Deleuze and Spinoza on Ignorance, Learning, and the Body

Gilles Deleuze’s preoccupation with (and reverence for) Spinoza is well known among theory heads and students of contemporary philosophy, as is his frequent quotation or paraphrase of a sentence from the Ethics: “No one has yet determined what the Body can do” (III, 2, scholium). “This declaration of ignorance,” he writes in Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (1970, 1981), “is a provocation. We speak of consciousness and its decrees, of the will and its effects, of the thousand ways of moving the body, of dominating the body and the passions—but we do not even know what a body can do. Lacking this knowledge, we engage in idle talk” (17-18).

It has never occurred to me before that Spinoza’s provocation—which has become something of a refrain or rallying cry for Deleuzian affect studies—prefigures Deleuze’s modest intervention in the history of pedagogy and the philosophy of education.

In his favorite chapter of Difference and Repetition (1968) Deleuze writes, “We never know in advance how someone will learn: by means of what loves someone becomes good at Latin, what encounters make them a philosopher, or in what dictionaries they learn to think . . . There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasures” (136).

We do not know what the body can do.
We do not know how someone will learn.

In his later essay, “Spinoza and the Three ‘Ethics'” (1993), Deleuze explicitly joins these provocative declarations of ignorance.

He writes, “If I learn to swim or dance, my movements and pauses, my speeds and slownesses, must take on a rhythm common to that of the sea or my partner, maintaining a more or less durable adjustment. The structure [of learning? of bodies?] always has several bodies in common, and refers to a concept of the object, that is, to a common notion. The structure or object is formed by at least two bodies, each of which in turn is formed by two or more bodies, to infinity, while in the other direction they are united into ever larger and more composite bodies, until one reaches the unique object of Nature in its entirety, an infinitely transformable an deformable structure, universal rhythm, Facies totius Naturae, infinite mode” (Essays Critical and Clinical 142).

What can bodies do? How do we learn?

For Deleuze—and perhaps for Spinoza—these questions are bound up with one another, and they are also bound up with the problem (or is it the function?) of ignorance.

Reading on . . .