…and (Spi)Know(za)ing is half the battle.
This post also found here.
We’ve got a rather long reading of Spinoza’s Ethics on the comps list, and I’ve never read any bits of it before, so my powers to summarize, and my qualifications, are miniscule each. BUT THAT’S NEVER STOPPED ME BEFORE!!!
So yeah. Here goes…
Spinoza’s Ethics borrows from a tradition of demonstration that probably is most famously exemplified by Euclid’s Elements but also in other propositional works like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or my own forthcoming book: Provin’ Stuff!.
Part I: of God
A work structured this way doesn’t easily lend itself to summary since it proceeds piecemeal from proposition to proposition each of which depend, concerning their particular veracity, on the preceding propositions and axioms/definitions. I won’t be interrogating Spinoza’s logic here. Instead I’ll try to construct a narrative of the progression of his thought with an eye to isolating the terms and themes that I’ve heard, through the grapevine, are important to the Ethics as a whole. The first of these important terms, then, is substance, about which Spinoza writes:
by substance I understand that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; in other words, that the conception of which does not need the conception of another thing from which it must be formed (I. Def. iii — this refers to the book and section of the Ethics. I myself am reading the Hafner edition from 1949 and the page numbers refer to that edition (41)).
But things don’t get particularly interesting until Spinoza claims, a few pages later, that ‘every substance is necessarily infinite’ (I, Prop. viii, 44). A substance cannot be deduced from its attributes, indeed a substance is that which can be conceived only in the absence of attributes, and a substance must, if it exists, be the cause of itself and not limited by any attribute, i.e. infinite. I think. The difficulty, at this early stage, however, is determining if substance exists at all and, if so, what precisely is its manner of being? Is it like a thought or something? It can’t be a thing like matter, right? because of the whole infinite thing? Spinoza claims, to my questions, with characteristic curtness, that
if men (like Dru) would attend to the nature of substance, they could not entertain a single doubt of the truth of Proposition vii (which states that ‘it pertains to the nature of substance to exist’); indeed this proposition would be considered by all to be axiomatic…. For by ‘substance’ would be understood that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, or, in other words, that the knowledge of which does not need the knowledge of another thing (I. Prop. viii, note 2 (45)).
I think this is Spinoza’s way of telling me that, unless I came somehow to conceive of a complicated and attribute-filled world prior to conceiving of a simpler, foundational world, I could have no ability to conceive of anything were not for the existence of substance, which needs nothing else but itself to be conceived. Moreover, ‘from its definition the existence of more substances than one cannot be deduced’ (47), meaning one substance, and only one substance, must exist and cannot be limited by another substance (rendering substance finite). So therefore substance must be infinite.
My guess is that we could go on for a while contemplating this, but in the interest of making the substance of this post non-infinite I’ll move along. The point Spinoza will go on to make that in Nature only one substance exists, that this substance is absolutely infinite, and that it possesses infinite attributes, attributes which, moreover, can be conceived of only through themselves and not through the substance of which they are attributes expressing the eternal and infinite essence of the substance. The enunciation for proposition xi kind of sums things up a bit:
God or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists (I. Prop. xi, (48)).
I love the demonstration for this proposition, so I’ll just quote it here as well:
if this be denied, conceive, if it be possible, that God does not exist. Then it follows that His essence does not involve existence. But this is absurd. Therefore God necessarily exists (ibid.)
Cool. Additionally, substance is indivisible (I. Prop. xiii), eternal (I. Prop. xix), and, well, is God: no other substance can be conceived unless that substance is God (I. Prop. xiv). The indivisible part is important because it allows Spinoza to conclude that this infinite substance is also corporeal (54), and that anyone who levies against him the claim that corporeality cannot be attributed to God as being insufficient to contain It suffers, according to Spinoza, from the delusion that corporeal substance can be conceived of as measurable and/or divisible.
Spinoza denies this, and basically cites the law of the conservation of energy as his justification. He writes,
this will be plain enough to all who know how to distinguish between the imagination and the intellect, and more especially if we remember that matter is everywhere the same, and that, except in so far as we regard it as affected in different ways, parts are not distinguished in it, that is to say, that are distinguished with regard to mode, but not with regard to reality (I. Prop. xv, note (55)).
Not only is God an eternal and indivisible and infinite substance, but also free. Nothing is able to compel God to do anything than that which is in accordance with Its nature. Of course, this is a bit weird because, like, doesn’t that just make God un-free to Its nature?* Spinoza puts it thus:
it follows, secondly, that God alone is a free cause; for God alone exists from the necessity alone of His own nature, and acts from the necessity alone of his own nature. Therefore, He alone is a free cause (I. Prop. xvii, Cor. 2 (56)).
I’d love to pick through this paradox, if paradox it be, but I won’t give it any more attention than Spinoza himself does and assume, for now, that the notions of freedom and necessity presented here can be co-present without any fatal contradictions. The consequences, though, of Spinoza’s claims about God are pretty familiar. God produces things, God is the efficient cause of things, God is necessarily the cause of the essence of things, as well as their existence, and, moreover, things are therefore ‘nothing but modifications or modes of God’s attributes, expressing those attributes in a certain and determinate manner (I. Prop. xxv, corollary (63)). Now, God, as produces/efficient cause of all this stuff, therefore necessarily determines them, things cannot be their own free cause or freely cause other things to come into being or whatever, nor can they render themselves indeterminate. Obviously the question of freedom arises here again in the form of, ‘where is it among God’s created things?’. I’m kind of thinking that maybe the answer here is: ‘nowhere’. And Spinoza does sort of answer this way via his 29th proposition, the enunciation for which is
in Nature there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner (I. Prop. xxix (65)).
From what I’ve heard, Spinoza was a grinder of glass lenses and science enthusiast. Perhaps when he makes a statement like the one above he’s referring most explicitly to physical laws of nature that, supposedly, are immutable and permanent. The proposition is more palatable from that perspective (for me, at least), than from the perspective of, like, what am I going to have for dinner tonight. Though maybe there’s a certain degree of necessity to that, too (Kraft Dinner). Interesting…
Reasoning along these lines eventually leads Spinoza to go Pangloss on our asses and declare, in more or less these terms, that we live in the best of all possible worlds (I. Prop. xxxiii (68)). Perhaps Spinoza wouldn’t admit that there are other worlds to choose from, but in any case the way things are could not have been otherwise and, coming from God as they do, could not be more perfect than they are. Nice. I feel better.
Spinoza ends the first book with an interesting conclusion: ‘Nothing exists from whose nature an effect does not follow’ (I. Prop. xxxvi (71)). Whatever exists, since, by its existence, it is an expression of some determination of God’s nature, expresses God’s power in a determinant manner, meaning it has a point. And that point is the effect it has and of which it is the cause. Everything has an effect.
This, however, is quite different than the point Spinoza ultimately wants to make, which is that, though things have an effect, they do not have a goal to which they tend. All ‘final causes’ are, according to Spinoza, human fictions and give rise to the numerous misconceptions about God and Nature that he has made such an effort in this first book to correct. The will of God does not push the world along to some supreme state of perfection, but is rather a notion that serves, as Spinoza puts it, as ‘a refuge for ignorance’ (I. Appendix (75)).
*Spinoza answers this question in the affirmative later on: ‘God does not act from the freedom of the will’ (I. Prop. xxxii, cor. 1).
Part 2: of the Nature and Origin of the Mind
The second part of Spinoza’s work is an investigation of the nature and origin of the human mind and, additionally, the highest happiness of that mind. Like the last part he begins with a series of definitions and axioms before demonstrating propositions, probably the most interesting themes of which are: bodies, ideas, and thinking. I’ll try to elaborate on these themes as the propositions proceed.
The first proposition of Part II states that
thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing (II. Prop. I (80)).
But everything is an attribute of God, so what makes thought special for Spinoza? Thought is that through which all things can be conceived even in the absence of any individual thing. Thought is that which has access to substance and to the essence of things and can therefore be the only thing through which God ‘expresses the eternal and infinite essence of God’ (ibid.). I guess this amounts to Aristotle’s thought thinking itself with a little God twist, but the matter at hand, as far as I can tell, is the same for both thinkers: for thought to exist it must be its own essence. Spinoza will make the import of this claim clearer in the fifth proposition of Part II where he states
we demonstrated that God can form an idea of His own essence, and of all things which necessarily follow from it, solely because He is a thinking thing, and not because He is the object of His idea (II. Prop. v (82) emphasis mine).
The consequence of this claim is that thought recognizes itself, ontologically, as caused by God only because God thinks. The big idea here for Spinoza is that substance can be expressed through many of its attributes and the infinite attributes of God account for all of these possibilities. He writes,
everything which can be perceived by the infinite intellect as constituting the essence of substance pertains entirely to the one sole substance only, and consequently that substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, which is now considered under this attribute and now under that (II. Prop. vii, note (84) emphasis mine).
This is what, for Spinoza, allows for a single order underlying an infinitely complex plurality of attributes, objects, modes of thinking, etc. His interest is ultimately in forming a conception of human thinking that stems from a preliminary consideration of the divine, and the shift from God’s thinking to human thinking begins in the eleventh proposition, the enunciation to which is,
the first thing which forms the actual being of the human mind is nothing else than the idea of an individual thing actually existing (II. Prop. xi (88)).
hence it follows that the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God, and therefore, when we say that the human mind perceives this or that thing, we say nothing else than the God has this or that idea; not indeed in so far as He is infinite, but in so far as He is manifested through the nature of the human mind (II. Prop. xi, Corollary (ibid.)).
And this leads us to the consideration of bodies more generally, which Spinoza articulates in the thirteenth proposition and its corollary:
the object of the idea constituting the human mind is a body, or a certain mode of extension actually existing, and nothing else…. hence it follows that man is composed of mind and body (II. Prop. xiii, Corollary (90)).
Concerning bodies, then, Deleuze – I mean Spinoza – writes,
bodies are distinguished from one another in respect of motion and rest, quickness and slowness, and not in respect of substance (II. Lemma I (91)).
And this leads Newton – I mean Spinoza – to conclude that
a body in motion will continue in motion until it be determined to a state of rest by another body, and a body at rest will continue at rest until it be determined to a state of motion by another body (II. Lemma 3 (92)).
The thrust here is that Spinoza is attempting to understand how it is possible that things can take such divers shapes while still always expressing one substance. How are there individual bodies, composed of smaller or simpler individual bodies, moving at different speeds and capable of different things? How are there fluid things and hard things and soft things? These kinds of questions are all broached by Spinoza’s philosophy which, as it turns out, is not at all far from that of Bergson (the resonance with Bergson is actually quite strong (II. Prop. xviii in particular)) and, of course, Deleuze. Sadly, I can’t go into too many details in this post, which is already way too long. Perhaps the most important point to take from Spinoza at this stage is that ideas of things come from things – the mind needs a world. This provides the possibilities of the human mind, and also its limitations (as, for example in II. Prop. xxiv). This is an important feature separating Spinoza’s thought from, in particular, Descartes’ (II. Prop. xxviii, for example, which states that ‘the ideas of the modifications of the human body, in so far as they are related only to the human mind, are not clear and distinct but confused’ (104)). Or, again,
from this it is evident that the human mind, when it perceives things in the common order of Nature, has no adequate knowledge of itself nor of its own body, nor of external bodies, but only a confused and mutilated knowledge; for the mind does not know itself unless in so far as it perceives the ideas of the modifications of the body (II. Prop. xxix, Corollary (105)).
This pertains only to external things, while internal dispositions can be understood clearly and distinctly. But some things stand outside understanding altogether, such as the duration of our bodies, which is a knowledge that not even God possesses according to Spinoza (II. Props. xxx and xxxi (106)). And yet again some things are necessarily common to all bodies, since, as bodies, they must all agree in some things – for Spinoza ideas are one of the things that are common to all men, ideas which he hopes to bring to light (II. Prop. xxxviii, Corollary (109)).
By analyzing the capacities of knowledge common to all human minds Spinoza isolates three kinds of knowledge, which he distinguishes as 1) opinion or imagination (knowledge of the first kind) 2) reason or knowledge (knowledge of the second kind) and 3) intuitive science (knowledge of the third kind) (112). This systemization allows Spinoza to begin theorizing the origin of falsity (II. Props. xli and xlii) and to claim that reason, insofar as it is capable of ever accessing the true, always does so. Spinoza writes,
it is not of the nature of reason to consider things as contingent but as necessary. It is in the nature of reason to perceive things truly, that is to say, as they are in themselves (II. Prop. xliv (115)).
Only the faculty of imagination or opinion, the first and most prominent kind of knowledge, can introduce falsity into the human mind.
I’m going to end my thoughts on this section a bit abruptly since Spinoza himself provides a nice segue into the final section of the Ethics, which is the last bit on the comps. The following quotation helps sum up a few of the points I’ve tried to highlight and, more importantly, shows where Spinoza’s thought is tending in this section. He writes,
hence we see that the infinite essence and the eternity of God are known to all; and since all things are in God and are conceived through Him, it follows that we can deduce from this knowledge many things which we can know adequately, and that we can thus form that third sort of knowledge (intuitive science) of whose excellence and value the Fifth Part will be the place to speak (II. Prop. xlvii, Note (118)).
Part 5: of the Power of the Intellect; or of Human Freedom
Spinoza already demonstrated the identity of the will and the intellect (II. Prop. xlix, Corollary (120)), so you can probably get a sense of where this final section is going before it even begins. But I bet you didn’t guess that it begins with an extended and rather caustic critique of the most prized of all philosophical discoveries: Descartes’ pineal gland! Well, it does, and then it gets to the meat of the issue: how to let reason control the passions so as to live the most blessed and free of lives. Spinoza writes,
inasmuch as the power of the mind, as I have shown above, is determined by intelligence alone, we shall determine by the knowledge of the mind alone the remedies against which the emotions (those pesky emotions! Those anxiety-inducing and irrepressible emotions! Those silly things that make me look like a child all over again!) remedies which every one, I believe, has experience, although there may not have been any accurate observation or distinct perception of them, and from this knowledge of the mind alone shall we deduce everything which relates to its blessedness (V. Preface (254-255) parenthetical reference, uhm, mine).
We can get a sense of what Spinoza is after here from the third proposition,
an emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it (V. Prop iii (256)).
Obviously, the M.O. here is to domesticate the emotions insofar as, according to Spinoza, the emotions cause suffering (in the mind, perhaps, or the body as well). Every modification of the body (producing an emotion) can be conceived of clearly and distinctly, extending the mind’s power over the body to every possible emotion (V. Prop. iv, Note (257)). To understand things as proceeding necessarily from an absolutely necessary cause removes the affective dimension, diminishing and ultimately eradicating the emotional response to the effect. I don’t know about you but this sounds like an awesome way to deal with the NHL lockout. Spinoza writes,
for we see that sorrow for the loss of anything good is diminished if the person who has lost it considers that it could not by any possibility have been preserved (V. Prop. vi (258)).
This strength of mind is not altogether escapist, though, I don’t think. I don’t know. Spinoza clearly wants also to consider goodness and the ways evil or harm can be confronted and overcome. By constantly conceiving and reflecting on injury one may be better equipped to repel it if and when the moment arises should the immediate impulse to retaliate be properly quelled by reason. Spinoza writes,
if we also continually have regard to our own true profit and the good which follows from mutual friendship and common fellowship, and remember that the highest peace of mind arises from a right rule of life, and also that man, like other things, acts according to the necessity of nature, then the injury or the hatred which usually arises from that necessity will occupy but the least part of the imagination, and will be easily overcome (V. Prop. x, Note (261)).
I’ll just let a few of the ultimately propositions of Spinoza’s Ethics sort of speak for themselves:
- the love of God above everything else ought to occupy the mind (V. Prop. xvi)
- no one can hate God (V. Prop. xviii)
- he who loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return (V. Prop. xix)
- the more we understand individual objects, the more we understand God (V. Prop. xxiv)
- the highest effort of the mind and its highest virtue is to understand things by the third kind of knowledge (V. Prop. xxv)
- from this third kind of knowledge arises the highest possible peace of mind (V. Prop. xxvii)
- Nietzsche loves Himself with an infinite intellectual love. I mean, God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love (V. Prop. xxxv)
Okay, okay — maybe this all is pretty rad. I don’t know. It doesn’t feel rad to me, but maybe that means it is rad. Who knows? It must be pretty rad for Spinoza to have stuck his neck so far out as to get ‘Cherem’-ed by the Church for what he believed in. I’ll always hand it to anybody who gives a shit about what they believe.