By Eugene Marshall, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Florida International University and author of The Spiritual Automaton: Spinoza's Science of the Mind, available on Oxford Scholarship Online.
In his early work The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza refers to the mind directed by true ideas as “a spiritual automaton”. Though the term automaton may bring to mind a robot – something merely mechanical and not at all animated or alive – this was not what Spinoza meant. Instead, he suggests that the rational mind is itself a self-directed mechanism.
One of Spinoza's most radical and profound contributions to philosophy is his extension of a mechanistic explanation of the human mind. Spinoza takes the mind – and all of human experience – to be explained in the same mathematical way that one might explain the motions of bodies in space. To him, the human mind is a mechanism, like the workings of a watch. Just as bodies in motion are to be explained by simple mechanistic laws, so too are the workings of the human mind. The importance of this project cannot be understated; if David Hume can be considered the Newton of the mind, then Spinoza is its Galileo.
Spinoza's philosophy can be understood partly as a science of the mind, one that attempts to explain the workings of the spiritual automaton. That in itself is not the ultimate end of his project, because he wishes us to use this self-knowledge toward ethical ends. This aim is implicit in his claim that the mind is an automaton only when it is rational. Though Spinoza believes the mind is always subject to necessary causal law, he also holds that it is self-directed only when directed by reason. A mind governed by the imagination, by external sensory stimulation, by the opinions and values of others is not a self-directed automaton. Rather, such a mind is in bondage, a slave to fortune.
In this image of the mind as a spiritual automaton we can see the seeds of Spinoza's entire philosophical project. Whilst taking the mind to be a mechanism governed by the same kinds of law that govern everything else in nature, he also believes that rationality leads to self-directedness and autonomy, a state he later identifies with freedom and even blessedness.
Yet the details of Spinoza's science of the mind remain elusive, even though they fundamentally determine his entire ethical and political project. I believe that the key to understanding Spinoza's science of the mind lies in another difficult philosophical concept – consciousness. I would argue that Spinoza employed a peculiar conception of consciousness; specifically, he took it to be what I shall call affectivity: a property of an idea, paradigmatically but not exhaustively instantiated by those modes of thought Spinoza calls affects – modes which include what we might colloquially call today the “emotions”. This interpretation will provide us a way to understand not only Spinoza's science of the mind, but it will also reshape the way we understand his philosophical system as a whole.
Explaining central features of Spinoza's philosophical system is no small feat, in part because of the systematic nature of his thinking. After all, his magnum opus Ethics is written in the geometric method, according to which every later proposition can be deduced from previous axioms and propositions. Among other effects, this method renders later philosophical topics peculiarly dependent upon the earlier ones. For example, his metaphysics profoundly informs his epistemology and philosophy of mind, which in turn shape his views on moral psychology, ethics, and politics. This makes it difficult to account for any topic in isolation; it also renders an overview of his thought problematic, because it becomes difficult to omit portions of the work without it falling into incoherence.
By providing a book length interpretation of his thinking, I hoped to capture the systematic nature and richness of Spinoza's science of the mind. The concept of consciousness in Spinoza flows directly out of his central metaphysical, epistemological, and psychological commitments – and it does so in a way that allows us to see Spinoza's philosophy as a systematic whole. Furthermore, by tracing this thread through his thought, this book provides a thoroughly consistent and novel way of thinking about some of the most important issues in his philosophy, from metaphysics through ethics and theology.
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