The Two Faces of Spinoza

Review of Metaphysics 41 (2):299 - 316 (1987)
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"NOTHING," SAYS SPINOZA "can be destroyed except by an external cause." And he adds, "An idea that excludes the existence of our body cannot be in our mind.... The mind endeavors to think of those things that increase or assist the body's power of activity... and to think only of those things that affirm its power of activity". These upbeat passages are mystifying, and sometimes downright disturbing to us dark, obsessive minds, who are prone to think of things that diminish our powers, prone to diminish our powers precisely by thinking about what diminishes us, who are easily capable of thinking of a world that would, could and does exclude us. I want to try to make sense of the motifs expressed in these passages, reading them in such a way that they are not offensive to our sensibility--automatic grounds for distrusting the Spinozistic enterprise. Difficulties remain; but they are the ironies of all Stoics who speak with forked tongue. The optimism of the Stoic-enlightenment program of self-improvement is joined, Janus-faced, with an equally familiar Stoic resignation in the face of necessity. The dynamic energy of conatus as the essence of individuals is revealed as mere partiality: conatus and the individual mind, the contrast between activity and passivity, the contrast between external and internal causes--all these are temporary and temporizing notions which the fully enlightened mind will recognize to be inadequate ideas. Necessary as they are, they are nevertheless merely perspectival. Individuals bent on self-improvement, perceiving themselves bounded by and opposed to the forces of similar individuals, mistake the ontological importance of their individuality and their activities. The Hobbesian strand that is woven through Spinozistic doctrine is visible only within middle-range opinion: it is not ontologically or epistemologically fundamental. Yet, though it is partial and misleading, it remains among the phenomena to be explained. The enlightened will not eliminate but rather explain and understand the middle range talk of conatus, activity and passivity, external and internal, individuals and relations. Indeed, having questioned and even undermined the starting point of individuation, Spinoza returns the repressed: in book 5, particular finite individuals are represented within eternity.



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Amelie Rorty
PhD: Yale University; Last affiliation: Boston University

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Spinoza, experimentation and education: How things teach us.Aislinn O’Donnell - 2018 - Educational Philosophy and Theory 50 (9):819-829.

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