Between Badiou and Spinoza: On Epistemic Conditioning and The Doctrine of Parallelism

L'Avenç - Ramón Casas

“The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.”

— Alain Badiou, ‘Spinoza’s Closed Ontology’

(short essay currently in progress…)

0. Intro

In a short essay from the 1990’s, Alain Badiou addresses the persuasive force and fundamental shortcoming of Spinoza’s philosophy: it’s force, says Badiou, is that Spinoza has thoroughly proven that ‘Being can only be thought more geometrico.’ Spinoza’s shortcoming, however, stems from his treatment of Being independent from temporal determination by way of the Event. It is for this reason that Badiou claims that a theory of the event is the necessary supplement to Spinozism, in order to account for categories such as ‘indeterminacy, difference, subject, undecidability…” and so on. In a certain sense, Badiou’s criticism of Spinoza is reminiscent of the charge leveled by Hegel, which claimed that while philosophy must begin with Spinozism since it directs thought toward the Absolute, Spinoza must be rendered as a moment within the progression of dialectical thought since Spinoza’s Substance, by itself, remains static. Badiou formulates the criticism in the following manner: “The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.” In other words, the problem of Spinozism is how to account for the movement from the Infinite to the finite, from infinite intellect to finite intellect, and from substance to subject. However, what I want to show is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests on several reconceptualizations of Spinoza’s own concepts; some reconceptualizations which are justifiable and some which remain untenable from the perspective of Spinozism.

Badiou will insist on treating the infinite intellect and extended things as separate, and on claiming that infinite intellection has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things. Additionally, Badiou insists that there are three additional assumptions behind the arguments for the status of substance, substance’s relation to itself and things in the world, and its essence: namely, what is assumed in substance is a ‘proof of difference,’ what is assumed regarding the relation of substance and its modes additional to causality is ‘coupling’ and ‘inclusion,’ and what is assumed in the essence, or identity, of substance is an exceptional subject that is ‘heterogenous’ to Being itself. By reconstructing how this critique proceeds, we will be able to see that while it appears to be plausible that we can justifiably treat the infinite intellect and extended things as separate and coupled, Badiou’s claim that an infinite intellect has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things misses all the necessary theoretical justifications found in the doctrine of parallelism; a mistake on Badiou’s part that at the same time grounds his entire critique.

1. The Implicit Assumption Of A ‘Proof of Difference’

Problems arise for Spinoza with the status of the relationship between substance and its attributes. That is, what underlies the relationship between substance and its attributes isn’t simply logical identity (e.g., substance is its attributes). Rather, this relation is constituted by some notion of difference, which gives rational grounding for the existence of an infinite number of attributes. This notion of difference is defined in two main ways. Implicit in Spinoza’s thought, this idea of ‘infinite substance’ conveys what Badiou calls a ‘determination of the indeterminate.’ That is, the role played by the term Infinite is one of Substances own internal determinations of itself, by virtue of its essence (causa sui). Second, the infinite nature of substance is expressed, numerically/quantitatively, through an infinite number of attributes. This means, then, that each attribute must be different in kind from, and therefore cannot be collapsed back into, every other attribute.

Now, while it might not seem like a real obstacle given the implication of difference in kind between the attributes of substance, Badiou underscores that the problem of the relation between attributes and substance arises because of how Spinoza conceives of attributes themselves; namely, as “operations of the intellect” that “give meaning to God’s existential singularization as infinite substance.” That is to say, if attributes are simply the conceptual mediators which arise from the intellects attempt to know and understand Substance, what is it about the intellect itself that gives it this specific function and capacity? That is, in Badiou’s own words, “the intellect is operative, but what is the ontological status of its operation?” It is by raising the question of the metaphysical status of the intellect itself that Badiou will build his critique of Spinoza.

In order to do this, Badiou begins by affirming Spinoza’s own definition of the intellect as a mode of the attribute of thought, and by affirming that the infinite intellect is a mode, also infinite, and follows logically and necessarily from the attribute of thought itself. Additionally, the intellect functions as a ‘measure of the power of God’ insofar as God is a thinking thing, and when considered under the attribute of Thought, God’s power is understood to be infinite: ‘All the things that it can intellect…are held to exist.’ However, Badiou takes this idea of God’s infinite intellection being equivalent to the infinite power of God as being separable and distinct from any other attribute of substance. It is this claim that sets up Badiou’s critique and should be quoted at length:

“Clearly, no other infinite mode imaginable by us posses such a capacity for measuring God’s power. This holds in particular for the other example of an immediate infinite mode given by Spinoza, movement and rest, which is supposed to be the correlate of infinite intellect on the side of extension. For it is obvious that no general prescription about God’s power follows from the pure concept of movement and rest.”

What is the possible justification for Badiou’s claim that it is only the powers of the infinite intellect that can serve as an adequate, and true, measure of God’s power? It is, for Badiou, the fact that what differentiates the metaphysical status of infinite modes of Thought from those infinite modes Extension is that an “infinite intellect presupposes an entirely different determination, one which is extrinsic. For the intellect, whose components are ideas, is equally well determined by what it intellects, or by what the idea is an idea of. ” Badiou’s reading is in fact corroborated by Spinoza in Part II of the Ethics in the propositions where he deals with the nature of the mind as the idea we have of our body (extended thing) in its relation to other bodies (extended things). For Spinoza, it is true that the ideas we have of bodies are conditioned by their relation to my own body and their relations to other extended things: “A human mind perceives the nature of many bodies together with the nature of its own body” (EIIP16Cor1); “The ideas that we have of external bodies are more informative about the condition of our own body than about the nature of the external bodies. I have explained this by many examples in the Appendix of Part I” (EIIP16Cor2).

In other words, on Badiou’s reading, the intellect is privileged precisely because it exists as a mode which is determined internally according to its attribute and externally according to the objects of the intellect. Here we begin to see what is at stake in beginning with the relationship between substance and its attributes: if the attributes are the conceptual mediators through which the intellect gains knowledge of substance, and if the infinite number of attributes are truly distinct from one another, then there will be certain properties of each attribute that cannot be found in others. In this case, the property that is specific to the infinite intellect is being determined by the attribute to which it belongs (Thought) and by the object of its activity (extended things). However, as we will see, it is from this idea that there is a type of extrinsic conditioning of the mind by extended things in the operations of the intellect that give Badiou the suspicion that the doctrine of parallelism is untenable since it fails to correctly thematize the minds dependence on extended things.

2. ‘Coupling’ contra Parallelism

Now, even if we are to accept this reading of the relationship between the infinite intellect and things in the world, the first major critique leveled against Spinoza by Badiou, is the following: while Spinoza’s argument for the parallelism between ideas and things seems to ensure the unity between the mind and the body, between our knowledge of the world and the essence of the world itself, Badiou insists that what grounds this union must be found in something other than the essential form of relation that substance has with itself; namely, causality. In other words, Badiou’s first major criticism of Spinoza regards the very connection between ideas and things themselves and is built upon his first claim that the mind is not only internally determined by the attribute of Thought but also extrinsically determined by the attribute of Extension. If Spinoza has barred any causal relation between Thought and Extension (since substance is the only true cause of things), and if causality is the essential and necessary way in which substance relates to itself, then how do the attributes of Thought and Extension relate to one another if not through a causal connection?

Regarding this problem of the unity of the attributes of substance, Badiou posits that what needs to supplement the thesis of parallelism is what he terms ‘coupling.’ This term, which is derived from Spinoza’s claim that a true idea is an idea that agrees with its object (EIA6), suggests that while Spinoza does not have an explicit account for how thought and extension are united, Spinoza holds the belief that what gives an idea its truth-value is an ideas agreement with its ideatum. It is because this argument hinges on the term agreement that Badiou will call ‘coupling’ a normative practice. That is, the coupling of mind and body is normative insofar as the criteria for the truth-value of ideas is their ‘agreement’ with their objects. Here we arrive at Badiou’s second major criticism: it is because the norm of agreement, which constitutes a true ideas, cannot be said to have a causal relationship with an infinite intellect that the idea of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary.

Now, if this operation of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary for an infinite intellect, then this underscores the fact of the difference in kind between attributes and gives Badiou reason to conclude that there is something specific to the infinite intellect that cannot be found in any other attribute. That is, if the thesis of parallelism were in fact true – that the same order and connection underlies both ideas and things – then the process of coupling with its norm of agreement would not be necessary. The fact of its necessity in Spinoza’s account leads Badiou to claim that

“…it is impossible to conceive of (or for the intellect to represent) a structure isomorphic with that of the intellect itself in any attribute other than thought. Consequently, the attribute of thought is not isomorphic with any of the other attributes, not even in terms of the relation of causality alone.”

Therefore, on Badiou’s reading of Spinoza, not only does the parallelism thesis fail at the level of uniting the attributes of substance with substance itself; Spinoza’s argument for parallelism even fails to overcome what many have thought Spinoza of resolving: namely, the existence of a difference in kind between mind and body, between res cogita and res extensa. On the Badiouian reading, the difference which guarantees that each attribute of substance is not simply interchangeable with every other one ensures that each attribute of substance will have something particular to itself. It is from these specific determinations proper to each attribute, and from Spinoza’s refutation of the idea that any two attributes have a causal relationship to one another, that the unity of the mind with the body, of Thought with Extension in substance, cannot be rationalized in the form of causality and must be said to be a relation of ‘coupling.’

3. Substance’s Heterogeneity

The third and final criticism of Spinoza regards the passage from the infinite to the finite; a problem, which according to Badiou, “constitutes the greatest impediment for Spinozist ontology.” In connection with the prior discussion regarding the infinite intellect, Badiou’s suspicion regarding this passage from the infinite to the finite can be formulated in the following way: Spinoza provides his understanding of the passage from the finite to the infinite, via the intellect, in part II of the Ethics. In propositions 38 to 40, Spinoza argues that what constitutes ‘reason’ is the construction of common notions; whose characteristic of being ‘common’ is derived from the shared properties of various things in the world. That is to say, on the basis of these common notions, rational activity is made possible. However, says Badiou, the status of truth in this Spinozist view ultimately renders Truth itself general and universal. As Badiou writes, “there is no true knowledge of that singular body of which our mind is the idea. But the finite intellect necessarily has a true idea of what is common to all bodies, and consequently of what is not singular, as soon as it is able to couple with it.”

While the claim that Spinozist truth is only ever general and universal may be seen, from within Spinoza’s system, as a virtue, it is here where Badiou’s ultimate objection can be understood. If truth can never be said of singular, finite, and particular things (Badiou’s claim that being is the power of singularities) and only of those things which are ‘most common’ to all things, then Spinoza has merely demonstrated the basic determinations of substance – infinite, eternal, etc. – without having given us the reasons, or causes, by which we can think and understand the particularity of things. It is for this reason that Badiou gives the title of a ‘closed ontology’ to his essay on Spinoza and concludes, in a critical light: ‘All truth is generic. Alternatively: what is thinkable of being is mathematical.’ Thus, when Badiou criticizes Spinoza for assuming that Substance is in fact heterogenous to Being itself, it is to indicate how the general and universal determinations of things via the second kind of knowledge (reason) do not in fact give us access to Substance itself. Rather, the type of knowledge derived through ‘common notions’ can only be said in a general manner, excluding the possibility of us having knowledge of particular and singular things on their own terms.

4. Critiquing Badiou’s Critique

What should be clear by now is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests, fundamentally, on his disagreement with the sufficiency of Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between the attributes of Thought and Extension and how their relationship is played out in terms of the doctrine of parallelism. For Badiou, while no two attributes of substance can be interchangeable with any other, Badiou’s argument is that what is true of the attribute of Thought (intrinsic and extrinsic determination) is not true of Extension (mere extrinsic determination). It is Thoughts dual determination – internally via its attribute and externally via the bodies it cognizes – that renders suspect the doctrine of parallelism since parallelism appears to claim that what is true of Thought is also true of Extension. It is the same order and connection of things which is found, each time, whether we consider things from the vantage point of Thought or from the perspective of Extension. However, this cannot be the case for Badiou since Thought appears to have an additional form of determination viz-á-viz extended things and thus, what is true for Thought cannot be said to be true for Extension. Thus, for Badiou, a more robust theory of ‘coupling’ will need to supplant Spinoza’s theory of parallelism. Now, very quickly, I want to underscore that while Badiou’s criticisms are persuasive, they overlook crucial features of Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism and thus lead more to a misunderstanding between Badiou and Spinoza than any type of critique proper.

The reason why Badiou’s critique of Spinoza’s parallelism leads to so many misunderstandings is due to a certain type of confusion, or a certain equivocation between what Badiou calls ‘determination’ and what Spinoza calls ‘causality’. For Badiou, as we saw, Thought is determined in two directions while Extension is merely determined according to its own attribute. However, the claim that the mind is determined both by its attribute and by the modes of Extension in no way contradict Spinoza’s thesis of parallelism since what Spinoza denies in terms of the relationship between the mind and extended things is not ‘determination’ understood as conditions for thoughts operations. Rather, what Spinoza denies is any ‘causal’ connection between the mind and extended things, where ‘causality’ here means nothing other than ‘the reasons for why something exists’. That is, the body does not cause the mind nor does the mind cause the body simply because neither one nor the other brings their correlate into existence. In other words, the very fact that human cognition is conditioned by the very nature of cognitive activity as well as by the objects of its activity is explicitly affirmed and accepted by Spinoza unproblematically since this plurality of conditionality does not give us the reasons, or the causal connections adequate for understanding things from the point of view of Substance, for what gives existence to thought and extension respectively. Thus, the thesis of parallelism is less a thesis about the co-constituting, or co-conditioning, of the mind and the body and rather a thesis about how each term in the relation is not what gives existence to the other (to assume that one term in fact gives existence to its correlate is to move from Spinoza to Descartes, since for Descartes it was the operations of the mind that explained the nature of the body).

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