Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 4: EIIIP9

The mind, both in so far as it has clear and distinct ideas, and also in so far as it has confused ideas, strives to persist in its being for an indefinite period, and of this endeavour it is conscious.”

“This striving…is called will (‘voluntas’) [or] …appetite(‘appetitus’); it is, in fact, nothing else but man’s essence.”

Over the previous 5 Propositions, Spinoza has tried to reinvent the concepts of individuality and teleology, to make them more suitable for naturalism and modern science than the Aristotelian, Medieval, or Cartesian versions. Now in P9 he tells us that this and nothing else, is our experience of desiring, willing, aiming at goals.

On the one hand, this adjusts our view of human desire to accord with the idea of a structure maintaining itself; on the other hand, it adjusts our idea of a structure maintaining itself to accord with our experience of human desire. Here I’ll focus on the latter issue, and discuss the former more fully in the next post, on Proposition 10.

As is often the case, the proof offered isn’t enormously helpful. Spinoza takes for granted that since the human mind is a ‘thing’, it displays ‘striving’; the involvement of both clear and confused ideas, and the accompanying ‘consciousness’, follow from earlier Propositions that “the essence of the mind is constituted by adequate and inadequate ideas”, and that “the mind is necessarily conscious of itself through the ideas of the modifications of the body.”

1)      Real Teleology

Recall that at P6, when Spinoza introduced the term ‘striving’ with its teleological, ‘desirous’, connotations, there was a worry over whether this indicated ‘real teleology’, or merely ‘as if’ teleology. By describing human desire as merely our version of ‘striving’, Spinoza makes clear that all such striving is ‘real teleology’.

That’s because our whole idea of ‘real teleology’ is drawn from our own experience of desire. For instance, the whole point of saying that the ‘design’ of animals by natural selection isn’t ‘real’ design but only ‘as if’ design is to deny that there is any conscious mind or intelligence that desires animals to be fit.

So Spinoza is saying that every thing’s behaviour is really teleological, motivated by something like a desire.

(Note, this doesn’t include evolution, because that’s not an organised individual ‘thing’, and so has no ‘overall’ goal. It does mean that the organisms, perhaps even the cells, the molecules, the genes, do act for ‘goals’. Natural selection is ‘blind’ in the same way that the behaviour of a crowd or a market can be ‘blind’ – the component parts pursue purposes, but their interactions render the whole purposeless.)

2)      Clarity

But isn’t it mad to attribute desires to bricks and water molecules and so forth? Certainly it’s audacious, and highly ‘counter-intuitive’ – but intuitions are often wrong, and it’s not as though we have direct evidence on the matter.

But there are at least two immediate points that may make it less counter-intuitive, namely that Spinoza allows striving to involve either adequate (‘clear and distinct’) or inadequate (‘confused’) ideas, and to be accompanied by consciousness or (implicitly) not.

The ‘desires’ of a brick presumably involve highly ‘confused’ ideas, and have little or no ‘consciousness’. Neither of these claims is at all easy to interpret – they combine the obscurity of Spinoza with the obscurity of consciousness itself. It’s not even clear what the difference is. Given the space available, I’ll content myself with some very rough and speculative suggestions.

Have you ever felt a desire, but been unsure what you desired? A generic sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction? This might be what a desire with a highly ‘inadequate’ idea is – where no specific object can be identified. Other ways to have ‘inadequate ideas’ might include either misplaced desires (really you want X but you displace the desire onto Y) or incompletely understood desires (you want X but you don’t know what aspect of X attracts you).

It seems likely that our ability to identify and distinguish specific objects rests on the sort of complexity that our brains possess – less complex brains, or bricks, will be less able to make distinctions. Their ‘desires’, we might then suppose, are more ‘unspecific’ than we can really imagine – such that we can’t really say ‘what’ they desire, except that they do.

3)      Consciousness

But even when we humans have these ‘confused’ desires, we can notice them, and then we can verbalise them, or think things like “Why do I have this nameless sense of longing? Perhaps it’s because of caffeine withdrawl symptoms. Maybe I should go for a jog.”

These capacities, for planning, reflection, explanation, verbalisation – seem to be at least part of what we normally mean by calling a desire ‘conscious’. To have an ‘unconscious’ desire is to be unable to ‘think about’ that desire, report it, plan around it.

The word ‘conscious’ sometimes means other things, but this is my best guess for Spinoza’s meaning – especially because later on he remarks that “whether a man be conscious of his appetite or not, it remains one and the same appetite”, i.e. consciousness is not intrinsic to a mental state, but depends on its relations to others.

And again, these seem to be capacities that are characteristic of animals with complex brains, so it makes sense to suppose that even if bricks have ‘desires’, their desires are not ‘conscious’, i.e. they cannot reflect on them, they cannot question them, etc.

Much remains obscure. But that’s at least a suggestion of what Spinoza means by connecting the ubiquitous ‘striving’ of things with human desire. The question remains whether this account can even make sense of human desires themselves – which will be tomorrow’s topic.

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One Response to Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 4: EIIIP9

  1. Pingback: Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 5: EIIIP10 | Majestic Equality

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