Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Day Lectures (III): Spinoza, God and Immanence

In What Is Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari refer to Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) as “prince of philosophers.” Spinoza, they write, “is the only philosopher never to have compromised with transcendence and to have hunted it down everywhere […] He discovered that freedom exists only within immanence” (1994, 48). Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence is the consequence of his rejection of the Judeo-Christian conception of God as a transcendent creator; a supernatural being who is cause of a world distinct from himself, created out of nothing and through an act of free will. Spinoza argues that God is not prior to or outside the world – transcendent to creation – but wholly immanent within it. God is “an extended substance composed of an infinity of attributes that is purely immanent throughout nature” (Daniel Smith 2003, 18). Divinity is fully expressed in the world and without reserve. This leads Spinoza to his scandalous formulation “God, or Nature” (Deus sive natura), which both divinizes nature and naturalizes divinity (and explains descriptions of Spinoza as both pantheist and atheist).

By rejecting the notion of God as transcendent cause, Spinoza also undermines the link between God and moral absolutes or laws. Moral judgments have no corollary in the natural world and therefore cannot be attributed to God, since what cannot be said to belong to nature cannot be said to belong to God. Moral judgments must be understood as “human creations made for our convenience and utility.” Morality as “the product of social agreement” can only be deemed legitimate or illegitimate in terms of its beneficial or harmful effects on the society that agrees to live under its rules and regulations (Smith 2003, 52 and 126). For Spinoza, there is no “imaginary supernatural realm” and no external authority to which we can refer or reference in order to determine morality, and if there is no God who pre-exists the world, then there can be no source that can be said to stand outside or beyond the world to approve or condemn it. Life cannot be explained by what transcends life.

Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence thus requires a new kind of ethics, addressed to the here and now, immersed in the sensible world, without recourse to absolute or divine authority. Spinoza goes further. He rejects the anthropomorphic fallacy that conceives God in the image of man, albeit raised to the power of infinity. “People attribute to God features borrowed from human consciousness […] and, in order, to provide for God’s essence, they merely raise those features to infinity, or say that God possess them in an infinitely perfect form” (Deleuze 1988, 63). What Spinoza makes clear is the extent to which this notion of God functions as a mirror image of the attributes man perceives or idealizes in himself: man as an intending agent, who supposedly creates, like God, through a spontaneous act of free will; man as outside, or transcendent to, nature.

Here, Spinoza’s critique can be directed not only against the philosophy of transcendence found in Plato and in Christian theology, but the modern variant found in Descartes. Thus, in opposition to the latter’s dualist ontology, Spinoza asserts the conjugation of mind and body. Both mind and body are modes of substance (i.e., God or nature). Spinoza: “Mind and body are one and the same thing, conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension” (qt. in Montag 1999, 42). Spinoza renders problematic the notion that that body is controlled by “the will of the mind and the exercise of thought” (Spinoza qt. in Montag 1999, 38). Spinoza doesn’t simply reject Descartes’s dualist thought, but challenges the hierarchy that subordinates the body to the mind, which subordinates the power to be affected to the power to think, which separates the power to be affected from the power to think. Spinoza’s immanent philosophy does not allow us to set apart “mind from body, thought from action,” or man from nature: each coincides with the other (Montag 1999, xvii). Just as God is expressed in world (as world) so too is the artist, for example, expressed in their work. There is not an individual who acts but an act that individuates. And this individuation is ongoing.


Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1988.
––––– and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Montag, Warren. Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries. London: Verso, 1999.
Smith, Daniel W. “Deleuze and Derrida, Immanence and Transcendence: Two Directions in Recent French Thought.” In Paul Patton and John Protevi (eds.), Between Deleuze and Derrida. London and New York: Continuum, 2003.

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