Dr W Large


Spinoza and the Emotions

Ancient philosophy, as Curley suggests, sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the action of the body on the mind. We have already seen in Part 2 that the human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies.

      When we normally think about ethics, we think about some moral philosophy which would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral philosophy would be based on and defend some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites. We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. IIIP9S.

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality which believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determines how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this be the contrary to our desire, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not a ‘dominion within a dominion’ and this is just the case within morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

      The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even human beings. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existence, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so.[1]

      Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tells us how a things is produced. Thus if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’.[2] The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

      How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence all I have is my power to act.

[1] E. Curley. Behind the Geometrical Method, PUP, Princeton, 1988, p.108.

[2] ibid. p.111.