Previous
Next

Demons vs. definitions.

June 1, 2009, 8:47 am

(After the Sullivanche of the past two days, I now do my best to drive away the traffic armed only with the PSR.  Part 1 of 2.)

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers recently sent around an e-mail inviting papers on how to teach early modern philosophy and suggested the following question:

Can one include Spinoza’s “Ethics” without creating the impression that his “Ethics” is mere metaphysics?

The AAPT wants experienced professors of many years to present so that younger professors may learn.  That rules me out from presenting,  but I still have an answer to that question, and, hmm, is this a blog I see before me?

The short answer:  Yes, but it takes a little bit of work.  Today I’ll describe the problem; later (probably next Monday) I’ll give my steps towards a solution.

The typical early modern survey course starts with Descartes’ Meditations, and it is both an excellent work of philosophy and an excellent introduction to the period.  The philosophical problems introduced in the Meditations reappear in the rest of the course.  The work itself is short and can be read completely in the time allotted to the course, so students can see an entire small project finished.  Students often have heard of “I think therefore I am”, so it’s fun when they find out that the famous phrase doesn’t appear in the Meditations itself.   And while Descartes’ works reward serious study, the language of the Meditations is comparatively inviting.  Descartes tells us why he’s begun this project, and what he hopes to accomplish:

Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences. But as this enterprise appeared to me to be one of great magnitude, I waited until I had attained an age so mature as to leave me no hope that at any stage of life more advanced I should be better able to execute my design. On this account, I have delayed so long that I should henceforth consider I was doing wrong were I still to consume in deliberation any of the time that now remains for action. To-day, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.

Descartes also includes imaginative, vivid thought experiments:

I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; t will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz., [ suspend my judgment ], and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice.

His project: to shake the very foundations of human knowledge!  His method: first, include one demon!   It’s like the Matrix!

And then we come to Spinoza.  He’s usually second or third on the syllabus.  Imagine that Cartesian rationalism is a car.  Spinoza is the race-car driver. Except he’s left the oval.  And the road.

The Ethics is the usual text assigned, or more properly, part I and maybe part II.   Parts I and II are full of metaphysics, and in a way, this is good, because Spinoza and Descartes disagree on some fundamental points, and students can learn a lot by studying the differences, and the discussion of their metaphysics can help tie the course together.

If one reads only Parts I and II of the Ethics, one is left with a very incomplete understanding of Spinoza.  Spinoza was interested in metaphysics because he thought it was a necessary precursor to developing a system of ethics that was better than the standard religious views on offer.  He was passionately interested in politics, in, Biblical criticism, in freeing the intellect from ecclesiastical power, and in toleration, discussed in his other great work, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. There isn’t time to teach either work in its entirety, as they are very dense, and the Ethics fits better with the course.

Since philosophers can’t teach the entire work, they pluck out what seem to be self-contained units, like the argument for substance monism.  Spinoza believes that there is only one thing God, or nature.  Everything else is a mere modification of God.  What’s brilliant about the argument is that he proves it with a scant handful of premises, most of which seem perfectly innocuous until one gets to Proposition 11 in the first part.   (1p11, as the cool kids say.)  What makes it ideal for a course is that it only requires a handful of premises, it’s very tight, and then students can set about attacking the argument.

What makes it bad for a course is the way in which Spinoza wrote it.  Spinoza wanted his foundational work in the Ethics to be as rigorous as Euclid’s geometry, so he proceeded with definitions, axioms, and propositions.  Here is a taste:

PART I: CONCERNING GOD.

DEFINITIONS.

I. By that which is ‘self-caused’ I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

II. A thing is called ‘finite after its kind’ when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

III. By ‘substance’ I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

IV. By ‘attribute’ I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

V. By ‘mode’ I mean the modifications (“affectiones”) of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself.

VI. By ‘God’ I mean a being absolutely infinite–that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.

Note the difference in style between Descartes and Spinoza.  Note the lack of demons.  Note, moreover, that Spinoza does not explain here why he is undertaking this project, or why he finds it to be interesting, or how he thinks it all relates to ethics.  Even if the professor manages to get the students interested in Spinoza (not all that hard, but harder than, e.g., Hume), it’s very hard to get them to see why he was so concerned with showing that there was only one thing, and that thing was God, or nature.  It’s hard to get them to see why calling someone a Spinozist in the following centuries was to risk destroying their career, or why Descartes’ followers did everything they could to distance their philosophy from Spinoza’s.

If one reads the entire Ethics, one can see why the argument for substance monism is important.   But that is not a feasible solution, given that there are anywhere from six to nine philosophers covered in an early modern survey course.  So our problem is this:  given that we can have students read only parts of the Ethics, how do we get them to understand that it’s about ethics?

More next time.

I will suppose, then, not that Deity, who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth, but that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me; t will suppose that the sky, the air, the earth, colors, figures, sounds, and all external things, are nothing better than the illusions of dreams, by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity; I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these; I will continue resolutely fixed in this belief, and if indeed by this means it be not in my power to arrive at the knowledge of truth, I shall at least do what is in my power, viz., [ suspend my judgment ], and guard with settled purpose against giving my assent to what is false, and being imposed upon by this deceiver, whatever be his power and artifice.
This entry was posted in pedagogy, stand-up philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.