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«Introduction More than two-thirds of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect is about truth. Spinoza explains why true ideas are preferable ...»

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Truth in the Emendation

John Morrison


More than two-thirds of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect is about

truth. Spinoza explains why true ideas are preferable (TIE §§18–29), how to

begin forming true ideas (TIE §§30–48), and how to distinguish true ideas from

other kinds of ideas (TIE §§50–90). Spinoza’s account of truth is therefore our

key to the Emendation. It would thus be disheartening if Ed Curley were right

that the text is “too mysterious” to interpret Spinoza’s account of truth with any confidence.1 Despite Curley’s skepticism, I  will propose a new interpretation. I’ll start by listing seven of the features of true ideas that Spinoza mentions in the Emendation. I’ll then argue that the three leading interpretations fail to explain why Spinoza mentions these features. In particular, I will criticize the correspondence interpretation (that it is definitive of true ideas to correspond to what they represent), the coherence interpretation (that it is definitive of true ideas that they cohere with other ideas in the mind), and the causal interpretation (that it is definitive of true ideas that they are not caused by something outside the mind).

I’ll then propose a new interpretation. Stated roughly, my proposal is that it is definitive of true ideas that they represent essences and are derived in the right kind of way by the intellect from an innate idea of one’s own essence. I will call this the “essentric interpretation,” because of the central role of essences. I will end by sketching why I believe this is also the best interpretation of the Ethics.

Given that Spinoza’s account of truth is at the foundation of the Emendation, it is natural to wonder why he doesn’t explicitly define it. There are at least two Curley, “Spinoza on Truth,” 8.

Truth in the Emendation 67 explanations. First, perhaps he wanted to wait until he listed the conditions on good definitions, and he doesn’t list those conditions until shortly before he abandoned the project (TIE §§94–104). Second, defining truth in the first part of the method might have contradicted his other commitments. Spinoza denies that we need another sign, or criterion, to identify true ideas (TIE §36). He also says a single example of a true idea is enough to identify other true ideas (TIE §39). By explicitly stating his definition at the very start he might seem to be giving a criterion for truth, and also to be implying that a single example of a true idea isn’t enough. Therefore, given his other commitments, perhaps he didn’t want to start with a definition of truth, and the text ends shortly after the start of the second part, TIE §91.

I suspect that Spinoza was on the verge of defining truth when he abandoned the project. In the final paragraphs he’s building up to a definition of thought [cogitatio] (TIE §§106–110, esp. §110), and in the very last paragraph says we can’t learn anything about thought by studying false ideas. It’s tempting to think that, as in the Ethics, false ideas are just privations of thought, in which case his definition of thought might appear immediately after a definition of truth (E2p37, E2p43s; see also TIE §70). They might even have the same definition, because there’s no difference between having a thought and having a true idea; false ideas are privations of thought (see again TIE §110; see also E2p23s).2 In any case, Spinoza clearly intended to state his definition of truth at some point, and therefore it’s worth trying to reconstruct that definition, given the importance of truth to the Emendation.

–  –  –

In the Emendation, Spinoza mentions seven features of true ideas.

1. Spinoza writes:3 [T]he [true] idea is objectively in the same way as its object is really.

(TIE §41)

In the Ethics he restates this as the claim that true ideas agree with their objects:4

A true idea must agree with its object (by E1a6), that is (as is known through itself), what is contained objectively in the intellect must necessarily be in nature. (E1p30d) It’s also possible that Spinoza intended to wait until a later work, to be titled Philosophy. He writes that, “I shall not discuss the essence of each perception, and explain it by its proximate cause, because that pertains to Philosophy” (TIE §51; he also mentions Philosophy at TIE §§31k, 31l, 36o, 45, 76z, and 83). Perhaps true ideas were among the kinds of perception he intended to discuss in Philosophy.

All translations are from Curley’s The Collected Works of Spinoza.

–  –  –

Let’s give this a title:


A true idea of x agrees with its object.

To get a firmer grip on AGREEMENT, let’s scrutinize its meaning. First, what does he mean by “idea” [idea]? To the modern ear, “idea” might sound like “concept,” rather than “belief ” or “thought.” But, for Spinoza, ideas involve affirmations and negations (TIE §72, E2p49), which doesn’t make sense if they’re expressible using terms like “Peter” and “existence,” rather than sentences like “Peter exists.” Thus, for Spinoza, ideas are belief-like.

Second, what does he mean by “object” [ideatum]? The straightforward answer is whatever the idea represents. Some scholars have resisted this straightforward answer. But that’s only because they’ve failed to distinguish an object’s ideatum (what it represents) from its objectum (what is parallel to it in other attributes).5 Third, what does he mean by “agree” [convenire] and “is objectively in the same way” [eodem modo se habet obiective]? In the passages above, Spinoza is appealing to a scholastic distinction. Let’s introduce it with an example. Peter existed formally in Galilee at the start of the first millennium. But Peter exists objectively whenever I think about his existence, such as when I think about his surprise when he saw the empty tomb. If Peter’s objective existence in my idea (e.g., as surprised) agrees with his formal existence (viz., as surprised), then my idea agrees with its object. Likewise, if Peter’s objective essence in my idea (e.g., as an extended thing) agrees with his formal essence (viz., as an extended thing), then my idea agrees with its object. Agreement thus involves a special kind of correspondence that can, at least in principle, involve a thing’s existence or essence.

2. Spinoza says that the definitive features of true ideas are intrinsic. He


So the form [forma] of the true thought must be placed in the same thought itself without relation to other things [. . .]. (TIE §71, emphasis added) In the Ethics Spinoza says that an idea and its object [objectum] are one and the same thing.

This is standardly interpreted as the claim that an idea and its object [objectum] are identical.

Identity seems sufficient for agreement. Allison (Benedict de Spinoza, 99), Bennett (Learning from Six Philosophers, 190–193), Mark (Spinoza’s Theory of Truth, 55), Parkinson (Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge, 113; though see Parkinson, “ ‘Truth Is Its Own Standard’:  Aspects of Spinoza’s Theory of Truth,” 40–45, 53 n. 19), and Walker (“Spinoza and the Coherence Theory of Truth,”  14) conclude that all ideas are true, even though Spinoza gives many examples of false ideas (e.g., E2p31s). Garrett (“Representation and Consciousness in Spinoza’s Naturalistic Theory of the Imagination”) effectively argues that this line of reasoning conflates the objects represented by an idea (its ideatis) with the object identical to the idea (its objectum). We’re therefore free to stick with the straightforward answer without committing Spinoza to the preposterous view that all ideas are true.

Truth in the Emendation 69 As before, let’s scrutinize the meaning of Spinoza’s terms. First, what does he mean by “form” [forma]? Seventeenth-century authors, including Spinoza, use “form” interchangeably with “essence.”6 Thus, Spinoza is saying that a true idea’s relations aren’t essential to it; they aren’t among its definitive features.

Instead, only its intrinsic features—what belongs to the thought in itself—are definitive. Presumably, this includes what in the Ethics he calls the “intrinsic denominations” of true ideas (E2d4).

Second, when Spinoza says that the form of true ideas doesn’t involve relations to “other things,” what is he referring to? The full passage is illuminating:

So the form of the true thought must be placed in the same thought itself without relation to other things, nor does it recognize the object as its cause, but must depend on the very power and nature of the intellect.

For if we suppose that the intellect had perceived some new being, which has never existed (as some conceive God’s intellect, before he created things—for that perception, of course, could not have any object) and from such a perception it deduced others legitimately, all those thoughts would be true, and determined by no external object. (TIE §71) An idea can be true even if there are no external objects (“before he created things”). Thus, the form of true ideas doesn’t involve relations to any external objects. Nonetheless, it does involve a relation to the mind containing it, specifically that mind’s intellect. Thus, in the above passage, he’s not excluding relations to all other objects, as some commentators have claimed.7 He’s just excluding relations to external objects.

It’s worth considering another passage.

As for what constitutes the form of the true, it is certain that a true thought is distinguished from a false one not only by an extrinsic, but chiefly [maxime] by an intrinsic denomination. (TIE §69, emphasis added) What does he mean by maxime? Given the context, the claim that true ideas are maxime distinguished connotes that they are distinguished in the most fundamental way, a connotation that’s lost by Curley’s “chiefly.” A better translation would have been “above all.” Thus, he’s saying that while we often can distinguish true ideas from false ideas on the basis of their relations (e.g., that only true ideas agree with their objects), that’s not the most fundamental way See E1d1 and E2p10. See Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes 1274–1671, 549f for more on ‘form’ [forma], ‘nature’ [natura], and ‘essence’ [essentia].

See Mark, Spinoza’s Theory of Truth, 47. My interpretation is confirmed by other passages.

–  –  –

of distinguishing them; these relations aren’t among a true idea’s definitive features. This interpretation of maxime is supported by its proximity to the previous passage, TIE §71, which is about the essence of true ideas. It is also reinforced by his examples in the sentences that follow. He mentions an idea that’s false even though it correctly represents its object (“Peter exists”), and an idea that’s true even though it represents something that doesn’t yet exist (see also E2p8). These examples imply that a true idea’s relations to external objects aren’t sufficient or necessary for truth, and therefore aren’t definitive of truth.

Let’s give this a title:


The definitive features of a true idea of x are intrinsic to the mind in which that idea is true.

As Spinoza conceives of truth, true ideas have definitive, intrinsic features that set them apart from false ideas. Contemporary philosophers conceive of truth differently. As many contemporary philosophers conceive of truth, utterances of the sentence “Peter exists” are true as long as Peter exists and false after.

Thus, as many contemporary philosophers conceive of truth, an extrinsic difference is responsible for the truth of one of these utterances, namely its relation to Peter. This is one of the many respects in which it’s unclear whether Spinoza and contemporary philosophers are even talking about the same notion. Given the vast differences, one might reasonably conclude that Spinoza is using “true” to pick out an entirely different notion. Rather than get entangled in this subtle debate, let’s just focus on reconstructing Spinoza’s notion.

3. Spinoza believes that a true idea of x is an idea of x’s essence. The most

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