Ethics, Part 2: The Origin and Nature of the Mind

This will be the reading for Saturday, September 7th meeting.

In Part 1, Spinoza presented a three tiered ontology. God and nature are synonymous, and everything that exists is an expression of this single substance.  God is expressed in infinite attributes, though humans only perceive two: mind and body, also known as thought and extension.  These attributes are modified into particular things, known as modes.  Part 2 applies this logic to the mind/body problem.  Mind and body are the same thing, a unity of the attributes of thought and extension.  This is essentially the descriptive anthropology which underlies his ethical views.

What is a Body? Parts, Speed and Impressions

Common sense tells us that our mind is somehow separate from our body; I use my mind to make a free choice to move my arm, and that mental act results in my arm moving.  We also tend to think that our thinking is based on rational reflection; our mind comes up with a basic idea, and we reason it out.  In other words, we tend to think the mind is constituted by mind.  Spinoza’s position is quite different.  My arm does not move because my mind made it move, and my thoughts are totally built on other thoughts. Let’s deal with the second point first.  The mind’s basic idea is not about itself, but rather about the body.   Thought begins with the body, so we will discuss bodies first.

The key point for understanding bodies is that “. . . any given body is more fitted than others for doing many actions or receiving many impressions as once, so also is the mind, of which it is the object, more fitted than others for forming many simultaneous perceptions; and the more the actions of one body depend on itself alone, and the fewer other bodies concur with it in action, the more fitted is the mind of which it is the object for direct comprehension” (II, 8, Note).  Some bodies can do more things, and likewise, some minds can think more things; in Spinoza’s terms, they can receive or form more impressions.  Ultimately, Spinoza’s goal is a body which can do many things and a mind which can form ever more complex ideas.

The axioms concerning bodies explain that bodies are distinguished not by their substance (because of course they are all the same substance) but by their speed.  Some bodies are slow, and some are fast, and a body’s speed is always determined by another body.  All bodies, because they all involve the same attribute, they can affect on another.  If two things are of a different attribute, then they cannot affect each other.  My arm moves not because my mind willed it, but because another body moved it, and another body moved that one, in a chain of causation which stretches into infinity.

Compound bodies are a union of simple bodies; when a set of bodies “are compelled by other bodies to remain in contact,” and to move at a similar speed in a fixed relation, then the bodies are in union and compose a single individual.  Different compound bodies have different densities; some are hard, some are soft, and some are fluid.  (II, Ax 3, 2nd set)  The human body has all three kinds of parts.  Further, compound bodies can undergo all sorts of changes, and remain the same body.  Parts can be removed or change speed.  As long as the changes are proportional, it is still the same body.  The important point is that a body can be affected in many ways and still be the same union of parts.

A more complex body can be affected in more ways.  The human body, being very complex, is capable of being affected in many different ways – and so the human mind is capable of many different ideas (II, 14).   It appears that for Spinoza, the fluid parts function as a sensory perception apparatus; external bodies affect the fluid parts, which leave an impression on the soft parts, which is how we get ideas of external bodies.  Our ideas – most of them, anyways – are caused by the impressions external bodies leave on our own body.  Here we begin to see a hint of the relation between mind and body.  My idea of this table, because it is mediated through my body, must involve both the table and my own body; my ability to perceive the table involves the status of my body (II, 16).  Ultimately, it is the same way for everything – because mind and body are united, the ideas in our heads are always connected to the status of our bodies.

What is an Idea? Truth, Adequacy and Volition

An idea is a mental conception formed by the mind.  (II, Def 3)  He insists on the word conception rather than perception, because to conceive of something is an activity, while perception is passive; perception is just about bodies knocking against us.  There is something counterintuitive about his description of ideas.  Typically, we are most concerned with true ideas, that is, ideas which correspond to their objects.  A true idea has an extrinsic relation to an object; consider the sentence “I am wearing a shirt.”  The idea is judged as true or false based on whether or not I am wearing a shirt, a matter which is not contained in the idea itself.  Spinoza instead focuses on the adequacy of an idea.  This is the idea considered in itself, apart from its object.  It involves an idea of the idea, or in other words, knowledge of the cause of the idea.

Truth does have a place for Spinoza; it is just a secondary position.  Adequate ideas involve certainty because they are also true. (II, 34)  I think we can put it like this: true ideas are not always adequate (if they do not know their cause), but adequate ideas are always true because the effect (the idea) follows from the cause.  The point is just that a true statement about an object is a secondary issue; if a true idea is only different from a false idea because of the relation it has to its object, then “a true idea has no more reality or perfection than a false idea (since the two are only distinguished by an extrinsic mark); consequently, neither will a man who has true ideas have any advantage over him who only has false ideas.”  True and false ideas are related as being is to non-being – i.e., false ideas are ignorant ideas.

We often think of ideas as pictures of the world in our minds, but Spinoza insists that ideas can be activities, not inert things.  They are also not the result of some independent process of thinking in the mind.  There are in fact no such independent processes, or faculties.  There is no absolute or free will; rather the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has been determined by another cause, on to infinity.  There is no faculty of positive or negative volition – that is, we do not have an absolute ability to say “yes” or “no”.  The idea of a faculty arises from the fact that we have many different ideas which we arrange into general categories.  We say yes or no to a thing because our idea of it involves a yes or a no.  Will and understanding, then, are ultimately the same; our apparent choices for or against a given thing are simply functions of the idea we hold about them.  One can object that we seem to be able to suspend judgments about things, but Spinoza insists that this apparent suspension of judgement is a confused perception of our idea about the thing being rejected.

How Mind and Body are Unified: The Body is the Object of the Mind

Remember that there is only one substance.  Body and mind are the same individual, considered under different attributes.  There are several consequences to this.  The first is that “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, in other words a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else.”  (II, 13)  In other words, the first thing the human mind perceives is the human body.  As we noted above, all of our thinking is mediated through the status of our body.

When we perceive something, such as a blotch of red or the taste of ice cream, what we are perceiving is a modification of our body.  (II, 22)  In Part 1, we saw that the idea of an effect involves the idea of a cause; so the idea of the taste of ice cream (which is an effect) involves both the idea of the ice cream and the idea of our body.  But this mediation through the body introduces a kind of limit on thought (a limit which will not be breached until Part 5).  This limit is roughly that “The idea of each modification of the human body does not involve an adequate knowledge of the external body,” (II, 25) and “The human mind does not involve an adequate knowledge of the parts composing the human body.” (II, 34)  The parts of the body and of the ice cream are complex individuals.  What we perceive through our bodies are images of things, because they are modifications entirely caused by objects impressing themselves on our fluid parts (i.e., our sensory apparatus) – and so these images are part of passive nature (that is, nature considered as a bunch of atoms bouncing off each other, without any productive or active power).

A Networked Mind

Let’s begin our discussion of Spinoza’s epistemology with three general observations about knowledge.  First, if the body is affected by an external body, it will regard the external body as present, unless it is affected in away that makes it see the external body as absent.  As long as the body is affected in a certain way, so will the mind (II, 17).  This is also why the mind can perceive absent bodies as being present: the soft parts retain the impression of the external body.  Our image of a thing is our mind’s representation (in the text, Spinoza uses the verb form; I am not sure if that is significant) of the way that thing modifies our body.  When we consider a thing as present or absent, we are imagining.  Usually, the English term imagination refers to ideas of things that are not real; for Spinoza, an image is only false if we believe an absent body to be present, and we would only believe this if we had not been caused to perceive the body as absent (II, 17, Note).

Second, memory is a chain of associations: “If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies at the same time, when the mind afterward imagines any of them, it will straightaway remember the others also.”  (II, 18)  If an ancient Roman were to hear the word pomum, they would associate it with an apple.  If a soldier were to see horse tracks, they would think of a cavalry column, while a farmer would think of harvest; “Thus every man will follow this or that train of thought, according as he has been in the habit of conjoining and associating the mental images of things in this or that manner.”  (II, 18, Note)

Finally, every mode of an attribute, because it is a mode of that attribute, has certain common properties.  All bodies have common properties, and all ideas have common properties.  These common properties cannot be the essence of any one thing; this table has the properties common to all bodies (the attribute of extension), but if those properties were the essence of the table, then the attribute of extension itself could not be conceived without this table.  (II, 37).  These common properties of an attribute can only be conceived adequately, because the idea of the thing is caused by that attribute (this is my questionable interpretation of proposition 38).  If follows from this that there are some ideas common to every human, because all bodies have some shared properties, and so affect us all in a common way.

Time and Mind: The Three Kinds of Knowledge

Spinoza says there are three kinds of knowledge: imagination, reason, and intuition.  That Spinoza’s ontology has three levels and his theory of knowledge has three categories is no accident; imagination focuses on modes, reason focuses on attributes, and intuition is tied to knowledge of God.  Each one also has its own relation to time.

Imagination is the result of  chains of association, that is, memories and expectations. Images of things are formed by the body being affected by an external thing. If the body is affected by two or more things in a particular time frame, then chains of associations are formed.  If the body is affected by a thing in that chain, then the other parts of the chain will be perceived as, or expected to be, present. If a kid sees Peter in the morning, Paul at noon, and then Simon in the evening, then a chain will be formed between the three men.  The mind sees things as present even when they are absent, unless something causes them to see it as absent.  If the body has been affected by 2 things at once, an association will be formed.  The presence of one will cause the mind to see the other as present; specifically, “he will imagine the existence of Paul and Simon in relation to a future time…”  And if he sees Simon in the evening, he will imagine a past.  But if he sees James and not Simon, then his imagination will waver.  “This wavering of the imagination will be the same, if the imagination be concerned with things that we thus contemplate, standing in relation to time past or time present: consequently, we may imagine things as contingent, whether they be referred to time present, past or future.” (II, 44, Note)  Human ignorance is entirely down to an over-reliance on the imagination; we focus on our images of things rather than their true essences.

The second kind of knowledge, reason, is related to the properties a thing has because of its attribute; a table and an octopus share certain properties because they are both extended, and jealousy and fear have common properties because they are both thoughts.  Reason does not tell us about particular things; it tells us about how things are the same.  Further, “It is in the nature of reason to perceive things under a certain form of eternity.”  Reason perceives this table as the attribute of extension and love as the attribute of thought, and attributes flow from the eternal essence of God, and are therefore necessary.  He says, “But this necessity of things is the very necessity of the eternal nature of God; therefore, it is in the nature of reason to regard things under this form of eternity.  We may add that the bases of reason are the notions which answer to things common to all, and which do not answer to the essence of any particular thing; which must therefore be conceived without any relation to time, under a certain form of eternity.”

In Part 2, Spinoza only drops hints concerning the third kind of knowledge; Part 5, “Of Human Freedom,” is entirely devoted to it.  Here, he says that it follows from an adequate idea of the absolute essence of God to an adequate knowledge of the essence of things.

He offers an example to illustrate all three:

 “Three numbers are given for finding a fourth, which shall be to the third as the second is to the first.  Tradesmen without hesitation multiply the second by the third, and divide the product by the first; either because they have not forgotten the rule which they received from a master without any proof, or because they have often made trial of it with simple numbers, or by virtue of the proof of the 19th proposition of the 7th book of Euclid, namely, in virtue of the general property of proportionals.  But with very simple numbers there is no need of this.  For instance, 1, 2 3, being given, everyone can see that the 4th proportional is 6; and this is much clearer, because we infer the 4th number from an intuitive grasping of the ratio, which the first bears to the second.” (II, 40, Note 2)

Spinoza is often a fantastic writer, but sometimes his presentation is nearly impossible to follow.  I am not entirely sure which parts of this paragraph correspond to which kinds of knowledge.  Let’s end our discussion by figuring it out.


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