Spinozist Advice

“He who is guided by Fear, and does good to avoid evil, is not guided by reason” (Ethics, book IV, proposition 63, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 582).

“A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death” (book IV, proposition 67, p. 584).

“The more we understand singular things, the more we understand God” (book V, proposition 24, p. 608).

“The Mind’s intellectual Love of God is the very Love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human Mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; i.e., the Mind’s intellectual Love of God is part of the infinite Love by which God loves himself” (book V, proposition 36, p. 612).

“Blessedness is not the reward of virtue, but virtue itself; nor do we enjoy it because we restrain our lusts; on the contrary, because we enjoy it, we are able to restrain them” (book V, proposition 42, p. 616).

Emotions and Human Nature

Spinoza took emotions more seriously than any philosopher before him.

“Most of those who have written about the Affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of nature, but of things which are outside nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself. And they attribute the cause of human impotence, not to the common power of nature, but to I know not what vice of human nature, which they therefore bewail, or laugh at, or disdain, or (as usually happens) curse. And he who knows how to censure more eloquently and cunningly the weakness of the human Mind is held to be Godly.”

“…To them it will doubtless seem strange that I should undertake to treat men’s vices and absurdities in the Geometric style….”

“But my reason is this: nothing happens in nature that can be attributed to any defect in it, for nature is always the same….”

“The Affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow from the same necessity and force of nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worthy of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing” (Ethics, book III, preface, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., pp. 491-492).

“By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (book III, definition 3, p. 493).

“[I]nsofar as it has adequate ideas, [our Mind] necessarily does certain things, and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily undergoes certain things” (book III, proposition 1, ibid).

“[T]he Mind and the Body are one and the same thing, which is considered now under the attribute of Thought, now under the attribute of Extension” (book III, proposition 2, scholium, p. 494).

“The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting” (book III, proposition 12, p. 502).

“Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause, and Hate is nothing but Sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (book III, proposition 13, scholium, ibid).

(By no means would I suggest that this is the last word on love; it seems to apply mainly to a lowest common denominator usage of “love” that is not what I normally mean when I use the word.)

“Apart from the Joy and Desire that are passions, there are other affects of Joy and Desire that are related to us insofar as we act” (book III, proposition 58, p. 529).

“Among all the affects that are related to the mind insofar as it acts, there are none that are not related to Joy or Desire” (book III, proposition 59, ibid).

Based on these and similar principles, he develops a sort of physics of the emotions, which on the whole yields surprisingly plausible qualitative predictions of how people will behave in various conditions.

Joy and Sadness

“By Joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion that leads the Mind to a greater perfection. And by Sadness, that passion by which the Mind passes to a lesser perfection” (Spinoza, Ethics, book III, proposition 11, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 500-501).

This was always one of my favorite parts. Spinoza was the first writer I know of to explicitly give a positive ethical value in its own right to a joyful attitude (or any kind of passion). But this actually makes a lot of sense. When we are joyful we are more likely to be kind and generous, confident, and strong.

The sadness that he speaks of as leading to a lesser perfection has to do not so much with the bittersweet of mourning a loved one, as with unnecessarily negative attitudes in life. Emotionally negative attitudes lead to pettiness and spite, and make us into lesser beings. Intellectual criticism and questioning, of course, need not involve any emotional negativity.

Three Kinds of Knowledge

Spinoza identifies three kinds of “knowledge”.

“From what has been said above, it is clear that we perceive many things and form universal notions:”

“I. from singular things which have been represented to us through the senses in a way that is mutilated, confused, and without order for the intellect…; for that reason I have been accustomed to call such perceptions knowledge from random experience;”

“II. from signs, e.g., from the fact that, having heard or read certain words, we recollect things, and form certain ideas of them, which are like them, and through which we imagine the things…. These two ways of regarding things I shall henceforth call knowledge of the first kind, opinion or imagination.”

“III. Finally, from the fact that we have common notions and adequate ideas of the properties of things…. This I shall call reason and the second kind of knowledge.”

“[IV.] In addition to these two kinds of knowledge, there is another, third kind, which we shall call intuitive knowledge. And this kind of knowing proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the… essence of things” (Ethics, book 2, proposition 40, scholium 2, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., pp. 477-478).

The first kind is the source of the confusion addressed in the last post. It elaborates on Plato’s account of “mere opinion”. An important detail is Spinoza’s explicit reference to the fact that inadequate “universal” notions are commonly formed based on inadequate ideas from perception and imagination. Formal logic can then be mechanically applied to these inadequate universals, yielding conclusions that are formally logically sound but deeply wrong materially or content-wise when applied to the real world. We’ve all seen this happen.

The second kind, which he calls “reason”, is thus distinguished not by its use of logic but by the kind of contents it addresses: common notions and adequate ideas. For Spinoza, “reasoning” that takes mere images and opinions as unproblematic sources of truth does not deserve the name of Reason.

“Common notions” is Spinoza’s preferred term for principles that are recognized by all humans and are “equally present in the part and the whole”. What exactly these are intended to include is somewhat obscure. His main example of common notions involves simple mathematical properties of bodies, which are “common” due to the presumed objectivity of mathematics, rather than any sort of intersubjectivity or mutual recognition.

“Adequacy” of ideas is an entirely internal criterion — basically a kind of coherence of meaning, rather than a correspondence with something external that is presumed to be independently known. Ideas for Spinoza are things we affirm or deny, so they have internal complexity. Adequacy of ideas seems to be entirely independent of his criteria for common notions, which is good because I worry about the narrowness of the latter.

I read the third kind — “intuition” — as presupposing and building on the discipline of the second. It is not a free-for-all. This is a “cumulative” rather than “originary” intuition. What other authors claim as originary intuition (alleged “self-evident truths” coming from nowhere) would for Spinoza be mere opinion or imagination.

He says that the first kind of knowledge is the only source of falsity, which implies that the results of the second and third kind are always true. While it is clear that the first kind is a source of falsity, to say that reason and “intuition” yield only truth sets a very high standard indeed. He does not seem to acknowledge the difficulty of knowing there is no admixture of the highly fallible first kind in what we may take to be the infallible second or third kind, or in general the difficulty of practically achieving the extremely high standards he sets for the second and third kind.

This whole discussion proceeds very hastily. There is a bit more than I have quoted, but only a bit. His account of the first kind of knowledge and its weaknesses is relatively more extended, and quite vivid and insightful. But the account of the second kind is very sketchy, and the account of the third kind even more so.

Perhaps we are intended to see the whole text of the Ethics as an illustration of how the second and third kind work. But if it purely embodies the infallible second and third kinds of knowledge, then it would seem that all serious philosophers ought to unequivocally endorse all its arguments, or else they won’t qualify as serious. Strictly speaking, does Spinoza’s standpoint even allow him to acknowledge another philosopher as serious who does not endorse all his arguments? Honestly I did not expect to write the previous sentence.

While Spinoza does not seem to me to be what Kant would call a dogmatist in the sense of taking objects for granted, there is a sense in which he does seem to say, “here is my system, take it or leave it”. I’m still not sure what I think of Hegel’s claim that no finite presentation can ever be truly final, but relatively speaking I’m more comfortable with that. I want to say it is actually a principle of charitable reading to at least in some measure tolerate excessive claims a work may make on its own behalf, and focus instead on understanding the content.

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.

Demonstration in Spinoza

Kant and Hegel both objected to Spinoza’s unusual presentation of his Ethics in something resembling the style of Euclid’s geometry. I think of philosophy mainly as interpretation rather than simple declaration, so I am broadly sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, I think Pierre Macherey is profoundly right when he emphasizes the non-foundationalist character of Spinoza’s thought.

The unique meaning Spinoza gives to “Substance” (not to be confused with its Aristotelian, Scholastic, Cartesian, or general early modern senses) is that of a complex relational whole that encompasses everything, rather than a separate starting point for deduction of the details of the world. Because of this, the apparent linearity of his development is just that — a mere appearance.

Hegel does not seem to recognize that Spinoza’s Substance resembles the relational whole of Force that Hegel himself developed in the Phenomenology. This is inseparable from an implicit notion of process in which relations of force are exhibited.

Macherey says Spinoza sees the world in terms of an infinite process, i.e., one without beginning or end or teleological structure (Hegel or Spinoza, p. 75).

(I would argue that neither Aristotle nor Hegel actually endows the world with teleological structure, though they each give ends a significance that Spinoza would deny. For Aristotle, it is particular beings in themselves that have ends. For Hegel, teleological development is a retrospectively meaningful interpretation, not an explanatory theory that could yield truth in advance. But for Spinoza, ends are either merely subjective, or involve an external providence that he explicitly rejects.)

It seems to me that the “point of view of eternity” that Spinoza associates with truth is actually intended to be appropriate to this infinite process. Spinoza points out that eternity does not properly mean a persistence in time that lasts forever, but rather a manner of subsistence that is entirely outside of — or independent of — the linear progression and falling away that characterizes time.

(Kant’s famous assertion of the “ideality of space and time”, which means that space and time are only necessary features of our empirical experience, is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s commendation of the point of view of eternity. Though it has other features Spinoza would be unlikely to accept, Kant’s “transcendental” as distinct from the empirical is thus to be viewed from a perspective not unlike Spinoza’s “point of view of eternity”.)

Spinoza wants to maintain that the order of causes and the order of reasons are the same. Whereas Aristotle deconstructs “cause” into a rich variety of kinds of “reasons why” (none of which resembles the early modern model of an impulse between billiard balls), Spinoza narrows the scope of “cause” to “efficient causes” in a sense that seems close to that of Suárez with inflections from Galilean physics, and suggests that true reasons are causes in this narrower sense. It seems to me that Spinoza’s “order of causes” resembles the infinite field of purely relational “force” that Hegel discusses in the Force and Understanding chapter.

Spinoza wants us to focus on efficient causes of things, but to do so mainly from the “point of view of eternity”. This takes us away from the event-oriented perspective of linear time, toward a consideration of general patterns of the interrelation of different kinds of means by which things end up as they concretely tend to do. In speaking of means rather than forces, I am tacitly substituting what I think is a properly Aristotelian notion of “efficient” cause for the meaning it historically seems to have had for Spinoza.

In pursuit of this, he takes up a stance toward demonstration that is actually like the one I see in Aristotle, in that it is more about improvement of our understanding through its practical exercise in inference than about proof of some truth assumed to be already understood (see also Demonstrative “Science”?). As Macherey puts it, for Spinoza “knowledge is not simply the unfolding of some established truth but the effective genesis of an understanding that nowhere precedes its realization” (p. 50). (Unlike Macherey, though, I think this is true for Aristotle and Hegel as well.)

Demonstration in both Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s sense is intended to improve our normative understanding of concepts by “showing” their inferential uses and points of application. It is only through their inferential use in the demonstrations that Spinoza’s nominal definitions and axioms acquire a meaning Spinoza would call “adequate”.

Cause of Itself

Spinoza famously begins his Ethics with a definition of “cause of itself” (causa sui). This will become the hallmark of his “Substance”, of which he says there can be only one, and which he identifies with his own heterodox conception of God. Cause of itself would be that the essence of which involves existence.

In Hegel or Spinoza (French ed. 1979), Pierre Macherey writes that “First of all we can show, as Guéroult does, that the concept of causa sui does not really have an initial foundational value for Spinoza: it does not represent a kind of first truth, a principle in the Cartesian sense, from which the entire system can be developed, as if from the starting point of a germ of truth” (p. 16).

“Here we can begin to be astonished: does Hegel ignore that this aporia of beginning — which sets his Logic in motion, this impossibility of grounding the infinite process of knowledge in a first truth which in itself as principle or foundation — is also an essential lesson of Spinozism, the principal objection that he himself opposes to the philosophy of Descartes? In such a sense that it is only… ‘so to speak’, the geometric exposition of the Ethics ‘begins’ with definitions, which for that matter do not have an effective sense, except at the moment when they function in demonstrations or they really produce the effects of truth: Spinozist thinking precisely does not have this rigidity of a construction relying on a base and pushing its analytic to an end point, which would find itself thus limited between a beginning and an end” (p. 17).

For Hegel according to Macherey, “The causa sui is based on a substantial principle that ‘lacks the principle of the personality’. It thus constitutes a substance that cannot become subject, which fails in this active reflection of self, which would permit it to undertake its own liberation in its own process…. This is an arrested and dead spirit” (p. 18).

This is supposed to be the individuality and freedom denying “Oriental” attitude that Hegel with broad brush unfortunately really does attribute to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Roman Empire, Catholicism, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, and Spinoza, among others. This unfortunate over-the-top anti-anti-subjectivity theme of Hegel’s kept me from really appreciating his work for a long time.

On the other hand, the details of his argument about freedom and subjectivity as affirmative values actually make sense, even to the point of winning over an old sympathizer of French anti-Hegelianism like myself.

Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal).

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)

Meditation on Death?

I’m preparing to write something about Ricoeur’s treatment of the Freudian “death instinct”, but first wanted to separately express some views of my own. I disapprove of attempts to make death into a philosophical theme. Our finitude has plenty of other more illuminating and ethically relevant aspects, and I think the living should focus on life. Spinoza’s “The philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death” seems right to me. In cherishing the memory of lost loved ones, it is the loved ones who are important.

I don’t like early Heidegger’s melodramatic talk about “being toward death”. I don’t even like Plato’s literary representation of what I would call Socrates’ excessive acceptance of his impending execution. Even though it is counterbalanced by more life-affirming passages in other places, the suggestion that the philosopher should welcome death goes too far.

I thoroughly approve of Brandom’s reinterpretation of the Hegelian myth of a “struggle to the death” between competing would-be Masters as a melodramatic extreme illustration of an underlying much more general concept of risk-taking. The importance of risk-taking is the real essence there and the message to carry forward, not struggle against others and not death. (Apart from this, Hegel’s Master serves as an extreme negative example of attitudes that exist but should be overcome.)