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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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If you’re thinking of truth as a kind of correspondence, CERTAINTY might seem strange. But suppose you start thinking about truth as a kind of coherence, so that an idea is true in virtue of its coherence with other ideas in the same mind. In that case, you might not think we need another sign of truth, because you might think we can attend directly to an idea’s coherence with our other ideas. Thus, if we stop thinking of truth as a kind of correspondence, CERTAINTY might not seem as strange. I’ll later propose a third way of thinking about truth, distinct from both correspondence and coherence.

5. As mentioned in the introduction, Spinoza thinks that the way a thing is formed is definitive of that thing. How are true ideas formed? Throughout the Emendation he stresses that true ideas are formed through the power of the

intellect. For example:

So the form of the true thought [. . .] must depend on the very power and nature of the intellect. (TIE §71, emphasis added) See Mark, Spinoza’s Theory of Truth, 37–38, 64; Della Rocca, “Spinoza and the Metaphysics of Scepticism,” 863; and Joachim, Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, 10. They might be influenced by 2P43S, but Garrett (“Truth and Ideas of Imagination in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione,” 74–75) explains why 2p43s doesn’t have this implication.

See Garrett, “Truth and Ideas of Imagination in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione,” 68–69, 72, and “Truth, Method and Correspondence in Spinoza and Leibniz,” 15–21.

Truth in the Emendation 75 He’s presumably referring back to this passage when he later says that true ideas are formed through the power of the mind:13 In this way, then, we have distinguished between a true idea and other perceptions, and shown that the fictitious, the false, and the other ideas have their origin in the imagination, i.e., in certain sensations that are fortuitous, and (as it were) disconnected, since they do not arise from the very power of the mind, but from external causes [. . .]. (TIE §84, emphasis added) Spinoza also insists that whatever follows from sense perception and testimony

is not formed through the power of the intellect:

There is the perception we have from random experience, that is, from experience that is not determined by the intellect. (TIE §19, emphasis added) He later concludes that ideas formed through these channels are false (see again TIE §84). In another passage he says that clear and distinct ideas are also

formed through our power:

The clear and distinct ideas that we form seem to follow so from the necessity of our nature alone that they seem to depend absolutely on our power alone. But with confused ideas it is quite the contrary—they are often formed against our will. (TIE §108, emphasis added) Following Descartes, Spinoza thinks that all clear and distinct ideas are true (TIE §§64, 68). So in this passage he’s saying that true ideas seem to be formed through our power, which is presumably a reference back to his claim in TIE §71 that true ideas are formed through the power of our intellect.

What is the power of the intellect? He says that complex ideas are deduced:

For the ideas of things that are conceived clearly and distinctly, are either most simple, or composed of most simple ideas, i.e., deduced from most simple ideas. (TIE §68, emphasis mine) Likewise, in the Ethics he says that we can deduce true ideas from cognition of God (E2p47s) and that false ideas are like conclusions without premises, implying that they weren’t deduced (E2p28d), and so deduction is presumably one of the powers, if not the power, of the intellect.

Let’s give this datum a title:


If an idea of x is true but not inborn then it was formed through the power of the intellect (e.g., deduction). It was not formed through sense perception or testimony.

–  –  –

might seem to have an implausible implication. Suppose you read a


proof of Pascal’s Theorem. DEDUCTION might seem to imply that your idea of that proof is false, just because it’s the result of reading. Importantly, DEDUCTION doesn’t have that implication. Suppose a friend gives you directions to Cincinnati. If you follow her directions you’ll still get there through your own locomotive power. Likewise, suppose a friend gives you a recipe for shepherd’s pie. If you follow her recipe you’ll still cook it through your own culinary power. Continuing this pattern, if you read a proof of Pascal’s Theorem, following each step, then the idea is formed through your own intellectual power.

The textbook just gave you directions.14 DEDUCTION isn’t just another feature of true ideas. Spinoza insists that the way a thing is formed is part of its definition (TIE §§92, 96). Therefore, the way a true idea is formed must be part of its definition, that is, it must be a definitive feature of truth (see TIE §51). Why does Spinoza include this requirement on all definitions? Spinoza believes that the way a thing is formed explains many of its necessary differences and similarities with other things (TIE §96).

Spinoza also believes that a thing’s definition must include the explanation of those differences and similarities (e.g., TIE §25). Thus, the way a thing is formed must be part of its definition. For example, the way we form circles explains why circles, unlike other geometrical figures, don’t have right angles, and thus must be included in the definition of circle. Likewise, the way we form true ideas explains why, unlike false ideas, they involve understanding, and thus must be included in the definition of truth. Why does the way we form true ideas, specifically that we form them through the power of the intellect (e.g., deduction), explain why they involve understanding? If you construct a geometrical figure, you understand its simplest elements and how they’re assembled. If you prove a theorem, you understand the foundational axioms and why they entail that theorem. If you design a house or an eye-like organ, you understand the kinds of materials from which it could be generated, how those materials would interact, and how those materials would be arranged.

True ideas involve greater understanding because they are formed in these kinds of ways. In contrast, if you accept something entirely on the basis of testimony, you won’t have this kind of understanding, at least according to Spinoza. In the modern idiom, you’d know that p without knowing why p.

An important corollary is that we can’t form the same idea through either testimony or deduction. Testimony and deduction generate different kinds of ideas.

In light of DEDUCTION and ESSENCE, we can better understand the connection between truth and the scientific method, a connection that has troubled some commentators. These commentators worry that DEDUCTION undermines Burge (“Frege on Aprioricity,” 17) makes a similar claim about Frege.

Truth in the Emendation 77 any method that emphasizes observation.15 But DEDUCTION is compatible with the scientific method’s emphasis on observation. Suppose you use the scientific method to investigate the human eye, perhaps by autopsying cadavers. Much of what you learn won’t constitute a true idea of the eye, because it won’t concern the eye’s essence. That’s not to say that it’s not worth learning, or that it doesn’t correspond to the state of the eye. As he emphasizes, sensation and testimony are sources of useful information, such as the ability of water to put out fires (TIE §20). It’s just that, given ESSENCE, true ideas must represent essences, and these ideas don’t. Of course, some of what you learn will involve the eye’s essence, as when you learn how the eye functions, and how the eye is created.

But in those cases, you can use the autopsied eye like a textbook, deducing an idea of its essence from your ideas of line, motion, part, and so on, just as you can form an idea of a circle from some of these same ideas. Your idea of the eye’s essence would then be formed entirely through the power of your intellect.

Importantly, this true idea wouldn’t imply that any eyes actually exist. This further claim depends on observation, rather than the intellect, and therefore isn’t included in any of our true ideas, in part because anything learned through the senses is uncertain. Nonetheless, this shows that DEDUCTION is compatible with the scientific method’s emphasis on observation.

6. The next datum is about how we form true ideas. He says that “there will be no Method unless there is first an idea” (TIE §38) and later that “before all else there must be a true idea in us, an inborn tool” (TIE §39; see also TIE §§33, 43, 49, 70). Let’s give this a title:


We must use a certain inborn true idea to form all our other true ideas.

Frustratingly, Spinoza doesn’t tell us which idea plays this role. He tells us only that it’s an idea of a certain thing’s essence (TIE §34n). Given his commitment to ESSENCE, that’s unsurprising. But, which thing? He doesn’t say, claiming that it belongs instead to “the investigation of nature,” presumably a reference to his future work Philosophy.

I’ll later argue that we must use an inborn true idea of our own essence.

I won’t argue for that conclusion here, because the textual evidence is too indirect to treat it as a datum.

But there’s an alternative I  want to quickly disprove. Throughout the Emendation Spinoza emphasizes that a true idea of God is the most useful (e.g.

TIE §§38–39). It might be tempting to assume that this is the foundation of all our other true ideas. But Spinoza denies that this is our starting point, writing that we “must take the greatest care to arrive at knowledge of such a Being as quickly as possible” (TIE §49; see also §75). He also calls this idea the “pinnacle See especially Curley, “Experience in Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge,” 48–49.

78 The Young Spinoza of wisdom” and says it must be formed using preexisting tools (TIE §31). So an idea of God’s essence can’t be our inborn tool.

Before moving on to the next feature, let’s clarify the meaning of “inborn tool.” Spinoza never defines this term. But he does define “inborn power”: “By inborn power I understand what is not caused in us by external causes” (TIE §31k). This definition is potentially misleading.16 In the accompanying text he says we can use our inborn powers to acquire additional powers. These additional powers are internally caused. Thus, there has to be more to being an inborn power than lacking an external cause, because there’s no point in calling some of our powers inborn if these additional powers also count as inborn.

Presumably, an inborn power also must be in our mind from the mind’s creation, as suggested by the label “inborn” [nativus]. Assuming this is the correct definition of an inborn power, an idea is inborn if it was in our mind from the mind’s creation and was not externally caused.

Combined, ESSENCE, DEDUCTION, and FOUNDATION help us situate Spinoza’s account of truth in its historical context. Influenced by Plato, some of his predecessors claim that our ideas of essences are often, if not always, formed through “divine illumination.” While there was little consensus about the nature of divine illumination, most agreed that it involved supernatural acts by God (see Pasnau, “Divine Illumination”). Influenced by Aristotle, other predecessors claim that ideas of essences are often, if not always, formed through sensory abstraction, as when I 


the essence of horse from my sensory perception of a particular horse (see, e.g., Aquinas, Treatise on Human Nature, Question 85, Article 1). Spinoza is offering a novel account of how true ideas are formed. According to Spinoza, they are formed entirely through the intellect’s power, without any supernatural assistance from God, and using only an inborn idea, rather than any of our sensory perceptions.

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