«Introduction More than two-thirds of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect is about truth. Spinoza explains why true ideas are preferable ...»
7. The final datum is from one of the Emendation’s most obscure passages:17 But if it is—as it seems at first—of the nature of the thinking being to form true, or adequate, thoughts, it is certain that inadequate ideas arise in us only from the fact that we are part of the thinking being, of which some thoughts wholly constitute our mind, while others do so only in part. (TIE §73) This passage indicates Spinoza’s openness to two claims. First, our mind is part of another mind (“we are part of a thinking being”), and every idea in our mind is also in that other mind (“of which some thoughts wholly constitute our On the basis of this passage, E. Marshall (“Adequacy and Innateness in Spinoza,” 84–85) says that an idea is inborn if and only if it wasn’t externally caused.
I’m modifying Curley’s translation by replacing “a thinking being” with “the thinking
mind”). Second, some of our ideas are false (“inadequate ideas arise in us”), but it’s the nature of that other mind to form true ideas (“it is [. . .] of the nature of a thinking being to form true [. . .] thoughts”), so all of its ideas must be true.
Conjoined, these two claims entail:
The numerically same idea can be true in one mind and false in another mind.
Because both claims are embedded in a conditional, Spinoza isn’t committed to them, and therefore isn’t committed to MIND-RELATIVITY. Nonetheless, because he’s open to MIND-RELATIVITY, his account of truth shouldn’t rule it out;
it should be possible for the numerically same idea to be true in one mind and false in another mind.
Spinoza endorses MIND-RELATIVITY in the Ethics. He says that all the ideas that are false in our mind are true in God’s mind (E2p11c, E2p32, and E2p24). It’s possible he was already drawn to MIND-RELATIVITY when writing the Emendation, but didn’t think it was the appropriate venue to defend and develop this view, or maybe he planned to address it in a later section.
The three leading interpretations of Spinoza’s account of truth are the correspondence interpretation, the coherence interpretation, and the causal interpretation.18 In this section I’ll argue that they’re unable to explain most if not all of the features of true ideas that Spinoza mentions, i.e., the textual data.
While one might revise these interpretations so that they accommodate more of the data, and perhaps even all of the data, that would just transform them
into the interpretation I’ll propose in the next section. Here again is the data:
AGREEMENTA true idea of x agrees with its object.
These aren’t the only alternatives. While Joachim (Spinoza’s Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, 92–93, 154–155) is sometimes said to accept a coherence interpretation (see Mark, Spinoza’s Theory of Truth, 46 n. 5), that’s misleading. What’s important to Joachim is the coherence of an idea’s internal parts, not its external relation to other ideas in the same mind, and therefore it doesn’t fall into any of these categories. However, as stated, Joachim’s interpretation doesn’t explain AGREEMENT, MIND-RELATIVITY, or FOUNDATION, though it could be developed into the essentric interpretation, which I’ll later argue explains all these data points.
Parkinson (“ ‘Truth Is Its Own Standard’: Aspects of Spinoza’s Theory of Truth,” 40f) says that true ideas are “complete,” where completeness is defined disjunctively, each disjunct corresponding to one of the best kinds of knowledge mentioned in the Ethics (E2p40s2). Parkinson’s interpretation contradicts FOUNDATION and fails to explain INTRINSIC and ESSENCE.
80 The Young Spinoza
The definitive features of a true idea of x are intrinsic to the mind in which that idea is true.
ESSENCETrue ideas represent essences.
CERTAINTYIf S has a true idea that x is F then S can become certain that x is F by becoming aware of the features in virtue of which that idea is true.
DEDUCTIONIf 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.
FOUNDATIONWe use a certain inborn true idea to form all our other true ideas.
MIND-RELATIVITYThe numerically same idea can be true in one mind and false in another mind.
As I said in the introduction, one of the goals of the Emendation is to teach us to distinguish true ideas from false ideas. There are often many ways to distinguish things: we might distinguish people by their location or by their lineage; fruits by their color or by their taste. But Spinoza doesn’t just want to distinguish true ideas from other ideas on the basis of any of their features.
He wants to distinguish them on the basis of their essences. Spinoza says he wants to understand “what a true idea is by distinguishing it from the rest of the perceptions; by investigating its nature [...]” (TIE §37). He later says that knowledge of the “form of truth” is foundational to his method (TIE §105, E2p42d). Therefore, when evaluating each proposal, keep in mind that it isn’t enough for them to describe features that merely allow us to distinguish true from false ideas. This will be especially important when evaluating the causal interpretation.
Let’s start with the correspondence interpretation:19 An idea of x is true if and only if it agrees with x.
Mark (Spinoza’s Theory of Truth, 69) endorses this interpretation, drawing no distinction
The correspondence interpretation straightforwardly explains AGREEMENT, because it requires true ideas to agree with their objects. But it doesn’t explain most of the other data.
The correspondence interpretation contradicts INTRINSIC, because agreement is an extrinsic feature of true ideas. Spinoza is explicit in the Ethics, writing at the end of a definition that “I say intrinsic to exclude what is extrinsic, viz. the agreement of the idea with its object” (E2d4).
In addition, the correspondence interpretation doesn’t explain CERTAINTY, DEDUCTION, or FOUNDATION. It doesn’t explain CERTAINTY, because the idea we express with “Peter is 150 pounds” is true according to this interpretation, but we can’t become certain it’s true by becoming aware of its agreement with Peter.
The problem is that we can become aware of Peter only through the use of our senses, and therefore we can become aware of a correspondence between our idea and Peter only through the use of our senses. But our sensations can deceive us. Perhaps Peter isn’t as he appears, because we’re dreaming or because we’re victims of an elaborate deception. This introduces doubt, precluding certainty that our idea is true. We thus can’t become certain that Peter is 150 pounds by becoming aware of our relation to Peter. The correspondence interpretation also doesn’t explain DEDUCTION, because, for example, an idea of a circle’s essence can correspond with that circle even if it is based entirely on testimony (e.g., listening to one’s geometry teacher) or sense perception (e.g., reading it in a book). One doesn’t need to understand why Pascal’s Theorem is true for one’s idea to correspond to that theorem. Finally, the correspondence interpretation doesn’t explain FOUNDATION, because whether an idea corresponds to its object is independent of the tools we first used to form it.
That leaves ESSENCE and MIND-RELATIVITY. At best, the correspondence interpretation has trouble explaining this data. It has trouble explaining ESSENCE, because, for example, the idea we express with “Peter is 150 pounds” corresponds to Peter, even though it is not an idea about his essence. It also has trouble explaining MIND-RELATIVITY. If an idea represents the same object in all minds, it’s unclear how it could agree with that object insofar as it is in one mind but not another. While by the Ethics Spinoza believes that the same idea can represent something different in different minds (see Della Roca, Representation and the Mind–Body Problem in Spinoza, Chapter 3), that’s not a view he considers or accepts in the Emendation.
represented. Thus, Mark’s interpretation is more elaborate than a straightforward correspondence interpretation, which is why he calls it an ontological interpretation. Allison (Benedict de Spinoza, 97) follows Mark. Nadler (Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction, 161) and Curley (Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation, 122–126) both endorse the correspondence interpretation for the Ethics. Bennett (Learning from Six Philosophers, 190f) seems to take the correspondence interpretation for granted. Wolfson (The Philosophy of Spinoza, 99) endorses a correspondence interpretation of some passages, and a coherence interpretation of other passages.
82 The Young Spinoza Notably, Spinoza explicitly rejects this account of truth in the Ethics. He says that if agreement were the only definitive feature of true ideas, then, contrary to fact, true ideas wouldn’t contain more reality than false ideas (E2p43s).
Let’s now turn to the coherence interpretation:20 An idea of x is true in a mind if and only if it coheres with the other ideas in that mind.
What is it for ideas to cohere? Presumably, mutual logical consistency and logical entailment are together sufficient for coherence. Besides that, we don’t need to be more specific, because the coherence interpretation has trouble explaining most of the data regardless of how coherence is more specifically understood.
Let’s again go through the data one by one.
The coherence interpretation explains INTRINSIC and MIND-RELATIVITY. It explains INTRINSIC, because an idea is true in virtue of its relations to other ideas in the mind containing it, rather than something external. It explains MIND-RELATIVITY, because the same idea might be contained in several minds and might cohere better with the ideas in some minds than other minds.
The coherence interpretation would explain CERTAINTY if we could become aware of all of a true idea’s relations to other ideas in our mind. But it’s unclear whether we can become aware of all our ideas, let alone their relations. At least in the Ethics, he says we have ideas of all the parts of our body, including our spleen, but we’re not fully aware of those ideas (E2p15).
The coherence interpretation does not seem to explain AGREEMENT. A dream of walking down a hallway might be perfectly coherent, even though we’re sound asleep in bed. Likewise, consider any collection of ideas with the logical This interpretation is endorsed by Hampshire, Spinoza, 87–91; MacIntyre, Spinoza, 532;
Walker, “Spinoza and the Coherence Theory of Truth,” 9–11; and Roth, Spinoza, 27 (though later in Spinoza, Descartes, and Maimonides, 112, Roth emphasizes that true ideas are clear and distinct ideas of essences). Curley (“Spinoza on Truth,” 8–10) also says that it’s the best interpretation, though as noted in the introduction, he’s not very confident, because he thinks the text is too mysterious. Following Curley, Steinberg (“Knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics,” 146 n. 9) says that a coherence theory seems prominent in the Emendation.
Walker (“Spinoza and the Coherence Theory of Truth,” 4) and Harvey (“Spinoza’s Theory of Truth (review),” 106) both suggest that, given Spinoza’s other commitments, the correspondence and coherence interpretations might be consistent. For Walker, the relevant commitment is idealism. For Harvey, the relevant commitment is a coherence theory of nature, and the view that ideas both express and correspond to their objects. I doubt that Harvey and Walker are right, because I doubt that Spinoza has these other commitents, but in any case my objections are supposed to apply to all variants of each kind of interpretation, and therefore should apply to variants of both.