Over the next week or two my blogging is going to focus on Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Part III, Propositions 4 to 13 – a baffling text by a baffling philosopher. This section contains the foundations of Spinoza’s account of the human mind and its functioning, as part of a general panpsychist theory of causation. But nobody’s really sure of what it means or how it works.
So I’m going to go through it Proposition-by-Proposition, trying to interpret them in such a way as to be both interesting and plausible. I’d love for anyone with an interest in Spinoza to give feedback/comments/criticism. Text available here.
So today I’m starting with Proposition 4, which says that:
“No thing can be destroyed, except by an external cause.”
On the surface this is clearly false, but I think underneath the surface it makes much more sense. There are three points here that need to be discussed, and at each point the proposition becomes less obnoxiously strong. These points are the meaning of ‘thing’, of ‘essence’, and the role of consistency.
To start with ‘thing’, note that Spinoza does not say ‘nothing’, but ‘no thing’. Not everything is a thing, in the relevant sense. What is that sense?
At the beginning of Part II tells us this: “if several individual things concur in one action, so as to be all simultaneously the effect of one cause, I consider them all, to that extent, as one particular thing.”
Two things about this should be noted: ‘thing’ is a causal notion, and a relative notion – stuff can be ‘a single thing’ to some extent, when we consider it in a certain light. So here’s how I would read it:
‘When we explain some stuff that happens, its convenient to lump some aspects of reality, together under one heading, because they have, in that explanatory context, the same causal relations. Such lumpings-together, we call ‘things’.
This is suggested by Spinoza’s language, but I think it also fits his general metaphysics, which is intensely hostile to genuinely discrete individuals – i.e. to defining ‘thing’ in an absolute or ontological, rather than a relative and explanatory, way.
So that’s a ‘thing’ – what is ‘external’ to a thing? This comes out in the proof Spinoza offers: “the definition of anything affirms the essence of that thing, but does not negate it…So long therefore as we regard only the thing itself, without taking into account external causes, we shall not be able to find in it anything which could destroy it.”
So ‘external’ means ‘external to the thing’s essence’. But what is part of a thing’s essence?
In Part II Spinoza gives a standard, unhelpful definition: “that without which the thing, and which itself without the thing, can neither be nor be conceived”, i.e. whatever is necessary and sufficient for a thing to exist.
Fortunately, Spinoza helps us with his more developed definition of ‘thing’ a bit later in Part II: “[W]hen…bodies…are compelled by other bodies to remain in contact…so that their mutual movements should preserve among themselves a certain fixed relation, we say that such bodies are united, and that together they compose one body or individual.”
This is a specifically physical definition, but I think we can extrapolate: an ‘individual thing’ is any collection of stuff whose parts interact so as to preserve certain relations between them. This fits fairly well with the earlier definition of thing – I’m not sure if they’re entirely synonymous but I don’t think the differences are significant.
Now, if a thing’s essence is whatever’s necessary and sufficient for its existence as a single thing, and it exists as one thing because of a certain set of internal relations, then that set of internal relations is the thing’s essence.
But there’s one last condition. Spinoza says ‘the definition of a thing affirms but does not negate its essence’, which implies that essences cannot be contradictory. If they were, definitions might negate them just by affirming them.
I don’t think this is a substantive claim, so much as a rule for individuating essences. To distinguish one thing from two things interacting, see if there’s a consistent account of all the relations among their parts – if you can only find accounts where some relations undermine or disrupt others, then you have two (or more) essences, two distinct things.
So we can re-phrase Proposition 4 thus:
“No explanatorily relevant grouping is dissolved by the consistent set of internal relations that maintain it.”
Spinoza says this is ‘self-evident’, and he’s right. But is it trivial, uninformative? On its own, yes. In context, perhaps not – if we take its meaning not as metaphysical, nor yet as psychological, but as methodological.
Then it would mean something like this: to explain an entity’s behaviour, identify the stable, self-maintaining set of internal relations that define it. The application of this to the human mindbody occupies the rest of the Ethics.