Notes on “Being Affected: Spinoza and The Psychology of Emotion.”

Notes on Steven D. Brown & Paul Stenner (2001). “Being Affected: Spinoza and The Psychology of Emotion.” International Journal of Group Tensions, Vol. 30, No. 1.

The apparent conviction within psychology, demonstrated by endless debates between physiological psychologists and cognitivists, naturalists and constructionists, that emotions must be either biological systems (aspects of extension) or cognitive, linguistic, and social processes (aspects of thought) bears testimony to the grip Cartesianism exerts.

for ethical reasons, Cartesianism interiorizes or individualizes the emotions, which thereby become merely symptomatic of more or less tolerated “leakages” in the rational disciplining of our individual lives.

For Spinoza,

God alone is causa-sui or cause-of-itself (being infinite, there is logically nothing outside
God upon which God might depend). . . Spinoza, then, makes a distinction between the formal cause (God/Nature) and the proximal cause of a modification (an encounter with
another finite thing). The proximate cause of a finite thing is always another finite thing rather than an omnipotent intervention or a mysterious act of will. There is no room for transcendental explanations in Spinozism.

Modifications occur in encounters between the individual and other finite things (themselves manifold). As such, the precise kind of modification experienced depends upon the exact nature of relations that are possible between two individuals qua complex bodies. Spinoza describes the outcome of encounters in terms of emotion or affect:

“By EMOTION (affectus) I understand the modifications of the body by which the power of action of the body is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the idea of these modifications.” (E.III. def. 3).

Affect, as an emergent property of the encounter, takes the form of either an increase or diminishment of the finite individual’s power to act. This is described in the basic distinction between affects of “joy” or “euphoria” (laelitiae) that increase power or those of “sorrow” or “dysphoria” (tristitiae) that decrease power. What takes place as an affect (an emotion) is an ordering of the relations between bodies and between ideas that shows forth as a decision or a determination for action.

Spinoza avoids what we moderns would understand as the opposition of emotion and cognition, by insisting that affects are emergent orderings of the relational field made up in the encounter between manifold finite beings. His project is thus perhaps closer to those contemporary explorations of the production of order from disorder in physical and social worlds.

By describing affect as all modifications of finite things, which result in increases or decreases of the potential to act, Spinoza dislodges “the emotions” from the realm of responses and situations and ties them firmly to action and encounters. Affects occur between finite things on the basis of their mutual relations, in the context of an infinitely productive Nature. Because Spinoza adheres to a strict determinism, this placing of emotions in the broadest possible context carries with it the obligation to consider the intersection of multiple chains of causation. Encounters and the modifications in which they result are complex events, complex productions of order.

This ordering of relations remind me of what Sara Ahmed say about affects being “sticky.” This is about resonance or resonance capability (Resonanzfähigkeit). Related entities, or “finite things,” resonate, thus forming order from disorder.

Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and objects. . . .[If] you are given something by somebody whom you love, then the object itself acquires more affective value: just seeing it can make you think of another who gave you that something. If something is close to a happy object then it can become happy by association. (Ahmed, 2010)

Ideas and physical bodies, or “things,” are related by affect. Stenner:

The first step in analyzing encounters is to maintain the parallelism of body and mind. This involves, for Spinoza, a separate explication of how affects order relations between bodies and between ideas.

Affects are motivating. They are premises for action. They dispose a body to act in a particular way.

Images result in modifications whereby the body becomes disposed for action in a particular way. For this to occur it is not even necessary for the Other who brings about the image to be present. Images of absent persons may, for example, be at the root of affects of love or hate. Indeed, it is sufficient to merely perceive some evil occurring to the image of the absent loved one to then experience sorrow or despair.

Songs can connect affects as the recall emotions from the past. The song (or story, photo, etc.) may empower one to act (excite) or disempower (depress) to varying degrees.

What is also important in this process is the link made by Spinoza between being affected (through the image) and the capacity to affect (as the result of modifications). It is this dual aspect of affection that links ordering to power. Affects of dysphoria determine the person in such a way that they diminish their abilities. This occurs in encounters between bodies that do not agree in some way, such as when one body adversely affects, dominates or even, in extreme cases, destroys another by decomposing the relations through which it is constituted. Opposed to this are affects of euphoria which are marked by an increase in power when “agreeable” bodies unite into a new form of composition that extends the abilities to act of one or both. What matters, then, is how bodies (as manifolds) come together in the encounter to compose either harmonious or disharmonious relations.

Spinoza’s parallelism means that, in effect, bodies cannot be the cause of ideas, nor can the ideational be reduced to, made to correspond with, or be explained by the physical.

In systems-theoretical terms, we would say that nothing in the environment of the psychic system can directly cause a particular effect in the psychic system. The environment can only irritate the psychic system. Images and ideas are simply imprinted on the mind. Ideas are conceptions rather than perceptions.

Now with regard to affects, it is the series of ideas that circulate around the idea of the image of the external cause itself, which comprise what we commonly call “emotions” (e.g., love, hate, hope, jealousy). As long as the individual fails to explicate the idea of the cause, that is, fails to place this idea “clearly and distinctly” within the series of ideas currently constituting mind, he/she may be said to be passive with regard to the encounter. Passivity expresses inadequate thought and a diminishment in the power to act. By contrast, an ability to grasp the external cause is an expression of the individual “becoming active,” since what was external to the individual is now, in a sense, part of their constitution (as the idea is adequately placed within mind).

affects are for Spinoza modifications of bodies and ideas, indexed to agreeable and disagreeable encounters, which result in determinations to action and the expression of a certain power of understanding.


At the core of Spinoza’s “definitions of the emotions” (E. III. def.) are the three primary affects of desire, pleasure (joy or euphoria), and pain (sorrow or dysphoria). Desire, as “appetite with consciousness thereof” is the endeavor to persist in being (conatus) seen under the attribute of thought. It is through desire, as the essence of the individual that the terms “good” and “bad” are in any ways applicable to affects.

it is not the properties of what is encountered that are decisive in emotions, nor the qualities of the affected individual. What is at issue is the composition of an affective relationship. So euphoria and dysphoria are not the ground of any given emotion any more than musical harmony is the ground of the simultaneous tones which give rise to it. The names of the many emotions we experience are merely the names given to differently assembled euphoric or dysphoric relations, akin to chords.

For Spinoza, the word individual doesn’t just refer to people. Objects or material things in the world (paintings, books, human bodies, a kind of food, etc.) are also called individuals. These are finite beings, and all beings other than God or Nature are finite. People establish alliances, or affected relationships, with other finite beings. These relationships form an extended individual.

Once a certain affective relationship has been composed by the encounter between individuals, this may be conceived as establishing an extended individual or alliance. If a loved object is harmed or a hated object benefited, this will then be experienced as pain by the lover/hater. In contrast, they will feel euphoria if a loved object is itself affected with joy or a hated object harmed. This process extends the possibilities for alliance such that we are inclined to love whatever loves what we love and hates what we hate (this type of euphoria is called approval), and, contrariwise, we are inclined to hate whatever
hates what we love and loves what we hate (indignation).

An emotion is not just an experience or event that occurs within a person’s mind or body. Affects connect one thing to another. Affect is about resonance. These are commonly called attachments, and, according to Buddhism, liberation lies in the renouncing of all attachments. But for Christianity, selfless love, or caritas, is the highest human experience–and caritas implies that a person is affectively related to everyone else and, therefore, the person shares in the suffering and joy of others.

Affects can be called “ways of being.” They are the unfolding of personal powers to act and understand:

What is at stake in an affect is nothing less than how the person should “go on” or proceed forth on the basis of their emotion. Spinoza is moreover presenting a processual account of affects as the unfolding of personal powers to act and understand within a complex web of forces made up by a world of finite beings and things affecting one another.

Affects occur in an encounter between manifold beings, where everything depends upon what form of composition they are able to enter into. Thus the method begins from a point that exceeds individualism (as we moderns would understand it), concerning itself instead with the “necessary connections” by which relations are constituted.

Affects/emotions are established through communication. They aren’t things that already exist and then are communicated about–they aren’t mere topics of communication. Social systems constitute their own elements, and affects are one kind of communicative element, or event because elements can also be called events.  They have no temporal duration and, therefore, must be linked together as structures. Affects, then, can be called relational structures, or relational fields. They are encounters among finite beings, or objects.

We might think of affective relations as constituting a social system.

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6 Responses to Notes on “Being Affected: Spinoza and The Psychology of Emotion.”

  1. Pingback: Affect & Resonanzfähigkeit | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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  3. Pingback: Shared post from Larval Subjects | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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  5. Pingback: Response to Paul Stenner’s article on Emotion and Luhmann | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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