Understanding Spinoza (part 3): Freedom and Necessity

When understanding Spinoza we discover that the most profound conclusion from his philosophy is to be found in Part I, Proposition XXIX.

‘In the nature of things nothing contingent is admitted, but all things are determined by the necessity of divine nature to exist and act in a certain way.’

There are a number of ideas and concepts wrapped up in this sentence and Spinoza’s philosophy is probably best explained by understanding what this one proposition entails. The first point to note is that Spinoza wants to make the assumption that all things are caused by other things. Basically there is a causal explanation for anything that exists. The one exception to this is the universe itself, which can only be self caused. There can only be one existing thing that is self caused, as was argued in the part 2 of Understanding Spinoza..

Now to say that a thing is determined is to say that the existence of a thing is caused by something else. In the case of inanimate objects such a position is without doubt. A table is caused by outside agents crafting the design; the table’s existence is fully determined by causes external to that table. With living and thinking creatures the certainty that all is externally caused is less obvious. We can say that I am determined by my parent’s acquaintance for example. My ideas and habits are caused by my past life experience. The events that have caused me to be how I am currently are outside of me. But can I then claim that I am free to make my own choices? Surely there is a case to state that my ability to be truly free depends on my past experience and that my education and training will determine my capability for truly free thinking.

There is more Part 3 of Understanding Spinoza here


Understanding Spinoza (Part 2)

This post is to develop further towards understanding Spinoza’s metaphysics and to look at the crucial ideas he raises. Spinoza’s main work, The Ethics, in effect introduces a set of definitions and elucidations of each of the fundamental notions of substance, cause, attribute, freedom and necessity, explaining each in terms of the others. When Spinoza has defined these logically connected notions he defines what it is he means by God or nature.

An important point is that Spinoza does not present his definitions as one arbitrary set of alternative possible definitions. Rather he insists that to conceive the world in any other way than this is to be involved in contradiction, or to be using words without any clear meaning attached to them. It is the interconnectedness of Spinoza’s definitions that gives force to his position.

In understanding the universe the notion of substance is a good place to start. What actually exists? The story of understanding the world can be viewed as one which is attempting to answer this one question. In answering the ‘what exists?’ challenge we have to unravel the world into those things that exist by necessity and those things that exist as modifications or attributes of necessity. In stripping substance down to its fundamental and necessary components we can get a true understanding of reality. Those things that exist but are not fundamental are attributes of substance.

There is more Part 2 of Understanding Spinoza here

Understanding Spinoza

If you are ever going to get more than a brief understanding of pantheism then it is vital to get to grips with understanding Spinoza. Spinoza was not the first pantheist, but he is probably the most influential pantheist since the time of the enlightenment. The decline of theism and the rise of alternative beliefs can be traced back directly and indirectly to Spinoza. He was not only a chief architect in the rise and success of science; he was also a fundamental force behind the gradual decline of theological authority. Understanding Spinoza is not easy, but the difficulties involved in grasping his ideas are no less worthy of making the effort.

If you were to take a random page and quote form Spinoza’s main work, the ethics, you will no doubt find a sentence in which you understand all of the individual words. Yet I am reasonably sure that you would also find a sentence which is seemingly incomprehensible too. For example: The first axiom that Spinoza presents is “Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else.”

An axiom is something that is assumed to be self evidently true, so Spinoza must have presented this axiom as something which he believed to be one of nature’s ultimate and self evident truths. The whole of Spinoza’s philosophy is set out in this way. He begins with a set of definitions, which he then uses to write his axioms. He then moves to working out how the universe must be given his definitions and on the assumption that his axioms are in fact true. To that extent his work is a work in logic, similar to a Euclidean system. It is probably the case that if you were to agree and accept just one of his axioms then you are logically committed to accepting his other axioms which follow rationally and necessarily from each other. In doing this Spinoza creates a set of principles and consequently a metaphysical system which he considers to be how the universe must be.

There is more Understanding Spinoza here