Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Spinoza on human freedom

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 September, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, ''That thing is called free which exists from the necessity of its own nature alone and is determined to action by itself alone' (Ethics, 1d7). What led Spinoza to define freedom in this way? Does his definition allow for a satisfactory account of human freedom?'

I apologize for taking a little bit longer than usual to respond. Last week, two days were taken up with editing and sending out the two Pathways e-journals. This Monday, I took the day off to collect a car (1975 Scimitar GTE) which I'd won in an auction on eBay. I have found the whole process very distracting, especially as I haven't driven for nearly 10 years (since crashing my last Ford Capri).

This is a good example, though, which we can use to test Spinoza's account of human freedom.

The car is strictly for fun and pleasure. The 3 litre Ford Essex V6 engine is a petrol guzzler (by modern standards - it averages 20-22 mpg). I don't need it for travel as I'm quite used to walking or travelling by train or bus. Walking keeps me reasonably fit, and taking public transport reduces my environmental footprint.

The cost of the car (1,020 Pounds) was not a significant consideration, although servicing costs are unknown. It could prove to be a money-pit, only time will tell. What would Spinoza have said?

Your essay gives a very clear and accurate exposition of Spinoza's account of freedom. You do note the fact that human beings only satisfy the second part of Spinoza's definition, although this could have done with being highlighted just a bit more. God is absolutely free, and everything that happens (everything God 'does') has a deeply rationalist explanation. As in Leibniz, everything that happens is necessary, not just given antecedent conditions but unconditionally and couldn't have happened in any other way.

This poses a problem for human freedom. You note that one of the positive aspects of Spinoza's account is his more subtle view of the relation between reason and emotion: 'Spinoza avoids the usual rationalist ploy of locking reason and the emotions in an epic struggle of good versus evil.' But shortly after you make this remark, the essay comes to an end rather abruptly. Having met the objection that Spinoza 'devalues' emotion you quit just when things were getting interesting.

Back to my Scimitar. In buying something I didn't need, which I didn't even get the chance to inspect prior to making my bid, I took a calculated risk in order to satisfy a desire. I need more fun in my life, a reason to get out of the house at weekends, something different to do. I can rationalize this endlessly. I didn't travel 60 miles to inspect the vehicle because I wouldn't know how to judge anything that wasn't superficial (and included in the very believable description and photos). I'm a better judge of persons, and I phoned the guy up first. He was either honest, or else an incredibly good actor. When I met him in person, my judgement was confirmed. He was even playing a Doors tape ('The End')!

This is not the kind of reasoning you would do when making a diagnosis of a patient. You pursue the proper scientific method, you don't take risks, because someone else's life might be at stake (not to mention your reputation). OK, I wouldn't trust someone just because they liked The Doors, but it was part of the whole picture. I trust my intuitions, in life as well as when I'm doing philosophy.

The thing that totally puzzles me about Spinoza is that he has no plausible account of why human beings are capable of freely choosing to do things which are not either functional (as in taking medicine prescribed by a doctor) or pursuing a higher purpose (such as engaging in philosophical inquiry). I'm talking about the ends of human action, where do they come from? For Spinoza, it's all about knowledge. That's all his metaphysical system can allow. The need for fun or enjoyment which isn't simply the enjoyment of exercising and developing our powers (powers for what? surely not improving one's performance in shoot-em-up computer games) is merely a reflection of our bondage, our incapacity, due to lack of knowledge, to rise above our passions.

But is that right? Modern defenders of Spinoza could surely give him a bit more of a run for his money. OK, at the end of the day he's a dour Stoic, but even Stoics can allow themselves the joy of driving a Scimitar.

Sorry, if this sounds a bit like a rant. Your defence of Spinoza is good as far as it goes, but I think that there really is an issue here which you haven't addressed concerning the ends of human action and what it is to be human. Of course, there's a relatively lax version of Spinoza's account which is perfectly acceptable to any compatibilist. Freedom is doing what you want, and not being impeded by internal or external obstacles. But Spinoza can't say that. All wants are suspect. Desires are guilty until proven innocent -- until we can be satisfied that they come from our true essence, whatever that is, and are not merely passive affections, which we must strive to overcome through self-knowledge.

All the best,

Geoffrey