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How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?
Date: 18th October 12:45

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 11 October, with your essay for the University of London Modern Philosophy: Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant module, in response to the question, 'How satisfactory is Spinoza's account of freedom?

In your email you said, 'I have enjoyed trying to understand this particular part of Spinoza' s system and also in trying to grasp his overall ideas.' This is clearly evident in your essay, which offers a vivid and persuasive account of Spinoza's vision of the place of human beings in relation to the universe, the nature of freedom, the nature of ethics and the ultimate ends of action.

This was more than the question asked for, of course, but I accept that on this occasion you used the question as a jumping off point to explore the meaning of Spinoza's philosophy.

But what is the examiner asking for here? To raise the question whether Spinoza's account of freedom is satisfactory implies that there are more or less plausible reasons for thinking that it might be unsatisfactory in some way. In an examination, this should be your primary focus. In other words, what you are asked to do is raise issues and challenges which create problems for Spinoza's account of freedom, and then either respond to those challenges on Spinoza's behalf and/ or argue that his account is either partially or wholly unsatisfactory.

What are the challenges?

The first challenge is one you mention right at the beginning of your essay: Spinoza is a throughgoing determinist. Not only does determinism hold of the actual world, but also no other world is even possible. That is to say, the initial conditions -- whatever they were -- had to be what they were because they followed from God's essence.

However, we can leave aside the second aspect of determinism (necessitarianism) and concentrate on the challenge that universal determinism poses to freedom. In contemporary philosophy, the view that freedom is consistent with determinism, and indeed requires that every action as a physical event has a prior determining cause, is known as compatibilism. Human freedom, in this view, consists in doing what you want, where you are not under any external constraint (no-one is forcing you) and not obstructed by internal issues (such as psychological compulsions).

Is Spinoza a compatibilist? He holds that freedom requires determinism, but he would strongly reject any suggestion that I am 'free' so long as I do what I want (etc. etc.). That isn't sufficient for freedom because, in addition, we need to consider the source of my 'wants'.

This is where you need to plug in Spinoza's account of reason and the passions, in order to explain the higher standard that he requires for free action. To the extent that I give in to my passions, I am not free.

This in turn requires you to say something about Spinoza's account of a thing's individual nature ('For Spinoza, the very essence of an individual thing is its endeavour to preserve its own individual nature.')

You go into some detail in explaining why Spinoza is not advocating selfishness, but on the contrary, argues that acting according to reason leads to the 'virtuous life'. 'Human beings are rational creatures, therefore our own being is best preserved through the development of our intellectual capabilities.'

What is the point of being virtuous or ethical? We don't only favour ourselves but consider the needs and interests of others. However, this is in itself a rather negative view -- it tells us all about things we should not do, but says nothing about the ends of human action as such.

This leads to a second, and perhaps more difficult challenge for Spinoza: the entire system leaves no room for any end of human action other than knowledge. Our nature is to be rational, to be creatures capable of acquiring knowledge. Any activity which is not directed towards this cognitive aim is therefore to a greater or lesser extent deprecated. Either I am pursuing knowledge, or facilitating another person's pursuit of knowledge. Those are ultimately the only possibilities for genuinely 'free' action. Everything else that we do, all the things that belong to our nature in a wider sense, merely restrict us, imprison us, make us 'slaves'.

Is this a valid criticism, or is it a caricature of Spinoza's philosophy? How do you account for all the *other* things that human beings do, which seem no less part of our nature, no less 'free', the arts, competitive sports, sex and love. Your essay hints at a way to do this -- we have to see all these activities as not separate aims but rather as integrated into a whole, where our rational nature doesn't mean that we simply spend all our time thinking and reasoning, but rather that what we do is somehow within the bounds of reason, or perhaps in some manner facilitates the realization our true nature.

Spinoza's excessive intellectualism is inherited from the philosophical tradition. But arguably acquires a greater grip precisely because of his view that the order of reasons and the order causes are one and the same. Perhaps this ultimately limits what he can say in response to this second challenge.

All the best,