Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 2: EIIIP5-6

Today I want to look at Propositions 5 and 6 of Part III, which say, respectively, that:

“Things are opposed in nature, that is, cannot exist in the same object, in so far as one is capable of destroying the other.”

“Each thing, in so far as it is in itself, strives to maintain its own existence.”

The first is said to follow directly from Proposition 4 – if it were false, there could be a thing whose own nature was unstable, contradictory, but that wouldn’t be a thing. The second is a little puzzling: the demonstration begins by reminding us that “individual things are modes whereby the attributes of God are expressed in a given determinate manner”, and then references Propositions 4 and 5, which apparently say that each thing “is opposed to all that could take away its existence…Therefore…it strives to persist in its own being.”

It’s important to ask what is Spinoza trying to do here? We could read this as an ‘argument’, with uncontroversial premises implying a controversial conclusion, both expressed in words and concepts that we already understand. Then we would ask ‘is this a good argument?’ and probably say ‘no’.

I think that would be a mistake. Spinoza is not using concepts to express an argument, he is reinventing the concepts. I like to see Spinoza as confronting a messy mixture of conceptual schemes (viz. everyday talk, Medieval scholasticism, and the beginning of modern science) taking concepts from this mixture that people are misunderstanding (matter, substance, essence, etc.), and showing us a new way to construct them, that will preserve their kernel of truth while escaping the layers of sedimented bullshit.

1)      ‘Thing’, contd.

Propositions 4 to 6 are mainly trying to ‘reinvent’ the concepts of ‘individual thing’, and ‘teleology’, i.e. ‘action aimed at a goal’. Proposition 5, I think, is primarily there to make explicit the principle of individuation implicit in Proposition 4. It says that ‘things are opposed if…’, where ‘opposed’ means ‘cannot exist in the same object’. What is an object, if not a thing? So ‘two things cannot exist in the same object if…’ is roughly equivalent to ‘stuff counts as two things if…’

I say ‘roughly equivalent’ because ‘opposed’ also implies that one can’t be a part of the other, or that they can’t both be parts of a single thing. He blurs all of these together because he doesn’t want to rely on ‘part’ too explicitly – indeed he doesn’t think that the universe has ‘parts’, strictly speaking. The point is that he’s telling us how to apply the concepts of ‘thing’, ‘opposed’, etc.

2)      ‘Striving’

The other reinvention comes primarily in Proposition 6, which says that all things “strive”. Any complex object’s actions, Spinoza is saying, can be properly described as ‘aiming’ for a certain state, namely its own preservation. But this ‘aiming’ isn’t mysterious, it’s just what it means to be an individual thing.

‘Thing’ is defined causally: it’s a set of processes, interactions, which tend to preserve a certain structure. Think of a mammal’s thermoregulation – a set of interacting processes that warms it when it’s cold and cools it when it’s hot, ‘in order to’ keep it at 37 degrees. Consider even the way a sweater maintains its shape – when stretched it pulls back, when pushed it folds, whenever it’s acted on the forces that compose it ‘respond’ in ways that maintain its shape. If it didn’t do this, it wouldn’t be a thing, and we wouldn’t be talking about ‘it’.

3)      Phenomenology

This, Spinoza says, is how we should understand all ‘in-order-to’s – including deliberate, purposeful, human actions. But is this real teleology? Or is it just things ‘acting as though’ they pursued goals? But what’s the difference? As far as I can see, the difference is phenomenological – there’s a distinctive feeling, ‘from the inside’, to our pursuit of goals, accompanied by an idea of the goal pursued. Surely sweaters don’t have this? Except that Spinoza says they do, or something like it – but this comes out more in Proposition 9, so I’ll discuss it then.

But the stuff about things ‘expressing’ “the power of God” may be related. It’s not entirely clear what to make of this, but I think it means roughly this: nothing is really passive, and all action is fundamentally the same. Don’t distinguish the deliberate ‘actions’ of animals from the ‘passive’ or ‘mindless’ response-to-forces displayed by sweaters and stars, because everything that does, will, or could exist is pure agency, the activity of God’s vast, indifferent will.

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