Spinoza on Human Confusion

Spinoza strikes a rather Platonic note in suggesting that insofar as we live by perception and imagination we are reactive, confused, and unfree, but insofar as we have genuine ideas or concepts, we are active and free. This last part depends on his rather unusual take on what ideas are.

“I say expressly that the Mind has, not an adequate, but only a confused… knowledge, of itself, of its own Body, and of external bodies, so long as it perceives things from the common order of nature, i.e., so long as it is determined externally, from fortuitous encounters with things, to regard this or that, and not so long as it is determined internally, from the fact that it regards a number of things at once, to understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions. For so often as it is disposed internally, in this or another way, then it regards things clearly and distinctly, as I shall show below” (Spinoza, Ethics, book II, proposition 29, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 471, brackets in original).

The actual nature of “Mind” for Spinoza has yet to be made clear. So far it seems straightforwardly individual; there is nothing here like the Aristotelian and Hegelian notion of Reason as a socially and linguistically grounded ethos. On the other hand, we soon will turn out to be very far indeed from a standard modern or early modern notion of mind. I am almost reminded of the non-private interiority that connects us to God in Augustine. But either way, the practical result is that we get to an antidote for confusion, thanks to participation in a Reason that is takes us beyond what is merely subjective or self-seeking.

Again like Plato, he emphasizes that ideas are different both from images and from words, implicitly taking both of the latter as examples of mere representation. To regard a number of things at once and understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions is to ground one’s perspective in relations of Reason rather than in mere representations of singular things.

“I begin, therefore, by warning my Readers, first, to distinguish accurately between an idea, or concept, of the Mind, and the images of things that we imagine. And then it is necessary to distinguish between ideas and the words by which we signify things. For because many people either confuse these three — ideas, images, and words — or do not distinguish them accurately enough, or carefully enough, they have been completely ignorant of this doctrine concerning the will. But it is quite necessary to know it, both for the sake of speculation and in order to arrange one’s life wisely.”

“Indeed, those who think that ideas consist in images which are formed in us from encounters with… bodies, are convinced that those ideas of things… of which we can form no similar image… are not ideas, but only fictions which we feign from a free choice of the will. They look on ideas, therefore, as mute pictures on a panel, and preoccupied with this prejudice, do not see that an idea, insofar as it is an idea, involves an affirmation or negation.”

“And then, those who confuse words with the idea, or with the very affirmation that the idea involves, think that they can will something contrary to what they are aware of, when they only affirm or deny with words something contrary to what they are aware of. But these prejudices can be easily put aside by anyone who attends to the nature of thought, which does not at all involve the concept of extension. He will then understand clearly that an idea (since it is a mode of thinking) consists neither in the image of anything, nor in words. For the essence of words and of images is constituted only by corporeal motions, which do not at all involve the concept of thought” (book II, proposition 49, scholium 2, pp. 485-486).

To stress the separateness of thought from extension is yet again to direct us away from mere representation of things, and from taking the represented things for granted.

When he says that an idea involves an affirmation or negation, he means that unlike an isolated word, an idea in his particular sense is something we can assert or deny (it has propositional content). If it’s actually not a representation, an idea must be an inferential meaning, and that would be something we can affirm or deny.

He had just argued that “In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea” (proposition 49, p. 485). He goes on to strictly identify “the Mind” with its “ideas”, i.e., with what it affirms, and contrariwise with what it rejects. This is what I meant earlier in suggesting that what he means by “Mind” turns out to be quite different from standard modern notions.

In effect he identifies “us” not with our consciousness as Locke does, but rather by what we affirm and what we reject. On this point at least, he comes out close to both Aristotle and Hegel.

I do think Aristotle and Hegel are a little more explicit than Spinoza that what is most authoritative with respect to what we really affirm or deny is what we actually do, as witnessable by others.

Death Instinct?

Part 3 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy examines the considerable perturbations to Freud’s views that resulted from his introduction of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ricoeur notes that Freud’s German is more literally “drive” rather than instinct, which seems to make fewer assumptions, and that Freud often refers to “death instincts” in the plural. He sees this phase of Freud’s work as involving a partial return to Freud’s youthful interest in a Romantic “philosophy of nature” like that of Goethe, from the more scientific orientation of his earlier work.

According to Ricoeur, the late Freud ends up proposing his own sort of Romantic philosophy of nature in opposition to the dominant “philosophy of consciousness”. Ricoeur notes that at this point Freud’s presentation becomes frankly speculative and increasingly tentative. Whereas The Interpretation of Dreams derived theory from clinical interpretation, the later work in part bases clinical interpretation on a new “mythology” of instincts. Three great questions arise: What is the death instinct? What is pleasure? And what is the “reality principle”?

It turns out that for the later Freud, “death instinct” is said in many ways. The idea originated from his questioning of his own previous view that the unconscious is uniformly governed by the “pleasure principle” — seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure — with pleasure understood as an ultimately physical decrease of tension. Investigating phenomena of obsessive repetition, Freud began to wonder if something even more primitive than the pleasure principle were involved, a sort of compulsive psychic conservatism.

Ricoeur says the initial presentation of the death instinct was largely in terms this sort of conservatism; only later did Freud begin to emphasize aggressive impulses. The death instinct can also be sublimated into negation that need not be related to any aggression. (Ricoeur reminds us that for Freud there is no negation in the unconscious, so this involves an expression through the ego.) It is also expressed in feelings of guilt, associated with the “cruelty” of the superego’s authoritarian “conscience” toward the ego. (The superego is said to be closer to the id than to the ego; it seems very far from a pure moral conscience, heavily weighed down with psychological baggage. Neither aggression nor a cruel superego seems “natural” to me; I would call them both phenomena of alienation.) Finally, there is a complex relation between the death instinct and the ego. An instinct for conservative self-preservation against change becomes interpreted as ultimately a desire to die in one’s own way.

Freud’s notion of pleasure became increasingly ambiguous, as he began to emphasize cases in which a detour through unpleasure leads to a greater pleasure. This should not be too surprising; Plato and Aristotle already pointed the highly equivocal character of pleasure.

Ricoeur says Freud initially took a notion of “reality” for granted, in contrast to hallucination. Later it became a task and a problem, associated with Ananke, the word for “necessity” in the Greek tragedies. Whereas in Freud’s earlier work the “pleasure principle” governing the unconscious was contrasted with the “reality principle” associated with the development of consciousness, in the later work Eros or love is the principle that binds all things together, from cells in a body to people in society, and helps protect us against the ravages of the death instinct and aggressive self-assertion. Ricoeur associates the Freudian Eros with a kind of wisdom that comes to recognize reality through or in spite of the distortions of the death instinct.

“Death instinct” is a paradoxical term. It becomes less paradoxical if we consider its evolution or variation from a conservative impulse to an aggressive impulse. As mentioned above, I don’t consider human aggression to be primarily a natural phenomenon, but rather mainly an emergent result of bad socialization, so I don’t want to call it an instinct, but at most a distorted expression of an instinct. On the other hand, I find it a good deal easier to accept the idea that there could be a “conservative instinct” alongside Eros, leading to the disharmony of instincts that was the late Freud’s great theme. (See also Psychoanalytic Interpretation; Culture and the Freudian Ego.)

Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Contradiction vs Polarity

The simple term “day” does not contradict the simple term “night”, although they may be conventionally treated as polar opposites. If we agree to treat them that way, then the proposition “It is day” contradicts the proposition “It is night”.

Hegel developed idiosyncratic shorthand ways of talking that may have the misleading appearance of suggesting that he ignored this distinction. In popular references to Hegelian dialectic, it is very common to hear about “contradictions” between so-called opposites. This can lead to massive misunderstanding of what Hegel was really trying to say, especially if one does not realize how concerned he was to deconstruct so-called polarities.

Polarities involve pairs of terms related by classical negation. A is the opposite of B if A = not-B, where “not” satisfies not-not-X = X. In fact, Hegel routinely criticized so-called Understanding for taking such polarities at face value.

In another piece of idiosyncratic shorthand, he talked about a “unity of opposites”. This refers to a sort of conceptual interdependence, not identity in the strict sense.

A single term may be taken as shorthand for many judgments characterizing a thing. Then “contradiction” between two terms actually refers to some contradiction between implications of the associated judgments.

Platonic dialectic in its most canonical form considered in turn the implications of pairs of contradictory propositions, in order to canvas all possibilities. The important part was really the examination of implications. Hegel, too, was far more interested in analyzing extended implications of things than in some dance of polarities.

Hegel’s dialectic — like Aristotle’s — is fundamentally about improving the subtlety of our distinctions, and thus the quality of our reasoning. If we begin with a polar opposition, the intent is to supersede it. As I previously noted, the standard method for superseding a polar opposition for Hegel is to move toward the concrete — i.e., to replace the abstract, “infinite”, classical negation of polar opposition with some suitable finite difference or specific material incompatibility or “determinate negation”, as he liked to call it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Three Logical Moments.)