Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 5: EIIIP10

An idea, which excludes the existence of our body, cannot be postulated in our mind, but is opposed to it.

This is somewhat perplexing. What is it for an idea to exclude the existence of our body? Or to be opposed to it? Who is doing this postulating?

The proof only deepens the mystery: “Whatsoever can destroy our body, cannot be postulated therein, therefore neither can the idea of such a thing occur in God, in so far as he has the idea of our body.”


This is helpfully clarified with “Since the first element, that constitutes the essence of the mind, is the idea of the human body as actually existing, it follows that the first and chief striving of our mind is to affirm the existence of our body.”


1)      Physical, Mental, and Representational

Working this out requires a bit of heavy metaphysics, so here goes. Consider my idea of, say, Descartes. We can distinguish two aspects of this idea. On the one hand, we can relate it to its object, a certain long-dead Frenchman.

But on the other hand, we can also consider it in itself – it is, perhaps, a fuzzy idea, an idea that involves certain images or has certain associations. At this point we are not relating something in my mind to something outside it, merely examining the contents of my mind.

It also has a third, physical, aspect. Physically considered, this idea is a certain configuration or complex of neurons, things occupying space inside my skull and possessing traits like motion, mass, or charge. Spinoza is emphatic that these are just three different ways of conceiving the exact same thing – a position that was very controversial at the time but is fairly mainstream now.

But Spinoza says stuff about these aspects that’s less mainstream. He describes the second aspect, the intrinsic-mental, as ‘the idea of’ the third, physical, aspect – the idea ‘in God’s mind’. That is, God has an omniscient, 100% accurate and detailed, representation of the entire physical universe, down to the tiniest particle – and this colossal representation is the universe itself. And our own mental lives are merely parts of this – when we think, that’s God thinking our brains.

2)      Destroying the Brain

But let’s descend from the grand sweep of things and see how this applies to interpreting P10. I think that ‘an idea which excludes the existence of our body’ does so in its physical aspect, not in its representational aspect. Spinoza isn’t talking about ‘the idea of my body’ in the sense that some, but not all, of my thoughts are about my body (whereas others are about, say, Descartes, or monkeys); he’s talking about ‘the idea of my body’ which is simply my body, as a mental thing – i.e. my mind itself.

(What Spinoza thinks the boundaries of this ‘body’ are isn’t clear – I think they’re the boundaries of the brain, so I’m going to replace ‘body’ with ‘brain’ here)

So how does an idea ‘exclude’ this? Since my brain is defined by its structure, whatever disrupts this structure ‘destroys’ my brain. And this might be a part of the brain itself – some configuration of neurons which emits electrical signals in a way that scrambles, destabilises, or re-routes other neurons so as to destroy the recognisable person that is ‘me’. And this physical configuration of neurons will have a mental aspect – it will be an idea.

Such an idea is ‘opposed to my mind’: it’s incompatible with the preservation of my mind, and so either my mind will overcome or neutralise it, or the mind will dissolve, split, fragment or otherwise lose its organisation. We might suppose that the radical failure of this effort is psychosis, dissociation, or catatonia.

The strength of the mind’s tendency to defuse such threats is what Spinoza calls its ‘power’. And there’s no mystery why it has this tendency: because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t exist – for there to be minds at all, they must have some ‘power’ to maintain themselves.

3)      Worldviews

But now let’s go back to the first aspect – that of ‘representation’ in the everyday sense. This mental conflict, this defence against mind-toxic ideas, doesn’t tell us what things those ideas will represent. The idea which, intrinsically, represents neural structures that will destroy my mind, could ‘represent’ any external thing in the world – and that thing would then become, for me, an object of mortal terror.

For instance, it might represent ‘that the people who loved me have grown indifferent to me’, or ‘that the Church I devoted my life to is full of child-rapists’, or ‘that whites will become an ethnic minority in their own country’.

This is the philosophy by which your kidneys live their whole lives.

I think the real crux of Spinoza’s approach to psychology is this: the brain has a physical structure that it maintains, and this pattern is replicated in the mind as a structure of ideas that it maintains – a structure of ideas which may represent an endless variety of external set-ups in the world, depending on personal experience and socialisation.

So to understand the most basic dynamic of someone’s mind, look for a ‘worldview’ – a set of ideas about the world that form a framework in which the person feels able to live. Then treat this worldview as a ‘homeostatic’ system, detecting and correcting violations of its parameters, just like their thermoregulation or osmoregulation systems.

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3 Responses to Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 5: EIIIP10

  1. Phil says:

    This is a terrific series of posts – I’ve just read them (i.e. the first five) back to back & enjoyed them hugely. (I’ve never read Spinoza, incidentally.) But I think you may go a bit adrift – or a bit post-Freudian – in part 3 of this one. I don’t see Spinoza as saying that our mind-brain systems are under threat from thoughts so unthinkable that they could dismantle those systems and destroy us. If anything, I think he’s saying the opposite: that there is no unthinkable thought, because any such thought would have to be thinkable in the mind of God – and making this possible would either introduce contradiction into human nature (which is excluded by previous propositions) or make God alien to humanity while introducing contradiction to the divine nature (which is even worse).

    So I think this proposition is essentially saying “there’s nothing you can think that can’t be thunk”. There is no impious thought, in other words: anything you can think is – did you but know it – a part of the great harmonious complex which is God dreaming the universe into being.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      I’m glad you’ve been enjoying the posts!

      I don’t entirely follow your interpretation of this proposition though. Firstly, I’m not sure what the significance is of saying that ‘any thought you can think can be thought’ – what is this denying?
      That there could be ‘impious thoughts’ which would offend or discomfit God? I’m not sure what that means, or why it would pop up here – who thinks this?
      Or is Spinoza denying that there are any thoughts that can’t be thought? That seems a strange thing to express by a proposition saying “An idea [of a certain sort] cannot be postulated in our mind, but is opposed to it.”
      Or is he denying that there are ‘destructive’, ‘toxic’ thoughts? I’m reluctant to read him as saying that because it seems to me that there are such thoughts – there are things that, when people learn of them or experience them, damage their minds. Of course the same idea might have been tolerated if they had been ‘stronger’, more able to deal with and process experience, but often they’re not.

      Similarly, note that he says “the first and chief striving of our mind is to affirm the existence of our body” – suggesting that this striving can fail, that it faces threat and adversity.

      Similarly I have doubts about the sort of reason you give, that “making this possible would either introduce contradiction into human nature (which is excluded by previous propositions)”. Of course no thing can have a contradictory nature, but that just means that ‘introducing contradiction’ into something amounts to ‘destroying it’. And clearly things can destroy the brain – they can ‘exclude the existence’ of it, whether by psychological routes or by bullets, bears, fire, etc.

  2. Pingback: Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 6: EIIIP11 | Majestic Equality

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