Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 7: EIIIP12-13

This is going to be the last of my posts focusing on particular propositions from the ‘Ethics’, because I think by the time you reach Propositions 12 and 13, it becomes less useful to focus on propositions in isolation than to consider the system that they form together.

Indeed, these two propositions serve mainly to complete the foundations of that system – having defined ‘striving’, ‘pleasure’, and ‘displeasure’, Spinoza now says that the mind strives to think pleasant ideas and strives to avoid thinking unpleasant ideas:

“P12: The mind, as far as it can, strives to conceive those things, which increase or help the power of activity in the body.

P13: When the mind conceives things which diminish or hinder the body’s power of activity, it strives, as far as possible, to remember things which exclude the existence of the first-named things.

Corollary: Hence it follows, that the mind shrinks from conceiving those things, which diminish or constrain the power of itself and of the body.”

Also interesting is the note at the end of P13:

“Love is nothing else but pleasure accompanied by the idea, of an external cause: Hate is nothing else but pain accompanied by the idea of an external cause.”

This resembles a remark Spinoza threw out earlier, right at the end of P9, that I didn’t discuss at the time. He says that:

“In no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it.”

What these remarks bring up is Spinoza’s psychological monism, i.e. his belief that the mind does not contain distinct types of event – cognitive ‘thoughts’, motivational ‘desires;, affective ‘feelings’, but rather that ‘ideas’, the components of the mind, have cognitive, motivational, and affective aspects, which are systematically connected. This comes out in a number of places.

1) So for example, Spinoza doesn’t like saying ‘I did it because I believed it good’, if that suggests that a representation was the cause of a motivation. Rather, our motivation to seek something is expressed both through actions and also through the representation of it as ‘good’.

2) And here in P13, I think Spinoza is doing something similar with ‘feelings-toward’: we hold positive and negative attitudes towards things not because of any cognitive knowledge of them but because something about them makes us feel good or bad.

3) In P11, where Spinoza defines ‘pleasure’ and ‘displeasure’ terms of what ‘augments or diminishes the power of thinking in the mind’. Earlier in the proofs of P6 and P7 he repeatedly uses ‘power’ as a synonym for ‘striving’, which makes sense on the interpretation I’ve been defending – a thing’s striving, and its power, are both ways of describing its tendency to self-maintenance, which qualifies it to be called an individual ‘thing’. This amounts to saying, though, that feeling good or bad is itself definable in terms of desire – hence in terms of motivation.

4) It might seem as if Spinoza reduces everything else to motivations, but on the contrary, at the end of Part II (in Proposition 49), he argues that “There is in the mind no volition…save that which an idea, inasmuch as it is an idea, involves”, or more succinctly, “will and understanding are one and the same.”

So feelings are defined by motivations, motivations by representations, representations by feelings, etc. It’s all a big circle in which no one aspect is to be privileged over the others – at least that’s how I read it.

I just wanted to point this out, because it’s a characteristic feature of Spinoza’s thought. Moreover, I think it’s an attractive one. For one thing, it’s nice in general to connect things – to show apparently different things as variations of the same thing. If it can be pulled off successfully, such ‘elegant’ accounts are to be preferred.

For another thing, to conceive of the mind as containing lots of fundamentally similar items interacting is a useful if you want to understand it as a composite, as something divisible that emerged by the connecting of smaller parts and was not born entire and indivisible. Many aspects of the scientific worldview demand such an understanding, but it goes against the grain of common sense and a great deal of traditional metaphysics.

At this point I’m not sure if I should keep writing posts on Spinozistic psychology – if anyone cares to advise it would be welcome. There’s a number of directions to go with it – in particular, I suspect that some of its basic claims still appear bizarre or implausible, and concrete examples of their application would help.

It would also be interesting, I think, to compare aspects of Spinoza’s thought here with that of other philosophers – in particular, I have in mind Nietzsche, whose ‘will to power’ is a similarly monistic doctrine (both psychologically and metaphysically, and in its central emphasis on the concept of ‘power’), although his style of presentation is the exact opposite of Spinoza’s.

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