Spinoza’s Parallelism – Lecture 8

Having just finished the first part of the Ethics, with all its complexity and difficulty, we now advance into the second part, which is just as difficult and complex. Ostensibly the object of the second part is ourselves, whereas the object of the first part was God. And yet reading the definition and axioms, and the first 13 propositions, we might feel that we haven’t left the topic of God at all. But then we have to understand Spinoza’s perspective. He wants to rid us of any idea that we are somehow apart from the rest of the universe and have a special place within creation, what might be called the anthropomorphic bias of philosophy and religion. We must remember that it is this anthropomorphism which is the true cause of the idea of a personal God separate from the universe He creates (It is this transcendence Spinoza wants to destroy). Rather than seeing ourselves as somehow unique (only God is unique for Spinoza), we must see ourselves as just one element within the universe, or what Spinoza would call modes (and a finite mode at that). Spinoza expresses this beautifully in the preface to part three when he writes that there are some who conceive of human beings as though they were a ‘dominion within a dominion’. Human beings are not substances, but modes for Spinoza; that is to say, they are not transcendent but immanent to the universe, part of its processes and necessary laws.

This is not to say that Spinoza is not interested in human beings. Far from it, this is the only thing he is interested in. For Spinoza, like all great philosophers perhaps, philosophy is not just a clever game and how much one knows, but how one should live one’s life. This is why his book is called the Ethics. He writes, therefore, about metaphysics and physics, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of how we might, as part of this infinite universe, lead a better life.[1] As we saw earlier in this course, this idea of ‘leading a better life’ is not the same as being moral, which we, after thousands of years of Christianity might confuse it with, but begins with our human nature as part of nature as a whole. Morality and the personal God are intimately linked, because both abstract human beings from nature. This is true of Kant, for example, who writes after Spinoza, and who, although he is willing to place human being as natural being with nature, wants us, as moral beings, to be set apart: the moral order of human intentions, has nothing at all to do with the deterministic physical laws of nature.[2]

There is another difficulty facing us in the second part of the Ethics, however. That is on the whole hitherto we have been speaking about the infinite attribute extension. This is because this is the easiest way for us to enter Spinoza’s philosophy, perhaps because most of us have an understanding of modern science, and the Aristotelian universe is something we are unfamiliar with, whereas for his contemporaries it would be the other way round. Modern science already contains the idea that all individual things are in fact modes of the fundamental structure of the material universe which is governed by universal and necessary laws. But extension is only one the attributes of substance, and in fact there must be, as Spinoza writes in IP11, an infinity of attributes since God is an infinite substance consisting of infinite attributes.

When it comes to human beings, we can only speak of two attributes: thought and extension. But how do we think of thought as an infinite attribute of substance? It is easy to imagine each singular objects as the mode of extension (even ourselves when we consider ourselves as physical objects), but it is much harder to think of thought that way, because we think of thought as precisely that which individualises us. Remember this is precisely what Descartes did think. Each individual was a separate individual substance, because they were independent; that is to say, I cannot think the thoughts you are thinking now, and you cannot think the thoughts I am thinking.[3] But it is precisely this way of thinking that Spinoza avoids when he says that there is only one substance, and thought is an attribute, not a separate substance, and moreover every individual thought is a mode of this attribute. This means that it is not I who think thought, but thought that thinks through me, and when I perceive something it is not I who perceive it, but God who perceives it through me. We have to think of thought in exactly the same way that we think about extension, as an infinite autonomous and spontaneous attribute containing infinite modes. It is the universe which thinks for Spinoza and that is why we think, and not the other way around.

God or substance is thought under the attribute thought, such as God or matter is extension under the attribute extension. Thus we have to stop ourselves thinking of thought as something that happens in individual minds, which are modes. Rather it is the other way around. Thoughts are modes which are caused by the attribute thought, which is the same as saying, that they are caused or produced by God as a thinking substance, God under the attribute thought. This is why for Spinoza it is perfectly possible to say that machines could or can think, since thought is not a unique property of human beings, but is an attribute of God or the universe. In fact for Spinoza everything in the universe thinks (or is at least ‘animate’), and all we can say is that human beings, in terms of thought, simply think in a more complex way than stones, plants or animals. Ideas exist independent of the human mind, and are produced by God under the attribute of thought, in the same way that things are produced under the attribute of extension, so that there is the sun as a thing, and the idea of the sun which are two different modes of two different attributes, extension and thought which are immanent to the same infinite uncreated substance.

Though we have no difficulty of imagining the sun as separate from the human mind or soul as Spinoza calls it, we have great difficulty of thinking of the idea of the sun as being separate from the human mind. Spinoza would say, therefore, that the truth of the idea triangle that all triangle have 3 angles that add up to the sum of two right angles is true in itself and is independent of any human mind that thinks it. Thus as Woolhouse puts it, what is essential to Spinoza’s idea of ideas is:

The idea of there being real and immutable essences of geometrical figures, essences, which have an existence independent of any instantiation they might have in the corporeal world, and independent of any idea there might be of them in human minds. (Woolhouse, 1993).

This is why, as we said earlier, it is perfectly possible for a machine to think the idea of triangle, for the truth of triangle is not produced by the human mind, but by the universe, which contains an infinity of ideas as it contains an infinity of things. What we have to do then is think the idea of the sun in the same way we think the idea of triangle. As we shall see later, this does not always happen with human beings, because we tend to think the idea of things in terms of the affections of our body, through what Spinoza calls imagination, and not through our minds which can grasp the idea of things in themselves as they are produced by the infinite attribute of thought as it expresses the infinite nature of the universe. So we imagine the idea of the sun is produced in our minds by the external object which has an effect on our body, but this only produces a false and mutilated knowledge for Spinoza.

Again this is very difficult for us to accept because we tend to think a true idea is the adequation of the idea with an object. Thus, if I have the idea of the sun, this idea is true because the idea agrees with the real sun outside in the real world. Now this cannot be possible for Spinoza because attributes are autonomous. This idea of truth as the agreement of the idea and the external object would rest on the mysterious possibility that things could miraculous transform themselves into ideas, that the sun could become the idea of the sun and the object and the idea were one and the same thing, but we cannot think one attribute through another, as Spinoza writes in 1P10.

But it is clear that Spinoza believes that we have true ideas of objects, so how is that possible. His assertion is that there is a parallelism between the order and connection of ideas on the one hand, and the order of the connection of things on the other, that although these two series are absolute autonomous, and they have to be since one is produced through the attribute thought and the other through the attribute extension, that none the less they are absolutely identical, and they are so in themselves and not in the mind that thinks them. This doctrine of parallelism is one of the most difficult notions to explain in Spinoza, but before we can do so, we first of all need to think about what Spinoza thinks an idea is.

As we have already seen for Spinoza, ideas are not produced by human minds, though human minds can think them. Rather, they are produced by the attribute thought which is independent of any other attribute (independent in the sense of self-sufficient not independent in the sense of substance). So we can imagine the universe not only filled with an infinity of modes of extension (trees, plants, animals and human beings to be rather parochial about it), but also filled with an infinity of ideas (the idea of trees, plants, animals and human beings and so on). How do we know that one series agrees with the other, that the idea of the tree is the same as the tree? The answer cannot because we say so, because this is to make the human mind a ‘dominion within a dominion’ and thought dependent on us, rather than us dependent on thought. Ideas are produced by God, or Nature or the Universe or Substance, whatever word you choose.

Ideas are very strange things, and are different from other modes, in that an idea has two different functions (ontologically they exist as one in the idea, we separate them out in terms of analysis), which Spinoza has a special vocabulary to express, though it was a vocabulary that all his contemporaries also used, and which Descartes, for example makes much use of in his Meditations. Ideas are peculiar because they have both a formal and objective reality. Now one of the best explanations of this distinction can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza which can be found on the web (Deleuze). An idea is a thought in the sense that it represents an object, so the idea of the sun represents the object ‘sun’. What an idea represents is called the objective reality of an idea. Now this is probably what we all imagine an idea to be and we do not think of anything else, but for Spinoza an idea has another reality which he calls the formal reality of the idea. Now just as much as the objective reality of an idea is something that makes sense to us, then the formal reality of an idea does not. What can an idea be but the representation of an object? Well the idea is just actually what it is as an idea, or as Deleuze puts it, ‘it is the reality of the idea as much as it itself is a thing’. Thus we must separate in our minds what is represented in the idea, which is the object of the idea, and the idea itself which represents the object. So in fact there are not two things: the idea and the object, but three: the idea, the object as it represented in the idea, and the object. Or, the idea sun, the sun as it is represented in the idea of sun, and the sun as an object. Now to the extent that the idea itself is a thing (not of course a thing in the sense of the object, since it falls under the attribute thought, and not under the attribute extension, but still nonetheless a thing for Spinoza, or if one prefers a mode), then I can have an idea of this idea not as an objective reality but as a formal one. I can think the idea of sun as the idea, and not I in terms of what it represents.

It is through this difference between an idea and the idea of an idea that we can begin to understand the parallelism between the order of ideas and the order of things.[4] We begin here because we start with what we are as human beings. We know ourselves and the world through our bodies, but what is peculiar to us (what makes us more complex than stones plants and animals) is that we are capable of reflection; that is, capable of having an idea of an idea. I do not just think of objects but also I can think of ideas; ideas can become an object of another idea. I have an idea of the sun, which represents the sun to me, but I can also just think about this idea in itself. Now it is the idea of an idea that for human beings (not for God) that we can begin to see how truth is possible (or as Spinoza would say we can think adequate ideas), and notice that truth here is between an idea and another idea as the object of this idea; that is to say it is immanent to thought, and does require the agreement between thought and the external world of objects.[5] The idea is the result of the active power of the mind as a mode of the infinite attribute thought. It is not a copy of an object. Therefore an idea cannot be true by pointing to something in the object, for whatever I would be pointing to would itself be an idea, or better the relation between ideas. When I say that truth is the conformity of the object with the idea, then this conformity itself must be an idea, or in Spinoza’s language, an idea of an idea, and this ‘conformity’ cannot itself be an object. The idea itself must be adequate, and it can only be adequate because I can think it as so. The idea is true to the extent that it conforms to the object of the idea, but it does so only because it contains all the causes and reason of that object, which themselves are internal to reason (not human reason, but Reason itself). To have a true idea therefore is know the cause of ideas. The cause of ideas is the necessary relations between them. These necessary relations are not produced by the human mind, but by the power of thought itself.

What we have to understand is that if ideas where only the representation of objects, then there would be no necessary relation between ideas, and if there were no necessary relations between ideas, then there would no possibility of science. What we have to say is, ‘What are the necessary relations between ideas?’ which is the same as saying, ‘What is the causal relation between one idea and another one? We have to make this distinction between the idea as a representation and the idea as a cause, and again for Spinoza we cannot say that this necessity of ideas lies in the object, because all attributes are autonomous. We cannot think a thought under the attribute extension, just as much as we cannot think an extended thing under the attribute thought.

To use Gueroult’s example, in his second volume on Spinoza, to have an idea of an idea is to go from this idea back to the knowledge of the order and connection of its cause in thought (Gueroult, 1974). I understand thought A by knowing that it is caused by B and so on. So as to go from the idea of triangle to the idea of the equality of the sum of its angles to two right angles, the mind must first of all think of the idea of the idea of a triangle, so as to understand the cause which results in the idea of the equality of angles, and is so doing it has an adequate idea of the triangle. Through reflection I understand the necessary causal relations between thoughts, which are produced by thought itself and not by my reflection, as Gueroult explains:

La liaison des idées ne dépend pas de la réflexion sur les idées, c’est-à-dire des idées des idées, car les idées sont en soi produites selon l’ordre des causes dans la Pensée, sans qu’interviennent en rien les idées des idées, c’est-à-dire la réflexion (The linkage of ideas does not depend on the reflection upon ideas; that is to say of the ideas of ideas, since ideas are produced in themselves according to the order of causes in Thought, without the ideas of ideas intervening at all; that is to say, reflection). (Gueroult, 1974, p. 71)

Reflection does not produce truth; it only discovers it. It is the discovery through human knowledge of the order of ideas as caused by the attribute Thought.

But how do we get from these necessary causal relations of thought to the necessary causal relations of things, and at the same time understand that they must be identical, without one being the source of the other? The answer to this question is to concentrate on the idea of causality. Both ideas and things are produced simultaneously through their attributes. This means that things, which are the object of ideas, follow the necessity of their attribute, with the same spontaneity and autonomy, as the ideas of these things follows the attribute of thought. If thoughts are connected together by necessary order of connection, then things must also be connected together necessarily, and this necessity must be the same. They are the same not because things determine thoughts, nor thoughts things, but this necessity comes from the infinite nature of the one substance, which these two attributes express. Thus to use Spinoza’s example in IIP7S, the circle and the idea of the circle are other to one another, since they fall under different attributes, though the necessary connection between things and the necessary connection between ideas is identical. It is not that the necessary causality of things determines the causality of thought, but the necessity of substance (this necessity must be the same otherwise there would be as many substances as there would be attributes). In thought the connection between ideas is produced by the necessary causality proper to thought, and this order is the same as the order of things under the attribute extension. They are the same, because both are immanent to the same substance which is infinite and unfolds in a necessary way through each attribute. This does not mean, however, that attributes are fused together in substance. Each attribute is autonomous and so expresses the necessity of substance in its own way. As Gueroult, writes, they are both indissoluble and heterogeneous (Gueroult, 1974, p 90).

Works Cited

  1.  Ayers, M., & Garber, D. (Eds.). (2003). The Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy (Vol. I). Cambridge: CUP.
  2. Deleuze, G. (s.d.). Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze: Deleuze/Spinoza, Cours Vincennes 24/10/1978. Consulté le November 5, 2007, sur Webdeleuze: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2
  3. Descartes. (1985). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Vol. I). (J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdock, Trans.) Cambridge: CUP.
  4. Gueroult, M. (1974). Spinoza (Vol. II, L’âme). Paris: Aubier.
  5. Kant. (2003). Critique of Pure Reason. (H. Caygill, Ed., & N. K. Smith, Trans.) Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Woolhouse, R. S. (1993). The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. London: Routledge.

[1] And in this sense, he is very different from Descartes who writes philosophy first of all because of science and not ethics, notwithstanding his book on the passions. (Descartes, 1985).

[2] He wants to make room for human freedom. See, for example the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant, 2003).

[3] See, (Ayers & Garber, 2003).

[4] Spinoza did not use the word ‘parallelism’ to explain his philosophy. Rather, it was Leibniz.

[5] In other words, truth has nothing at all to do with sensation.

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