Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 6: EIIIP11

Previous post here.

Whatever increases or diminishes…the power of activity in our body, the idea thereof increases or diminishes, helps or hinders the power of thought in our mind.”

This proposition is actually fairly trivial, given Spinoza’s commitment to mind-body identity – or more precisely mind-brain identity. If something happens to the brain, something corresponding happens to the mind.

But the note is where things get interesting: “the mind can…pass sometimes to a state of greater perfection, sometimes to a state of lesser perfection. These passive states of transition explain to us the emotions of pleasure and pain. By pleasure…I shall signify a passive state wherein the mind passes to a greater perfection. By pain I shall signify a passive state wherein the mind passes to a lesser perfection.”

Now suddenly it becomes important to know what exactly Spinoza means by ‘power of thinking’, since that’s being offered as what defines pleasure and pain (or as I prefer to say for clarity, displeasure). The degree of this power seems connected with ‘degrees of perfection’ but that’s even less clear so let’s focus on power. We have lots of obvious sorts of ‘power’ – muscular, mathematical, political, but none of them seem to have any obvious relationship to pleasure and displeasure. So Spinoza’s sense of power must be something else – let’s call it ‘psychological power’.

There are two immediate suggestions of what this means in the text. On the one hand, the preceding propositions have talked a lot about individual things expressing their ‘power’ in their ‘striving’: here power is a matter of the tendency to self-maintenance. On the other hand, he references IIP14, which mentions the capacity to “perceive many number of things”, where presumably the number of things that can be perceived is a measure of power. Both senses seem to be involved, so we might hope that they can be connected with each other.

The tendency to self-maintenance is our resistance to disruptions that might destroy our constitutive structure, so it makes sense to think that what ‘reduces our power/perfection’ is what moves us closer to such destruction. Obviously mental destruction isn’t an all-or-nothing matter, so what are the gradations?

It seems to me that the best way to think of this is in terms of mental ‘fragmentation’ or dis-integration. Consider phenomena like repression (an unpleasant memory is blocked from awareness), dissociation (the mind ‘shuts out’ an unpleasant experience), or simple self-deception (the mind violates its normal standards in order to avoid an undesirable conclusion). These are all cases where our mind basically decides ‘it’s easier to separate part of me from myself than to accept this idea.’

Now obviously these dis-integrative phenomena aren’t identical to displeasure – after all, often we are all too aware of our suffering. But they do seem to be related, in that there’s generally a proportion between how unpleasant an idea is and how likely it is to be repressed etc. This suggests that we can at least say that displeasure is/coincides with ‘tendency to be dissociated’ – the difficulty of integrating and ‘accepting’ an idea.

And now this connects up with Spinoza’s talk of psychological power as the ‘capacity to perceive many things’. If unpleasant ideas are more difficult to integrate, they’re likely to ‘occupy’ the mind’s resources and power in a way that makes it less able to integrate lots of other ideas (certainly other unpleasant ideas). Conversely, pleasure is the feeling of something ‘slotting into place’, being easily integrated into the mind.

But! Aren’t there many counter-examples – pleasant states which make the mind less able to ‘perceive many things’? Drunkenness, orgasm, intense excitement, etc. surely all make us less able to attend to things. Indeed, the ‘Yerkes-Dodson law’ tells us that both too much arousal and too little arousal make us less able to process information effectively, whether the arousal is pleasant or unpleasant.

But this is a confusion. I don’t think that ‘perceiving many things’ means attending to more than a few things at once, but rather believing many millions of things, as part of our ‘total mental picture of the world’, and organising them into complex and structured knowledge, without repressing or deceiving oneself about any of them. When we find something easy to attend to, we call it ‘clear’; when we find something easy to integrate into such a structured, unified, ‘total picture’, we feel ‘pleasure’.

We might confuse the two because how much we attend to something (or how much it ‘grabs’ our attention) does of course have a big influence on how pleasant or unpleasant it ‘seems’ – suffering that is held immediately before our minds will feel worse than suffering we ‘push aside’ and ignore. So the product of ‘degree of attention’ times ‘ease/difficulty of integration’ would be a measure of how far we’re conscious of something as pleasant/unpleasant – whatever exactly ‘conscious’ means.

Obviously these very abstract comments are too sparse to give a full analysis and evaluation of Spinoza’s proposal – that would require detailed consideration of how it handles particular examples, particular sorts of pleasure and displeasure.

But I’d like to make one final comment, about the contrast between Spinoza’s approach to pleasure/displeasure and that of most Hedonist or Utilitarian philosophers, like Bentham, who have wanted to isolate pleasure and displeasure, to treat them as discrete little atoms occurring in the mind, whose ‘pleasantness’ or ‘unpleasantness’ is an ineffable intrinsic quality, as indescribable as the colour purple. If Spinoza is right, then isolating these feelings is the worst possible thing to do, because their nature is fundamentally connected to the overall structure of the mind.

This entry was posted in Reading EIIIP4-13 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 6: EIIIP11

  1. Pingback: Spinoza, Panpsychism, and the Difference between Animals and Objects | Majestic Equality

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