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How satisfactory is Spinoza's concept of human freedom?


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How satisfactory is Spinoza's concept of human freedom?
Date: 14th May 2008 11:38

Dear Pearl,

Thank you for your email of 14 May, with your University of London Modern Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'How satisfactory is Spinoza's concept of human freedom?'

The examiner will give you credit for recognising that there are indeed two questions here and not just one, as you have seen: how satisfactory is Spinoza's account within his own system? and is Spinoza's concept of human freedom 'worthy of the name'?

The first question implies that there might be doubts raised as to whether what Spinoza says about freedom is not only consistent with but necessitated by his philosophical position. However, it is fair to say that you haven't really raised any question here, but merely given a (fairly) adequate account of what Spinoza says.

Aren't you struck by the amazingly bold generalization Spinoza makes about freedom? EVERY inadequate idea equals passion equals unfreedom; EVERY adequate idea equals action equals freedom. How plausible is that? Is that what Spinoza has to say, within his own system, or has he got carried away with enthusiasm?

It is easy enough to come up with examples which seem to support the view about inadequate/ adequate and action/ passion. Daniel Dennett in one of his books (I think 'Brainstorms') gives a recipe for overcoming pain, based on his theory of consciousness, which consists in focusing on the pain actively, making it the centre of one's attention and keeping it there. (Very exhausting!) But it does work. The pain doesn't feel any different but by focusing intensely on it, the pain loses its aspect of 'painfulness'. What makes pain painful is precisely the thwarted desire for avoidance, its inescapability. To overcome that desire is to overcome the pain.

It is also worth noting the very strong influence on Spinoza of the Stoics -- no less important than the influence of Descartes. Virtuous action is free action, action which arises from knowledge. Virtue IS knowledge, just as Socrates said. The most important formula for Spinoza (which you don't state, in so many words) is that freedom is the 'capacity to be determined by reason'.

Knowledge is the ONLY good. There is nothing else to strive for. In striving (acting freely) we are determined by knowledge, seeking knowledge. Our 'conatus' to do what follows from our nature -- as rational beings -- is nothing but the pursuit of rational knowledge, which ultimately amounts to the blissful knowledge of God.

This is truly an 'intoxicating' vision, when one gets into it.

But what about the external side?

You contrast Spinoza's theory with causal incompatibilism, but I get little sense of what causal incompatibilists really believe. What is the difference between a man and a roulette wheel, on their theory?

Today, I have the choice whether to have chips from the chip shop for lunch, or a sandwich. (Lucky me!) This decision isn't determined, so how does it arise? If there is no sequence of causes and effects leading up to the decision how can it be anything but a spin of the roulette wheel, some random event which occurs in my brain?

David Wiggins in 'Towards a Reasonable Libertarianism' (in 'Essays on Freedom of Action' Honderich Ed. RKP) casts doubt on the 'roulette wheel' objection, but doesn't succeed in giving a credible alternative. I've been searching for that alternative ever since I first started studying philosophy (my god, 37 years ago!) and never found it.

It is fair to say that the majority of philosophers tend towards compatibilism. Strawson in 'Freedom and Resentment' has a fairly subtle compatibilist theory. I would have thought that a good question to raise is whether Spinoza's formula, 'Freedom is determination by reason' is an improvement on compatibilism, or perhaps merely a variant. Have you thought about this at all?

The standard compatibilist story, such as you find in A.J. Ayer, is that a person acts freely if they are not 'constrained' by internal psychological factors or external forces. If I push you, or if you are in the grip of some neurosis, your 'action' isn't free. Otherwise it is.

Wouldn't Spinoza have laughed at this negative, apologetic concept of freedom? What would his response have been?

For a start, compatibilist's of Ayer's ilk conceive of action as merely behaviour aimed at satisfying some desire. It could be any desire. There is no difference between 'good' or 'bad' desires on this account, no such thing as a desire which itself arises from 'freedom' or 'unfreedom'. If I want to hurt someone because doing so gives me pleasure, or if I run away like a coward from a situation where my help is urgently needed, my action is no less free than if I do something virtuous or courageous. This is anathema to Spinoza, a 'freedom' which is truly 'not worth the name'.

I hope these comments are helpful to you. I can't tell you what to say in the exam, I can only try to prod you and provoke you into asking questions, and maybe finding ideas within yourself which will show that you are better than the run-of-the-mill candidate. You can do very well -- if you put your mind to it.

All the best,