Spinoza In Plain English, Book 2, Part 6 (Propositions 8–11): What Is A Human Mind?

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This is the latest post in my quixotic attempt to write an accessible commentary on all of Spinoza’s Ethics. See here for An Introduction To Spinoza or start the series at the beginning with Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance.

As we continue to delve into human and divine consciousness, Spinoza makes an interesting assertion in his eighth proposition: “Ideas of particular things or modes that do not exist ​must be comprehended in the infinite idea of God [i.e. the intellectual self-awareness of God] just as the formal essences ​of particular things or modes are contained in the attributes of God [the universe].”

What Spinoza is saying is that the infinite intellect comprehends not only what logically exists in the infinite web of ideas, but all the possible logical ramifications of what exists that could theoretically, but do not in practice, exist.

In order to explain this Spinoza brings in geometry. The nature of a circle is such that the rectangles formed by the segments of all the intersecting straight lines within it are equal to each other. Therefore an infinite number of equal rectangles is contained within a circle. But none of them can be said to exist except insofar as the circle exists, nor can the idea of any of these rectangles be ​said to exist except insofar as it is comprehended in the idea of the circle.

What Spinoza is saying here, put simply, is that all the possible rectangles implied by a circle have real logical being, and their ideas- as logically necessary entities- exist in the infinite intellect of God.

In a really existing circle, only two of those rectangles might be drawn, but all the other possible rectangles have real existence as logical entities. There is a difference, Spinoza then says, between entities God knows in this way (basically as entities of logic within the infinite intellect) and the idea of an actually existing particular thing (more on what that is below).

It follows from this that God “as a thinking thing”, or in other words, the divine intellect is the cause of the essence, or logical being, of the human being under the aspect of the absolute, or infinite, intellect and also the cause of your actually existing mind, or what you experience as you pass through time- a series of causally connected particular things that you are actually aware of.

In this way, God is the cause of you or I as theoretical or logical entities, but God is also the cause of us as actually existing entities within the causal web of what really does exist.

We now turn to Spinoza’s discussion of the mind and body of a human being in earnest.

Proposition 11

The first thing that constitutes the actual being of a human mind ​is simply the idea of an actually ​existing particular thing.

God is aware of the infinite web of things, but a human mind begins with the awareness of one particular thing- the human body.

God is “a thinking thing”, which means God actively conceives an infinite web of causally connected ideas. Now get ready for it. If this hasn’t already been clear to you, according to Spinoza your mind is a stream of one such web of causally connected ideas in the mind of God.

It follows from this that a human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God, and accordingly when we say that a human mind perceives this or that, we are simply saying that God has this or that idea, not insofar as he is infinite but insofar as he is explained through the nature of a human mind or insofar as he constitutes the essence of a human mind.

God is aware of everything and this includes the experiences of all minds.

According to Spinoza God is aware of your mind both as part of the infinite ideational web in the absolute intellect and as you yourself experience it- your mind is a part of God’s experience.

Join me next time when we continue to delve into what Spinoza considers a human mind to be, and look at Spinoza’s clear assertion of panpsychism. To that, he will add a fascinating discussion of the body, and then we are off to the races as Spinoza dedicates Book 3, 4, 5 to what we should do with this human mind and body of ours.

For the next essay in this series, please click here.

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