Savage Anomaly renders the multitude to my mind quite impossible. I am surprised that Negri passed over the Roman notion of potestas as being the power of the Plebians, directly opposed to the authority (auctoritas) of the Senate. Surely this would have suggested a second look at potestas and its role both at the level of God (EIP35) and for the multitude. It would seem strange for Spinoza to define such a term and then use it completely differently elsewhere. For the reasons given above I see potestas operating consistently throughout. It certainly aids interpretation of TP4[6] that you cite, for there Spinoza is putting in direct contrast the right of the individual and the right of the multitude to dissolve the social contract vis-a-vis the one who has dominion. It is a question of gradations of power – the private person here is posited as having a certain degree of potentia (by virtue of individuation) but not very much potestas, whereas the unruly mob generally lack potentia but when formed as mob have a great degree of potestas. Given the potentia that the one holding dominion wields (an army) it is the potestas which is the driving force for change because the potestas re-organises the social contract in place before potentia is even tested.

        The more interesting question for me, as stated in the article, is whether Spinoza really intends potestas to operate in a manner similar to the modes (and Deleuze pursues this route) or whether it has, one might say, a greater materiality to it – we abandon the attempt to describe organisation in terms of modal forms and speak in terms of technologies. I would say this does not force us to abandon the mathematical beauty of what Spinoza is arguing for, but to understand the limits of a continuous metaphysics. Geometry only gets one so far.

    • And thanks for this. I hadn’t been to the ‘courses’ site for a while and didn’t realise they have put up audio files.

      Kind regards,



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,406 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


Fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4000 subscribers.