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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


SPINOZA

(1632 — 1677)

 

RATIONALISM (MONISTIC)

Baruch (later Benedictus) Spinoza was born in Amsterdam of Portuguese-Jewish descent (his father was a merchant) and educated at the Jewish school there. Suspected of heretical views he was expelled from the Jewish community in 1656. From then on he earned his living by teaching and grinding lenses, while deepening his study of the classics and philosophy with the help of a former Jesuit. He moved to Rijnsburg near Leiden in 1660 and later to The Hague in 1670 when he published anonymously his Theological-Political Treatise, which, however, brought him into conflict with the Calvinists and the civil authorities because of his defence of freedom of conscience. As a result he did not publish his Ethics. He refused the offer of a chair at Heidelberg University so as to preserve his leisure for research, but was in regular correspondence with many of the principal philosophers and scientists of his day. He was a man of wide intellectual interests. He died from pulmonary consumption, probably caused by glass dust.

 

METHODOLOGY

[1] Spinoza presented his philosophy in the manner of a geometrical proof (more geometrico), consisting of logical deductions of conclusions from definitions and self-evident axioms appertaining to the whole universe. He regarded these definitions as expressing clear and distinct ideas and therefore certainly true. And truth for Spinoza is simultaneously and inseparably logical (conclusions being derived necessarily from supposedly true definitions) and metaphysical. He was critical of empiricism and nominalism [a]. The derivation of conclusions from premisses is to be understood as exhibiting how an effect follows from a cause. He therefore assimilated the causal relation to logical implication and rejected final causes, arguing that an understanding of efficient causes is all that is required for an explanation of events [b].

 

METAPHYSICS / PSYCHOLOGY

[2] [gen. 2] Spinoza's metaphysics parallels his logic; and his system can be thought of as an attempt to provide an explanation and knowledge of all reality through pure reason. (He sees no incompatibility between philosophical reason and the ordinary person's belief, which may make use of allegory [a], as they have different purposes: but the intellect takes precedence.) The starting point is the idea of infinite substance, which he identifies with "God or Nature" (Deus sive Natura) [b]. Now substance is "cause of itself' [Ethics I, def. 1], that is, it is not caused or therefore explained by reference to any cause external to itself; it is "in itself and conceived through itself" [I, def. 3]. And since knowledge of an effect involves knowledge of its cause substance knows itself through itself alone. There can be only one substance and this must be necessarily infinite [I, 8]. This is because if it were finite it would be limited by another substance; and that second substance would have to have different attributes (these being what the intellect perceives as constituting a substance's essence or nature [I, def. 4]), otherwise the two substances would be indistinguishable [I, 4 and 5]. The infinite substance, God, must possess infinite attributes (by which Spinoza seems to mean it has an unlimited number of them), because it has infinite reality or being. Furthermore it must necessarily exist [I, 11]. This is because existence belongs to the nature of substance [I, 7]. We can see this in the clear and distinct idea we have of substance and must include in its definition. Moreover, as there is only one substance, which is infinite, it would be imperfect if it did not exist. In it existence and essence are identical [I, 20]. Spinoza thus subscribes to a version of the ontological argument [c]. The infinite substance, God or Nature, considered as active, while cause-of-itself is also cause of what Spinoza calls modes. A mode he defines [I, def. 5], as 'modifications' (affectiones) of a substance [d], or that which is in something else through which it may be conceived; it is not self-dependent, ). As cause, the one substance is natura naturans: the modes as 'caused' constitute natura naturata [I, 29]. He distinguishes between infinite and eternal modes and finite modes. Infinite modes, which follow from the "necessity of divine nature", are divided into immediate and mediate modes [I, 21-23]. Thus we have an immediate mode of God under the attribute of extension. This is the total amount of 'energy' (or motion and rest) possessed by the infinite substance [II, 13]. The immediate mode under the attribute of thought is God's absolute understanding [II, 1 and 3] [e]. As for the mediate modes, these constitute the totality which makes up Nature, that is, the total system of bodies (under the attribute of extension — Spinoza calls it "the face or aspect of the Universe as a whole") and the total system of minds (under the attribute of thought — though he does not explicitly say this). Nature/ God does of course have infinite attributes: but Spinoza implies that thought and extension are the only ones through which human beings can apprehend the one substance [see II, 7]. Moreover, finite categories such as personality cannot be applied to God the infinite substance [f].

What then of individual beings? These are the finite modes — as modifications or expressions of Nature under the attributes of thought and extension; and as such must be regarded as caused immediately by God, the "indwelling and not the transient cause of all things" [I, 18]. It follows that just as Nature as a whole can be conceived by us under the two attributes of thought and extension so individual things are to be considered under the same attributes. Thus far only can we think of humans as consisting of mind and body [see especially II, 13 and 14]. In reality they are two aspects of the one entity — the 'mind' being but the 'idea' of the body (which is its 'ideatum'). "The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things" [II, 7]. Moreover, to each part of the body there corresponds a particular idea. In this way Spinoza claims to have avoided the Cartesian problem of interaction [g].

[3] As we have seen, mind and body are for Spinoza the same thing but conceived under the two attributes of thought and extension respectively. But whereas in sense-experience the body may be supposed to be 'passive', he says that every individual thing also possesses an active capacity. He calls this 'endeavour' (conatus): the power a thing has "to persist in its being" by virtue of its essence [III, 6 and 7] [a]. By this he means the tendency or drive all things possess which secures their self-preservation. Referred to both body and mind this endeavour is called 'appetite'. Man's consciousness of this tendency is 'desire' (cupiditas). Spinoza also makes use of the concept of conatus to explain the emotions. [III, 11ff.]. He first supposes that according as to whether our power of action over our body increases or decreases (depending on external circumstances) so our awareness of this increases or decreases the mind's activity, that is, in terms of the degree of logical connection of its ideas. Consciousness of achieving "greater perfection" is called pleasure; while awareness of a move to lower perfection is pain. These two terms are used in a wide sense and include many kinds of emotions; and Spinoza derives in turn others such as love and hate, and accounts for them in terms of association [b]. Thus, for example, we are said to love external things which we have come to associate with pleasure. He makes a further distinction between active and passive emotions. To the extent that they are affected by emotions they are passive and inadequate ideas. However, if the mind at the same time understands its body's modifications it is active — its ideas adequate. As soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of a passion it ceases to be one [V, III]. To the extent that a man fails to scontrol his emotions he is said to be in servitude.

In so far as individual beings are finite modes of the one infinite Substance, it would seem that all that occurs (natura naturata) must follow necessarily from the "necessity of divine nature" [I, 29, note] — though individuals are contingent in that they are dependent on other things and not self-caused. God, however, as natura naturans and the infinite totality, remains free to the extent that 'It' [c] determines Its own actions. By this Spinoza means that all that God/ Nature does follows ineluctably from Its own nature: It has no 'choice' [c] but to create in the way It has done, and It is not caused to act by anything outside Itself (by definition there could be no other substances). We cannot therefore attribute final causality to God or Nature. As for our seemingly purposive actions, our feeling or awareness of motivation, and our belief that we are free — all this is illusory, resulting from ignorance of the causal connections between ourselves and other parts of natura naturata, which determine our behaviour and ideas. We are free only in the sense of and to the extent that we can acquire clear and distinct understanding of our body's modifications [d]. As a corollary Spinoza places great emphasis on the value of knowledge.

It follows from Spinoza's premisses that the human mind cannot exist independently of body; and he thus rejects personal immortality [e]. Nevertheless, he also regards the mind as being already eternal in so far as it is a part of the eternal One Substance, and it therefore in some sense transcends the body's duration. He says that we feel and know that this is the case; and as we approach the intuitive level of knowledge it would seem that this awareness become clearer.

 

KNOWLEDGE

[4] True ideas correspond necessarily to their ideata [a]. Spinoza calls this correspondence an 'extrinsic' mark of truth. However, many ideas are 'inadequate' and thus lack an 'intrinsic' mark of truth. His account of adequacy in terms of self-evidence [II, def. 4; 43] and error is central to his theory of knowledge [II, 19; 24-28]. In his Ethics [II, 40, note 2] he distinguishes three levels or degrees of knowledge (he lists four in the Treatise). The first is the level of imagination. He here refers to ideas grounded in sense-experience, that is, the modifications produced in our bodies as a result of the influence of external bodies (perception), and to memory images as ideas of such changes continuing when external bodies are no longer present. Spinoza says such knowledge is 'confused' and 'inadequate' in the sense that the ideas do not give us full knowledge of the causes of our impressions and their relationships to Nature in general. Falsity is thus a kind of privation of knowledge [II, 35]. Thus, while it is indisputable that we have an impression of the sun as being close to us and of a certain size, it is false to say that it really is that small and only 200 feet away [35, note]. In addition to impressions of particulars, Spinoza includes in this level composite images — general ideas built out of sense-experience, for example, man dog, being, thing — which vary from person to person [II, 40, note 1]. Knowledge at this first level, although 'inadequate' is "useful in life". The second level is that of reason and involves knowledge which is 'adequate', that is, it consists of ideas which are necessarily true. Such ideas are clear and distinct; their truth is self-evident [II, 39]. (Truth is its own criterion, he says [43].) Spinoza is thinking here not only of 'common notions', such as extension and motion, but also of any fundamental and self-evident proposition. They would seem also to include the idea the mind has of itself as idea without reference to the body [II, 23], that is, self-consciousness — an idea of an idea. These general concepts and propositions provide the foundation for mathematics, the sciences, and indeed his own deductive system of philosophy. When we grasp the causal relationships of particular things (as perceived at the first level of imagination) to the system of God/ Nature as a whole (logically deduced at the second level), we ascend to the third level — that of intuition. We then achieve adequate knowledge of the essence of things, that is, we see their causal dependence on the One Substance — their place in the scheme of things, as it were — though complete knowledge lies beyond human capacity. (This is because, according to Spinoza all determination is negation [b] (omnis determination est negatio [in a letter to J. Jellis, 1674]: in determining something we limit it; clearly the One Substance is unlimited). Knowledge of the second and third kinds is necessarily true [41][c]. It follows that for Spinoza error is to be regarded as a privation of the understanding rather than to be attributed to any fallibility of will [d].

 

ETHICS

ETHICAL HEDONISM

[5] Spinoza's ethics follows from the assumptions and conclusions of his general metaphysics. There are no imperfections in Nature; what we regard as 'evil' is a reflection of our limited point of view [a]. He defines good and bad in terms of pleasure and pain respectively [III, 39, note] [b]. We call something good because we desire it. His ethical ideal is thus is to eliminate pain and seek pleasure, that is, perfection. This involves essentially release from the servitude of passive emotions and conversion of them into active emotions: the elimination of confused ideas and the acquisition of adequate ones. His ethics is therefore fundamentally intellectualistic. The virtuous man is he who, acting under the guidance of reason, seeks self-preservation, though in Spinoza's system this is not inconsistent with a recognition of others as seeking the same end. He calls this "the intellectual love of God", "pleasure accompanied by the idea of God as eternal cause". [See V, 15ff; especially 33-36.] This love of God he sees as "our salvation, blessedness or liberty". It is also the same thing as the love of God for men. Spinoza's ethical ideal seems therefore to be the acquisition of virtue through wisdom, as a result of the attainment by reason of a complete knowledge of Nature sub specie aeternatis (under the aspect of eternity) [c]. The individual will then be able thereby to achieve a state of imperturbability [d] in the face of all that life brings to his existence .

 

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY

[6] [See Theologico-Political Treatise.] Spinoza's political philosophy is grounded in the concept of natural law or right [a], which he understands in terms of our conditioning by Nature to behave in particular ways. We are what we are — whether we are led by desires or by our reason. Spinoza believes the former are dominant but that it should be our aim to bring them under reason's control. Thus to act in accordance with the laws of one's own nature is to act in conformity with the natural law. While he argues that the achievement of the end of self-preservation justifies the means and defines natural justice for the individual [b], he recognises that if one's power and natural rights are to be secured agreement with others in an organized society will be required. He therefore says that a social compact is needed through which the natural right of individuals is handed over to a sovereign power to whose laws they agree to submit. The sovereign legislates for right and wrong but with a view to ensuring individuals' freedom to hold different opinions [c]. The concepts of 'just' and 'right' thus come to be redefined as 'extrinsic notion' in the context of society's norms, as laid down by the sovereign. However, the sovereign clearly cannot command that people should not love what they desire. And Spinoza allows that the sovereign may be overthrown if he fails to govern fairly or rationally [d]. The purpose of civil society being to ensure "peace and security of life", Spinoza sees democracy as the form of commonwealth or society most in accord with Nature and reason, and "most consonant with individual liberty", in which all men are equals — as they were in the state of nature [e].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

An original thinker in his own right, Spinoza can, however, also be seen as attempting to improve on and complete the Cartesian programme by undertaking a more extensive and thoroughgoing treatment of the concepts of substance, adequacy and knowledge, clarity and distinctness, and not least the problem of interaction. Moreover, his uninhibited presentation of his own philosophical system as a quasi-mathematical or logically ordered structure consisting of axioms, definitions, inferences, and conclusions exhibits his total commitment both to a rigorous rationalism and to the "geometrical method". At the same time this is the Achilles' heel of his philosophy. A false assumption or an invalid argument could well undermine the whole system. And there are certainly a number of major difficulties with it.

(1) There are problems with his proofs of the 'One Substance' — God or Nature (a concept which led to accusations by some orthodox critics that he was an atheist, while he was seen by others, for example, the Romantic poet Novalis, as being 'God-intoxicated'). He either appeals to the principle of sufficient reason [a], which is questionable when applied to the totality of things, or assumes existence to be a perfection (although he uses the arguably more acceptable concept of necessary existence). His concept of substance also has what some philosophers would see as the undesirable consequence that individual things are reduced to but modes of the One.

(2) On the other hand his assumptions do offer a possible solution to Cartesian dualism. Mind and body for Spinoza are no longer seen as 'essences' or types of substance but have instead become attributes of the One Substance. The question of an interaction therefore no longer arises; the attributes operate in parallel, as it were: mental 'ideas' correspond to material 'ideata'. It can be argued that we still have a residual dualism in that we have two kinds of attributes. But as against this Spinoza argues that what occurs in either realm can be accounted for ultimately by the One. This, however, gives rise to further difficulties concerning freedom.

(3) Freedom and determinism. Spinoza is committed to assimilating causality to logical implication. Does this not entail determinism? How is this consistent with his ethics? He argues that we are free in relation to the degree that we have clear and distinct, or adequate knowledge of God. This is attained in so far as we move away from emotion or passion which confuses our understanding. We are totally free as soon as we become aware of the necessity of all things; and this is achieved in the intellectual love of God. Whether this is a sustainable position is questionable.

(4) Similarly one might question Spinoza's view that while personal immortality has to be ruled out in his system, a rational element might remain timelessly in the mind of God after the body has disintegrated.

(5) As for Spinoza's political philosophy, he allows for the possibility that human desires may be transformed and overcome, and also that the social contract may be broken. He thus suggests a more 'open' and less authoritarian society than Hobbes.

 

READING

Spinoza: (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) (Theologico-Political Treatise); Ethica ordine de geometrico demonstrata (Ethics) — published posthumously in 1677; Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (Treatise on the Correction of the Understanding) — discovered and published in the 18th century. A good edition of the Ethics and the Treatise on the Understanding is that of S. Shirley. Other editions of some of his works include those of Parkinson — a revision of Boyle's translation, and Elwes. His political works are available in A. G. Wernham (ed.), The Political Works.

Studies:

Introductory

S. Hampshire, Spinoza.

R. Scruton, Spinoza.

Advanced

J. Bennett, A Study of Spinoza's 'Ethics'.

E. M. Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza's 'Ethics'.

Collections of essays

D. Garrett (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza.

S. P. Kashap (ed), Studies in Spinoza: Critical and Interpretive Essays.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Spinoza

 

Note: While Spinoza was influenced (generally negatively) by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, it is difficult to establish with any certainty whether he was also influenced by mediaeval scholasticism. For the purposes of connections, therefore, it is being assumed that any such influence extends no further than in his use of scholastic terminology.

 

[1a; cf. 4a b] Definitions express clear and distinct ideas; truth both logical (necessary) and metaphysical; rejection of empiricism and nominalism; universal deductive methodology

   Hobbes

   Descartes

Condillac

[2b 1c]

[1a d 2a]

[2a]

 

[1b] Causation: rejection of final causes; causal relation assimilated to logical implication; efficient causes sufficient for explanation of events

   Hobbes

   Descartes

Leibniz

Schelling

[2a 4a]

[3d e]

[4a]

[1c]

 

[sec. 2] General metaphysics — reconciliation of finite with infinite Schleiermacher [1c]

 

[2a] Reason (philosophy) and ordinary belief (through allegory) — no incompatibility but former superior    Maimonides [1a]

 

[2b c] 'God or Nature'; no dualism: One Infinite Substance; first cause as causa sui; not transcendent; (pantheism)

   Maimonides

   Bruno

   Suarez

   Descartes

Leibniz

Hume

   Kant

Fichte

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

Spencer

Bradley

Scheler

[2a]

[1g h]

[1g]

[3a g]

[2a 4b 5a]

[2d 5a]

[3d]

[5a]

[1a]

[1c 8e]

[3a 6c]

[4b]

[3a]

[3c]

 

[2c]. God's existence: ontological argument — Substance exists necessarily

   Descartes

Leibniz

Hegel

Bradley

[3c]

[5b]

[8e]

[5b]

 

[2d] 'Modes' as modifications of Substance

   Suarez

   Kant

[2d]

[2d]

 

[2e 3c] Substance as natura naturans and natura naturata (modes); cause, freedom and necessity; God has no 'choice' in His creating the world

   Bruno

   Malebranche

Leibniz

Berkeley

Fichte

Schleiermacher

Schelling

[1h]

[2b]

[5f 5h]

[3b]

[3a]

[1e]

[1d 3a 4d 6c]

 

[2f 3c] Finite categories cannot be applied to the infinite substance — e.g., God as a person

   Maimonides

   Aquinas

Schleiermacher

   Berkeley

Schelling

   Bradley

[2b]

[3c]

[1c 2f]

[3b]

[6a]

[5e]

 

[2g] Individual beings as finite modes of the one Substance; mind and body as two aspects; problem of dualistic interaction?

   Descartes

   Malebranche

Leibniz

   Kant

Schelling

Scheler

[3d e g]

[1b]

[2e 4b]

[3d]

[1a 3a 6c]

[4d]

 

[3a] 'Endeavour' (conatus) — inner power to self-preservation

   Hobbes

   Leibniz

Herder

Ricoeur

[5b]

[2d]

[1b]

[7d]

 

[3b 5b; cf 3d 5a c] Pleasure and pain and consciousness of degrees of perfection; 'good' and 'bad'

   Hobbes

   Condillac

[7a]

[3g]

 

[3d] Man's actions determined — free only in sense of through acquiring clear and distinct understanding

   Hobbes

   Descartes

Holbach

Hegel

Schelling

Bradley

Hampshire

[5c]

[3h]

[1b]

[5f]

[2c]

[7a]

[1d]

 

[3e] No personal immortality

   Maimonides

Bradley

[4c]

[5d]

 

[4a] True ideas correspond to ideata (they are identical — different aspects)    Descartes [2c]

 

[4b] Levels of knowledge: imagination/ sense-experience, reason, intuition; causal dependence on the One Substance but complete intuitive knowledge beyond man's capacity; all determination is negation

   Hobbes

   Descartes

Leibniz

Schleiermacher

Hegel

Schelling

   Bradley

[6b]

[1b 2b c]

[6b]

[1b]

[2a]

[3b c]

[5c 6a]

 

[4c] Necessary truth in ideas from reason and intuition    Descartes [1a 2a]

 

[4d] Error as limitation of the understanding, not failure of will    Descartes [3i]

 

[5a; cf. 3b] No imperfection in Nature; evil reflects limitations of point of view

   Maimonides

Leibniz

Schelling

Bradley

[3a]

[5g]

[6d]

[7h]

 

[5b see 3b]      

 

[5c; cf. 6b] Man's egoism, quest for self-preservation, escape from 'bondage' of desire; virtue through reason; 'intellectual love of God'

   Hobbes

Moore

   Scheler

[7c]

[3a]

[5b]

 

[5d] Imperturbability    Stoics, for example:  
   

   Cicero and

   Seneca

[2d]

[2b]

 

[6a] Natural law and right    Hobbes [7c]

 

[6b] Natural justice defined in terms of self-preservation (means justified by ends)    Hobbes [7c e]

 

[6c] Social 'compact'; natural rights guaranteed by sovereign (who legislates for right and wrong but preserves freedom of opinion)    Hobbes [7d 7e 7f]

 

[6d] Sovereign can be overthrown if liberty not preserved    Hobbes [7g]

 

[6e] Democracy best for individual liberty — accords with nature and reason

   Aristotle

   Hobbes

[22e]

[7b 7d]

 

[CSa] Principle of Sufficient Reason

   Anaximander

   Parmenides

   Leibniz

[1e]

[1c]

[1c]