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Spinoza on human freedom


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on human freedom
Date: 29 October 2007 13:47

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 October, with your University of London Modern Philosophy Essay in response to the question, 'How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of human freedom?'

This is a good essay on the whole, and I liked the way you introduced it, with the example of the young boy waving his finger.

The question is asking you to do two distinct things: give an exposition of Spinoza's account of human freedom, and also give your own philosophical evaluation of that account. The latter can take the form of raising questions about specific claims that Spinoza makes, or looking that the problem of freedom more generally, seeing how well Spinoza's formula, 'An action is free to the extent that it is determined by reason' applies to problem cases, or compares with other theories of freedom.

An examiner might raise his eyebrows at a statement such as, 'Elsewhere in the Ethics and in other writings, he says things like...'. You might as well be waving a red flag which says, 'I don't remember what Spinoza said or where he said it but...'. In other words, if you fail to be specific, the examiner will assume that you don't know or can't remember. I think it would have helped your case if you had been a bit less vague here.

However, despite that, I get the gist. You say enough to make it reasonably clear to the reader what Spinoza's theory is. So the question is how one evaluates this theory philosophically.

One point worth making is that Spinoza's solution is similar in some respects to the 'compatibilist' view of free will and causality, put forward e.g. by David Hume. Suppose that determinism is true. It is nevertheless possible to distinguish between different kinds of causal chain leading to the performance of an action. The bank clerk who steals 1000 Dollars from the till in order to buy a stereo is acting freely, whereas if a bank robber threatens him with a gun then his action is 'constrained' and therefore unfree.

'Freedom' in this sense is a forensic term, in that we apply the criterion of whether it was the agent's own decision, or whether the action was forced on him/ her in deciding whether the action merits punishment (or, indeed, praise). In defence of this distinction, it can be said that punishment only 'works' against the bank teller tempted to steal from the till, and not against the bank teller who concedes to the robber's threat.

Spinoza would go more deeply into this scenario, however. Take an apparently 'free' (i.e. unconstrained) action like taking the money from the till. The bank clerk who is overcome by desire to purchase an expensive consumer item is acting like a 'slave to his passions', while the bank clerk who takes the money for a selfless reason is more 'free'.

You might raise the question whether being 'determined by reason' is necessarily being determined to an ethical end, as this example implies, or whether on the contrary, there could be a supremely 'free' master criminal, who possesses superlative will power and ability to resist his passions.

Another angle on Spinoza's theory is provided by what Thomas Nagel says about free will in his book 'The View from Nowhere'. Nagel describes a 'necessary penumbra of ignorance' concerning the causes of an action which must exist in order for there to be agency at all. This seems to contradict the implication of Spinoza's view of freedom in that Spinoza sets an ideal which, if realized, would result in the action failing to be an action at all.

To some extent, you have anticipated this in your exposition of what you term Spinoza's 'negative account'. To have total knowledge of all the causal antecedents of my action would be knowledge that only God can have. When God acts, there is no 'penumbra of ignorance'. In that case, in what sense can God be described as an 'agent'? God does not think, or plan or deliberate. All these things imply the 'necessary penumbra of ignorance' that Nagel describes.

In what sense, then, is whatever God 'has' an appropriate idea to set ourselves? There is a strong intuition in support of Spinoza that we do wish to know more about the causal springs of our own actions, and that this can, in some sense make us more free. The idea finds powerful expression in Freudian psychoanalysis, where the subject seeks to become aware, and through becoming aware, control, the unconscious fantasies which motivate irrational behaviour.

As I have tried to show, the question is open ended, in that in addition to examining the coherence of Spinoza's theory in its own terms, the idea of 'satisfaction' bring with it wider issues, such as what kind of 'freedom' we really want (as philosophers seeking a notion of freedom worth wanting), and whether indeed Spinoza's 'freedom' is the freedom that we would be most satisfied with.

All the best,