Is Spinoza an analogist, naturalist or … animist? – A pocket memo…

As a part of my ‘pocket research design 2‘, I am reading Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (see my selective pocket summary in progress here). While reading, ideas for my coming synthesis/pocket essay are beginning to condensate in my brain. Descola is a structuralist, (see my discussion here) and in order to take advantage of his work, it makes sense to go directly to the structural core of his thinking: the 4 ontological regimes, and the 2×3 modes of relationality.

In this memo, I would like to briefly reflect a little on how I imagine a path forward, in an effort to link Descola’s ‘system’ to my pocket research design 2:  “Pre-modern forager societies vs Spinoza’s polis. A model for a more sustainable way of life in our time?”.

In a broad perspective these are the overall questions at play here: How does Descola’s system relate to Spinoza’s thinking? In which kind of ontology/cosmology according to Descola’s typology should we place Spinoza’s thinking? And what about relationality? How do the 2×3 forms of relationality come into play in Spinoza’s visions for a society?

In order to process these questions, we need to complete the following tasks:

  1. a short paragraph synthesizing Descola’s system, thus preparing the tools for
  2. an analysis of Spinoza’s thinking in relation to the four types of ontology, and
  3. an analysis of Spinoza’s ideas about society through the lense of Descola’s 2×3 forms of relationality.

This requires a rather comprehensive text reading / hermeneutical effort, but for now, please allow me to do a risky improvisation using the debris of insight I have so far….

Let’s jump right into the core question, ie. where to place Spinoza in Descola’s typology. To do so, it’s relevant to take note on two aspects of Descola’s discussion on naturalism and analogism. He places the birth of the naturalist ontology in the renaissance, where the early stages of modern science took form. In his analysis of analogism, he points to commonalities between the ontologies of medieval Europe, (premodern) China and the Aztecs.

Since Spinoza lived in the transition  between the medieval and (proto-)modern period, it seems to make sense to place him historically, in a transition period between Descola’s analogism and naturalism. Another preliminary perspective has to do with Descola’s description of analogism, where he compares medieval Europe with (premodern?) China. Spinoza’s thinking has been linked by many scholars with taoism and similar Eastern ontologies. A third perspective is Spinoza’s method, which Spinoza himself describes in terms of natural science – in latin: more geometrico – the geometrical method . These two perspectives combined place him, again, somewhere between the two types of ontology, naturalism and analogism. This way, there seems to be reason to look for Spinoza’s thinking at an interstice between analogism and naturalism, from a historical as well as an epistemological perspective.

On the other hand – isn’t there a good deal of animism to Spinoza’s thinking?  Isn’t this evident from his blurring of the boundary between what’s me and what’s in my environment? IE the thought, that I, as an individual, am composed of a myriad of beings, all individuals, and that I take part in a larger organism, composed of me plus other beings that I interact with, a process of composition which, at the end, makes Nature as a whole, one being. And isn’t it also evident from the way Spinoza thinks of ideas? That my body exists for my as a physical extension as well as the idea of that physical extension, and that all that exists in Nature, a stone, a plant, a horse, a human being exist as a combination of idea plus physical extension? So in fact, a stone has an idea about itself, just as much as I have – but to a different degree. This is a very central trait to animism, – actually the name derives from it –  in the sense that everything is animated. A third point is Spinoza’s poignant anti-hierarchism. This is at least what a deleuzian reading would argue. According to Descola animist cultures – as opposed to what seems to be the case for those with a totemist ontology – are characterized by a very low to non-existent degree of hierarchy.

To finish off my improvisation. What I am  – sofar – thinking on this issue is, that it seems to make sens to place Spinoza – historically and epistemologically – somewhere between analogism and naturalism. However, there seems to be some kind of leap going on, that takes him out of his expected ‘thought habitat’, and – as opposed to his contemporaries – links his thinking with animism. The only one of Descola’s 4 ontological regimes that Spinoza’s thinking seems to leave untouched is totemism. I guess that this might have to do with the question of hierarchy, as I have hinted at above. It also might be related to the fact that Spinoza doesn’t see the world in terms of categories. The world and its beings are, to Spinoza, a myriad of individuals, relating to each other not so much according to their ‘species’ or some other possible categorization based on physical og mental characteristics, as seems to be the case for totemism. Individuals are relating and making connections according to local, context based features. In this sense, what we understand as ‘a human being’ might build a stronger relation to ‘a mouse’ than to another human being. This is similar to totemism, with the important difference that the spinozist man-mouse relation is not based on an idea of a societal relationship – connecting a certain society of people to a (generalized) species of mice. The relationship is ad hoc.

In order to go further, it seems to make sense to do three comparative (pocket) studies, linking Spinoza’s thinking with respectively analogism, naturalism and animism…

Anyone out there who can help would be appreciated:-)

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Reading Descola – a doubtful pitstop…. (memo)

As I have promised (myself) in my second pocket research design, I am reading French Anthropologist Philippe Descola’s book “Beyond Nature and Culture”, while writing a ‘selective pocket summary’ here. And while reading: thinking… I am attacking Descola’s mammoth work from various angles at the time. I am reading it as a pdf, in English and French, in paper format, in French, and listening to the text via an app that reads pdfs with an artificial voice. This way, I am immersing myself in the work at different speeds, in different parts, at the same time. I am also reading comments by other scholars about the work, for instance this one: “Descola’s Beyond nature and culture, viewed from Central Brazil” (link). I am also listening to Descola’s current lectures at Collège de France titled “La composition des collectifs: Formes d’hybridation“.

From a global perspective, I begin to see a fundamental issue around the question of Descola’s Structuralism. Here, I will make a short pit stop, giving this issue a few thoughts before moving on. As you know, what I am doing here, is pocket research, and therefore I must assess the relation between time invested and possible outcome for my research. Descola’s book is immense, and I am having some doubts that my time is well spent, if its foundation is not solid. What I am trying to say is, that there seems to be an incongruity between on the one hand Descola’s ambition about wanting to understand each ethnic group from its own point of view, ie. its cosmology or ontology, while on the other, he wants to install a “structural framework”, that would allow us (… and who are ‘we’?), to “set up a typology of possible relationships to the world and others, be they human or nonhuman, and to examine their compatibilities and incompatibilities.” The problem is – as is always the case with universalisms – the question of centrality. Why would someone want to collect and centralise knowledge about the whereabouts of other people? This is what Descola does with his ambition of a ‘typology’ with its four different “ontological regimes” ― animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. According to Descola he himself is a naturalist, as we are all, in the West. It would  be interesting to ask the question (as I believe Descola does somewhere in the book), how someone from one of the other ontological regimes would have conceived of a typology for the peoples of the world.

In any case, Descola’s endeavour makes me think about Max Weber and his ideal types. The idea is that we can’t access reality without categories. And reality is never really clean cut fitting into whichever category. It will always be a mix. This way, Descola’s argument would be (I am assuming), that real people will always live in some kind of mix, a hybrid between a combination of Descola’s ontological regimes.   So for instance a little bit of animism combined with 20% totemism, etc. So why would someone want to centralise information about people(s)? First of all, we have to remind ourselves about the early raison d’être of Anthropology, which was to provide colonizers with information about local indigenous groups, in order to provide the former with tools for controlling and subverting the latter. Of course, Descola is well aware of that (and he mentions it somewhere I think in the beginning of the text). On the other hand, collecting information about our surroundings, processing them, learning from them, is part of something essential to life (cf. my thoughts on Spinoza, communication and information in living systems). This is one reason why I have decided to keep on reading: My aim – as stated in my pocket research design 2 –  is to find out whether and how we Westerners might learn from “pre-modern forager societies” who adhere to “proto-ecological guidelines” to build a “bio-synergetic civilisation”. Another reason is part of my own personal intellectual history. Before taking my MA in Educational Anthropology, I was working – in a proto-academic fashion – on a model for what makes us a community

By continuing on the path traced out by Descola, I am being true to ‘my former  self’, trying to develop these earlier thoughts further, while of course submitting them to a sharp critical scrutiny.

In other words: I am going back to reading!! As to you, dear reader: Keep on pitching in with your ideas, comments and suggestions!