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Spinoza's Dynamics of Being: The Concept of Power and Its Role in Spinoza's Metaphysics. Front Cover. Valtteri Viljanen. University of Turku,
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So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, namely, through the universal laws and rules of Nature. Human volitions cannot be regarded fundamentally different from impulses found elsewhere in nature. Finally, by arguing that there is only one infinite substance—God, or Nature—Spinoza is forced to blaze a new path if he is to provide a plausible account of modal individuation and agency.

Conatus - Wikipedia

Accounts of agency and individuation prior to Spinoza generally appealed to some notion of substantial particulars substance pluralism , which was essential to the Christian concern for the immortality of the soul. To give a very brief history here, we should start with Aristotle, who argued [in Metaphysics Zeta and Eta ] that matter is the principle of individuation for hylomorphic unities. The problem with this account, from the perspective of the Medieval philosophers, who attempted to wed Aristotelianism and Christianity, is that if matter is the basis for individuating substances, when the soul separates from the body upon death, there would seem to be no way of distinguishing between such purely incorporeal substances.

To avoid this consequence, late Medievals such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Francisco Suarez sought to accord an individuating role to substantial form. Descartes rejected the hylomorphic background adopted by the scholastics. Nevertheless, he too relies on substance pluralism in order to offer an account of human agency.

Strictly speaking, according to Descartes, God is the only fully independent thing, and hence the only absolute substance. Still, there can be no doubt that we are—in some sense—discrete, self-contained thinking things. And even though Descartes does not establish how in virtue of what immaterial substances are individuated, he still—to his satisfaction—establishes that they are distinct, or at least that he, as a thing that thinks is distinct from other immaterial substances.

Whatever individual, finite things are, they are not discrete substances; some other account must be offered in its place. The challenge for Spinoza is compounded by his claim that God or nature is an indivisible plenum. And, whereas Descartes maintains that extended substance contains real distinctions, i. If everything happens by fate, everything occurs by an antecedent cause and if impulse [is caused], then also what follows from impulse [is caused]; therefore, assent too.

But if the cause of impulse is not in us then impulse itself is not in our own power; and if this is so, not even what is produced by impulse is in our power; therefore, neither assent nor action is in our power This, then, is the formidable challenge that Spinoza faces: how to make room for agency, activity and freedom in light of the doctrines of immanent necessitarianism, naturalism, and monism.

Nonetheless, his burden may be ours, since at least some of us are committed to these positions, and yet are not willing to dispense with freedom altogether. But before we can discuss the possibility of agency, we must first consider how Spinoza can carve out a space for individuality at all, in light of his substance monism. We can see at once from this example that Spinoza intends this unity of motion and rest not merely to be physical, but also functional. In light of this, then, we may say that an individual is an individual insofar as it exhibits a sort of physical coherence that itself results in some kind of functional coherence.

This is a start then at carving out some space for internality and agency in Spinoza. This account comes at E IIIP, a set of propositions that are collectively referred to as the conatus doctrine. However, there is a deep equivocation in the conatus doctrine, one that is the source of much confusion in the secondary literature. While I think that Spinoza is in fact somewhat muddleheaded on this point, we ought to understand the claim of the conatus as two separate doctrines:. Our actual power is our essence, and the more we act from our essence rather than from external causes , the more we will act in empowering ways.

Spinoza and the Problem of Freedom

We will recall that Spinoza says that we act freely insofar as we act from our natures; so, if power is our essence, we act freely only insofar as we act from our power striving in sense 2 above , or from those mechanisms that are functionally related to our power. With this rather cursory account of internality in place, let us turn to his positive account of action and freedom in the Ethics. The first way in which we can be the internal cause of effects is simply by forming adequate ideas. In Ethics V , the connection between adequate comprehension and power is made apparent.

For instance, particular passions when adequately understood through the laws of the affects cease to be passions VP3. Through such cognitive emendation, we achieve a certain self-control which, again, is a kind of power which is accompanied by a feeling of joy laetitia. Aside from this rather arcane notion of action, Spinoza also seems to have a more conventional theory.

We can see from this how Spinoza departs from the negative liberty tradition. In order for one to be free, it is not enough for her simply to be allowed to do whatever she desires or to act for any old reason , one must actually act knowingly, i. These two modes of action—to wit, forming adequate ideas and acting from the dictates of reason—afford us a certain degree of what we might call cognitive liberation. This level of freedom is achieved through a process of clarifying the intellect, and thereby overcoming the manacles of ignorance.

In order to ferret out the lower register of freedom activity , we must turn again to consider the question of internality, here with an eye towards what could count as internal mechanisms or sources of activity. These laws preserve, sustain, and expand my essence, and so are rightly regarded as internal. Since free action consists in internal causation IIID2 , when we act from prudential or internal mechanisms, we may be regarded as free agents in the strict sense. Simply put, one is free to the extent that she acts on the basis of laws, rules, or mechanisms that tend to conduce to her power or essence.

This would include reflexes, instincts, and so-called Fixed Action Patterns. So, if we were to develop this account with sufficient care, we would need to identify and account for distinctions between degrees of internality among prudential mechanisms—and the spectrum is great, indeed. For instance, in addition to instincts, reflexes and the like, there are other forms of prudential tendencies that are more circumstance or time sensitive, and so are less likely to misfire i.

Indeed, one might say that some degree of liberation literally takes place in the blink of an eye. This statement has been met with general consternation. Though it has been widely interpreted, these disparate interpretations seem to share one thing in common: they all agree that if Spinoza thinks that the state plays a role in the liberation of its citizens, liberty must mean something different in these works than what it means in the Ethics.

However, I suggest that Spinoza really does mean that the state plays a direct liberating role in the lives of its citizens and that this notion of liberation is precisely the same as that which is described in the Ethics. What stands in the way of general recognition of this point, is that most commentators fail to appreciate the graduated nature of the concept of freedom; the lower register of the continuum of liberation, in particular, has been overlooked. Once we understand that one can be liberated—at least to a limited degree—by acting in generally prudential ways, as I have suggested above, we can see why Spinoza should think that a well-organized civitas can liberate its citizens.

See also PS I. We may put the distinction between perception and volition in contemporary terms by distinguishing between the propositional content and the propositional attitude of a belief. Not to be overlooked as well is Thomas Hobbes, whose acceptance of the compatibility of natural determinism and freedom would have put him on common ground with Spinoza, though their accounts are vastly different in other respects.


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Given his conflation of conceptual and causal dependence, Spinoza could conclude on this basis alone that everything that is, is caused by God. And while the demonstration for the power-augmenting Epicurean tendency may be lacking, there may be grounds, independent of his demonstration, for accepting some form of hedonistic egoism.

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Spinoza basically thinks of power as causal power, which is expressed most obviously in our self-preservation—to be able to cause ourselves to persist is to have a certain power! Another example of the exercise of power is having a certain control over our affects emotions —by steeling ourselves against destructive external passive passions, we exercise a certain power.

There are others ways in which we can exercise our causal power which I will not explicate , all of which will be accompanied by joy laetitia , which, according to Spinoza, indicates a transition from a lesser to greater state of power. If we take striving in the first sense, namely as a kind of drive, this definition seems to be too permissive, since all behavior is some sort of manifestation of this drive, yet not all behavior is action in sensu stricto.

Adequate ideas are internal in the sense that I have full conceptual knowledge the thing that is the object of my idea—something like a priori knowledge. Following Della Rocca Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza , I submit that the best way to understand Spinoza is as some sort of non-reductive monist, who maintains that an idea i. A sphex is a wasp that has a prudential habit of stopping short of her burrow to check for intruders before dragging a paralyzed prey cricket in to feed to her grubs.

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However, if one moves the prey a few inches while she is casing the burrow, she will drag it back to the threshold and repeat the procedure. This game could be iterated dozens of times, and yet the sphex does not deviate from her routine. Moreover, it could never be part of the definition of God that his modes contradict one another Ethics , part 3, prop. This resistance to destruction is formulated by Spinoza in terms of a striving to continue to exist, and conatus is the word he most often uses to describe this force.

Striving to persevere is not merely something that a thing does in addition to other activities it might happen to undertake. Rather, striving is "nothing but the actual essence of the thing" Ethics , part 3, prop. Spinoza also uses the term conatus to refer to rudimentary concepts of inertia , as Descartes had earlier. The concept of the conatus , as used in Baruch Spinoza 's psychology , is derived from sources both ancient and medieval.

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Spinoza, with his determinism , believes that man and nature must be unified under a consistent set of laws; God and nature are one, and there is no free will. Contrary to most philosophers of his time and in accordance with most of those of the present, Spinoza rejects the dualistic assumption that mind, intentionality , ethics, and freedom are to be treated as things separate from the natural world of physical objects and events.

For example, an action is "free", for Spinoza, only if it arises from the essence and conatus of an entity. There can be no absolute, unconditioned freedom of the will, since all events in the natural world, including human actions and choices, are determined in accord with the natural laws of the universe, which are inescapable.

Religious Matters

However, an action can still be free in the sense that it is not constrained or otherwise subject to external forces. Human beings are thus an integral part of nature. Spinoza's view of the relationship between the conatus and the human affects is not clear.