Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Spinoza's view of mind as the idea of the human body

To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza's view of mind as the idea of the body
Date: 14th September 2011 15:15

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 5 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'What led Spinoza to describe the human mind as the idea of the human body? Did he make an adequate case for this view?'

I find this a rather odd question. It looks as though we are being asked to answer two separate questions, rather than just one, but if so what exactly is the difference between them? Where does an account of 'what led Spinoza to describe' the human mind as the idea of the human body end, and an assessment of whether he gives an 'adequate case for this view' begin?

If we were talking about another thinker, there might well be room for a gap between an account of their motivation for putting forward a particular philosophical view and the reasons which they give -- including an assessment of the validity of those reasons -- for holding that view. But as your essay amply demonstrates, there is very little to say with regard to Spinoza's motivations, or the context in which he was writing, that isn't included in his highly structured and comprehensive arguments.

As a student of Descartes, Spinoza clearly saw that the problem of mind-body interaction was crucial. At the heart of the Cartesian philosophy is a surd, and nothing can be done to lessen the sense of incoherence: an outrage to reason. As a student of the Stoic philosophers, Spinoza inherited a powerful sense of the unity of nature, and of ourselves as an intrinsic part of nature, together with the logical consequence of that view: a strong version of fatalism. Knowledge, or 'adequate ideas' isn't just something useful for action, it is the very nature and core of human freedom, in the truest sense: hence the absolute need for determination as a precondition of freedom. Finally, as Jew, Spinoza inherited the strong distaste for anthropomorphizing God, which he took to the extreme of challenging conventional models of faith, actively proselytizing for his rationalist view to the point where the community saw no alternative but to excommunicate him.

To sum up, Spinoza inherited a list of problems, to which he saw his philosophy as the complete solution. As in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, once the structure has been laid out, there remains very little for the philosopher to do. Above all, it was the beautiful simplicity of his theory that acted as a powerful incentive for getting over one's reservations about the intuitive oddness of describing the human mind as the idea of the human body.

You rightly emphasize the role of rationalism and of Spinoza's version of the principle of sufficient reason. A point you could have made here concerns the relation between the Creator and his creatures. It was Descartes who saw that 'substance' as he defined it, whether material substance or thinking substance, cannot simply be created once and for all. God is everywhere and everything derives from God. The desk on which I rest my hands would cease to exist in a moment, if God did not continually exercise His creative power. Things have no 'existential inertia' to keep them going in existence, as it were under their own steam.

So the key argument, for Spinoza, is the point about the definition of substance. If this table depends on God in order to continue in existence, then it is no 'substance' according to Descartes' own definition of a substance.

Once that move is made, everything falls into place like dominoes neatly lining up in a row. If the question is whether Spinoza makes an adequate case, then the question arises whether we are simply trying to render Cartesian philosophy coherent -- fixing up Descartes' account of 'substance' -- or whether one is looking for proof in some absolute sense, which would require a defence of Spinoza's axioms. Spinoza would laugh at that. They're axioms. You can only criticize him for deriving invalid consequences from the axioms! (Which gives another twist to the original question.)

The pancreas objection is laughable. I can only see this as an expository device, not a serious objection which is liable to cause any problems for Spinoza. Similarly, the worry about the 'mind of the stove'. Of course, the stove doesn't have a mind, as we would describe it. There's more to being a mind than simply being a more or less tightly organized structural composite of ideas. All ideas are ultimately in the mind of God, as indeed is the entire universe, under the aspect of God's thought of all creation. The interesting question is how one 'clumps' together structures of ideas and structures of material objects.

Here, you say something very important to the effect that causal and rational explanation depend on identifying systems which function in the explanatory sense as wholes. The system of ideas which functions as 'the mind of AL' does so in virtue of its capacity, as a special kind of whole to initiate changes in the external world, and be effected as a whole by its perceptions, which the system of ideas which corresponds to the stove in God's mind does not.

That's not the last word. There are plenty of details which remain to cause puzzlement. But the trick is (as I think you have seen) to consistently follow Spinoza's interpretation, so that 'objections' (so-called) are simply seen as failures to grasp the whole picture. I have to admit honestly that I don't always see the whole picture: you have to get into a certain mood. But it is what makes Spinoza so mind-blowing.

All the best,

Geoffrey