Cosmic Horror: Spinoza, Poe, and Lovecraft

Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists.

-Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza: Sufficient Reason

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground. Spinoza would add to the epigraph above that since “existing is something positive, we cannot say that it has nothing as its cause. Therefore, we must assign some positive cause, or reason, why [a thing] exists—either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, one comprehended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself.”1

Spinoza in Axiom 7 appeals in his  explanation – previously stated, that it is a variant of the “ex nihilo, nihil fit” (“from nothing, nothing comes”) principle, and stipulates that an existing thing and its perfections (or qualities) cannot have nothing or a non-existing thing as their cause. So would this for Spinoza preclude any form of relation with an inexistent? We know that in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza allows for one unique item to be without a cause. In §70 of this treatise, Spinoza argues:

[T]hat Thought is also called true which involves objectively the essence of some principle that does not have a cause, and is known through itself and in itself. (II/26/33–4.)

But what is this one item? Is it God? Or, something else? And, why should he stop with just this one (in?)existent? And, more important, how would Spinoza know or surmise such a cause that has no sufficient reason if all that he can know is already existent? Is this to posit a fantastic cause without reason, cause, or ground? Just a way of stopping the infinite regress of causes? A way to posit a being or fact to put a stop to the infinite chain, and posit without ground or reason a self-generated and self-grounded and self-reasoning being or fact? In other words is Spinoza caught in a loop needing to posit a tautology as explanation? And, if one opens the door to this one unique groundless cause wouldn’t one be trapped in the very circular logic that would defeat the very axiom one stipulated that “Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists?”  Yet, it would seem that for Spinoza everything must be grounded and exist, therefore have a cause and reason for its existence either external to itself or internal to its own being (essence). So that the whole chain of beings is grounded in a being whose existence is (not?) contingent. So is this positing of reasons more about the differentiation between what is contingent and not contingent as facts and beings? Sufficient Reason as an explanatory principle for non-contingent facts or beings, while leveraging that a door exists that allows for at least one contingent fact or being but no more? And why only one? This would take us down the rabbit hole…

Leibniz often presents this same argument, along with the Principle of Contradiction, as a principle of “reasoning”. For example, in the Monadology he writes:

31. Our reasonings are based on two great principles, that of contradiction, in virtue of which we judge that which involves a contradiction to be false, and that which is opposed or contradictory to the false to be true.

32. And that of sufficient reason, by virtue of which we consider that we can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise, although most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us. (G VI, 612/L 646)

For Leibniz explicitly states that there are sufficient reasons for every truth or fact even if such reasons are unknowable by us. Yet, Spinoza in effect erases the very cornerstone of his own axiomatic philosophy by allowing the entry of that one unique fact or being (Nature’s God?) that exists yet needs not be asked its cause or reason for existing; its contingency as its explanation – its reason, cause, and ground could be as in Leibniz unknown to us. Let’s take a look at those strange phenomena that Spinoza describes as ‘miracles’ in the Theological Political Treatise (TTP):

But since miracles have occurred according to the power of understanding of the common people, who were, in fact, completely ignorant of the principles of natural things, it is certain that the ancients took for a miracle what they could not explain in the way the common people are accustomed to explain natural things, viz. by falling back on memory to recall some other similar thing they are accustomed to imagine without wonder. For the common people think they understand a thing well enough when they do not wonder at it. (III/84/5–11.)

For Spinoza, the common people’s vulgar familiarity with a phenomenon does not render it intelligible, and the familiar, just like the extraordinary, demands a clear causal explanation. Indeed, it is precisely at this point that the thoroughness of one’s commitment to the Principle of Sufficient Reason is tested. Few people would deny the need to explain unusual phenomena (e.g., flying hippos, ghosts, vampires), but fewer would demand an explanation for what is common and ordinary (e.g., time, automobile, iPhone), and it is precisely here where the task of the philosopher begins, first in making us de-familiarize ourselves with, and question the nature of, the ordinary, and then in attempting to explain it.

As Melamed and Martin will remind us in Spinoza’s major work, the Ethics, the PSR is stated implicitly already by the second axiom of Part I:

E1a2: What cannot be conceived [concipi] through another, must be conceived through itself.

So that for Spinoza the immediate implication of E1a2 is that everything is conceived. Since, for Spinoza, to conceive something is to explain it; so that E1a2 amounts to the claim that everything is explainable.

This is where Leibniz becomes more pertinent. He would revive Aristotelean conceptions of substantial form to ground the singular contingent fact or being that grounds all non-contingent phenomenalism. Each genuine substance, for Leibniz, has what he calls a “primitive active force”. This force is the nature or essence of the substance. Now according to Leibniz, substances do not causally interact with one another. The changes that they undergo derive solely from their own natures or primitive active force, which consequently determines the whole of its history. Many texts suggest that, for Leibniz, the sufficient reason for any state of a substance is its primitive active force. 3 I’ll only hint at the problems of relation in Leibniz (a subject that would take this post too far afield).

According to the “doctrine of occasional causes,” (see the entry Leibniz on causation) as Leibniz labeled it, all finite created entities are absolutely devoid of causal efficacy. For him God is the only true causal agent. Bodies do not cause effects in other bodies or in minds, and minds do not cause effects in bodies or even within themselves. God is directly, immediately and solely responsible for bringing about all phenomena. When a needle pricks the skin, the physical event is merely an occasion for God to cause the relevant mental state (pain); a volition in the soul to raise an arm or to think of something is only an occasion for God to cause the arm to rise or the idea to be present to the mind; and the impact of one billiard ball upon another is an occasion for God to move the second ball. In all three contexts – mind-body, body-body, and mind alone – God’s ubiquitous causal activity proceeds in accordance with certain general laws, and (except in the case of miracles) God acts only when the requisite material or psychic conditions obtain. So in Leibniz this is the equivalent of Spinoza’s contingent item that stops the infinite regress of non-contingent facts or beings, and orders everything according to its nature as well as interoperating between objects, things, events as the vicar or mediational force of all relations whatsoever. One could say that both Spinoza and Leibniz needed to posit logical and consistent fantasies that would allow them to proceed with their work. Unable to prove their case because it is ‘unknowable’ was for them not a hindrance but rather a goad to better clarification, etc.

Malebranche is most famous – or, as some would prefer to say, infamous – for his doctrine of occasionalism, an often ridiculed theory in which God is the only true and active causal agent in the universe. However, this doctrine is grounded both in a sophisticated analysis of the nature of causal relations and in a clear perception of the metaphysical problems facing a substance ontology. His equally theocentric theory of knowledge, the so-called “doctrine of the vision in God,” while soundly rejected for its “enthusiasm” by such a thinker as John Locke, nonetheless rests on an important and influential critique of Cartesian epistemology and an analysis of truth and representation.2 (I’ll not pursue the problem Malebranche, Leibniz, and relations between facts or beings in this post any further it would lead us astray from the base problem of Sufficient Reason.)

A contemporary inheritor of this substantive formalism is Graham Harman and those of the SR umbrella within what is termed the Object Oriented Ontology. Harman’s variant of Leibniz and Malebranch is a secular version of occasionalism he terms Vicarious Causation. Which he defends as a weird realism. This model features a world packed full of ghostly real objects signaling to each other from inscrutable depths, unable to touch one another fully. There is an obvious link here with the tradition known as occasionalism, the first to suggest that direct interaction between entities is impossible. There is another clear link with the related sceptical tradition, which also envisions objects as lying side-by-side without direct connection, though here the objects in question are human perceptions rather than independent real things. Yet Harman  abandons the solution of a lone magical super-entity responsible for all relations (whether God for Malebranche and his Iraqi forerunners, or the human mind for sceptics, empiricists, and idealists), in favor of a vicarious causation deployed locally in every portion of the cosmos. While its strangeness may lead to puzzlement more than resistance, vicarious causation is not some autistic moonbeam entering the window of an asylum. Instead, it is both the launching pad for a rigorous post-Heideggerian philosophy, and a fitting revival of the venerable problem of communication between substances.3 (Again, I’ll not pursue this further, only to relate there are contemporary forms of this speculative philosophy from the 17th Century to now.)

Poe & Lovecraft: The Unreliable Narrator

But what happens when something has no reason, cause, or ground and yet exists? Or does it? Could something inexistent interact or have relations with an existent? Do we need Spinoza’s or Leibniz’s stop gap solutions: the contingent God, or God of Occasionalism? Before we get started down this rabbit hole I want to quote that horror writer from whom most of our streams of horror fiction descend. I speak of Edgar Allen Poe, and I quote a passage from The Black Cat:

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror – to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place – some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.4

What’s of interest in the passage above is the interlocutors need for an explanation. As Eugene Thacker in his excellent trilogy of works dealing with horror of philosophy will remark, is that whatever abstract horror has happened, it cannot be explained by the narrator. And yet, it must be explained, there must be an explanation. The narrator is so committed to this notion that he is willing to question his own sanity so that the “Horror” can be explained. And, the narrator continues, if I can’t explain it then there must be someone else who can. In lieu of this, he can only hope that someone else (doubtless we, the “dear readers”) will come along and provide an explanation, some explanation, any explanation. (see: notes*)

But how does this help us with our need for an explanation? And, more to the point how can one test the validity of such phenomena? Going back to Spinoza. In E1p11d2, Spinoza states explicitly a variant of the PSR: “For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence”. Similarly, in E1p8s2, Spinoza argues, “if a certain number of individuals exists, there must be a cause why those individuals, and why neither more nor fewer, exist”. Spinoza’s insistence that even the non-existence of things must be explainable is crucial. (Melamed/Martin)

For Spinoza even God is a substance, Spinoza argues, his existence or non-existence cannot be caused or explained externally (Spinoza takes substances to be causally independent of each other); hence, were God not to exist, he would have to be the cause of his non-existence, just as a square-circle is the cause of its non-existence. But since God is not a contradictory entity, He cannot internally rule out His own existence, and hence He must exist. In fact Spinoza will go so far as to stipulate that the existence of things must be explained, but also that the coherence, or incoherence, of their essences (what others would call their possibility) must be explained. Similarly, the essences of things must also have a cause.5  (Melamed/Martin)

But what happens if something happens that has no reason, cause, or ground? What then? What of events that do fit into our everyday or even scientific modes of explaining the world. Will such events threaten the order of things – that upset the whole notion of Sufficient Reason and its defensive gestures of everything being explainable according to Spinoza? As Eugent Thacker remarks that “something, that event, might threaten this order of things, and that it would happen for no reason – this is, for the narrator of “The Black Cat,” the real horror. It is a thought that cannot be accepted, without either abandoning reason and descending into the abyss of madness or making the leap of faith into religion and mysticism. It is as if, before Poe’s story has even begun, the horror tale itself is in a state of crisis, the narrator nearly having a break-down before us, only able to communicate himself in vague terms and uncertain utterances.”6

Poe will get around the need for an explanation by using a literary device, the “unreliable narrator” whose view onto what is happening – these strange events precludes us (the reader’s) from ever being able to pin down the explanation as natural or supernatural; or, for that matter as even “explainable” at all. As Thacker will point out this literary device is a mainstay of all horror or fantastic or weird tales, and that the narrators of most of these tales shift between the notion did or did not the event happen; and, for the narrator the important question is always am I insane or not? Thacker will point out this is a “crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. At least if one is insane, the strange, terrifying “it” can be explained in terms of madness, delirium, melancholia, or in terms of clinical psychopathology.” (KL 111)

What these authors are grappling with above all is the need for an explanation in the sense of Spinoza that everything in our reasonable world must have reason, cause, or ground; and, if there is no Sufficient Reason – then is it reality or my own mind that is coming unhinged, de-stabilized, and insane? Is the world safely tucked away under axioms and definitive statements of discourse and meaning, or is the world a place of abstract horror – a horror that is both indefinite and without explanation? As Thacker suggests Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft deal in some way with what is essentially a philosophical problematic, well-known to students of Aristotelian logic – that everything that happens has a reason for happening, and can thus be explained. This “principle of sufficient reason” not only grounds philosophical inquiry, but some of the basic principles of story-telling as well, especially in those genres – such as horror – where what is often at stake is the verification of something strange actually existing. (KL 130)

I’ll stop here. We’ll follow this line of thought into further details in other, future posts…

*Notes: Etymologically explanation derives from the 14 century Latin explanationem (nominative explanatio) “an explanation, interpretation,” noun of action from past participle stem of explanare “to make plain or clear, explain,” literally “make level, flatten,” from ex- “out” + planus “flat”). (here) This notion of flattening out as if to map it or diagram it or survey it from a distance so that one can level it and clear it like some unfurrowed ground, a surface purified of its contaminations awaiting the seed of new insight and clarification where a distinction might cut or furrow this landscape of thought and reveal the nutrients of meaning (metanoia) and the reason, cause, or ground of the item or event.

  1. The Collected Works of Spinoza, 2 volumes, translated and edited by Edwin Curley, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985–2016.
  2. Nadler, Steven. The Cambridge Companion to Malebranche Cambridge University Press (July 3, 2000)
  3. Harman, Graham. Vicarious Causation. Collapse II Urbanomic (March 1, 2007)
  4. Melamed, Yitzhak Y. and Lin, Martin, “Principle of Sufficient Reason“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  5. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (New York: Penguin, 2006), p. 192.
  6. Thacker, Eugene. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy: Vol 3 (Kindle Locations 76-80). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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