The Force of Existence. Looking for Spinoza in Heidegger


In the perhaps most decisive reopening of philosophy in the twentieth century, Heidegger presented an existential analytic. This can be viewed as the highly complex analysis of one simple action: being-there (Dasein). In the paper at hand, a Spinozist interpretation of this action is proposed. This implies a shift in the Aristotelian conceptuality, which, to a large extent, informs Heidegger’s analysis. The action of being-there is not a movement from potentiality (δύναμις) to actuality (ἐνέργεια). It is a force of existence (vis existendi). However, this force is located right at the threshold between potentiality and actuality. Accordingly, it is not a matter of dismissing Aristotle’s concepts, but—with Heidegger—to observe carefully their deconstruction and pursue it to the point where these concepts become indistinct and where—beyond Heidegger—a Spinozian force of existence emerges.

Heidegger and Spinoza (Opening)

At the end of a paper on ‘Originary Ethics,’ Jean-Luc Nancy makes the following observation:

By claiming the title “originary ethics” and by identifying it with a “fundamental ontology” prior to every ontological and ethical partition of philosophy, Heidegger cannot but have kept deliberately quiet about the only major work of philosophy entitled Ethics that is itself an “ontology” as well as a “logic” and an “ethics.” His silence about Spinoza is well known, but it is doubtless here that it is most deafening. There would be lots to say about this …Footnote 1

The present paper takes its cue here. The issue is, as Nancy indicates, immense. Nevertheless, the research literature on Heidegger seems by and large to have followed him in his silence on Spinoza. It will be my main goal here to propose a point of entry to the discussion, well aware that much will remain to be said.

Heidegger writes about Spinoza only twice. The first time is in his 1926/27 Marburg lectures on History of Philosophy from Thomas Aquinas to Kant. These lectures appear to have been purely a matter of duty.Footnote 2 We encounter here long quotes not penetrated philosophically but accompanied with an unusual amount of biographical information. The second time is in the 1936 lectures on Schelling’s Treatise on the Essence of Human Freedom. Spinoza is presented here as part in the emergence of the modern concept of system and Heidegger’s evaluation of his contribution is as short as it is unfavorable.Footnote 3 Knowing how strong a reader Heidegger is, both places amount to somewhat of a disappointment.Footnote 4

On the one hand, this source material makes a comparison between Heidegger and Spinoza difficult. We do not have much text to go by, and the text we do have does not get us very far. On the other hand, this very circumstance forces us—and frees us—to think: what is really at stake? Is it just a matter of Heidegger and Spinoza being master thinkers and so—by some thoughtless line of scholarly reasoning—they should be compared? Or is there a genuine issue to develop? Let us look at our hint from Nancy again!

Spinoza develops an ontology which he calls an ethics. The suggestion from Nancy is that this may help us see that what Heidegger, on his part, calls (fundamental) ontology is in fact an (originary) ethics. This is at first not much more than a mirroring of philosophical labels. What it indicates, though, is that both Spinoza and Heidegger claim to speak from a place ‘prior’ to the distinction between ontology and ethics—between being and well-being in terms of Greek antiquity, between realitas and perfectio in terms of Latin scholastics, between facts and norms in terms of modern discourse theory.Footnote 5 If this is indeed the place of an originary ethicality of existence, then an encounter between Heidegger and Spinoza should perhaps be situated here?

Following this hint, it might be possible to unearth a subterranean line from Spinoza’s concept of conatus as in suo esse perseverare to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein as Seindes, dem es in seinem Sein um dieses selbst geht? After all, the similarity between these two formulae is striking. Is this just a superficial coincidence? Or could Spinoza’s analysis of conatus turn out to be a version avant la lettre of Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein?

In the most recent and concluding volume of his grand Homo Sacer-project, The Use of Bodies, Agamben allows the Spinozian undercurrent, which seems to have been underway in his thinking for some time now, to become a bit more visible. In this regard—and akin to Nancy—Agamben also notices the unexpressed complicity between Heidegger and Spinoza.

It is not possible here to specify the reasons that drove Heidegger not to make the modal character of his ontology explicit. It is probable that it was precisely his prolonged adherence to the Aristotelian apparatus that did not allow him to understand that the ontological difference must be completely resolved into the being-modes relation. In any case, it is a matter of the same difficulty that constrained him to avoid up to the end a confrontation with the philosophy of Spinoza.Footnote 6

It may well turn out that what Agamben says here about Heidegger applies equally to his own thinking. Leaving this matter aside, though, Agamben elicits our guiding questions: what if Being and Time had been written not as an interpretation of Aristotle—as some hyperbolically, but not without considerable truth, claim to be the case?Footnote 7 What if it had been written instead as an interpretation of Spinoza? What would the ensuing existential analytic have looked like? In what terms would it have had to re-describe the action of being-there? And would this, as Agamben suggests, have reconfigured Heidegger’s ontological difference into a modal ontology?

The answer to these questions entails a Heideggerian reading of Spinoza as an existential analyst on the one hand, and a Spinozian ‘correction’ of Heidegger’s existential analytic on the other. The whole endeavor would ultimately amount to a re-writing of Being and Time. Obviously, it is necessary to accommodate this to something feasible and proceed in a much more modest fashion. In what follows, I shall therefore simply present some textual findings. More precisely, I would like to show how we may come to observe Spinoza emerge from within some of Heidegger’s writings from the period just after Being and Time. This means that I will not present an independent interpretation of Spinoza’s texts but rather pinpoint where he can be excavated in Heidegger’s. In other words, I am not pretending to offer the much-desired comparative analysis of Spinoza and Heidegger. My aim is only to provide some groundwork that may facilitate it. To that end, I assume the role of a reader of Heidegger who extends an invitation to the Spinoza scholar. I would like to add, though, how—to my mind at least—the hermeneutical aspirations of a future comparative analysis should be attuned.

The task of such an analysis cannot only be to sort out similarities and differences. The ultimate goal will be to extricate a philosophical contribution that can perhaps no longer simply be said to be Heidegger’s or Spinoza’s. Granted, in a comparative analysis the amicable ambition of the Heidegger scholar and the Spinoza scholar, who aims to establish the meaning of Heidegger’s and Spinoza’s texts, respectively, should not be abandoned. This ambition must, however, be subordinated to another use of the texts.Footnote 8 Indeed, what should the point of a comparative analysis be if not to push the texts into saying what they could not have said when interpreted separately?

It is in this methodological spirit that I will be looking for Spinoza in Heidegger. However, as anyone familiar with the paradox of Meno will know, we must have at least a preliminary idea about what we are looking for. Otherwise we will be unable to recognize it, even if we bump right into it.Footnote 9 So, which Spinoza are we looking for? Here we encounter a hugely differentiated and rapidly growing field of contemporary Spinoza scholarship to which we should add the even wider historical trajectory of Spinoza interpretations. It is easy to become disorientated in this situation. However, it would not only be difficult, but, more importantly, counterproductive to our purpose to try to single out the one Spinoza that can best be conflated doctrinally with Heidegger. The point of a comparative analysis is that we do not yet know the Spinoza or the Heidegger that will emerge from it. What is needed to facilitate such an analysis, therefore, is rather to open a philosophical field where Spinoza and Heidegger can be related thematically. As already indicated, I suggest that this field should be the existential analytic of Heidegger but analyzed with an ontology of force that relies on the Spinozian paradigm of conatus rather than the Aristotelian paradigm of potentiality. The Spinoza we are looking for is therefore the Spinoza who is first and foremost a thinker of force.

That Spinoza is a thinker of force is rather uncontroversial. However, it is Deleuze who, more than any other, has highlighted and developed this aspect.Footnote 10 The Spinoza we are looking for is thus informed by—but not restricted to—Deleuze’s interpretation. From a scholarly point of view, this interpretation remains controversial, granted, but not simply dismissible. Even if it is audacious, it is still taken into account both for its scholarly merits and, surely, for its philosophical strength. As for the present paper, it will no doubt be discernable that Deleuze is looming large in the background.

Having acknowledged that, I will proceed now as follows: In a first step, I will sketch a preliminary idea of Spinoza’s thinking that should be clear enough to orient our endeavor and, at the same time, open enough to allow for the intervention not just of a very particular interpretation of Spinoza but of a broader spectrum of Spinoza scholars (‘Preliminary Remarks on Spinoza’).Footnote 11 Upon these preliminaries, I turn to the main part on Heidegger and the attempt to trace here what I propose—with Spinoza—to call a force of existence (‘Potentiality and Actuality,’ ‘Drive and Conatus,’ and ‘Disinhibition and Inhibition’). Finally, I conclude with some indication towards an existential interpretation of this force (‘Potentiality-of-Being and Responsibility (Conclusion)’).

Preliminary Remarks on Spinoza

Spinoza’s ontology is well known: a single substance and its multiple modes. Substance is in itself; modes are in something else. This is clearly stated in the very first axiom of the Ethics: ‘All things that are, are either in themselves [in se] or in something else [in alio].’Footnote 12 Being always has one of these two senses. Nevertheless, the keystone of Spinoza’s thinking is—as Deleuze has pointed out—the univocity of being.Footnote 13 Being has one sense only. The contradiction here, however, is merely apparent. In fact, it is easily seen that being in the case of substance as well as in the case of modes has the sense of ‘in.’ Being is being-in. This is Spinoza’s doctrine of immanence. The gist of this doctrine—which, again, Deleuze has developed—is that immanence does not mean being contained in something. And this goes both for substance and modes. Substance is neither a very big container that contains everything else, nor is it itself contained in something—not even in itself. If substance should contain anything (including itself), it would need to confine this within limits. Substance would then itself be defined as being-in-that-which-is-not-itself and would, by that very token, be a mode. Substance, therefore, cannot contain anything. Accordingly, modes—whose whole being is a being in substance—are in an immanence that does not contain them. In other words, modes are exposed through and through.Footnote 14

Being-in as said of substance means that nothing is contained. Being-in as said of modes means that everything is exposed. Nevertheless, when being-in is said of substance and of modes, it is said in the same sense. The univocal sense of this ontological difference is the sive of Spinoza’s famous deus sive natura. Modes, on the one hand, are nothing apart from substance. They are precisely modifications of substance. Substance, on the other hand, is neither inside, underneath, behind or above the modes. Substance is nowhere outside its modification. Spinoza’s sive thus means that substance imparts itself wholly in the modes as the infinite surface of their exposition. It could be said—a bit tongue-in-cheek—that substance is the ‘wide’ of the whole wide world.

One of the most salient features of Spinoza’s thinking is that Spinoza analyzes this sive in terms of force. Each mode is imparted with a force of existence—a vis existendi—which it modifies in a certain and definite manner.Footnote 15 Spinoza considers this force both under the aspect of eternity and duration. The centerpiece of this analysis is the doctrine of conatus which, in Latin, states that: ‘Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.’Footnote 16 Each thing endeavors to persevere in its being—but the enigmatic interjection poses interpretative problems that still puzzle Spinoza scholars.Footnote 17 Does quantum in se est mean as much as it is in itself (remembering that being is being-in and that being-in-itself is the definition of substance); or does it mean as much as it has in itself (of something which Spinoza then leaves unspecified here)? In both cases, I would suggest that we should apply the notion of force of existence. Force of existence expresses the extent to which a being is in itself (which equals the extent to which it is imparted with substantial being);Footnote 18and force of existence expresses that which enables a being to strive for the perseverance in being (according to the amount it has of this force). Conatus, in short, is determined both as and by force of existence.Footnote 19

Let us bear in mind that the stakes in the doctrine of conatus are in fact rather high. According to an influential study by Hans Blumenberg, the in suo esse perseverare not only introduced a new rational principle, but the principle of a new rationality which, in turn, became responsible for the very configuration of modernity.Footnote 20 The principle found various articulations within different fields of inquiry—e.g., ethics (Telesio), politics (Hobbes), and physics (Newton). Spinoza, however, gave it its ontological and universal form. What did this principle mean? A significant trajectory in modern philosophy is devoted to providing a positive answer to this question. In order to arrive at a tenable self-understanding, modernity had to work out the meaning of its own principle. This was not a given since—still following Blumenberg—the declaration of it was a countermove to the syndrome of theological absolutism.Footnote 21 As such, the determination of the principle was at first merely negative. Nevertheless, from this, it is already possible to gain some valuable orientation.

Theological absolutism is a cluster of doctrines derived from an extreme emphasis on the omnipotence of God. Such doctrines—advanced forcefully in late medieval scholasticism—were, for instance, the voluntarism of God, the contingency of the world and the nominalism of concepts. At the pinnacle of these doctrines was a certain idea of creatio continua. Not only did this idea entail that God created ex nihilo but also that only if God continued to do so would creation avoid annihilation. Left by itself the world would immediately turn into nothing. In other words, the doctrine amounted to the suggestion that all created being was stripped of any power of being and thoroughly left at the mercy of transitive preservation.

It is clear that creatio and conservatio in this way became equivalent in theological absolutism. The formation of the modern concept of self-preservation (conservatio sui), on the contrary, set out by drawing a distinction here. This made it possible to assert that created being was in fact invested with a power of being without implying that this power amounted to a power of self-creation. But what kind of power was it then? The doctrine of conatus can be seen as an answer to this question. Broadly speaking, it has been given two diverging interpretations: the teleological and the inertial.

The teleological interpretation is informed by the historical view that the doctrine of conatus is basically a reception of stoic philosophy. In his book on The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius writes that nature, according to the stoics, first and foremost endears every living being to itself.Footnote 22 The ontological structure of a living being is thus self-preservative. This structure is furthermore teleological in as much as it implies that the ultimate telos of a living being is its own being. Since Aristotle, the question of mere being had been relegated to the household management (οἶκος). It is not surprising, then, to see that the stoics developed their notion of self-preservation as a question of oikeiôsis. This notion proved to be quite complex. It is evident, though, that the stoics thought of it in terms of an organism.Footnote 23 It is the organism with its inner accord between the whole and its parts that displays the teleological modus operandi of oikeiôsis. Importantly, however, all living beings must die. As for cosmos—which the stoics thought of as an all-encompassing organism—so for each living being: the fire would burn out (ἐκπύρωσιςit). The immediate implication of this is that life ultimately cannot preserve itself in the oikeiôsis of any particular living being. It needs, for its re-ignition, the transitive aid of the cosmic fire. This, in turn, only shifted the problem, as the skeptics did not fail to object. If the fire of the cosmic organism is likewise extinguished, from where should cosmos then itself receive the fire for its own re-birth (παλιγγενεσία)?Footnote 24

In Blumenberg’s account, the stoic notion of oikeiôsis does not suffice to express the power of being that was asserted against theological absolutism. The reception of stoicism—which is undeniable in early modernity in general and also specifically in Spinoza—even works against the notion of conatus. As the skeptic objection exposes, the self-preservation of stoic oikeiôsis relies ultimately on transitive preservation and creation. What is asserted by Spinoza, on the contrary, is a force of existence that, so to speak, never runs dry. The propositions immediately leading up to the doctrine of the conatus state that there is nothing in a thing that works towards the destruction of it and, accordingly, that nothing can be annihilated except by external causes.Footnote 25 Seen from within, each being is thus an incessant power to remain in being. Force of existence designates in this sense an immanent infinity.Footnote 26

The inertial reading of conatus better expresses this part of the doctrine. Blumenberg gravitates towards this interpretation when he describes the modern paradigm of self-preservation as a principle of the exclusion of certain questions (Ausschließungsprinzip von Fragen).Footnote 27 What the new rationality should explain is not why something is, but rather why it ceases to be; not why it is as it is, but rather why it changes. It is not difficult to sense that Newton’s concept of inertia could be viewed as a particular use of this kind of rationality. Conversely, the ensuing mechanistic physics of external causation is often seen as being anticipated by Spinoza. Nevertheless, teleology proved surprisingly difficult to get rid of.

If we look at current Spinoza research, we will find not only that the doctrine of conatus is a central concern but also that teleology remains at the heart of the dispute. As Valtteri Viljanen writes: ‘There are two competing overall readings of the nature and meaning of the conatus doctrine. Here the issue of teleology draws the line of division: roughly speaking, one approach is for it, the other against.’Footnote 28 The attraction of the non-teleological readings is that Spinoza explicitly—and quite resolutely—rejects teleology. Teleological readings are therefore in a certain sense counter-readings. They show that teleology is somehow smuggled in through the backdoor. As already Nietzsche warned: ‘In short, here as elsewhere, watch out for superfluous teleological principles!—such as the drive for preservation (which we owe to Spinoza’s inconsistency).’Footnote 29

According to Viljanen, the currently available non-teleological readings of conatus can be grouped as inertial. Following his survey, these inertial readings broadly state that conatus refers to a metaphysical inertia by which is meant ‘… a tendency in things to remain as they are.’Footnote 30 Viljanen illustrates this with an asteroid hurling through space which, on the account of its conatus, continues to do so if not impeded by an outside force. This choice of an asteroid is not coincidental. It is often said that what makes Spinoza susceptible to the reintroduction of teleology is that his topic is precisely not mere matter in motion as in physics. Given his anthropological enterprise—the liberation of man—he is interested in the conatus in reference to the human spirit and body (appetitus) and in as much as it is accompanied with a consciousness of itself (cupiditas).Footnote 31 Such concepts—appetite, desire—are obviously steeped in motivational apprehensions. However, Spinoza carefully discards such apprehensions when he immediately states that we do not desire what we desire because we find it good. Rather, we find something good because we desire it.Footnote 32 On that account, Viljanen comments that ‘… exactly as little teleology is involved in any self-preservatory activity as in the case of the asteroid.’Footnote 33

However, the problem of teleology runs deeper. To get rid of teleology is not difficult simply because Spinoza adopts a psychological terminology. The difficulty is that the inversion and reduction of teleology, on which the inertial reading of conatus relies, does not suffice. This reading may inverse teleology and assure us that there is in the conatus no actualization of ‘what is not yet’ but only the preservation of ‘what already is.’ It may reduce teleology and assure us that there is in the conatus as little causality exerted by any motivational consciousness as in an asteroid hurling through space. Nevertheless, even an inversed and reduced teleology remains a teleology. The formal structure is kept perfectly intact. The real problem is that the inertial reading affirms the underlying schema of opposition between merely maintaining what already is (inertia) and actualizing what is not yet (teleology). What is needed in order to render teleology inoperative is not an opposing notion like inertia—this only reinforces the schema—but, to speak with Heidegger, a more originary one.Footnote 34

Bearing this in mind, I can follow suit when Viljanen—in the face of the inertial reading—states that ‘… I will argue […] that there is another kind of non-teleological position available’.Footnote 35 For my own part, I would suggest a reading that situates itself in the current debate as neither teleological nor inertial but rather as existential. This implies that the inversion of teleology must be taken to a point where it is no longer merely an inversion but becomes a subversion. It is along those lines that I read the following question, suggestively posed by Manfred Sommer: ‘However, is it not possible also to view this inversion of teleology as tending towards that existential-analytically disclosable being which is concerned in its being about that being?’Footnote 36 Following the drift of this question, the claim would be that being-there (Dasein) takes place before the distinction between merely maintaining what already is and actualizing what is not yet—or between mere being and well-being in Aristotelian terms. An existential reading of conatus would have to transpose it to this dimension of originary ethics. Only in this way will it become clear that Spinoza does in fact not smuggle teleology in through the backdoor.Footnote 37

In the non-teleological reading of conatus proposed by Viljanen, the point of departure is the concept of essence; and the geometry of power he describes at that level certainly presents Spinoza as a thinker of force. An existential reading of conatus might therefore share his point of departure, even if Viljanen, from that point on, pursues a different avenue. That conatus is rooted in a certain form of essentialism is in fact clear. The very definition states that the conatus of a thing is nothing but its actual essence (actualem essentiam).Footnote 38But what kind of essentialism does this imply? Here it is important to bear in mind that Spinoza identifies essence and power on a level of principle. The power of God is his essence.Footnote 39 This principle holds true also for modes since they are precisely modes of God. By implication, Spinoza abandons any conception of essence in terms of genera and species. Essentially, a thing is not defined by ‘what it is’ but rather by ‘that of which it is capable.’Footnote 40 Does this essentialism allow us to arrive at the dimension of existential analytics? Let us look briefly at the double characterization by which Heidegger, at the very outset of his enterprise, delineates this dimension: (a) The ‘essence’ of Dasein lies in its existence and (b) this existence of Dasein is always its own (je mein).Footnote 41

If Heidegger puts essence in square quotes, it is because he—just as Spinoza—abandons the usual distinction between existence and essence. Existence is not that a thing is. Essence is not what it is. In fact, existence is not on the order of that which is present at hand (vorhanden) at all. Rather, it is a having-to-be (Zu-sein). That the essence of Dasein lies in existence therefore means that essence is something like a demand of being.Footnote 42 In this regard, the ‘there’ (Da) of Dasein can be described as the ‘metaphysical hot spot’ addressed by this demand. Being this ‘there’ is what is meant by existence. And to exist in this specific sense is the essence of Dasein.

When Heidegger goes on to specify this existence as always mine (je mein), he adds something quite important in order to clear a misunderstanding away that might otherwise inhibit the encounter of his thinking with that of Spinoza’s.Footnote 43 When Spinoza speaks of essence, it is never an abstract generality. It is always a force of existence that singularizes a mode. It is true that reading the existential analytic in Being and Time sometimes gives rise to the impression that it lays out universal—perhaps even transcendental—structures, abstracted from any actual accomplishment (Vollzug) of being-there. However, all these structures—i.e., the existentials—are not only always co-accomplished in being-there. They are also always accomplished as je mein. Assuming that Dasein is the way of being pertaining to human beings, existential analytic therefore never gives a universal answer to the question ‘what is the human being?’ Rather, it puts the questioner in question as a human being. Posing this question therefore calls forth a responsiveness of the questioner to his or her own being. As Heidegger writes:

This question—what man is—does not allow the individual human being, nor especially the questioner, to sink back into a pacified state of indifference as just any particular case of the universal essence of man in general. Quite the reverse, this universal essence of man only becomes essential as such when the individual comprehends him- or herself in his or her Dasein. The question concerning what man is, if genuinely put, explicitly delivers [überantwortet] the human being over into his or her Dasein.Footnote 44

From this, it should be clear that Heidegger’s notion of essence designates a singularity just as much as Spinoza’s. We can then go on and supplement two further points from Heidegger’s discussion. Heidegger not only claims that the ‘there,’ which Dasein has to be, is always its own (je mein). He adds (a) that this ‘there’ is always its own in a certain way (Weise) and (b) that it is accomplished in this certain way according to an always already decided possibility (Möglichkeit) of being.Footnote 45 In words closer to Spinoza, this means that Dasein always accomplishes its ‘there’ as a certain mode of being according to a certain power of being. It is precisely with regard to the nature of this power that Spinoza can be brought to intervene in Heidegger’s existential analytic. Heidegger clearly thinks of it in terms of potentiality (Vermögen). In order to sense how Spinoza thinks of it, some clues from Deleuze may prove helpful.

Deleuze offers an interpretation of Spinoza’s essentialism in which, also for him, the conatus is rooted.Footnote 46 This interpretation relies heavily on the distinction between duration and eternity. Important here is the definition of conatus not only as essence but as actual essence. For Deleuze, this specification implies that conatus designates the essence of a mode in as much as it enters duration or—which is the same—in as much as it has begun to actually exist. ‘A conatus is indeed a mode’s essence (or degree of power [puissance]) once the mode has begun to exist.’Footnote 47 Passing into existence is not caused by the essence of the mode. Once having attained actual and durative existence, though, the manner of its power is explained by way of the external relations of composition and decomposition in which a mode enters as it encounters other modes. Decomposition, in particular, may even be taken to the point of annihilation. But this in no way impedes the essence of the mode. ‘Lacking nothing while the mode does not yet exist, the essence is deprived of nothing when it ceases to exist.’Footnote 48 This suggests the possibility of conceiving of a mode under the aspect of eternity rather than duration. Here, according to Deleuze, the manner of a mode’s power is explained as auto-affective essence causation. Every mode is itself the cause of the way it modifies and thus expresses its own power.Footnote 49 Rather than being externally linked, modes in this regard form a system of intensities where each mode is wholly expressive and in necessary agreement with every other mode.Footnote 50

We do not need to enter any further into the details of Deleuze’s ingenious interpretation here. As of now, the point to single out is that Deleuze situates the essence of a mode at the threshold between duration and eternity. This animates us to broaden his interpretation of the definition of the conatus and distinguish between conatus as the essence of a mode as it exists actually and conatus as the essence of a mode as it exists—let us say then—virtually.Footnote 51 In other words, we can distinguish between existence itself, which is actual, and the force of that existence, which is not actual but virtual (and, as such, very much active). In doing so, we may bear in mind Spinoza’s own distinction between the abstract conception of existence as a quantified duration of a mode and the nature of existence as the being-in-God of a mode. As he writes:

Here by existence I do not mean duration, that is, existence insofar as it is considered in the abstract as a kind of quantity. […] For although each particular thing is determined by another particular thing to exist in a certain manner, the force [vis] by which each perseveres in existence [in existendo perseverat] follows from the eternal necessity of God’s nature.Footnote 52

In accordance with this distinction, the in suo esse perseverare can be considered (a) as the preservation of the actual existence of a mode in duration and (b) as the preservation of the virtual force of existence of a mode—not exactly in eternity, perhaps, but rather in proximity to eternity.Footnote 53 It is the latter case which will be the important one for the existential interpretation of conatus proposed in the present paper. At stake here is a mode’s affirmation of itself in its essence on the threshold just ‘before’ a potential is actualized in duration. As we shall see, the movement of the conative drive crosses and opens this passage from potentiality to actuality but does not itself travel it.

If we were to reconsider Being and Time from this perspective, it is undoubtedly the notion of potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen) that most obviously offers it up for a Spinozian intervention. What kind of Können is Seinkönnen? Is it indeed—as the English translation suggests—a potentiality such that an Aristotelian interpretation almost imposes itself? If the conceptual apparatus of Aristotle indeed informs Heidegger’s thinking, this translation may very well be congenial. The action of being-there would then in some sense be the actualization of a potentiality. The hypothesis I would like to propose, however, is that a systematic reconstruction of certain passages in three important lecture courses following the publication of Being and Time will allow for a deconstruction of this Aristotelian framework. This, in turn, might help facilitate a recasting of the notion of potentiality-of-being in light of which its Spinozian nature could be excavated more unambiguously than we find it in Being and Time.

Potentiality and Actuality

The first text I would like to draw attention to is Heidegger’s 1931 lecture on the first three chapters of Book Θ of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.Footnote 54 This lecture course is announced as an investigation into the essence (Wesen) and actuality (Wirklichkeit) of force (Kraft). We cannot enter the full scope of Heidegger’s meticulous analysis here. For our purpose, the decisive development of the argument takes place in the interpretation of the third chapter. Here the general theme of Book Θ—the relation between δύναμις and ἐνέργεια—becomes explicit. The question is how the being-at-work (ἐνέργεια, lat. actus) of a being-able (δύναμις, lat. potentia) takes place.Footnote 55 Does actuality belong to potentiality itself? And if so, is it then possible to have a potentiality without exercising it? Where can we locate and how should we conceive of the transition (Übergang) from or transference (Überführung) of potentiality to actuality? These are the questions Heidegger addresses.

In general, and as any textbook will inform us, Aristotle describes movement (κίνησις) as a movement from potentiality to actuality. This conception is valid for the Physics and also—although in a more complicated way—for the Ethics. Moreover, if a potentiality is being-well-at-work, it can be said to be virtuous. At the outset then, virtue (ἀρετή) is an ontological category pertaining to everything that is what it is well.

The complication of the Ethics emerges due to the specificity of the human being as a being that can practice. Here, we must initially distinguish between the execution and the acquisition of a potentiality. It is one thing to execute a potentiality you already possess and another to acquire a new one. Let us recapitulate what Aristotle says on this score.Footnote 56

Human beings are able to acquire ethical virtues through habituation (ἔθος). No natural being can do so. Aristotle illustrates this with the futility of training a stone to levitate or fire to gravitate. Stone and fire execute their natural movements with a certain perfection: they do not hesitate in the least. They are even in the grip of these movements. This does not imply that acquired virtues are then unnatural or imperfect. Aristotle states—in a remarkable phrase—that they are acquired neither from nor against nature but that nature has made us receptive (δέξασθαι) to new virtues that can be perfected (τελειόω) in habit. Granted, some potentialities are born in us (ἐγγίγνομαι) from nature. In these cases, we have the potentiality first and then actualize it. This is how it is with the senses. We have the potentiality of sight which we actualize in seeing. The ethical virtues, however, is acquired by actualizing them—and Aristotle, in order to explain this, notably adds that this occurs just like in the arts.Footnote 57

Apparently, the movement from potentiality to actuality is reversed here. To understand it accurately, though, we must consider what it can mean to actualize when we do not already have the corresponding potentiality. What is being actualized then? Is it perhaps the receptibility for new potentialities? And if so, is this receptibility itself a potentiality like others, or does it have a privileged status? Let us proceed with two questions: first a preliminary question about how we acquire potentialities in general; then—with that in mind—a question specifically about how the receptibility for potentialities is constituted.

To acquire new potentialities entails the ability to practice. Practice, however, involves a paradox. Briefly stated, to practice means to do what you cannot do. It means to actualize a potentiality you do not have. It is important not to dissolve this paradox since we would then lose the intricacy of Aristotle’s analysis. Human beings can in fact do what they cannot do. And it is necessary to emphasize this paradox even more in order to bring out its paradoxical meaning: they can do what they can do only because they cannot do it. For instance, if I can play the guitar, I must also be able to not play the guitar—not just in the trivial sense that I can take a break from playing, but in the radical sense that I must be unable to play while playing. Otherwise, I cannot practice. And this is equally so whether I am a beginner or an advanced guitar player. In fact, no one starts from scratch without any potentiality whatsoever, and no one exhaust any potentiality wholly. The important thing to observe, however, is that no matter where I am ranked, the situation remains the same. In practice, there are always two simultaneous movements: there is, on the one hand, the actualization of some acquired potentiality; and there is, on the other hand, a countermovement that co-actualizes this very potentiality as a potentiality one does not have.

It is paramount to insist that these two movements go together. In practice, an already acquired potential does not function simply as a secure basis on top of which acquisition of further potentiality takes place. This, again, would dissolve the paradox. Rather, in the actualization of a potentiality, this very potentiality is simultaneously at stake as a potentiality I do not have—at least to the extent that I can be said to practice it. This is why a virtuous guitar player can practice a simple C-major scale. In fact, this is a marvelous accomplishment that merits some thought. It reveals that practice not only means to do what you cannot do. It equally—and no less paradoxically—means to be unable to do what you can do. In a way, this should of course not be possible. How can you genuinely practice something you are already capable of? The great artist, however, is not just someone who can do something extraordinarily difficult. He is someone who can play with what he can already do as if he cannot do it. And this ‘as if’ in no way implies that he plays it safe, as it were. It means—to stick with the example—that when the virtuous guitar player plays the C-major scale for the umpteenth time, he is still able to do it without safety: truly as if it were the first time. In other words, the virtuosity of an artist consists in the ability to exhibit, in the midst of his impressively developed ability, the unfathomable depth of his inability (ἀδυναμια) and thus truly begin again.Footnote 58

There belongs therefore to any practicable potentiality a ‘not having’ of this very potentiality. Having it (ἔχον) therefore implies being deprived of it—but in a way that a being which does not have this potentiality cannot be deprived of it since the trick of practicing is, in a certain sense, to be able to put the privation (στέρησις) to work. It is important to notice the unsettling implications of this. Experientially, the situation of practice is always the following: I am called into being-X but not told exactly what it means to be X.Footnote 59 As Aristotle famously points out, there is an inexactitude in all ethical knowledge (φρόνησις). This is not a flaw. Ethical knowledge is not a lesser degree of the same kind of knowledge we call know-how (τέχνη). Accordingly, the analogy with the arts that Aristotle proposes pertains to the practice of being an artist—which is itself an ethical praxis (πρᾶξις)—and not to the technical production of works (ποίησις). As a somewhat experienced carpenter, I may very well be able to produce chairs and tables. In this respect, I can rely on my know-how. Hence, the production of a chair may be in perfect accord with a manual and the chair may as such be perfect: functioning precisely as it should. The practice of being a carpenter, however, is in the grip of a responsibility that will never let me be a virtuous carpenter outside of practicing it. And this implies ineradicably not-knowing exactly what a virtuous carpenter is. This is something I must find out along the way, as I go ahead producing chairs and tables and so forth. Hence, to practice means letting a not-having loose in a potentiality so that it subjects this practice to an excessive demand. We can state this as the demand to remain in—or to anticipate Spinoza at this point: to persevere in—responsibility. This leads us to the second question.

In order to be able to practice, I must be able to respond to a ‘not having’ that calls from inside of my potentialities. Only so can I practice them. The ability to respond in this sense, therefore, is a potentiality presupposed in all practicable potentialities.Footnote 60 But how is this potentiality itself acquired? How is it practiced? And how does it become virtuous? Indeed, are these Aristotelian terms—potentiality, practice, virtue—still the right ones? These are the questions that will eventually lead us into Spinozian territory.

Aristotle’s answer is that we are receptive to new virtues from nature. The word he uses is the verb δέχομαι which, from its Proto-Indo-European root, has to do with taking, accepting and receiving. Interestingly, it is a verb in the middle voice, i.e., the voice that is neither active nor passive. In the active voice, I have something in my power. In the passive voice, I am subjected to an alien power. But what happens to power in the middle voice? The middle voice indicates that the distinction between active and passive is rendered indistinct. In the practice of such a power, I will therefore ‘act upon’ just as much as I will ‘be acted upon.’Footnote 61

With this in mind, we may ask if there is in receptibility this intertwinement of activity and passivity indicated by the middle voice?Footnote 62 Exercising this potentiality, then, would not be the activity of the putting-to-work of a potentiality. Nor would it be the passivity of a mere potentiality currently not at-work. We arrive, consequently, at a point where also potentiality and actuality become indistinct. And this is precisely the point Heidegger also reaches at the pinnacle of his analysis.Footnote 63

Heidegger asks of us to imagine a runner in the starting blocks. What happens here to his potentiality of running? A runner is someone who is capable of running. But obviously, he had this potentiality in a different way when he was fast asleep last night than now when he is in the starting blocks. It is already no longer merely potential. Still, his potentiality of running is also not yet at work in as much as he is not running. If movement is a passage of force from a state of potentiality to a state of actuality, what is the state of force that the runner here depicts for us?

As Heidegger observes, there is a difference between an old lady kneeling at a crossroad and the way the runner is kneeling in the starting blocks. Neither moves. The standstill of the runner, however, is so that his being-able to run (im Stande zu laufen) stands wholly ready. The words Heidegger catches hold of in the attempt to describe force at this exact point are important to notice. He describes the potentiality of running as being driven by itself towards its exercise (selbst-drängen), and he describes the runner as looking tensely ahead (gespannt nach vorn) and thus—gedrängt, gespannt—as expanding himself in his readiness (im Bereitschaft ausbreiten). The runner is awaiting only to be disinhibited (Enthemmung) by the signal: run!

Of course, we must remember that the runner is only a heuristic depiction. The important thing is that it may help us seize force at a point where we can access the dimension in which we aim to describe it. After all, we are not interested in the action of running but of being-there. The suggestion, then, is that being-there is an action accomplished in a manner similar to the way the runner accomplishes being-in-the-starting-blocks. In being-there, we do as the runner—although not, like the runner, at a certain highlighted point in time, but rather inconspicuously throughout our entire being; and whereas the runner will eventually run and thus actualize his potentiality for running, being-there remains, so to speak, in the starting blocks.

It is here that we can begin to engage with Spinoza. The hypothesis in that respect will be the following: what Spinoza calls force of existence—and develops in his doctrine of the conatus—is located right at the indistinction between potentiality and actuality. If this hypothesis perhaps seems a bit bold, we must welcome encouragement before we pursue it. In an important essay Riceour provides us with it.

Ricoeur addresses ‘… a ground starting from which the self can be said to be acting …’ and describes it as ‘… a ground of being, at once potentiality and actuality …’. He admits that Heidegger, in his interpretation of Aristotle, detects something like this as he ‘… reconstructs something implicit but unstated that Aristotle’s text is held to cover over.’ However, the outcome of this reconstruction, which Ricoeur ultimately finds disappointing, leads Ricoeur to look elsewhere for the connection between the self and this ground which it stands out from—and he then exclaims: ‘For me, this connection is Spinoza’s conatus’. Pointing so decisively to Spinoza, Ricouer nevertheless lines up behind the many prominent thinkers that never develop their conjectures about him. Instead he passes the torch: ‘Welcome indeed the thinker who would be able to carry the “Spinozist” reappropriation of Aristotelian energeia to a level comparable to that now held by the “Heideggerian” reappropriations of Aristotelian ontology.’Footnote 64

Without of course aspiring to this position, I allow myself to take encouragement from these remarks by Ricoeur. As we shall see, it did in fact not escape Heidegger himself that it was necessary to investigate a force hidden somewhere in the distinction between potentiality and actuality, nor that it had to do with the concept of conatus. This leads me to the second text.

Drive and Conatus

In 1928, at the end of his time in Marburg, Heidegger held a lecture course on The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic.Footnote 65 Here, Heidegger opposes the scholastic notion of potentia activa with Leibniz’ notion of vis activa. He quotes Leibniz:

But the active force [vis activa] contains a certain act [enthält ein gewisses schon wirkliches Wirken] bzw. ἐντελέχεια and is thus midway between the faculty of acting [bloßer ruhender Wirkfähigkeit, facultatem agendi] and the act itself [dem Wirken selbst, actionemque ipsam] and involves a conatus [ein Versuchen].Footnote 66

It is obvious that when Leibniz situates his vis activa between the faculty of acting and the action itself, it corresponds well with Heidegger’s runner in the starting blocks. Leibniz has two terms available to describe the force involved in this in-between: the familiar Aristotelian term entelechy (ἐντελέχειαν) and a notion in vogue at the time: conatus.

Heidegger points out that Leibniz’ ‘… construal of ἐντελέχεια does not conform to Aristotle’s real intention’Footnote 67 What Leibniz wishes to have understood with this term is, as he himself explains, a certain perfection of the monad. But what about conatus then? The word conari means to try, to endeavor and to strive—and Heidegger thus immediately adds Versuchen in the quote. This literal meaning is ambiguous though. If it signifies an attempt separated from its success—perhaps even a vain attempt—it misses precisely the perfection in question. The vis activa is not a dormant capability (ruhender Wirkfähigkeit) but already a certain actual work (wirkliche Wirken) and is as such perfectly executed—although it is not the being-at-work (Wirken) itself. To capture conatus at this precise point, Heidegger suggests translating vis activa with tendency (Tendieren) or—even better according to himself—with drive (Drängen). Heidegger explains his terminology:

Drive [Drang] is neither a disposition nor a release, rather a “taking it on” [das Sich-angelegen-sein-lassen], namely, a “taking it upon oneself.” What is meant is a setting-itself-upon [das Sich-auf-sich-selbst-anlegen], as in the idiom “he is set on it” [er legt es darauf an], a taking-it-on-oneself [das Sich-selbst-anliegen]. What characterizes drive is that it by itself leads itself into activity [von sich aus ins Wirken sich überleitet], not just occasionally but essentially.Footnote 68

Again, we are clearly at a point between potentiality and actuality—here expressed respectively as disposition (Anlage) and release (Ablauf). To understand the drive situated here, Heidegger narrows it in from both sides.

From the side of the Anlage, the drive is an Anliegen. To have an Anliegen means to have an issue at stake. At some point, this will perhaps become a wholly fledged agenda or project to be carried out more or less successfully. Before this, however, it already makes itself noticeable as a concern that has not found its object yet: something is coming up, something geht mir an. Accordingly, the drive Heidegger excavates is not the drive towards the thing coming up—whatever it will turn out to be. It is not a drive towards something lacking. Rather, it is a drive towards the self as driven towards something. The drive is thus its own Anliegen. And it is in this sense self-driven. It is, as Heidegger writes ‘… self-propulsive [von ihm selbst an-getrieben].’Footnote 69 To risk an illustration—only to aid our thinking—we can say that the drive is somewhat like a spinner, which, when it is sent off, spurs itself on and spins on its own. In any case, it seems quite obvious that Heidegger in the quote is trying to re-configure the Sorge-structure of Dasein in terms of drive. Seiendes, dem es in seinem Sein um dieses selbst geht would then be: Drang, dem es in seinem Drängen um dieses selbst dreht.

From the side of the Ablauf, the drive is a von-sich-aus-ins-Wirken-sich-überleiten. The drive, in other words, propels itself towards a release in being-at-work. But it is not itself released in being-at-work. Rather, it drives a potentiality right to the point of its actualization without itself following it into this actualization. The drive sends something off but remains itself in place. This does not mean that the drive stops at this point. Its own work—its wirkliche Wirken—is not over because what is at issue for the drive is the drive itself, not the actualization of a potentiality. The drive is not a drive towards something to become actual, for something to take place, for something to happen etc. It does not lack something and has no fulfillment in something. The drive is full of itself. We can therefore look at the drive from two different aspects. Seen ‘from within,’ the drive drives incessantly. It is wholly active and full of its own activity. Seen ‘from without,’ it stands still. Nothing is actualized. To risk again an illustration, it is somewhat like the relation between a vehicle and its wheels (or its spinners, if one could imagine that). The wheels spin around in their own circles and, as such (seen ‘from within’), they go nowhere. But by doing this, they enable the vehicle to actually move.

A drive is thus an enabler. It enables a transition (Überleitung) from potentiality to actuality. The drive itself, however, remains tense in the transition. This is perhaps why, for Heidegger, the word ‘tendency’ also comes into play. The drive is wholly extended towards actualization but loses absolutely no tension when actualization occurs. Why, then, is the drive tense? It is not because it lacks in the tendency towards actualization. The drive is nothing but this tendency and there is nothing in the drive that works contrary to it.Footnote 70 It is also not because it lacks in the force to accomplish the transition. The drive lacks no force. That the drive is self-driven means on the contrary—and to quote Heidegger again—that ‘… it brings along with it the essentials of its being, the goal [wozu] and manner [wie] of its drive.’Footnote 71 The drive brings with it all the force it needs to be perfectly executed. Yet, it remains tense. Heidegger specifies:

The phenomenon of drive not only brings along with it, as it were, the cause, in the sense of release, but drive is as such always already released. It is triggered, however, in such a way that it is still always charged, still tensed.Footnote 72

At the point of transition from potentiality to actuality, we thus find a drive, which is always—incessantly and continually—released (ausgelöst), but nevertheless maintains itself in tension (gespannt). The drive enables the transition but remains itself unaffected by what it enables. In this way, the drive is nothing but its own preservation. This self-preservation (conservatio sui) is not a drive towards the preservation of an actual self. The drive drives ‘before’ any actualization and actuality. Rather, it is the preservation of the drive itself and as such.

If this drive is tense, its tension must be found in the drive itself. The drive, as we said, is full of itself. Yet, it is not satisfied—but nor is it unsatisfied. Rather, beyond any question of satisfaction, the drive strives towards its own drive with a striving—a conari—that is never separated from its perfect execution. Its tension, therefore, is one of pure joy. The drive vibrates with joy (rather than trembles with fear). It enjoys its own exercise with a joy wholly free from negativity since this joy neither comes from the overcoming of something, nor from the fulfillment of a lack. Uninvolved in any dialectics of actualization whatsoever, the drive only follows its own desire.

In his openly Spinozian meditation on The Pleasure in Drawing, Nancy repeatedly comes back to Matisse’s saying that what a painter does is ‘… to follow the desire of the line’.Footnote 73 Perhaps the creative act thus exhibits the conative drive and may help us understand its tension—and that is to say: its joy—better. What happens when the painter draws a line? As soon as the drawing has begun, there is a continual actualization (ἐνέργεια) of a form in the wake of the drawing. And when the pen is lifted from the canvas, we can already say that this form constitutes an actual work of art (ἔργον). Matisse, however, suggests that the line has its own desire. This is not a desire to actualize something or to become something actual. Rather, the desire of the line is to maintain itself in the draw of its own drawing. The artist—who creates—follows this desire. In other words, the artist is not interested in actualization or in actuality but in the creative act itself—which is precisely not an act in the Aristotelian sense but rather the joy of a drive that manages to preserve itself. As Derrida writes (contra structuralism): ‘Form fascinates when one no longer has the force to understand force from within itself. That is, to create.’Footnote 74

Perhaps ever since the first drawing on a cave wall, the artist is the one who has exhibited what it is ‘to create.’ The drawing of a line has a different movement than that from potentiality to actuality. It crosses this movement so that in its wake the passage from potentiality to actuality is opened. The line is thus an incision—a rift (Riß) to evoke Heidegger’s term in The Origin of the Work of Art. Out of this rift, the work of art springs forth. It springs forth as when someone pours water drawn from a well-spring—something which the German language allows us to call Schöpfen. And all creations, all Schöpfung, are like that. Creation is an incision. And precisely such an incision takes place in the conative drive of each being as it drives in its being; or it takes place—with Spinoza’s terms—in every mode of substance. The conative drive drives at the point of transition from potentiality to actuality. It continuously opens this passage. But, it does not itself travel it. The drive always follows its own desire and each being has its own line to trace.

The drive is thus engaged with its own drive rather than with any actualization or actuality. It enables that something takes place but takes place itself ‘before’ anything takes place. In this sense, nothing—i.e., nothing actual—takes place in the drive. What, however, does take place in the drive, according to Heidegger, is time: ‘From drive itself arises time.’Footnote 75 And if we have already established that Heidegger attempts to rephrase Sorge in terms of Drang, it should come as no surprise that he also finds time here.

From Spinoza, we know that the two aspects under which we can look at the conative drive are ultimately the aspect of duration (subspecie durationis) and the aspect of eternity (subspecie aeternitatis). If these are aspects, it does not mean that there is a drive an sich behind them, though. It means that whether we look at the drive in one way or the other, it is the same drive. The drive does not hide itself behind these aspects. Rather, it shows that duration and eternity become the same, provided that we understand ‘same’ in terms of the Spinozian sive. This would not imply that we cannot or should not make the distinction. On the contrary, we must make the distinction between duration and eternity. Otherwise we shall never understand the drive, since it is precisely this distinction that becomes indistinct in it. To be driven towards your own drive—or to be spinning—is not to be outside of time, in eternity. Rather, it is to lose track of time.

We can try to illustrate this experientially. If you spin in the most literal and corporeal sense, say, for 3 min, this duration is not measured from within the spinning. Indeed, if you are able to count the rounds like the second hand of a watch then, arguably, you are not truly spinning. The 3 min must be measured from without. A being, however, that does not spin on occasion but spins in its very being cannot as such step outside of it and measure how long it has been spinning. And it is along those lines that we should conceive that the conative drive renders duration and eternity indistinct. We can perhaps say that it draws out—extends and erases—this ontological difference. I propose to call this ‘temporalization’.

The claim, then, would be that the drive temporalizes being. This temporalization occurs neither in time nor outside of time, but rather in a time before time (and as Derrida attests: ‘… this time before time has always made me dizzy’).Footnote 76 The drive temporalizes, on the one hand, ‘before’ the before-and-after of whatever takes place; and it temporalizes, on the other hand, in a ‘before’ that is still not exactly eternal but rather placed in an immanent infinity. The drive is immanent because when it drives, it remains in its own tension; and it is infinite because there is no end to the coming of the driving force seen from within the drive. This is why Spinoza writes that: ‘The conatus with which each single thing endeavors to persist in its own being does not involve finite time, but indefinite time [tempus indefinitum].’Footnote 77 The conative drive is neither eternal nor finite. Rather, it involves an indefinite duration. This is due to the fact that the drive drives towards itself. Seen from within, this spinning does not take time. In its vertigo, the drive knows of no beginning or end. Rather, it gives time. The conative drive gives to being a tempo—a beat, a rhythm, a pulse. And it is according to this tempo that there is a measure of time for something to take. Each being is essentially a conative drive that beats at the threshold between eternity and duration and temporalizes being according to its own singular pulse.

As we have seen, the drive at this threshold lacks nothing to enable the transition from potentiality to actuality—neither in tendency nor in force; and it also loses no force or tendency when this transition is accomplished. As such, the drive is a point of absolute intensity and force. This, however, does not preclude that actualization can be inhibited or disinhibited. Immediately after having stated in the quote above that the drive is always released in itself, although it remains tense, Heidegger continues:

Drive correspondingly can be hindered in its thrust [Drängen], but it is not in that case the same as a merely static capability for acting [ruhenden Wirkfähigkeit]. Removing the hindrance can nevertheless allow the thrust to become free. Drive, accordingly, needs no additional cause from outside, but, on the contrary, needs only the removal of some existing impediment.Footnote 78

There is then such a thing as inhibition and disinhibition of the drive. But, this must be interpreted rigorously negatively. There is no causality exerted upon the force of the drive from without. All causality of the drive is immanent. Consequently, if the drive is inhibited, this does not diminish the force of the drive. It does not become a dormant potentiality. And inversely, if the drive is disinhibited, this does not increase the force of the drive. The drive does not need any occasional causality. It brings with it all the force it needs. All in all, the drive is incessantly and continually released and drives on regardless of its inhibition or disinhibition. Nevertheless, the fact that the drive can be inhibited and, as such, disinhibited is not unimportant.

When a potential is actualized, something takes place. Temporalization itself, however, does not take place. But it can become a place of being. And this is precisely what happens when inhibition occurs at the point of transition from potentiality to actuality. Dasein thus means being (in) a place before something takes place or being (at) a beginning before something begins. It is a lingering or hesitation in the beginning. As such, being-there remains in proximity to eternity: it stays with the force of its own drive. This driving force is—as Spinoza says of God—never a remote cause.Footnote 79 Considered as conative drives or forces of existence, everything is in God. Nothing emanates from God in a neo-platonic system of increasing distance but, as Deleuze aptly puts it, ‘immanates’ in God in a system of immanent causation.Footnote 80Dasein, however, is a peculiar force of existence that manages to dwell in this immanence. Dasein constitutes a life in immanence.Footnote 81

The main take-along idea from this is the following: if immanence is otherwise an inconspicuous point of transition where potentialities continually become actual, immanence becomes, in the case of inhibition, a place of being. Nothing actual takes place here. What does take place, though, is being-there with its own peculiar mode of temporalization. From the point of view of an analytic of Dasein, inhibition thus proves to be a key notion. What is inhibition? What is disinhibition? And what is their relation to the drive they inhibit or disinhibit? These are the questions that lead us to our third text.

Disinhibition and Inhibition

In 1929/30, upon his return to Freiburg, Heidegger held his famous lecture course on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics.Footnote 82 When, in the second part, Heidegger elaborates his three main theses—the stone is without world (weltlos), the animal is poor in world (weltarm), the human being is world-forming (weltbildend)—he comes across the relation between drive and disinhibition in his discussion specifically of the middle thesis. Heidegger sets out to explain this thesis with a clarification of the essence of the organism. He distinguishes between tool (Zeug) and organ (Organ). A tool is a readiness (Fertigkeit) for something, whereas an organ is a capability (Fähigkeit) of something. It is in order to explicate this capability that the notion of drive is introduced.

The tool is ready to be put to service according to some program (Vorschrift). It is subjected to a rule from without. The organism, on the contrary, brings its own rule with it—and what is more: it drives itself ahead into that of which it is capable. It is this drive-character of the capability (Triebcharacter der Fähigkeit), which is crucial in the present context. Heidegger writes:

Something which is capable […] drives itself toward its own capability for … This self-driving [Sichvortreiben] and being driven toward its wherefore [Vorgetriebensein in sein Wozu] is only possible in that which is capable inasmuch as capability is in general instinctually driven [triebhaft]. Capacity is only to be found where there is drive [Fähigkeit ist immer nur da, wo Trieb ist].Footnote 83

What we encounter here as Trieb is unmistakably that very conatus, which Heidegger had previously translated as Drang.Footnote 84 It is a tendency that propels itself into that of which it is capable. If we bracket the actualization of the capability and look instead at the drive itself, we will arrive at the question: what is a drive that maintains itself in its drive towards that of which a capability is capable (triebhafte Sichvorgetriebenhalten in das Wozu)? The answer will become clearer if we look at the distinction between disinhibition and inhibition in its relation to drive.

Heidegger claims that the animal is surrounded with a ring of disinhibitions (Enthemmungsring), which accounts for the captivation (Benommenheit) of the animal in its behavior (Benehmen).Footnote 85 In the animal, the drive is never inhibited. Granted, it can be satiated. When, for instance, a bee stops sucking up honey, it is not because it ascertains that there is too much. To do this, the bee would need to have a relation to honey as honey, and this presupposes an inhibition of the drive, as Heidegger will go on to show. Rather, the bee stops simply because it is satiated. In fact, if a small incision is made into the abdomen, so that the honey will run out, the bee will not stop sucking. Instead, it will itself be sucked endlessly into this specific disinhibition of the drive. When, under normal circumstances, the bee escapes this, it is because it is satiated. Such satiation, however, must not be confused with inhibition. What alone inhibits the drive—and this, again, must be interpreted rigorously negatively—is if it is not disinhibited. And this is precisely what will never happen to the bee since it is encircled in a ring of disinhibitions. As soon as it is satiated, its drive will be disinhibited again and thus captivated in a new behavior—for instance flying back to the hive. The bee is truly a busy-bee.Footnote 86

From the perspective of the analytic of Dasein, our attention is attracted to the case of inhibition which Heidegger in 1929/30—never closer to philosophical anthropology than here—daringly presents as the case of the human being. What is precisely inhibited? Here it is crucial to distinguish carefully. The drive is a drive towards actualization, and when the drive is inhibited, it is with respect to actualization. This, however, does not mean that the drive as such is inhibited. In his lectures on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, Heidegger writes that …

… the incapable [Unvermögende] is actual [wirklich] precisely because it does not find the transition to enactment [Vollzug]. To not find the transition to …: this is not nothing, but instead can have the pressing force [Eindringlichkeit] and actuality of the greatest plight [höchster Bedrängnis] and so be what is properly urgent [eigentlich Drängende].Footnote 87

When actualization is inhibited, the drive as such is not. Rather, it becomes pressing. To make it vivid, we can perhaps imagine a stream of water from an unstoppable source. What happens if you inhibit it so that there is no other way to find and no room to rise in? We have then precisely a situation where the stream cannot find ‘the transition to …’ What will happen instead is a compression of water and an intensification of force.

Something comparable occurs when the drive is inhibited. Inhibition never stops the driving force from coming. Indeed, the driving force is this and nothing but this: that it keeps coming. What happens in inhibition, therefore, is that the driving force becomes intense. This becoming-intense is the taking-place of being-there, if we interpret Dasein in terms of the conative drive. Being-there is not accomplished, then, as the transition from potentiality to actuality. It is accomplished in the point of transition itself. It takes place here as the intensity of a force that keeps coming but is inhibited from actualization. Being-there is a lingering here so that the coming as such is felt: as pressure, upheaval, mobilization, urge, desire and—perhaps we can risk this word as well—jouissance.Footnote 88

If we were to point to some experiential paradigms, our attention would—interestingly enough—be drawn to basic phenomena of life such as urinating or copulating. In the urge to urinate, for instance, a coming is certainly felt. And, as we know, it can become quite pressing. This is why, when we relieve ourselves, there is a pleasure. This pleasure is hardly the happiness of a work well done, though. To describe urinating as the actualization of a potentiality is obviously to strain these terms beyond their proper scope. The outcome—which almost mocks the term ἔργον—testifies to the fact that it was never about this outcome. The outcome here is only a fluid that accompanies a coming. Urinating, then, is rather to feel a necessity and to take pleasure in it. We are dealing with something like the pleasure of letting the coming come. And this, obviously, is even more evident in copulation which also adds another important dimension. Copulation—which after all is perhaps no stranger to the copula of being—displays the being-with of being-there in the coming.Footnote 89

Leaving these experiential paradigms aside, though, what we are interested in is neither urinating nor copulating but being-there. The suggestion, then, is that being-there takes place in the inhibition of the movement from potentiality to actuality. In this inhibition, there is a drive about which it is important to notice two things: (a) that the force of this drive comes in a certain sense before the inhibition or disinhibition of it and (b) that the exercise of this drive is in a certain sense perfect. Let me explicate both points.

Since the drive comes ‘before’ its inhibition or disinhibition and remains in full force in either case, it points towards a dimension in Dasein indistinct from the animal. There is, in other words, a dimension in being-there ‘older’ than being-there. We can perhaps call this dimension ‘life’. Life, then, is a drive that drives being-there into being-there just as it drives the animal into being-animal. But it comes itself ‘before’ both. From the point of view of this drive the becoming-human or becoming-animal is therefore indistinct. It is the same conatus. The drive as such is thus a becoming-X without any definite telos to actualize.Footnote 90 Nevertheless, what still distinguishes being-there is that this drive becomes pressing. The drive becomes pressing in the inhibition of the drive with respect to the passage from potentiality to actuality; and being-there takes place here as a in suo esse perseverare in the proximity of a force that, as such, cannot be inhibited.

This leads me to the second point. If this force cannot be inhibited—if it keeps coming—then the drive as such is exercised with a certain perfection. This was, as we have seen, also emphasized by Leibniz. How are we to understand this perfection? It is interesting here to observe some remarks Heidegger makes on the Megarians vis-à-vis the Aristotelian interpretation of potentiality and actuality.

At issue is what kind of reality a potentiality as potentiality has. According to the Megarians, a potentiality is only real as actualized. For a potentiality to be truly potential and not just a chimera, it must be actualized. Aristotle rejects this view and shows that it leads to absurdities. Aristotle argues that it must be possible to have (ἔχειν) a potentiality, which is real even though it is not being actualized (ἐνέργεια). The Megarian concept of what is real is too narrow.

In keeping with this line of thought, Heidegger’s presentation is loyal to Aristotle. However, this whole presentation comes with a noteworthy disclaimer since Heidegger from the outset states that …

… what I am about to say is for you perhaps an empty assertion at present, but for me it is a personal conviction, namely the following: One might rightfully doubt whether Plato and Aristotle actually comprehended and overcame the central objections of the Megarians. With this it may also remain undecided whether the Megarians themselves knew what they for their part fundamentally wanted.Footnote 91

What Heidegger announces here as a personal conviction—but leaves unelaborated—could in fact be a point that connects him deeply to Spinoza. After all, Spinoza was reputed for being the Megarian among the thinkers of early modernity.Footnote 92

What the Megarians perhaps wanted—whether they knew it or not—was to point out that something is covered over in the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Aristotle himself testifies to this, when, in the Metaphysics, he comments on the absurd consequence of the Megarian claim that a man who sits down will lose his potentiality to rise up since he is not presently actualizing this potentiality. On this score, Aristotle writes that the Megarians make potentiality and actuality the same (ταὐτὸ) and suspend something (ἀναιρεῖν, literally ‘lift something up’) of no little importance.Footnote 93 And this may in fact be true—but perhaps Aristotle is still missing the point (sit venio verba!). The absurdity he makes of it even suggests as much. Could it not be that there is something important at work which can only appear when potentiality and actuality is suspended and become the same—and notably ‘at work’ then in another sense than the Aristotelian sense of ἐνέργεια in its correlation with δύναμις? Where Aristotle saw a transition from potentiality to actuality—but arguably never accounted for it—the Megarians may have seen in their indistinction a certain necessity at work.

If this is the case, we are close to Spinoza, since conatus is a drive that is necessarily exercised. On the strength of this drive, each mode does everything it can to persevere in being. As Deleuze writes:

… the distinction between power [puissance] and act, on the level of modes, disappears in favor of two equally actual powers, that of acting, and that of suffering action, which vary inversely one to another, but whose sum is both constant and constantly effective. [A mode] … has no power that is not actual: it is at each moment all that it can be, its power is its essence.Footnote 94

Following this line of thought, conatus is not just a potentiality one ‘has.’ It is never a potentiality that can or cannot be put to work; and when it is at work, it can never be more or less accomplished in a work. Rather, conatus is a force that is necessarily at work; and when it is at work, it accomplishes itself wholly—not in a work, but in the drive.

In this way, the conative drive is always perfectly exercised. Granted, it can be inhibited with respect to the transition from potentiality to actuality. As we have seen, however, this does not mean that the drive as such is inhibited. Drive, therefore, is an action—or better: it is that in any action—that cannot fail. Any attempt to make it fail will fail. Drive is self-driven by necessity. It cannot stop itself.Footnote 95 There is nothing in the drive that works contrary to its tendency. It is a drive-towards-self-as-self-driven-drive and as such: self-preserving, self-sustaining, and self-affirming.

For Spinoza, there was a joy in this perfection which was not the happiness of actualizing but, let us say then, the joy of virtualizing. A potential is actualized in a work. We can evaluate the virtue involved according to the work (ἔργον) or according to the actualization (ἐνέργεια)—by the standard of a poetical know-how (τέχνη) or by the assessment of a practical judgment (φρόνησις). This otherwise important difference matters little here, however, since it is at any rate different from the following: a force is virtualized in a drive. How should we evaluate virtue here? It is not a matter of actualizing a potentiality according to virtue. It is a matter of virtualizing. The force that is virtualized does not become actual. But it is no less real and not at all merely potential. Indeed, it is in a sense hyper-real since it comes with necessity and without end. The virtue of virtualizing is to find oneself self-driven by this endless necessity. It is to find oneself not as one has actually become, nor as one could potentially have been, but as one essentially is. Virtual being is being in essence.Footnote 96 And what one essentially is, is gifted with a force (vis, virtus) of which there is no shortage. This blessedness (beatitudo), as we know from Spinoza, is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself.Footnote 97 The virtue of virtualizing, therefore, is to invigorate oneself with force of existence. And this is not evaluated but rather enjoyed. It is enjoyed with an affirmative joy that completely escapes all dialectics of actualization. We might say that to enjoy being blessed in this way is the brilliance—the shining virtuosity—of being.

Potentiality-of-Being and Responsibility (Conclusion)

In the attempt to open a discourse on Spinoza and Heidegger, we have taken three small steps. First, we observed Heidegger’s careful investigation into potentiality and actuality in a lecture course on the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Heidegger did not dismiss this distinction, but at the pinnacle of his analysis, he excavates a drive at the point where the terms of this distinction become indistinct. Secondly, we saw that Heidegger, in a previous lecture course on Leibniz, had already identified such a drive with the conatus. In a third step, we could then point out how Heidegger, in yet another lecture course, investigates the disinhibition and inhibition of such a drive in the animal and the human being, respectively. This enabled us to distinguish explicitly between the drive with respect to the transition from potentiality to actuality on the one hand and the drive as such on the other. In the first respect, the drive can be disinhibited or inhibited; in the second respect, it has an absolute intensity. At the level of this absolute intensity, we were finally able to disclose a force that keeps coming and is always both necessarily and perfectly exercised in the drive. This driving force did not belong specifically to Dasein, though. We thus arrived at something in Dasein ‘older’ than Dasein. Nevertheless, in the inhibition of the drive with respect to the transition from potentiality to actuality, Dasein emerges as a lingering in the proximity of this force.

From the vantage point of this analysis, we should be able now to understand better the meaning of our initial hypothesis, i.e., that a deconstruction of the Aristotelian framework in Being and Time will allow us to excavate the Spinozian nature of potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen). This existential, then, is not the actualization of a potentiality, but the exercise of a conative drive. A re-interpretation of Being and Time from this point of view seems a desideratum. As for now, our analysis may help us to clarify the complicity of Spinoza and Heidegger in terms of the originary ethics that Nancy drew our attention to in the beginning.

As will be remembered, we set out with an indistinction between ethics and ontology. We have since been preoccupied with another indistinction that between potentiality and actuality. By way of conclusion, we may therefore ask if we can elucidate the former indistinction with the latter. Perhaps, the exercise of the conative drive—right at the indistinction between potentiality and actuality—is the originary ethicality of existence?

In the exercise of the conative drive, nothing is actualized. There is consequently not yet any outcome that can be separated from and measured by some normative standard.Footnote 98 There is, however, the demand of being-there. This is why Agamben can write: ‘When Spinoza defines essence as conatus, […] he thinks something like a demand.’Footnote 99 Still, it is undoubtedly Heidegger’s merit—more so than Spinoza’s—to have carved out this demand in an explicit analysis.

According to Heidegger, there is indeed a demand of being. This is the call of conscience (Ruf des Gewissen). And there is also a response to this call—in Being and Time Heidegger names it being-guilty (Schuldigsein). By implication, potentiality-of-being is structured as responsibility. It is paramount, though, to bracket here all conceptions of responsibility relying on a metaphysics of subjectivity. First of all, one must hear in the word ‘responsibility’ that it is precisely a response-ability. It is a capability and should be analyzed as such. It is however—and this is the next step—a privileged capability. This is what we saw already in our exposition of Aristotle. Responsibility is not just a potentiality. It is in a way the potentiality of potentialities. As such, it is not itself acquired or practiced like other potentialities that presupposes it—but how then?

The attestation of potentiality-of-being in its proper mode occurs in the call of conscience. This implies that Dasein not only exercises the capability to be. Dasein also experiences this capability as an existential obligation. The exercise of it is experienced as a response to a demand—and notably so that the demand itself elicits the response. Dasein thus experiences at once that it should be and that it must be. It experiences that it should be in the sense that it is called upon to exercise its capability to be. It experiences that it must be in the sense that it cannot not exercise this capability. And it experiences this at once in the sense of a syncopated beat consisting in call and response. Let me unfold this a bit.

Dasein both is and ought to be. This is peculiar. Normally, a demand is revoked—becomes superfluous—if things turn out already to be as demanded. This is not so in the case of Dasein. What is demanded is that Dasein exercises the capability of being-there. This demand is perfectly met. Dasein cannot not exercise it. Nevertheless, the demand is not revoked. The question therefore is what to make of an action that cannot not be exercised but remains a task. We can pose the question in the following way: the call calls for the exercise of a capability that cannot not be exercised—why call for it then?

In this respect, the call of conscience is somewhat like an alarm clock. If the alarm is the demand that I should wake up, it will be too late to decide if I should comply with this demand when I hear it. In hearing it, I have fulfilled it. Yet, this means in a certain sense that it is impossible to fulfill the demand. Granted, it is not impossible because I cannot fulfill it. I am awake and the demand is as such fulfilled. Rather, it is impossible because I cannot not fulfill it. When I am ready to do what the alarm clock demands of me, there is already nothing left to do. Any actualization comes too late for this demand.

When the call of conscience demands being-there, this demand is equally impossible to fulfill and for a similar reason: it is impossible not to fulfill. Before you do something, the demand is already fulfilled in your capability of being responsive to it. You are broken into before you can protect yourself—and perhaps even before there is a self to protect, provided that being a self should mean being-there as a response to a call. At any rate, such a call demands the impossible because it demands what cannot fail. It is one thing to be obliged to do what cannot be done because it exceeds our capabilities. In that case, we are dealing with a demand that violates the fair principle that an ‘ought’ presupposes a ‘can.’ This is impossible in one sense: no matter what we do, we will fall short. Another thing is to be obliged to do what cannot not be done. This is impossible in another sense. We are dealing then with a demand that bypasses us: no matter what we do, we come too late.

As respondents to such a call, our insufficiency—i.e., our being-guilty—does not consist in a lack of capability or in not doing what is demanded. With our ability to respond, nothing is lacking (and as Deleuze proclaims: ‘This is Spinoza’s great idea: you never lack anything’).Footnote 100 Rather, our insufficiency consists in being cut off from our own most capability.Footnote 101 We cannot do what we will always already have done whenever we do something. We cannot render demand and fulfillment indistinct, even though this is what they already are in the response to a call which, taken together, constitutes our being-there. This inability, incidentally, is the reason why we know conscience for the most part only as good or bad. We have then commitments to norms about what should be and by which we measure and judge facts about what is. To have such a normatively measurable conscience—whether good or bad—is, however, consciencelessness itself (Gewissenslosigkeit) according to Heidegger.Footnote 102 As soon as being is distinct from well-being, realitas distinct from perfectio, and facts distinct from norms, it means that we will have covered over the originary ethicality of our existence, which is attested in the call of conscience.

It is important to insist that this call of conscience is both the condition of possibility and impossibility of any normative commitment. Without it, such commitments would be without address. Nevertheless and at the same time, it un-works what it makes possible since its demand has no measure. It demands unconditionally but demands nothing that can be separated as a norm from a fact. It is experienced, therefore, as the indistinction between ought and is. I will have achieved what is demanded before I put something to work. In this way, the demand confuses the distinction. But this does not mean that we—respondents—are confused. It only means that we are addressed. If we were confused, this would imply that there was at the bottom of the call an ‘ought’ separable from an ‘is,’ just in need of being sorted out. This is not the case. Rather, being addressed by the call—and, by that token, being response-able—is the distinct experience of their indistinction. It is a syncopated experience in two beats which, like in a heartbeat, always come together although they never coincide. We can perhaps transcribe it as follows: You shall …—this means that I am obliged to something (first beat: ought) … be-there—but that is impossible to do, since it is already done by now (second beat: is).

If what is and what should be is rendered indistinct in the call, it is ultimately because what is called for is nothing but the response to this call. ‘Nothing but’ means that there is not someone who hears the call and then decides to respond to it or not, and—if the former—fulfill it or not. Rather, in hearing the call, it is already fulfilled. And this fulfillment alone means that there is someone, i.e., a singularity irrevocably engaged in being. Nancy thus writes—and since he got the first word, he might as well get the last:

To be responsible is not, primarily, being indebted to or accountable before some normative authority. It is to be engaged by one’s Being to the very end of this Being, in such a way that this engagement or conatus is the very essence of Being.Footnote 103


  1. 1.

    Nancy (2003, p. 195)

  2. 2.

    Cf. Heidegger (2006, p. 243).

  3. 3.

    Cf. Heidegger (1985, 33–34).

  4. 4.

    Spinoza appears also in ‘The Onto-theo-logical Constitution of Metaphysics,’ but only through Hegel’s criticism; and he is briefly mentioned in the Metaphysical Foundations of Logic, but only as lacking behind Leibniz in determining the concept of substance.

  5. 5.

    The concept of indistinction plays an important methodological role in the present analysis. I keep it implicit here and propose to develop it elsewhere. It can be said, however, that it functions similarly to what Agamben calls “archeological epochē” (cf. Agamben (2009, p. 90)).

  6. 6.

    Agamben (2016, p. 175).

  7. 7.

    That it was meticulous analyzes of Aristoteles which above all preceded the conception of Being and Time is well-know (cf. Ricoeur 1992 who references Remi Brague for the view that: “Heidegger’s major work is the substitute for a work on Aristotle that did not see the light of day” (p. 311)). To Gadamer, the young Heidegger appeared as an Aristoteles redivivus (cf. Pongratz (1977, p. 69)).

  8. 8.

    I use the word “use” with reference to Spinoza’s own radical hermeneutical principle, according to which words gain their meaning solely from their use: “Verba ex solo usu certam habent significationem.” (cf. Spinoza (2007, p. 165)). Just as there are no occult powers in nature, there is no hidden meaning behind the surface of the text. There is only the encounter between text and reader and the effects this produces. In this regard cf. Montag (1999, p. 21–25).

  9. 9.

    Cf. Plato (1997, 80d).

  10. 10.

    Deleuze (1988, p. 104). Deleuze, of course, is not alone in highlighting this aspect, which has informed the French Spinoza-reception at large. This reception has been framed by the alternative Hegel or Spinoza (so the title of Macherey’s important 1979 book). From the impetus of the few remarks on Spinoza made by Macherey’s mentor, Louis Althusser, a trajectory of Spinozian (sub)versions of Marxism has emerged. This trajectory includes, e.g., Antonio Negris The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics (1981) and Etienne Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics (1985). In that context Spinoza’s “ontology of power”—to deploy Alexandre Matheron’s expression—has obviously been addressed in its political sense. Incidentally, Foucault’s concurrent analysis of power could very well be assessed in this context also, and if Spinoza is largely absent in Foucault, the Spinozist undercurrent of his analysis may become more detectable if one reads Deleuze’s 1986 book on his friend, simply titled Foucault (cf. Casarino (2018) and Juniper and Jose (2018)). As for the anglophone reception, it is the merit of Valtteri Viljanen’s 2011 book on Spinoza’s Geometry of Power to have offered a full interpretation that puts power at the center stage. This achievement has ignited a still ongoing debate among Spinoza-scholars on the genealogy of Spinoza’s conception of power, on the way power is imparted from substance to modes, and how power relates to surrounding—and to some extent interchangeable—concepts in Spinoza’s metaphysics such as essence, causality, conatus and virtue (cf. e.g. Lærke (2011) and Sangiacomo (2015)). This recent discussion addresses power in its metaphysical more than its political sense. Lærke, for instance, argues that Spinoza’s ontology of power must be summoned as the suitable framework for understanding the pivotal in-relation of Spinoza’s metaphysics. He opposes this to the purely conceptualist framework provided by Michael Della Rocca’s interpretation (cf., e.g. Della Rocca (2008)). However, Lærke concludes with the observation that even if his argument is successful, it does not explicate what power is or means (2011, p. 462). It is to this remaining question that the present paper proposes a Heideggerian response. The suggestion is that the kind of power entailed could fruitfully be interpreted as (a better take on) what Heidegger in 1927 called potentiality-of-being (Seinkönnen). This shifts once again the way power is addressed: neither politically nor metaphysically but rather existentially—and in this sense as ‘force of existence.’

  11. 11.

    Obviously, I cannot address Spinoza scholarship very comprehensibly. My main concern is the presentation of Heidegger. In order to extent the invitation properly, however, I will let this section be accompanied with some indications at the level of footnotes.

  12. 12.

    Spinoza (2006, IAx1).

  13. 13.

    Cf. Deleuze (1988, p. 63).

  14. 14.

    Cf. Nancy (2008, p. 61).

  15. 15.

    In the Ethics, Spinoza speaks of vis existendi only infrequently (cf. ,e.g., Spinoza (2006, IP7 and IP14)). For the most part, he employs the term agendi potentia—but synonymously with vis existendi (‘… agendi potentia sive existendi,’ cf. Spinoza (2006, The General Definition of Emotions, IIIExp)). I prefer the former expression in this context since it reflects better, on a terminological level, that Spinoza is in fact un-working the way power and force is conceptualized in the Aristotelian framework. Di Poppa is right in pointing out that ‘… essence is potentia as power and activity, not potentia as potentiality.’ (2010, p. 277).

  16. 16.

    Spinoza (2006, IIIP6).

  17. 17.

    Cf. Garret (2002, p. 149) and Viljanen (2011, p. 72).

  18. 18.

    Cf. the epigraph of the present paper.

  19. 19.

    In his paper on ‘the ontology of determination,’ Sangiacomo offers an erudite account of the genealogy of Spinoza’s conception of the force associated with conatus (cf. Sangiacomo (2015)). Sangiacomo demonstrates that Spinoza, in his presentation of The Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, introduces a distinction between “force of motion” and “force of determination” which is then generalized in the Ethics as conatus and power of acting (potentia agendi). Leaving the intricacies of the genealogy behind, the point of the matter is that this distinction allows Spinoza to resolve an otherwise threatening contradiction between the inner causal activity of modes on account of their essences and the external causality that thoroughly determines modes not only to produce the effects they produce but even to come into existence at all. According to Spinoza, then, each mode is endowed with a conatus—which generalizes the force of motion—by which it brings about the perseverance in its being. This is the essence of a mode (which, since it is wholly causally effective in this way, is never a mere possible being). When a mode, however, enters existence, due to a certain external causality, the causal account of its encounters with other existing modes needs to refer not only to the conatus but also to a power of acting which generalizes the force of determination. In the Cartesian setting, Spinoza introduces force of determination to explain the direction of movement of a physical body in interaction with other bodies. Whereas force of motion does not in itself have such a direction, the force of determination does and this direction is explained by the degree of contrariety of the collisions into which it enters. The pivotal point, however, is that the force of determination is not another force than the force of motion, but rather a mode of it. In the generalized metaphysics of the Ethics, this means that we can account for the same force in two distinct ways, i.e., intrinsically and in encounters. If we add that this distinction may ultimately be rooted in the distinction between eternity and duration, it will be tenable that the overall conception of force conveyed by Sangiacomo is not irreconcilable with the present paper, even if the existential context proposed here is justifiably absent from Sangiacomo’s more scholarly account. The commonality is that a distinction—the terminological expression of which we may leave undecided—is evoked such that it is possible to say that the force of a mode is perfectly exercised all the while being modified in encounters that enhances or inhibits it and thus gives rise to joyous or sad passions.

  20. 20.

    Cf. Blumenberg (1976, p. 144). Even if they accounted differently for the genesis of the principle, Blumenberg and Dieter Henrich were in agreement that Heidegger was the great anti-modern thinker. A line from Spinoza to Heidegger—as suggested here—might therefore prompt us to revisit the discussion on subjectivity and self-preservation from the 1970s (cf. Ebeling 1976).

  21. 21.

    Cf. Blumenberg (1983, p. 125–227).

  22. 22.

    Cf. Diogenes Laërtius (1853, p. 290).

  23. 23.

    On oikeiôsis, cf. Forschner (1981, p. 142–159).

  24. 24.

    Cf. Sommer (1976, p. 345–349).

  25. 25.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIPIV, IIIPV).

  26. 26.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIPVIII).

  27. 27.

    Cf. Blumenberg (1976, p. 188).

  28. 28.

    Viljanen (2011, p. 105). Similarly, Renz (2008, p. 317). With his meticulous analysis of ‘Teleology in Spinoza’ (1999), Don Garret has provided a pivotal contribution to the debate. A recurrent point in Garret—which was already raised by Edwin Curley vis-à-vis Jonathan Bennet (cf. Curley (1990))—is that a contextual analysis of Spinoza’s claim that ‘… all final causes are nothing but human fictions’ reveals that this apparently universal rejection is in fact limited to all final causes ascribed to God (cf. Garrett (1999, p. 315) and Spinoza (2006, I, Appendix)). If this is true, Spinoza’s rejection of final causes need not preclude non-theological applications of teleological modes of explanations—for instance anthropological ones. However, this does not necessitate them either and some scholars have maintained that the gist of Spinoza’s anthropology remains non-teleological. A central concern here is how the doctrine of conatus itself should be read. For some, it is almost self-evidently teleological (cf. Garrett (1999, p. 313) and Sangiacomo (2016, p. 396)). Others have defended an inertial or otherwise non-teleological reading (cf. Carriero (2011) and Viljanen (2011)). Without denying the meaningfulness and relevance of assessing whether conatus is teleologically structured or not, the contention in this paper—as will appear—is that an important aspect of the conatus doctrine is lost in this interpretative grid.

  29. 29.

    Nietzsche (2002, p. 15).

  30. 30.

    Viljanen (2011, p. 107).

  31. 31.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIPIX, Scholium).

  32. 32.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIPIX, Scholium).

  33. 33.

    Viljanen (2011, p. 106). Cf. also Blumenberg (1976, p. 186).

  34. 34.

    On inoperativity—which of course translates the much-discussed French term désoeuvrement—cf. for instance Agamben (2015, p. 247).

  35. 35.

    Viljanen (2011, p. 125).

  36. 36.

    Sommer (1976, p. 350—my translation). The phrase “inversion of teleology” was coined by Robert Spaemann for whom the modern paradigm of self-preservation was informed not primarily by the reception of the stoic notion of oikeiôsis, but more so by an opposition to Aristotelian teleology.

  37. 37.

    A convincing account of the specific kind of teleology targeted by Spinoza’s critique of final causes is offered by Sangiacomo (2016). As this absolves Spinoza from a commitment to a general rejection of teleology, a de facto use of teleological explanations need not entail any inconsistency on Spinoza’s part. According to Sangiacomo, the teleology Spinoza rejects is endorsed in a late medieval trajectory from Suárez which Spinoza found embodied in Adrian Heereboord, a contemporary Dutch philosopher. What, in short, characterizes Heereboord’s concept of teleology is that final causes operate as external principles and that these final causes are the object of some kind of intentionality (e.g. thought, will or desire). Furthermore, his teleology is inscribed into a general anthropocentrism according to which God, in a similar teleological sense, creates the world for the best of human beings. Despite Heereboord’s call for a return to Aristotle, Sangiacomo points out that the teleology in question takes τέχνη rather than φύσις as its paradigm and thus runs counter to Aristotle’s natural teleology. This raises the question about what kind of teleology Aristotle actually did endorse. The surprise of Sangiacomo’s account is that Aristotle—allegedly the father of teleology—and Spinoza—allegedly the most vehement opponent of teleology—suddenly may become allies in a shared non-anthropocentric world-view. In the particular context of the present paper, the question is to what extent the conatus doctrine may be interpreted with a genuinely Aristotelian kind of teleology. This enormous issue cannot be settled here. The two main points, however, that should be addressed is that in this kind of teleology, the principle of movement is in the moving thing itself and that this does not necessarily entail any kind of intentionality. Following Garrets discussion of so called “unthoughtful teleology” in Aristotle, Sangiacomo emphasizes especially the second point (cf. Garrett (1999, p. 325–327)). That teleology can be “unthoughtful” goes well together with conatus, which evidently does not need to include intentionality. It is true that Spinoza is more interested in the cases where it in fact does (cf. Spinoza 2006 (IIIPIX, Scholium)). However, as Sangiacomo argues, even in these cases, it is not on the strength of this intentionality that there is also teleology of the Aristotelian kind. What is important is rather that things which is brought about—intentionally or not—‘actualize a certain form’ (cf. Sangiacomo (2016, p. 403)). And this leads us to the first and more decisive point. What does it mean that the principle of movement is in the thing itself? In order to articulate this, Aristotle found it necessary to coin a neologism: ἐντελέχεια. The τέλος, then, is in the thing—but in what sense of being is it there? Here, it seems, that Aristotle deploys his distinction between potentiality and actuality. Accordingly, a teleological explanation will always explain that something which is not yet actual becomes actual. A pivotal point in the existential reading of conatus proposed here, however, is that this conception of teleology is applicable to conatus only in a derivative way. Essentially, conatus designates a mode’s perseverance in its being such that this being is not yet actualized but is also no longer a mere potentiality. This perseverance in its being—as distinguished from an only derivative preservation of its existence (cf. Casarino (2018, p. 66))—takes place at the very threshold between potentiality and actuality. It is dubious—but not to be excluded—that we can detect something like that in Aristotle. However, even if we can, it is still more dubious if we should call it teleology. Perhaps, it is better to speak of perfection, provided that we manage to think of it without teleology (cf. for a similar approach Carriero (2011)). One way to do this is the following: When a mode perseveres in its being at the threshold between potentiality and actuality, it does everything it can and nothing is missing. All its powers are perfectly active although they actualize nothing. They remain in a state of virtuality in which the mode is wholly virtuous but where it will no longer makes sense to ask whether this actualizes something (teleology) or merely maintains something that is already actual (inertia).

  38. 38.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIPVII).

  39. 39.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, IPXXXIV).

  40. 40.

    Cf. Deleuze (1988, p. 27), Lærke (2011 p. 455), and Hübner (2017).

  41. 41.

    Cf. Heidegger (1996, p. 40).

  42. 42.

    That also conatus should be interpreted as a demand is an ingenious suggestion from Agamben that I shall consider at the end of this paper. As it will turn out, this suggestion may prove helpful in order to situate conatus beyond teleology or non-teleology and carve out its meaning in terms of an existential interpretation.

  43. 43.

    I am indebted to the anonymous reviewer who pointed this out.

  44. 44.

    Heidegger (1995a, p. 281).

  45. 45.

    Cf. Heidegger (1996, p. 40).

  46. 46.

    Apart from this commonality, though, Deleuze’s and Viljanen’s interpretations obviously springs both from different trajectories and from different overall interpretations of Spinoza. This makes any straight forward comparison difficult. An important similarity seems to be that Spinoza, for both Deleuze and Viljanen, arrives at his notion of power as essence causation by undoing the Aristotelian distinction between potentiality and actuality (cf. Viljanen (2011, p. 179); Deleuze (1992, p. 93)). Essence causation is the power of a mode to determine its own affections (cf. Viljanen (2011, p. 126); Deleuze (1992, p. 305)). However, whereas Viljanen conceives of this determination in analogy with geometry (thus the subtitle: ‘Spinoza’s geometry of power’), Deleuze writes: ‘The essences are neither logical possibilities nor geometric structures; they are parts of power, that is, degrees of physical intensity’ (Deleuze (1988, p. 65), cf. also Deleuze (1992, p. 192)). Lærke and Sangiacomo—who also presents Spinoza in terms of an ontology of power—seems closer to Deleuze here when they make some noteworthy reservations towards Viljanen’s account. Sangiacomo observes that this account creates a tension between ‘perfect essence actualization’ (Viljanen) and external causation (2015, p. 539). This tension might in turn be explained by the reservation Lærke makes when he points out that the kind of causality involved in immanent causation (and, by implication, in ‘perfect essence realization’) is not, as Viljanen argues, the formal causality developed in late medieval philosophy, for instance by Suárez, but rather a kind of efficient causality. The gist of this reservation is that formal causality will end up reintroducing an ontology of potentiality and possibility that is foreign to Spinoza (cf. Lærke (2011, p. 455). A suitable place to pursue this discussion further would be Spinoza’s notion of non-existent modes. Here, it will be necessary to develop a conceptual apparatus that allows us to say that such modes are not merely potential or possible, although they are not actual (cf. Deleuze (1992, p. 212)).

  47. 47.

    Deleuze (1992, p. 230).

  48. 48.

    Deleuze (1992, p. 249). Cf. Spinoza (2006, IV, Praefatio). This is also a point to bear in mind in order not to confuse conatus with any kind of survival instinct (cf. Yoval (1999), Montag (2016, p. 170), and Casarino 2018 (pp. 64–66)).

  49. 49.

    This does not mean that modes are the origin of the power they thus modify. On the intricate relation between God’s power and the power of finite modes, cf. Sangiacomo’s model of production (2018)—but also already Deleuze’s model of expression (Deleuze (1992, p. 91–92)).

  50. 50.

    Cf. Deleuze (1992, p. 303, 315 and 398).

  51. 51.

    Agamben remarks that: ‘The oxymoron “actual essence” shows the inadequacy of the categories of traditional ontology with respect to what is to be thought here’ (Agamben (2016, p. 171)). What is to be thought—again—is an essence that is not actual but not, therefore, merely potential or possible. When Spinoza chooses to define conatus as actual essence, we might therefore follow the drift of his thinking if we propose to distinguish between the actuality of a mode (its existence in duration) and its essential activity (its virtuousness in eternity). Conatus as actual essence can then be viewed from both perspectives, i.e., known with two distinct kinds of knowledge (namely of the second and third kind).

  52. 52.

    Spinoza (2006, IIPXLV, Scholium). Interpretations emphasizing that conatus is most fundamentally a desire for eternity—and not, or only derivatively, a desire to maintain durative existence—are probably best suited to enter the existential reading of conatus proposed in the paper at hand (cf. for instance Yoval (1999), Youpa (2009) and, especially, Vatter (2010) and Casarino (2018)).

  53. 53.

    According to Voss’ informative discussion, the virtual cannot be conflated with the eternal even though ‘… the conceptual couple essence/existence comes close to the Deleuzian couple of virtual/actual.’ (Voss (2017, p. 171)). I shall return to the question why and in what sense I say ‘proximity to eternity.’

  54. 54.

    It is obvious that Agamben’s famous and fruitful development of the Aristotelian notion of potentiality—at the core of Agamben’s thinking—owes a great deal to Heidegger’s interpretations of Aristotle in general, and perhaps to this lecture in particular (for Agamben on potentiality cf., e.g., 2017 (pp. 33–56)). This is not the place to engage with Agamben, though, even if he has certainly animated the presentation given here of potentiality and actuality. Highly recommendable readings of the lecture in question is offered by Brogan (2005, pp. 110–137)) and Bernet (2017). Connors’ account of ‘force’ in modern thinking from Nietzsche to Derrida also has a valuable chapter on Heidegger (cf. Connors (2010)).

  55. 55.

    As for terminology, I shall stick to potentiality and actuality. The reader should keep the Greek terms and their literal translation as ‘being-at-work’ and ‘being-able’ in mind. I reserve the term capability for the cases where it is undecided if the force involved should be understood as a potentiality in the Aristotelian sense or otherwise.

  56. 56.

    Cf. Aristotle (1984, p. 1103a ff.).

  57. 57.

    Aristotle (1984, p. 1103a).

  58. 58.

    When developing this point, Agamben refers to Kafka’s fragment on ‘The Great Swimmer’ who holds the world record but must admit that he does not know how to swim (cf. Agamben (2017, p. 46)). Perhaps, the secret of the Socratic docta ignorantia also lies here?

  59. 59.

    The paradoxical structure of an ‘X without X’ is explored in Derrida’s erudition of the exclamation attributed to Aristotle ‘Oh my friends, there are no friends’ in Politics of Friendship, as well as in Jonathan Lear’s discussion of Socratic-Kierkegaardian irony in the form of the question ‘Among all X, is there an X?’ in The Case of Irony.

  60. 60.

    I will return to the notion of responsibility at the end of this paper.

  61. 61.

    On the use of the middle voice in Spinoza, cf. Agamben (1999, pp. 234–235). For some critical remarks on Agamben here, cf. Vardoulakis (2010).

  62. 62.

    This would correspond with the Spinozian idea that conatus is always wholly exercised in its capability of affecting as well as being affected. I shall return briefly to this.

  63. 63.

    Cf. Heidegger (1995b, pp. 187–188).

  64. 64.

    Ricoeur (1992, pp. 308–317).

  65. 65.

    For informative accounts of this Heidegger lecture, cf. Neumann (2014), Lodge (2015), and Delgado and Escribano (2016).

  66. 66.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 82). The quote is from Leibniz’ De prima philosophiae emendatione et de notione substantiae. I have added both some of Leibniz’ Latin phrases as well as Heidegger’s own translation into German in square brackets.

  67. 67.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 84).

  68. 68.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 82)—translation modified.

  69. 69.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 82).

  70. 70.

    This corresponds with Spinoza for whom there is nothing in a thing contrary to it, if analyzed according to its conative drive (cf. Spinoza (2006, IIIP4)).

  71. 71.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 83). We should of course treat the translation of wozu with goal with some caution here, bearing in mind the issue of teleology.

  72. 72.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 82)—translation slightly modified.

  73. 73.

    Nancy (2013b, p. 40, 98).

  74. 74.

    Derrida (2005, p. 3).

  75. 75.

    Heidegger (1984, p. 92).

  76. 76.

    Derrida (2008, p. 17).

  77. 77.

    Spinoza (2006, IIIP8).

  78. 78.

    Heidegger (1984, pp. 82–83).

  79. 79.

    Spinoza (2006, IPXXVIII, Scholium).

  80. 80.

    Cf. Deleuze (1992, p. 172).

  81. 81.

    On this Deleuzian term cf. Agamben (1999).

  82. 82.

    For an interpretative take on this course in vein with the one presented here, cf. Franck (1991) and, especially, Vatter (2010). Vatter argues that “… Heidegger’s approach to the conception of biological life offers pathways that lead back to a Spinozist conception of eternal life …” (p. 227).

  83. 83.

    Heidegger (1995a, p. 228).

  84. 84.

    I allow myself to translate both Trieb and Drang with drive. In Fundamental Concepts, Heidegger speaks about ‘triebhafter Drang’ (which the translation, perhaps not quite appropriate, renders as ‘instinctual impulse,’ p. 233).

  85. 85.

    Cf. Heidegger (1995a, pp. 253–261).

  86. 86.

    Cf. Heidegger (1995a, pp. 241–246).

  87. 87.

    Heidegger (1995b, p. 180).

  88. 88.

    Cf. Nancy’s book Coming which opens with an explicitly Spinozian take on jouissance (2017, pp. 5–7).

  89. 89.

    The deconstruction of community under labels, such as ‘the coming community’ (Agamben) and ‘the inoperative community’ (Nancy), could perhaps be approached from this perspective. It would then come as no surprise that Nancy, as the thinker of the ‘with,’ indeed takes an interest in the case of copulation (cf., e.g. 2013a, p. 103). A recent book has the telling title Sexistence.

  90. 90.

    This is why the entelechy of Leibniz’ conatus does not correspond well with Aristotle’s line of thought. It is perfection without teleology. But if conatus is not teleological, it does not mean that it is inertial. On the existential reading we are suggesting here, conatus is rather a case of immanent causation, i.e., a causality where the effect does not leave its cause but stays with it and belongs to it (cf., Deleuze (1992, pp. 171–172)). I know of no better paradigm for this immanent relation of cause and effect than the structure of call and response which I shall return to at the end of this paper.

  91. 91.

    Heidegger (1995b, p. 141).

  92. 92.

    Cf. Renz (2009, p. 79).

  93. 93.

    Cf. Aristotle (1984, p. 1047a).

  94. 94.

    Deleuze (1992, p. 93).

  95. 95.

    It is important not to confuse this necessity with the necessity of the disinhibitions that, according to Heidegger, encircle the animal. The latter is a necessity of actualization. The former is a necessity that comes ‘before’ actualization and does not fail to come whether actualization is disinhibited or not. A further question is whether Heidegger, with this concept of necessity, provides an opportunity to reconsider the primacy of possibility (Möglichkeit) asserted in Being and Time (1996, p. 40). If so, the proximity to Spinoza would obviously increase. Conversely, if this primacy makes of Heidegger a thinker of radical contingency, it makes it difficult to establish their complicity. I am indebted to the anonymous reviewer who raised this issue. Without being able to decide the matter conclusively, it is surely important to be aware that necessity, just as possibility in Being and Time, must be understood existentially and not categorically—otherwise we leave the dimension of existential analytic. Dasein does not have possibility in the sense of things present at hand that could (presumably) be otherwise. Dasein is possibility in the sense of a potentiality to appropriate its own ‘there.’ Moreover, this ‘there’ is appropriated in a certain way that is always already decided. ‘It has [Es hat sich] somehow [irgendwie] always already decided in which way [Weise] Da-sein is always my own.’ (Cf. Heidegger (1996, p. 40)). This obviously poses the question of the impersonal ‘Es’ and the specification of its ‘irgendwie’ (cf. more generally on the impersonal Esposito (2012)). Leaving that aside, though, it seems to me that Agamben is right in making a clear distinction between facticity, as the always-already decided way of being, and contingency (cf. Agamben (1998, p. 87)). Heidegger, in this reading, does not endorse contingency (Zufälligkeit) but only fallenness (Verfallenheit). As for the question what the replacement of the primacy of a thus existentially understood possibility with an equally existentially understood necessity would entail, some important clues are offered in Heidegger’s lectures on Schelling’s Treatise on the essence of human freedom. As it turns out here, the essence of human freedom is necessity. ‘But what kind of necessity?,’ Heidegger asks. ‘Man,’ he continues, ‘… can only be free when he has himself decided originally for the necessity of his own essence. This decision was not made at some time, at a point of time in the series of time, but falls as a decision on temporality. Thus where temporality truly presences, […] man experiences the fact that he must always already have been who he is, as he who has determined himself for this.’ (Heidegger (1985, p. 154–155)). This, it seems, is not far from Spinoza’s necessity, which implies that agent regret is never the regret that I could have done otherwise but did not. Rather, it is the regret that I turned out otherwise than I imagined myself to be (cf. Pippin (2015, p. 660)).

  96. 96.

    One avenue to explore from here would be ‘the ontology of the virtual’ along with the Latin semantic field of vir (man), vis (force), and virtus (excellence, efficacy) including its derivatives, such as virtue, virtual, vigor, virile, and violence. Here, only a brief remark: When Hegel plays what is merely potential (and possibly chimerical) out against what has proved to be actual (by way of dialectics), the virtual could serve as a Spinozian riposte. Consider that when the runner is ready in the starting blocks, he can be said to have virtually already run. There is nothing chimerical here. All force is gathered, wholly active although not actualized. Compared to this virtual force, what is merely actual adds nothing. It is only a banal acting-out of what is already as good as done. Needless to add (and Heidegger must have had this in mind) that the analysis of the runner, who in this way runs ahead of himself, should be seen as a development of the existential of running-ahead (Vorlaufen).

  97. 97.

    Cf. Spinoza (2006, VP42).

  98. 98.

    Cf. Kierkegaard (1983, p. 63).

  99. 99.

    Agamben (2016, p. 171), cf. also Agamben (2018, p. 32).

  100. 100.

    Deleuze (2017).

  101. 101.

    Cf. Deleuze (1992, p. 226, 240).

  102. 102.

    Cf. Heidegger (1996, p. 265).

  103. 103.

    Nancy (2000, p. 183)—translation slightly modified.


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Is being [das Sein] imparted to the individual modes [Weisen] in such a way that by this imparting [Mitteilung] it in fact parts itself out, although in this parting out [Verteilung] it is not partitioned [zerteilt] in such a way that, as divided, it falls apart and loses its proper essence, its unity? Might the unity of being lie precisely in this imparting parting out [mitteilende Verteilung]? And if so, how would and could something like that happen? What holds sway in this event [Was waltet in diesem Geschehen]? (These are questions after Being and Time!) (Heidegger (1995b, p. 25)—translation slightly modified.)

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Lysemose, K. The Force of Existence. Looking for Spinoza in Heidegger. SOPHIA 59, 139–172 (2020).

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  • Heidegger
  • Spinoza
  • Drive
  • Force
  • Actuality
  • Potentiality