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Spinoza's account of the relation between mind and body


To: Francis M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza's account of the relation between mind and body
Date: 16 November 2007 13:31

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 12 November, with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'What account did Spinoza give of the relation of a human mind to a human body? Is it coherent, or even intelligible?'

This is a very good essay which makes good use of the text, and shows that you have done some investigation of your own into the scholarly controversy over the interpretation of Spinoza's metaphysics.

Spinoza is walking a tightrope, between saying that the attributes of thought and extension are merely different ways of grasping one and the same essence -- which collapses into either material or mental monism -- and saying that the attributes of thought and extension define 'objects' with separate powers and agency, which is Cartesian dualism.

I would worry over the distinction which the exam question makes between what is 'coherent' and what is 'intelligible', implying that Spinoza's theory might be intelligible, but ultimately incoherent. This is a possible position to take: for example, if you think that it is possible to understand the structure of the theory and how it is meant to work, but come to the conclusion that the theory is open to decisive logical objections. (For example, I would argue that Descartes' mind-body dualism is intelligible but incoherent.)

So the question is, whether there is room on the tightrope (coherence), or, if not, whether it is at least possible to grasp where Spinoza thinks there may be room (intelligibility).

Here, I think you could do a bit more, in relating Spinoza's theory to contemporary discussion of the mind-body problem. Spinoza's theory has sometimes been described as 'property dualism'. Property dualists think that they can embrace, at one and the same time, a materialist ontology while allowing that there exist mental properties of material objects which are not reducible to, or definable in terms of material properties. David Chalmers is an example of a philosopher who has defended property dualism.

On Chalmers' view, it is logically possible that there could be an individual materially indistinguishable from me, who did not have psychological states but merely behaved as if he did (the notorious 'zombie thought experiment'). Applying this to Spinoza, if the two attributes, material and mental, really are two then one might think that it would be possible for one to exist in the absence of another. But this seems extremely implausible as applied to Spinoza.

Another term that has been applied to Spinoza is 'double aspect' or 'dual aspect'. Brian O'Shaughnessy in his book 'The Will' claims to be offering a dual aspect theory. What this amounts to is a critique of materialist theories of willing and intending, showing that we have to recognize an irreducible mental 'aspect' to the will: there is such a think as 'willing' which is not reducible to desiring and/ or intending. However, this theory is specifically directed to the problem of the will, rather than being a general defence of a double aspect solution to the mind-body problem.

I have to confess that I struggle to make intelligible sense of Spinoza's theory. If God has infinite attributes and we only know two, how likely is it that our grasp of these two attributes is anything close to approaching adequacy? This is reminiscent of Colin McGinn's approach to the mind-body problem: that we are just not intellectually equipped to grasp how mind and body are ultimately related. Maybe that was Spinoza's intention.

Then, again, the idea that *every* mental aspect has a corresponding material aspect and every material aspect has a corresponding mental aspect simply boggles the mind. We don't normally think of the idea *of* an entity being equivalent to how things are subjectively from that entity's point of view. Yet that seems to be the consequence of Spinoza's theory.

Spinoza would no doubt reply that the very notion that I am an 'entity' with a discrete 'point of view' fails to reckon with the fact that there is only one substance, only one entity, and consequently every time a thought is thought, it is God doing the thinking. One can say the words, say what one has to say, but the words just don't mean a lot.

One other philosopher I would mention is Thomas Nagel, who has speculated about the possibility of a 'third substance', neither mental nor material, in which mental and material properties ultimately inhere (in his book 'The View From Nowhere').

I would justify mentioning contemporary philosophers because the question, 'What account did Spinoza give...?' can be read (as you have done) as asking for an exposition of Spinoza's arguments, but also as asking you to identify Spinoza's theory in relation to the various positions taken up in regard to the mind-body problem: i.e. what kind of account is it? This arguably would be one way to demonstrate the relevance of Spinoza's metaphysics to contemporary philosophy.

All the best,