Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind, by Charles M. Saunders

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Why Spinoza, Why Now?

A Series of Six Essays for Ordinary Philosophy – A Condensed Version of the Ethics – Examined in Detail

Part 1: Into the Last Remaining Unexplored Region on Earth: The Human Mind

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was a respected scholar of Jewish ancestry who eventually became known for his philosophy and political writings. For his philosophy, he selected what he hoped would be a straightforward system: the geometrical method. Rather than lengthy and technically oriented arguments and rhetorical mechanisms, he wrote in somewhat simple Latin and in short, clear, concise statements. He assigns unique connotations to his lexicon which present additional challenges to those who attempt to study his writings. But these are not insurmountable.

In order to make his views on metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, ethics, and psychology clear and to present them as logically and as unadorned as possible, he selected a method which mimics that used by Euclid in his geometry. He was not seeking any type of mathematical certainty to support his hypotheses. But what he did hope would come through was the logical interconnection in descending inductive order within the axioms, definitions, propositions, explanations, demonstrations, and scholia (explanatory notes added to the margins) which make up the body of the text.

Unfortunately, what Spinoza thought would come across as a self-evidently true and accurately phrased demonstration has been and continues to be viewed as one of the most difficult documents to comprehend in the history of ideas. In order to begin the process of unraveling his Gordian knot of text, this essay presents a type of abstract from Letters to No One in Particular: a Discussion and Illustration of Spinoza’s Fragment or On the Improvement of the Understanding. That means, that to understand clearly and to grasp Spinoza’s intended meaning the study must begin outside the bounds of the Ethics itself.

For this first installment in the six essays which will comprise this ‘condensed’ study of the Ethics, it is critically important to begin with the brief treatise written prior to the it, On the Improvement of the Understanding (or, as it is also called, the Fragment), because it is the only place where Spinoza explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea.’

The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the Ethics. That is for two reasons: 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the Fragment which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the Ethics, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the active mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either: a judgment, a mental image, a propositional statement, or an abstraction formed from impressions from the sensible world. But he meant none of these things, and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder – In the Fragment [TIE] Spinoza emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.

In this essay, an outline and explanation of the main message of the Fragment will be presented which will be accompanied by quotations from one of the true scholars of Spinozan explication, Professor Errol E Harris. The quotes are taken from his Salvation from Despair, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), pp 87-88.

In the Proemium to the Fragment, Spinoza announces his intention to make known and accessible to the reader the nature of the human character which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly: ‘What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (TIE). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.

From that axiomatic starting point, he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this, Spinoza begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge (perception) which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.

The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in everyday living (imagination), in gathering unverifiable information (sensation), and in solving problems and thinking rationally (reasoning). None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately Spinoza realized that only with the fourth kind, intuitive understanding, could certainty be achieved. By ‘intuitive,’ he means a type of knowing which includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object being considered.

Spinoza discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the adequate idea. This idea is innate, within the mind, and serves as a tool or agency-in-act, which organically connects and effectively anchors the mind in its union existing between it and the whole of nature. This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.

Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the idea runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as passive receptors of impressions from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, mental images which serve as unverifiable judgments or mental entities, usually depicted as some distillation of the empirical paradigm or materialism.

Now along comes Spinoza and says, no way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong.

Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point, Harris will assist us to flesh out Spinoza’s revolutionary assertion.

In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind, its role as agency-in-act along with its element of the ‘idea,’ and its role of potency-in-act, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ingredient, so to speak, in its function of melding with the world of extension, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience, which caused Leibniz to posit windowless monads, must be addressed.

As an integral part of the whole of nature, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which comprises the universal system.

We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like kingdoms within a kingdom?

Once the significance of this comes clear, it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Harris. Under the sub-title ‘Idea Ideae,’ in Salvation from Despair (p. 87). we find:

‘As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [in TIE], Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).’

Simply stated, an idea has a real-time life of its own. For example: someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of seeing the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That idea of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.

Thus the formal essence and the objective reality made a perfect match. The ‘idea’ is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!

One final thought from Harris and we will sign off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] On the Improvement of the Understanding, what follows is what he had in mind. Harris continues:

‘The inherent self-reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.’ (Salvation from Despair)

Because it is so vital to see Spinoza’s idea at work in our own minds, let’s consider one more example:

Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they know how to drive. They know that they know how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could teach someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner, from memory, the steps involved, such as: open the door, seat yourself, and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license, it can be said that the instructor captured the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that adequate idea of how to drive to another person who successfully absorbed the contents of the idea, made it their own, and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another demonstrates that the idea is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfills any empirical stricture placed upon it.

This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable; remember the training manual. The idea (in mind) and the object (driving) are the same things expressed as micro-sets in modality of the two infinite attributes of thought and extension. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea (in the mind) of the idea (driving lesson). The manual, which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates the existence of an idea independent of the mind!

Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.

Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to see it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever-evolving possibilities, the creata!

Semper Sapere Aude! (Always dare to know!)

Charles M. Saunders

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

Imagination is a Powerful Tool: Why is Philosophy Afraid of It? – By Amy Kind

Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland

Philosophers have a love-hate relationship with the imagination. René Descartes, for one, disparaged it as ‘more of a hindrance than a help’ in answering the most profound questions about the nature of existence. Trying to imagine one’s way towards metaphysical truth, he wrote in Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), is as foolish as falling asleep in the hope of obtaining a clearer picture of the world through dreams.

Yet Descartes also relied heavily on imagination in scientific and mathematical essays such as The World (1633), in which he tried to conjure up the details of the basic building blocks for structures such as humans, animals and machines. According to the philosopher Dennis Sepper at the University of Dallas, Descartes relied upon a kind of ‘biplanar’ imagination, pioneered by Plato, in which one level of reality could embody and display relations that existed on a different level, and vice versa.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was equally conflicted about the imagination – especially when compared with perception and memory. ‘When we remember any past event, the idea of it flows in upon the mind in a forcible manner,’ he wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). But imagined images and sensations, he continued, are ‘faint and languid, and cannot without difficulty be preserved by the mind steady and uniform for any considerable time’. However, Hume also claimed that humans are most free when they’re engaging in imagination. Perception can show us only the actual, he said, but imagination can go beyond that, to the realm of the maybe, the what-if and if-only. Indeed, ‘nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible,’ Hume said.

What’s behind this apparent tension at the heart of the imagination? Hume put his finger on it when he talked about how our facility for fantasy helps us to move beyond and change our present reality. One need only think of how Leonardo da Vinci’s fantastical flying machines paved the way for the Wright brothers, or how H G Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898) inspired the first liquid-fuelled space rocket, to see the truth of this insight. But imagination is also restricted by the extent of our previous perceptions and experiences, Hume said. ‘Let us chase our imagination to the heavens, or to the utmost limits of the Universe; we never really advance a step beyond ourselves,’ he wrote.

One way to resolve such ambivalence would be to divide the imagination into different kinds. Along these lines, towards the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant distinguished two forms of imagination: the productive imagination and reproductive imagination. The productive faculty is what helps to synthesise and transform sensory content into a meaningful whole. So the identification of something with pointy ears and fur, which meows and rubs itself against your legs, is brought together via the productive imagination into the form of a cat. This unifying tendency is implanted in every human mind irrespective of experience. For Kant, our productive imagination is what makes perception possible.

By contrast, the reproductive imagination is largely about recollection. When a story comes on the radio about a long-lost cat who has found its way home, you draw from the many cats you’ve seen before to picture the heartwarming scene; this would be the reproductive imagination at work. Because the reproductive faculty works only with materials previously provided to someone’s senses, it is subject to the kind of limits Hume discussed.

Kant’s bifurcation hints at why philosophers treat the imagination with both despair and delight. Perhaps the kind of imagination we despise is totally different from its more useful cousin. But in accepting this subdivision, we give up on the possibility of seeing the imagination as a unified mental faculty – which is perhaps more how we experience it.

When I think of all the wondrous things we can do with the imagination, I’m inclined towards a different way of unravelling its enigmatic duality. Rather than slicing up the imagination into distinct kinds, we might think about its distinct uses. I like to call these the transcendent and the instructive functions of the imagination. On the one hand, when we pretend, or fantasise, or escape into an engrossing work of literary fiction, imagination can take us beyond the here and now. On the other hand, when we imagine in an attempt to make sense of what other people are thinking, or to problem-solve or to make decisions, our speculations are used to help us understand the here and now. Whereas our transcendent uses of the imagination tend towards whimsy and fancy, its instructive functions point towards the practical and the concrete.

In both these modes, the secret to success seems to lie in the application of a kind of imaginative constraint. But what’s right for one use might not be fitting for the other. Perhaps the reason why philosophers have been conflicted about the imagination is that they haven’t grasped how limitations need to be tailored to circumstances. When we are writing fiction, or playing games of pretend, or making art, arguably we do our best imagining by setting the boundaries widely or removing the shackles entirely. In contrast, when we employ imagination in the context of scientific or technological discovery, or any other real-world problem-solving, we must allow our imaginations to be framed by the situation at hand.

Figuring out where to draw these lines isn’t easy. It can be extraordinarily tricky to know which factors should stay in play, and which should be eliminated. But by looking at how such constraints operate, not only can we see our way towards imaginative greatness – perhaps we can also purge philosophy of its anxiety about the idea. After all, as Hume observed, humans ‘are mightily govern’d by the imagination’.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Amy Kind is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is the author of Persons and Personal Identity (2015). (Bio credit: Aeon)

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