Ethics and Common Notions
by Beth Metcalf

Spinoza’s first kind of knowledge has to do with the passive effects of inadequate ideas. However, Spinoza wants to leave behind these inadequate ideas. They are merely moral ideas of abstract generality which ask, ‘What must we do?’ But Ethics asks, ‘What can a body do?’ This is a physical question, not a metaphysical or a moral question. It is an ethical question. Ethics is the real difference of an internal comprehension. It is not moral generality requiring obedience.

In a moral view of the world, mind or consciousness has power over the body. The mind has eminence and commands obedience of the body. Mind (comprehension) and body (extension) are inversely related in moral generality. The action of one is the passion of the other. However, with an ethical vision of the world, we reach Univocity. We reach a sub-representative realm of the parallelism of thought and extension. There is no eminence of one over the other. Ethics asks, ‘What can a body do?’ Expressionism in Philosophy p.257, “The model implies no devaluation of thought relative to extension, but merely a devaluation of consciousness relative to thought.” At this sub-representative level, thought (comprehension) and extension are the attributes (and powers) in heterogeneous parallelism. Comprehension and extension are now directly, not inversely, related.

What can a body do? This question has to do with the structure of a body. But this structure has nothing to do with moral, oppositional relations of Good and Evil. Rather, it is the body’s structure of the composition of relations of speed and slowness, movement and rest. The structure of a body has degrees of composition. Each degree has a different relation of composition. This structure of ‘longitude’ corresponds to the ‘latitude’ of its capacity to be affected. Longitude is the composition of unformed extensive elements in relations of speed and slowness, movement and rest. Latitude is non-subjectified affect of which a body is capable at a degree of power or intensity. Therefore, knowledge, for Deleuze-Spinoza, is not by way of genus and species, but by degree of power or capacity of a body to be affected. It is knowledge by way of the affects of which a body is capable. A draft horse and ox have a common notion, because they contain a relation in common. They share a degree of power in common. This is not the abstract, conceptual classification of a commonality (horse) with a difference (race or draft). Rather, it is an idea of two bodies that share a common degree of composition.

How can I have an adequate idea of a body compatible with some degree of composition with my own? When I ask this question, I must remember that “my own body” is not to be identified as the body of my individual Self. That would be merely the Representational concept of individuality. But with Univocity, the individuation of an individual is not that of already formed matter. Rather, individuation is fluid assemblage. When I say “my body” I mean any degree of composition of my body. Or, I may mean some degree of composition in common between my body and another. Each individual is already a collection of many bodies, many degrees of composition of bodies. If I encounter a body that is in agreement with my own in some degree of composition, my power of action will be increased and there will be a joyful affect. If I encounter a body that is in disagreement with my own in some degree, my power of action will be decreased, and there will be a sad affect.

Deleuze describes Spinoza as saying that we are affected by passions and condemned to inadequate ideas. Active affections are joyful. But even passive joys can increase our power of action. The more we can be affected by joyful passions, the more our power of action will be increased. When we experience a joyful passion, we are being affected by a body that agrees with our own---by a body which has a degree of relation of movement and rest that can combine with our own---by a body that has a common degree of composition with our own. Therefore, even a passive joy can cause me to form a common notion. It allows me to form an idea of what is common to my body and that body affecting me with joy. When bodies are compatible with our own in some of their parts, we have a joyful passion. Our passive joys are still inadequate ideas, but they help us arrive at adequate ideas of bodies that enter into a common composition with our own. If one body combines favorably with another body in one degree of relation, it is due to a relation that the two bodies share in common. This common relation (of movement and rest) is the ‘common notion’. It is an adequate idea of compositional cause that the extensive parts of bodies share in common. A common notion is knowledge by causes rather than by effects. Common notions are no longer the abstract similarities and differences derived from sensory effects.

Therefore, Spinoza’s second kind of knowledge involves common notions which find the internal reason for agreement between bodies. It is instructive to consider Spinoza’s ‘common notions’ as an illustration of what is going on with Univocity. A common notion is the common composition of extensive parts in some characteristic degree of relation. When two bodies combine, they combine according to what they have in common. Common notions find that which is common in existing modes. What characteristic relations do they share in common? Common notions find a common degree of composition between bodies, or existing modes. This agreement is the becoming of a new existing mode. In separating out this common notion, we have divided a mode at the level of its essence. And with Univocity, when a modal essence divides, it necessarily changes in nature. Therefore, the common notion brings us into a whole new mode of becoming, really different from the original modes.

On the sub-representative plane of immanence, a singular modal essence can agree with any other. Any intensive modal essence is consistent with any other. Any intensive modal essence can enter immediately into a new singular degree of individuation with any other modal essence on the plane of immanence. All intensities are compatible because they are singular. This is the third kind of knowledge. However this, as we have seen, is in contrast to the second kind of knowledge, where extensive parts take on a characteristic relation of movement and rest. Existing modes, which can have different characteristic relations, can be incompatible with each other in some degree of their parts. Existing modes do not necessarily agree with each other. Common notions tell us which parts of one existing mode can enter into composition with parts of another. They determine which parts of bodies share a characteristic composition.

A mode comes into existence (actualization) when certain characteristic relations are filled by extensive parts that correspond to, but do not resemble, intensive modal essences. A characteristic relation (of speed and slowness, movement and rest) corresponding to a degree of intensity, is filled with extensive parts when a mode is actualized. Modal essences are intensive singularities. Existing modes are extensive actualizations of intensive singularities. They correspond in their degree. Therefore, we can see that the common notion is a degree of relation two existing modes share in common. This common degree is the becoming of a new existing mode. This common notion is different in degree, and therefore it is different in nature from the original modes. This new common mode also corresponds to, but does not resemble, a new intensive degree of singularity. The common notion gives us the adequate internal idea of the common composition of two bodies that agree in some relation of their extensive parts. When we find that new degree of composition, we see that it corresponds to a new degree of intensity.

Therefore, we see that the common notion is the differentiator of two heterogeneous series. It differentiates a series of extensive parts in their characteristic relations, and a series of intensive singularities. The common notion is that differentiator of two heterogeneous series of differences. It differentiates the series of existing modes. It finds that which is common in existing modes and makes that difference itself a new degree of individuation of a new existing mode.  But each common notion also corresponds to a singular, intensive modal essence.  The common notion is the differentiator of real difference in the fluid series of the continuous variation without identity or resemblance.

Common notions (from more or less universal points of view (EiP275-6)) give us knowledge of common compositions of existing modes. They express adequate ideas of compositions of bodies. These forms are common in existing modes and in ontologically single Substance as their source. This is the case because, with Univocity, attributes (as the common notions) exist in the same form in Substance whose essence they constitute and in the modes whose essences they contain. But this is what allows essences of Substance and essences of modes to be really different. Substance and modes have univocal forms in common. These are ‘common notions’. Common notions are common in Substance and in modes. But they now differentiate REAL difference. Now, all uses of representation in extension remain open to this internal difference.

Therefore, we see that common notions find a common composition of relations. A common notion is the comprehension of an internal cause. It is an adequate idea. Common notions do not agree according to external perceptions of similarity or difference. They agree according to a necessary internal reason. ‘Common’ does not mean, as in Representational thought, a common property shared by numerically distinct substances. Rather, ‘common’ means univocal. It is not a common sense or common essence. Rather, it is a common form in Substance whose essence it constitutes and modes whose essences they contain. Therefore, common notions do not determine properties common to numerically distinct substances. Rather, they SAY, in one sense, really distinct infinite essences of ontologically single Substance, and the essences of the modes they contain.

What can a body do? Univocity is the parallelism (of attributes and powers) of heterogeneous series that gives no eminence of mind over body. There are no moral relations of opposition, Good and Evil. It does not give moral knowledge of Good and Evil in general. With Univocity, a common notion is not a universal abstract generality. It does not command obedience to a general law revealed transcendently. It doesn’t form a whole system of generalities. It is a very concrete generality. It gives knowledge of good and bad, for me. It tells me only what is good for me in the capacity of my body in a degree of power. And, Ethics asks how I can extend that knowledge. How do I increase my power of acting, or my capacity to be affected? How can I extend my degree of individuation to include more than my Self? The common notion gives me sufficient reason for an Ethics. There is only ethical difference, not moral generality. Common notions are lived as the immanence of real difference.

Return to Home Page