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Spinoza on the relation between mind and body


To: Scott B.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza on the relation between mind and body
Date: 23rd September 2010 12:36

Dear Scott,

Thank you for your email of 14 September, with your essay for the University of London BA Spinoza, Leibniz, and Kant module, in response to the question, ''The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists' (Spinoza). Can we make sense of this view of Spinoza?'

This essay shows good knowledge of Spinoza. Your response to the question largely consists in your explaining how, in terms of Spinoza's theory of God as the one substance, it follows that he is committed to stating that 'the object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body'.

There is a problem, however, with this approach. Someone who knew nothing about Spinoza's theory would find it utterly fantastic that anyone should claim that the mind is just an 'idea' and that this idea has an object, which is the human body, and nothing but the human body.

To be fair, you don't just expound Spinoza's theory. You also show some awareness of the prima facie objections which might be raised against the claim in question. For example, it seems to me that I perceive the trees outside my window. The object of my perception ('idea') is outside me, or at least appears to be. Spinoza's response to this objection, as you state, is to define all ideas which we would describe as external perceptions, as having their true 'object' in states of the body, in particular the sense organs such as the eye.

In other words, our pre-philosophical way of understanding perception is an error, according to Spinoza (subsequent philosophers such as Russell refer to this as the theory of 'naive realism'). You also state the crucial claim which Spinoza relies upon in order to bridge the gap between his theory of how mind and body are related, and the appearances: 'This idea however, by its nature, can never be fully adequate or entirely clear and distinct. In order for the idea to be clear and distinct, the ideas of the human body would need to be understood in relation to other ideas that make up the world coming from Gods attribute of thought.'

'Saving' the appearances, in this sense, is a necessary requirement for any theory which seeks to overturn our naive or pre-philosophical beliefs.

Like Leibniz, Spinoza relies upon a general notion of clarity-confusion (originally a distinction made by Descartes) in order to account for the mismatch between what his theory states and how things appear to us.

What other appearances need to be 'saved'? Consider sensations, like pain or pleasure. What is their apparent object and what is their true object, according to Spinoza? What about emotions like love or anger? I think that it is very relevant to the question being asked to consider these cases, because they appear as significant obstacles in 'making sense' of his view.

Another aspect to consider is the fact that thought is not merely a process of passive 'representation' but appears to us as something active. Thoughts are intentional mental actions, just as intentional movements of the body are physical actions. If the idea constituting the human mind is just a set of ideas which constitute a 'subset' of ideas which constitute God's mind, in what sense can we be agents rather than just passive participants in God's thoughts?

It could be argued that recent philosophy -- in particular developments in cognitive science and AI -- lend strong support to Spinoza's view, in the sense that we can now confidently assert an 'identity' of mental events with physical events in the brain and nervous system. Would Spinoza have considered this a vindication of his theory? There is a very obvious problem with this. My left toenail is part of my body, but it is extremely implausible to claim that the 'idea' corresponding to my left toenail is part of my mind. Of course, I have an idea *of* my left toenail, but its immediate object is a state of my brain. Then we must consider all the physical parts of my body of which I have no 'idea' at all.

Of course, Spinoza always has the let out that my ideas (as 'mine') are more or less confused, so I don't see things as God sees them. But, then, in what sense is the 'true' way of seeing things part of *my* mind, as opposed to merely being part of God's mind?

Responding to a similar question on Spinoza a week or so ago, it occurred to me that Spinoza's account of ideas has remarkable similarities to Berkeley's theory of immaterialism. The world and all the things in it just *is* ideas in God's mind. When the human soul perceives, the immediate object of its perceptions is an 'ectype' or copy of 'archetypes' or originals existing in God's mind. You could almost say that Berkeley is Spinoza minus matter. Indeed for Spinoza, as for Berkeley, ideas do so much work that one wonders why he needs 'matter' at all.

There is a crucial difference, however, between Berkeley's and Spinoza's accounts of the ideas which constitute the human mind. For Berkeley, the human mind is a 'finite soul' which exists in addition to, and in some sense apart from the 'infinite mind' of God. Whereas for Spinoza, there is merely identity. The archetype/ ectype distinction dissolves to be replaced by a distinction between clarity and confusion.

All the best,