17 Sep 2009

3: Hands & Machines. Descartes and Spinoza: Craft and Reason and The Hand of De Beaune [The Kvond Spinoza’s Foci Summary Series]

Summary of kvond’s ideas, by Corry Shores
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The Kvond Spinoza’s Foci Summary Series

[Kvond’s original work with Spinoza’s optics and lens craftsmanship has led me to see Spinoza’s ideas in a whole new way. If you have the chance, check out his blog, especially his work with Spinoza. He’s a world class Spinoza scholar.]

Kvond of Frames /sing

Spinoza’s Foci

Part I: The concept of the Philosopher as Lens Grinder

In La Dioptrique, Descartes designs an automated machine for grinding hyperbolic lenses.

[Image obtained gratefully from this same Frames /sing entry]

He charged Florimond De Beaune to build it. But the craftsman wounded his hand so much in that effort, that he would have to abandon the project altogether. Kvond writes:

Descartes’ craftsmanless, all-turning machine could not be achieved. It is as if its “reason” had chewed up even the best of earth’s craftsman. (kvond)

Descartes assesses the failure to Constantijn Huygens Sr., father of Christiaan Huygens:

“Do you think I am sad? I swear to you that on the contrary, I discern, in the very failure of the hands of the best workers, just how far my reasoning has reached” (Descartes and the Hyperbolic Quest, 70).

Spinoza expresses a different attitude about such matters of safety, in the letter 32 to Oldenberg, when discussing Christiaan Huygens' lens grinding.

Experience has sufficiently taught me, that the free hand is better and more sure than any machine for polishing spherical moulds. (R. H. M. Elwes, Transl.)

Huygens it seems shares this appreciation for working class craftsmanship. He considered Rembrandt’s skills to be a product of his working class family background.

Descartes, however, thought that his feats of reason could lift him into a higher class. His machine would allow him to manufacture lenses without the use of his hands. And he seemed to even enjoy the idea that a technically-adept craftsman cut his hands trying to build the machine, as if proving Descartes’ higher social place. Spinoza, however, did not wish for “a rationality so clear that it would distance itself from the hands that were to manifest it.” Kvond continues, “Perhaps Spinoza keeps in his mind the hand of De Beaune.”

Spinoza. The Letters. from the R. H. M. Elwes translation, available online at:

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