«Introduction More than two-thirds of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect is about truth. Spinoza explains why true ideas are preferable ...»
The essentric interpretation explains CERTAINTY. We can become aware of whether an idea represents an essence, because, as noted above, an idea Truth in the Emendation 87 represents an essence in virtue of that idea’s intrinsic characteristics. We can also become aware of whether an idea was inborn or appropriately formed, perhaps because ideas with the relevant intrinsic characteristics can be formed in only these ways, or perhaps by simply forming the idea again (e.g., re-deducing it). We can thus become aware of the features in virtue of which an idea is true, which is all that CERTAINTY requires.
It might help to list some of Spinoza’s suggestions for avoiding errors. This will not only give us a firmer grip on why Spinoza accepts CERTAINTY, but will further confirm the essentric interpretation, because the errors he considers are exactly the errors we’d expect him to consider if the essentric interpretation were correct.
First, in addition to representing a finite thing’s essence, we might represent it as existing (TIE §§53–54). That would be an error, because it’s not essential to any finite thing to exist, and we’re unable to deduce the existence of any finite thing from God’s essence. According to Spinoza, we can avoid this kind of error by carefully attending to the thing’s essence (thereby reminding ourselves that it isn’t essential to that thing to exist) and also carefully attending to the order of nature (thereby reminding ourselves that, unlike God, we’re unable to deduce that thing’s existence from God’s essence) (TIE §65, 100).
Second, we might construct an idea that contains a contradiction, such as an idea of a square soul (TIE §58). According to Spinoza, we can avoid this error by deducing a contradiction, in this case between our true idea of square and our true idea of soul (TIE §§61, 104). We can also avoid this error by dividing all the relevant ideas into their simplest parts, because that will prevent us from forming a contradictory composite, such as square soul (TIE §64).
Third, an idea can incorrectly represent something as following from a thing’s essence, as when we represent a circle as moving (TIE §72). That would be an error, because while a true idea of a circle can also represent whatever follows from the circle’s essence, it can’t represent anything else.
According to Spinoza, we can avoid this kind of error by never relying on abstractions or sensory ideas, and to deduce everything in the order of nature (TIE §75).
Fourth, we could mislabel the essence. For example, after hearing a parent use the word “square,” we could call the figure that’s formed by rotating a line “square” rather than “circle.” While Spinoza doesn’t address this specific kind of error, he warns us against using words when forming true ideas (TIE §88–89). Labels like “square” and “circle” are fallible, because they are derived from testimony. We might have misunderstood our parents. Our parents might have misunderstood their parents. Or our parents might be conspiring to mislead us. Because we can’t exclude these possibilities, we can never be certain about the labels we use to describe essences, and therefore they have no place 88 The Young Spinoza in the intellect. By never combining our true ideas with ideas about what an essence is called, we can avoid this error.
One final point about the essentric interpretation and CERTAINTY: Spinoza
explicitly connects certainty and essence. He writes:
From this it is clear that certainty is nothing but the objective essence itself, i.e., the mode by which we are aware of the formal essence is certainty itself. (TIE §35) Since truth, then, needs no sign, and to have the objective essences of things, or—what is the same—their ideas, is enough to remove all doubt [. . .]. (TIE §36) None of the other interpretations can explain why Spinoza links certainty and essence.
The essentric interpretation explains DEDUCTION, because true ideas are either contained in the inborn idea of our own essence, or formed by the intellect from that idea.
The essentric interpretation explains FOUNDATION, because true ideas are formed using an inborn idea of our own essence. As I mentioned before, there’s no direct evidence that the relevant inborn idea represents our own essence, rather than another essence. But here are two pieces of indirect evidence.
First, while he uses a different vocabulary, this is his view in the Ethics:
Whatever the Mind understands under a species of eternity, it understands not from the fact that it conceives the Body’s present actual existence, but from the fact that it conceives the Body’s essence under a species of eternity. (E5p29) More succinctly: we must deduce knowledge of eternal things from knowledge of our essence. Because all our true ideas involve knowledge of eternal things (E2p44c2), we must deduce all our true ideas from knowledge of our essence.
Spinoza’s view is evident in other passages as well (e.g., E2p24d, E2p11c). Don
Garrett has a nice way of putting this point:
Just as all imaginative cognition (cognition of the first kind) constitutes cognition of other things only by first being cognition of some accidental states of the actually existing body, so all intellectual cognition (cognition of the second and third kinds) constitutes cognition of other things only by being first cognition concerning the formal essence of the human body.25 Garrett, “Spinoza on the Essence of the Human Body and the Part of the Mind That Is
In the Ethics, Spinoza never uses “inborn” [nativus] and only rarely uses “innate” [innatus] (e.g., 1app). He might have stopped using these terms because there was so much disagreement about their meaning, as evidenced by Descartes’ exchange with Hobbes (see Third Set of Objections with Replies, CSM II 130–2 | AT VII 186–189). Nonetheless, Spinoza claims that our mind necessarily contains an idea of its own essence (E2p13), which is enough to satisfy any reasonable definition of inborn or innate.
Of course, we can’t use the Ethics as an infallible guide to the Emendation.
Nonetheless, this should give us added confidence that this was his view in the Emendation as well.
Second, while Spinoza doesn’t give many examples of true ideas (see TIE §§22, 78, 108), they all cohere with this hypothesis. Several of his examples are about our mind and body, including what it is to know something, how the mind is united to the body, and how the senses operate. Plausibly, these ideas are deducible from our essence, if they aren’t already included in our essence.
Most of his other examples are about geometry and arithmetic. These ideas can be constructed from an idea of infinite extension (see TIE §108) and it’s plausible that an idea of infinite extension is one of the “fixed and eternal things” that constitute our essence (TIE §100). He seems to think that our idea of any finite body, including our own body, is constructible from an idea of infinite extension (see again TIE §108), in which case an idea of infinite extension must be part of our idea of our own essence. Spinoza’s only other example of a true idea is our idea of God. Plausibly, this idea is included in our essence, because he causes our existence, and perhaps also because we’re essentially modes of God. But even if not, our idea of God might still be deducible from our idea of infinite extension, because that’s one of God’s attributes.
Importantly, we can have a true idea without being fully aware of it (TIE §47). Thus, one shouldn’t object that many of us aren’t already fully aware of much of what’s included in the inborn idea of our own essence. Perhaps we’re initially aware of a few of the ideas it includes, such as an idea representing our mind’s union with a body. But then, through the activity of the mind, we can become aware of more inborn ideas, including our inborn idea of infinite extension.26 In the Emendation, Spinoza doesn’t explore the processes that underlie our awareness of ideas. He just says we can become aware of more true ideas through our mind’s activity, without explaining how our mind can accomplish that feat or describing what underlies our awareness of these ideas. He fills this hole in the Ethics. He says we’re aware of ideas that sufficiently influence our thinking and behavior. Given the way we’re built, some inborn ideas are naturally very powerful, which is why we’re immediately aware of them, like the idea that we’re united with something extended in space (TIE §22, E2a4), an idea that always exerts a tremendous influence on our thoughts and behaviors. Through training we increase the power of other true ideas by giving them more influence. See Garrett, “Representation and Consciousness in Spinoza’s Naturalistic Theory of the Imagination,” for more details.
90 The Young Spinoza Finally, the essentric interpretation explains MIND-RELATIVITY, because, for example, an idea of Peter’s existence might be deducible from God’s essence, but not our own essence, and therefore might be true in God’s mind but not in our minds.
Because Spinoza mentions the same seven features in the Ethics, I think that he accepts the same account of truth. But there are two complications. First, in the Ethics, formal essences are eternal, and Spinoza’s parallelism in the Ethics implies that ideas of eternal things must themselves be eternal (see E2p7, E5p31, E5p39). Therefore, Spinoza’s views in the Ethics imply that we don’t form, or create, true ideas. Instead, we add true ideas to our mind, making them part of our mind, just as a mason might use preexisting stones to build an addition onto his house. Fortunately, this doesn’t necessitate any changes to the essentric interpretation. We just need to think of condition (i) as specifying how we form the composite idea-in-my-mind, rather than how we form the idea itself, just as we might think of the mason as forming the composite stone-inmy-house without forming the stone itself.27 Second, in the Ethics, a true idea of x can also be a false idea of y. For example, a true idea of God can also be a false idea of a part of my body (E2p24, E2p46) as well as a false idea of an external body (E2p26c, E2p46). Thus, we need to revise the first requirement of the essentric interpretation along the following lines: (i) it represents x’s essence, and perhaps x’s properties, but nothing else about x.
This interpretation of the Ethics is bolstered by its ability to explain a feature of true ideas he mentions there, but not in the Emendation:28
Ideas are true to varying degrees.
The essentric interpretation explains this datum. An idea in S’s mind can be wholly or partly deduced from the ideas contained in S’s inborn idea of her own essence. If it’s wholly deduced from those ideas, and therefore no other ideas are required, then it satisfies (ii) to the highest degree and is completely true.
However, if it’s partly deduced from those ideas, and therefore partly deduced from other ideas, it satisfies (ii) to a lesser degree and, as such, is less true. Thus, ideas are true to varying degrees. There’s a helpful connection to his account of See Garrett, “The Essence of the Body and the Part of the Mind That Is Eternal,” 296–301,
action. Movements and thoughts are actions to varying degrees, because they follow from our essence to varying degrees (E3d2). According to the essentric interpretation, ideas are true to various degrees, because they follow from our essence to varying degrees. Thus, true ideas are a special kind of action.
I also believe this is Spinoza’s account of adequate ideas. As I interpret Spinoza, “adequate” and “true” are just different ways of picking out the same kind of idea, and therefore the real definition of adequate idea is the same as the real definition of true idea, because a thing’s real definition isn’t sensitive to how we’re picking it out.29 Likewise, to adapt one of Spinoza’s own examples, “Jacob” and “Israel” are different labels for the same person, and therefore the real definition of Jacob is the same as the real definition of Israel, because his real definition isn’t sensitive to how we’re picking him out. How do “adequate” and “true” pick out the relevant kind of idea? “Adequate” picks it out by its intrinsic features, while “true” picks it out by its extrinsic features (E2d4, E1d6, Ep. 60).
Spinoza’s accounts of truth and adequacy are central to his mature philosophy. They link together his theology, epistemology, psychology, action theory, ethics, and political philosophy. For example, true ideas constitute God’s intellect, provide the best kind of understanding, diminish our passions, increase our power to act, guide us toward what’s best, enlarge the eternal parts of our minds, and unite us with others in tolerant communities.30 If the essentric interpretation extends to Spinoza’s mature work, it’s worth exploring the implications for these other parts of his philosophy.31 See 2d4, 2p41d, and Ep60. See also passages where Spinoza seems to freely interchange these terms: TIE §§34–35, §73, E2p41, E2p42d, and E3p58d.
See, e.g., E2p32, E2p40s2, E2p41, E3p3, E4p35, E4p46, E4p73, E5p6, E5p38, and E5p42.
Thanks to Jonny Cottrell, Zev Harvey, Don Garrett, Martin Lin, Yitzhak Melamed, Christia Mercer, Robert Pasnau, Elliot Paul, an anonymous referee, and especially Colin Marshall for comments. Thanks also to the audience at the Young Spinoza Conference at Johns Hopkins.