The name “Spinoza” does not show up even once in Silvan Tomkins’s published writings, as far as we can tell. There is, nonetheless, a rich set of resonances between the seventeenth-century Dutch (Portuguese, Jewish) philosopher’s thinking about the affects in his Ethics and Tomkins’s thinking in AIC. Readers of these works side by side may be surprised to notice comparable intellectual dispositions as well as specific shared conceptualizations of affect. Among the former we would note a thoroughgoing naturalism that absents teleology from any account of the workings of nature, along with a vigorous commitment to complexity and compositionality in its accounts. Among the latter we have observed that both theorists conceive of affects as motives, relativize value to affect, and consider affect and knowledge of affect to be fundamental to human freedom. In this interlude, we offer a brief survey of these resonances. We will not, however, argue for a direct influence of Spinoza on Tomkins—although this is, to our minds, a distinct possibility. Rather, we offer the beginnings of an inquiry into the uptake and presence of Spinoza’s (and Spinozist) ideas in the American philosophy and psychology in which Tomkins was schooled and on the American scene more generally.
Recent scholarship has attested to the presence of Spinoza’s writing and thinking (despite its apparent absence) across a broad historical range in philosophical, political, and poetic texts of European Enlightenment thinkers, the English Romantics, and postwar French philosophy. Less is known about the reception of Spinoza in the United States. Clearly his theorization of affect in the Ethics was present to, if not exactly integrated into, the peculiar blend of philosophy and experimental psychology that would become characteristic of the American academy by the end of the nineteenth century. The philosopher George Stuart Fullerton’s translation of the Ethics appeared in 1892, the same year that he hosted the first meeting of the American Psychological Association at the University of Pennsylvania. A quick glance at the indices of William James’s essays and correspondence shows that James taught Spinoza at Harvard starting in 1890; in 1903 he would suggest the following exam question for a course on History of Philosophy: “Contrast Spinoza’s Absolute with Hegel’s” (Correspondence of William James, vol. 10, 246). George Santayana, a student of James who would become the most explicit proponent of Spinoza’s ideas among the American philosophers, wrote an introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of the Ethics (1910). Edgar Singer Jr., a student of Fullerton and James, would later become one of Tomkins’s professors. It is almost certain, then, that Tomkins, either as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (1927–30), or as a graduate student in psychology and philosophy at the same institution (1930–34), or, finally, as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard would have read the Ethics.
In fact, it is likely that Tomkins, who grew up in New Jersey the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, would have sought out the work of the great Jewish heretic. Lewis Feuer suggests that “the group to whom Spinoza appealed most were the young Jewish intellectuals, children of the first generation of immigrants to America” who sought to identify with modernist scientific thinking and for whom Spinoza served as a “dramatic model” (336). Clearly Spinoza’s own rejection of orthodox religious belief and commitment to naturalist explanation resonated powerfully with many young twentieth-century North American Jews who were shifting away from Old World piety and toward progressive ideals of all kinds. In thinking about this demographic shift, both generally and in the case of Tomkins, we should not underestimate the powerful contexts of American transcendentalism and pragmatism. Feuer notes, for example, that the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Will Durant “began his career in 1913 as a popular lecturer at the Labor Temple on Second Avenue and Fourteenth Street” (338) with a lecture on Spinoza. This would eventually become a chapter of his immensely successful progressivist account of intellectual history, The Story of Philosophy (1926), which ends with a discussion of “Contemporary American Philosophers”: Santayana, James, and John Dewey. Such lecture-circuit dissemination of pluralist ideals comes, in part, from earlier generations of American Romantic thinkers and writers who, it turns out, themselves borrowed from and transformed German and English uptakes of Spinoza. Consider one of Emerson’s many references to Spinoza in his works: “Spinosa pronounced that there was but one substance;—yea, verily; but that boy yonder told me yesterday he thought the pinelog was God, and that God was in the jakes. What can Spinosa tell the boy?” (Collected Works, 9:104).
We offer this brief, potted historical survey to suggest that any thorough articulation of the relations between Tomkins’s understanding of affect and Spinoza’s would involve unearthing a transatlantic, American Spinoza. We can only gesture toward the existence and relevance of such a figure here. It seems to us that Emerson would have been much affected by the particular way that, in Spinoza’s understanding, the “Mind” is an expression of the divine. Consider the introduction to part II of the Ethics, “Of the Nature and Origin of the Mind”: “I pass now to explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or the infinite and eternal being—not, indeed, all of them . . . but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human mind and its highest blessedness” (115). The word “blessedness” appears here not simply as a reflexive gesture of piety but as a sly reference to Spinoza himself, whose name means “blessed”—Baruch, Benedito, Benedict. Spinoza explicitly asserts that the kind of knowledge he pursues (“of the human mind and its highest blessedness”) is self-knowledge—that knowledge of (his) mind is knowledge of God, a kind of knowledge that is close to hand. What makes Spinoza fundamentally legible to the American Romantics is this epistemological and ontological mapping of mind onto nature such that knowledge of either one is, at the same time, knowledge of the other.
This Spinozist assertion becomes more problematic for post-Romantic science. It is notoriously difficult to follow and unfold Spinoza’s careful, complex monism/pantheism and (what is often called) the “parallelism” of mind and body that accompanies it. Clearly, these ideas are not suited to conventionally empiricist sciences that disavow metaphysical concerns by assuming a reductive or eliminative materialism, or that disavow epistemological concerns by normatively defining the scientist’s mind as a purely rational agent. Rather, Spinoza appears to offer support to those post-Romantic sciences, such as William James’s radical empiricism or Freud’s psychoanalysis, that are informed both by phenomenology and physiological psychology. These sciences invite a careful attention to the workings of the scientist’s mind as itself a source of material, information, or data about the workings of the body, and vice versa. Recall, for Spinoza, “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body” (123), while knowledge of “the union of mind and body” depends on an adequate knowledge of “the nature of our body” (124). Spinoza’s Ethics offers a framework for a nondualist philosophy that is committed to speculative knowledge of mind. But far from excluding empirical knowledge of bodies, such a speculative or theoretical account interimplicates knowledge of bodies with knowledge of mind.
A quest for a North American, post-Romantic, nonreductive, nondualist, speculative or theoretical psychological science that takes the physiology of bodies seriously: this is the broad context in which we can begin to track the resonances of Spinozist ideas in Tomkins’s work. In this context, we observe, with some surprise, that Spinoza’s speculations are compatible with several ideas that come primarily from biological systems theory (or second-order cybernetics) of the 1960s and 1970s: the notions of self-organization, emergence, and autopoeisis. Tomkins’s own commitment to organized complexity took shape in his encounter with first-order cybernetics in the 1940s and 1950s (see chapter 12). For Tomkins, this commitment involves conceptualizing relations among and between nested systems that are in some ways dependent on, and in other ways independent of, one another. Spinoza, too, is committed to understanding the dynamics of complex systems—how, for example, these dynamics make questions of autonomy and freedom matters of degree. Consider this assertion: “in proportion as a body is more capable than others of doing many things at once, or being acted on in many ways at once, so its mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things at once” (124). Here Spinoza sketches out the ratio between bodily complexity (the capacity of a body to do many things at once or to be acted on in many ways at once) and perceptual complexity. He goes on to assert something similar of the relation between bodily autonomy and understanding: “And in proportion as the actions of a body depend more on itself alone, and as other bodies concur with it less in acting, so its mind is more capable of understanding distinctly” (124). Following this passage, Spinoza contends that “bodies are distinguished from one another by reason of motion and rest, speed and slowness, and not by reason of substance” (125). There is, no doubt, a genealogy of nonreductive materialism that Spinoza participates in here, one that would include ancient figures such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Perhaps this begins to account for the continuities in intellectual disposition with later cybernetics and biological systems theories. Rather than pursue these continuities in any detail, here we will simply point out that both Tomkins and Spinoza address the fundamentally dynamic, composite nature of bodies without reductionism, and both insist on the explanatory value of complexity.
In addition to these general intellectual dispositions, we have noticed some specific ideas that these thinkers share. Significantly, in their writing, affects are defined as both feelings and motives. We have seen how, for Tomkins, the affect system functions as the primary motivational system in humans and other animals and has evolved in conjunction with the biological drives. Spinoza offers a different but not incompatible definition: “By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (154). Note, first, how affects are at once of the body and of the mind, physiological changes (“affections of the body”) that are also psychical events (“ideas of these affections”). This dovetails neatly with Tomkins’s insistence on the nature of affects as both irreducibly physiological (neurological as well as gross anatomical changes, for instance, a cold sweat) and irreducibly psychical (say, the experience of fear). Either way, affect is part of larger causal sequences. Spinoza puts it this way: “So experience itself, no less clearly than reason, teaches that men believe themselves free because they are conscious of their own actions, and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined, that the decisions of the mind are nothing but the appetites themselves, which therefore vary as the disposition of the body varies. For each one governs everything from his affect” (157). Tomkins’s understanding of causation, coming after developments in statistical mechanics and the notion of circular causality, is different from Spinoza’s more linear model of determination. Nevertheless, both thinkers consider the affects to be those governing agents that fundamentally motivate human behavior, that increase and diminish the body’s power to act.
As a crucial consequence of this prioritizing of affect, both thinkers relativize value. Here is Spinoza: “it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it” (160). And here is Tomkins’s almost identically radical assertion: “It is our theory of value that for human subjects value is any object of human affect. Whatever one is excited by, enjoys, fears, hates, is ashamed of, is contemptuous of or is distressed by is an object of value, positive or negative” (1:329). This epistemological and ontological prioritizing of affect is a key aspect of both thinkers’ thoroughgoing naturalism and should contribute significantly to any attempt to offer a nontranscendental account of value. For Spinoza as well as for Tomkins, value is a function of history, accident, and power. (We can glimpse how important Spinoza’s relativizing of value was for Nietzsche’s turn toward a genealogy of value.) Spinoza’s oft-noted relativism was one reason his thinking was rejected so virulently. What has not been noticed is how the opening up of value to history depends on a specific relation between affects and objects. We have already discussed what Tomkins calls the freedom of object of the affect system, that is, the fact that any affect may have any object. Spinoza puts the same idea this way: “Anything can be the accidental cause of joy, sadness, or desire” (162). Indeed, the fundamental complexity of the affects in our thinking and feeling lives is, in part, a consequence of this basic freedom of object. Both thinkers conceive of such complexity along similar lines: compare Tomkins’s discussion of “affect-object reciprocity” (1:133–34) with Spinoza’s discussion of the objects of our love or hate (163–64). And, for both thinkers, the complexity of the relations between affects, their objects, and their causes can be analyzed or thought. Such analysis of affect can bring knowledge of how we come to judge things to be good or bad.
Finally, and relatedly, what motivates both Spinoza’s and Tomkins’s careful, insistent, and exhaustive thinking about the affects is the fundamental therapeutic value of self-knowledge. For both, knowledge of affect is a condition for understanding how we are free and unfree. In parts IV and V of the Ethics, Spinoza addresses human bondage and human freedom, and although it would seem that he aligns “the power of the affects” with bondage and “the power of the intellect” with freedom, the nitty-gritty details of his writing do not bear out this too-simplified alignment. Indeed, for Spinoza, the limitations of reason motivate his project: “it is necessary to come to know both our nature’s power and its lack of power, so that we can determine what reason can do in moderating the affects, and what it cannot do” (208). Reason cannot, for example, restrain affect; an affect can only be restrained by a stronger affect. Despite its limitations as governing agent, however, there are some things that reason can do, and do well: sift and separate, identify, clarify. Reason can separate emotions “from the thought of an external cause” (247) and, by dislinking affects from objects, disable passions that diminish our power. Spinoza puts it this way: “the more an affect is known to us, then, the more it is in our power, and the less the mind is acted on by it” (247). Knowledge of the affects, the project of the Ethics, increases human freedom by permitting us to convert passions (that diminish our power) into actions (that increase it). This is the “remedy” (248) Spinoza offers, a remedy broadly reminiscent of any therapeutic project (such as psychoanalysis) that aims, not to rid ourselves of problematic affective dynamics, but to know them and, in knowing them, create the possibility of unfixing their hold on us. What Tomkins shares with Spinoza is the commitment to understanding how humans are governed by (our) affects, for better and for worse, and how we can think about, and live with, such forms of governance.
We used Edwin Curley’s translation of the Ethics in preparing this chapter. For scholarship on the place of Spinoza in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European literature and philosophy, see especially Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity (2001), Marjorie Levinson’s “A Motion and a Spirit: Romancing Spinoza” (2007) (see her remarks on the similarities of Spinoza’s work to aspects of biological systems theory), and the essays collected in The New Spinoza (1997). On the reception of Spinoza in the United States, see Benjamin Wolstein’s “The Romantic Spinoza in America” (1953) and Lewis S. Feuer’s “Spinoza’s Thought and Modern Perplexities: Its American Career” (1995). We tracked multiple mentions of Spinoza in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Collected Works, in The Correspondence of William James, and in several collections of James’s essays, including Some Problems of Philosophy, Essays in Philosophy, and Essays in Radical Empiricism. Wayne Boucher’s Spinoza in English: A Bibliography from the Seventeenth Century to the Present helped us to locate several other historical and popular treatments of Spinoza’s philosophy: George Santayana’s “Ethical Doctrines of Spinoza” (1886), George Stuart Fullerton’s The Philosophy of Spinoza (1892), Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (1927), and others.
Antonio Damasio may be thought of as an inheritor of a speculative approach that interimplicates knowledge of bodies with knowledge of mind (see Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain). The best philosophical explications of Spinoza we have seen are Gilles Deleuze’s in his works Expressionism in Philosophy and Spinoza: Practical Philosophy.