Saturday, July 23, 2011

Conatus in Spinoza, Hegel, and Dewey

I have been working on my manuscript, and I just came upon an insightful thought that I wish to share that may present a window into Dewey's thought.  Much of his thought that would be of interest to the process metaphysics crowd has been made inaccessible by barriers of diction, tradition, academic politics, etc.  Below is a paragraph from a manuscript draft wherein sketch a few elements of Spinoza's "conatus" to illustrate something in Dewey by analogy.  The insight follows this paragraph.

For Spinoza, the animate force of a creature to persist in its own being is conatus (III,p7;108).  It is the power of a thing to act alone or in conjunction with others to persist in its own being.  Only its own nature and place within the system of nature constraints it, which are understood as “internal” (essential) constraints.  The same force becomes appetite, will, and consciousness of appetite (“desire”).  Hence, we do not judge a thing to be good and seek it, but the reverse; we act, will, and seek a thing and thereby judge it to be good (III, p9s;109).  Imagining a desired object moves one to seek it, and implies that the affect was occassioned by something prior to thought (III, p18; 114).  Consciousness of a desired object is the last phase of a process preceded by the workings of nature that present ideas to thought.  Spinoza’s position is anti-Kantian, because it denies the separability of nature, body, desire, and reason that is the core of Kant’s critical philosophy.  In the following, I will parallel this description of conatus with its analog in Dewey and will shift from a Spinozan to Deweyan vocabulary.

If a thing’s essence is the limit that gives it form, then for Spinoza the determinacy comes from the necessity of nature and its law.  For Hegel, essence is historical.  The generative force of conatus (by analogy) produces a plurality of form limited by the epoch, this phase of the logos or dialectic.  For Dewey, who began with an approach derivative of Hegel, culture is the form-giving limit to human evolution.  Hence, the animate force of human being is empowered and limited by culture, which explains the majority of human difference upon a shared biological basis that is quite plastic.  And there is more to human morphology than history.

For Dewey, the analog of conatus is "desire" (my term) or "eros" (Thomas Alexander's term) that is encompassed in what Dewey called "valuation."  The human eros, per Alexander, is the search for meaning.  For my part, I shift one stage back and ask about the conditions of meaningfulness for Dewey.  Unlike Alexander, I'm not aimed at civilization, mythos, etc. (cf MacIntrye After Virtue), but embodied phenomenological semiotics.  Why does that sign mean this, and how aware might we be of its connection?  That is, why does this attire mean "poor hobo" and that act mean "pretentious," and how is it possible that those associations could be otherwise?  Better, what is the structure of such possibility, its order, its genesis, its temporal asymmetry, its morphology?  But I digress too far into obscurantism….

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