Spinoza’s Three Kinds of Cognition: Imagination, Understanding, and Definition and Essence in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect

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[PROBABLY OMIT Spinoza returns to the idea of the connection in his discussion of false ideas. In §73, he asks the reader to consider the “concept [conceptu]” of a sphere, as given by the motion of semi-circle. He deems that that to be a “true perception.” But, he goes on to say, if that motion is taken in isolation from the larger concept or from some real cause in nature, then its “affirmation” would be false. {This is reminiscent of Descartes’s remarks in the First Replies that a triangle inscribed in a square does not have a true and immutable nature, unless it is considered “with a view to examining only the properties which arise out of the conjunction,” say, for example, that the triangle’s area is half of that of the square (7:118; 2:84—for discussion see BTW, pp. 301-306). It seems to me that Spinoza’s case of a true perception where the connection between subject and predicate is effected by some essence corresponds to the situation where Descartes says there is a true and immutable nature; and the case where Spinoza is thinking of the motion as not connected to the circle through a definition is like that case where triangle inscribed in the square does not count as true and immutable nature. (Notice, that essence seems to be doing some of the work for Spinoza in effecting a connection between a subject and a predicate that gets done in other ways in more propositionally oriented theories.)} While exactly how Spinoza is thinking about “affirmation” here is perhaps puzzling, his basic point is clear. The connection between subject and predicate in a true idea must be grounded; it cannot be left simply hanging. One possible ground is the plenum, which might provide a “real cause” for the sphere’s motion. Another possible ground might be the definition of a sphere, which specifies that sphere be the result of the rotation of a semi-circle: according to Spinoza, this essence serves connects the semi-circle to its motion. Without some such connecting principle—the real cause or the linkage through the sphere’s definition—we have no basis for attributing motion to the semi-circle. Spinoza writes:

when we affirm of a thing something that is not contained in the concept we form of the thing, this indicates that our perception is defective, or in other words that we have thoughts or ideas that are, as it were mutilated and fragmentary. For we saw that the motion of the semicircle is false when taken in isolation, but true if it is conjoined with the concept of a sphere, or the concept of some cause determining such motion.

{ Interestingly, Spinoza goes immediately moves from this observation to his central thesis that finite cognition is part of an infinite (global) cognition. The passage continues:
Now if it is in the nature of a thinking being, as seems apparently to be the case, to form true or adequate thoughts, it is certain that inadequate ideas arise in us from this, that we are part of some thinking being, some of whose thoughts constitute our mind in their entirety, and some only in part.
His idea seems to be that if falsity results from our thoughts being disconnected—lacking the cause or essence that glues the predicate to the subject—and if our thought is fundamentally truth oriented (that is, “if it is in the nature of a thinking being . . . to form true or adequate thoughts”), then (1) the cognition of an unlimited thinking being will contain all of the relevant essences and causes and (2) our incomplete cognition will be some part of its cognition. Alanen calls attention to this interesting passage, p. 18, n. 23.}
{Here, too, Spinoza seems to be thinking of the connection between a subject and predicate in terms of plenum structure, whether the connection is forged through an essence or through the causal goings on in the plenum.) Notice that Spinoza seems to be operating with two levels. There is (a) the level of essence—which includes that plenum structure—and there is (b) our level of our cognition. Since, his level of essence is closely akin to our level of theoretical science, this is akin to trying to provide an account of understand in terms of (a’) theoretical science and (b’) our better or worse grasp of it. There’s water in all of its H2O glory, with all of the chemistry implicit therein, and there is my cognitive grasp if it, which can either reproduce this structure accurately or in a confused and mutilated way. There doesn’t seem to be, for Spinoza, a distinct, semi-autonomous, representational level, say, our “concept” of water, or the “meaning” of the term water.}

10 The order of Nature comes up in §§40, 55, and 65

11 I am not sure what Spinoza has in mind by ensuring that “existence of the thing is compared with its essence”—perhaps his thought that when I am trying to figure out whether you are existing I need to be working with your deep structure rather than your surface features. What I am interested in here, however, is the second part of the sentence.

12 I don’t think Spinoza’s point is generic. When we are talking about existence, we are talking about individual: so the question is not whether the order of Nature makes room for individual similar to you, say, an individual of the same kind as soon. Rather the question is whether the determinate order of Nature admits of your existence (or my existence, or Yeti, the abominable snowman’s existence).

13 [POSSIBLY OMIT Some might feel this excursion through the plenum physics in order to figure out what an understanding of when you born might look like is unnecessary. Spinoza is, it might be suggested, committed to the Principle of Sufficient Reason. So, there must be a reason why I was born when I was. And understanding that reason, whatever it is, is just what having the third kind of cognition my birthday must amount.
I don’t find this way of looking at things helpful. Putting aside the fact the “Principle of Sufficient Reason” a term of art that Spinoza himself rarely uses, it is important to realize that the Principle of Sufficient Reason is a only a schema. In order to give content to the schema, we need to look at the clues Spinoza provides as to how he would fill things out. And, he thinks that people who go on about trees talking and men turning into beasts are talking nonsense, I take it, because there are no principles and essences in the plenum to underwrite such a thought. One can add, if one likes, that such occurrences would violate the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but I don’t think that is adding much. Similarly, oil feeds fire because of the mechanical constitution of each and the way the plenum is ordered: understanding those constitutions and their behavior in the plenum is understanding the “reason” for oil’s feeding fire. Finally, you were born when you were because of that’s how the face of universe is order. Understanding that order, in all of its determinate detail, is to understand the “reason” for the place and time of my birth.]

14 In “Spinoza on the Human Mind,” p. 22, Lilli Alanen writes, “Spinoza, as Margaret Wilson remarks, says too little about essence for one to know what exactly all this is supposed to mean or how the ascent from common notions to intuitive cognition of essences is supposed to work, but clearly Spinoza thinks of rational knowledge through common notions as a necessary condition for intuitive science, which is the highest kind of cognition.”

15 In this discussion, I will be using the word definition in the sense of a real definition, as opposed to nominal definition.

16 Spinoza also emphasizes the interconnection of things with nature in §41.

17 As Spinoza points out, his example concerns an “abstract thing [rei abstractae]” as opposed to a “real and physical beings [entia physica et realia],” and that raises some interesting questions. We’ll want to look at those questions later, but first let’s try to figure out what Spinoza is trying to say about definition and essence.

18 This might mean we won’t understand why a thing has the properties it has until we understand its essence (so that, we won’t understand why the circle has the property of having all the lines drawn from the center to the circumference being equal until we grasp its essence). Or it might mean we won’t understand what the properties themselves are until we know the essence (so that, we can’t understand what snubness is until we understand what animals are). Or perhaps both.

19 Kant’s example.

20 Leibniz’s—perhaps unfortunate, in view of relativity theory—example.

21 Introduction to PHK, §7 and §9.

22 That is, now taking into account not only basic geometric structure but also basic kinetic and dynamic structure.

23 I note that it is not clear to me whether we are to think of those causes diachronically—so that they involve, e.g., embryology—or synchronically—so that they involve the processes responsible for the internal motions that preserve his ratio of motion and rest, say, things like his circulatory and respiratory system. Perhaps, Spinoza sees a place for both.


 The end of §95 suggests that When one stops thinking in terms of the abstract motion involved in a construction procedure and begins thinking in terms of the real motions within the plenum that give rise to finite bodies, the “interconnections of Nature” are brought into view, and reproduced in our intellect.

25 This divides, in turn, into two possible views: actual at all times or actual at some time or the other.

26 And God knows the finite essences through knowing his own essence. Not even God gets essences for free, via some divine representational system. There is the thing that is represented.

27 See “The Only Possible Argument in Support a Demonstration of the Existence of God,” Section 1, Second Reflection, 2:77-81, and Section 2 of “The Ideal of Pure Reason” in the Critique of Pure Reason (A571/B599-583/B611).

28 A good thing, since according to medieval Aristotelians, I cannot understand God’s essence in this life, in any event.

29 One should think of the perfection as involving something broadly causal—a sort of power or ability—and not simply a matter of logic. Perhaps there are is some logical correlate having to do with predication, so that substances, for example, are not predicated of anything else, but, if so, the correlate is byproduct of the substance’s being self-sufficient (rather than the other way around).

30 Certain limitations come with this perfection, too, but that is another story.

31 I think that there is a difference between an abstraction and a universal. A particular circle—the circle described here in this region of Euclidean space—may be an abstraction in that we are leaving out the kinematic and dynamic aspects of the situation: we are leaving out the “real” cause of the circle, perhaps some motion in plenum. Although it is an abstraction, the circle, the one that describes this region of space, it is not a universal.

32 Indeed, if there are other rainbows in the plenum, it is in principle possible that their mechanics are different: it is in principle possible that their drops are structured or arranged differently, so that there is some other mechanism at work which produces the same effect as the rainbow whose structure I am attempting to characterize.

33 This emphasis can also be found in Berkeley’s account of generality (see Introduction to PHK, §160). No one in the period seems drawn to a classical picture of abstraction according to which essences are extracted from experience.

34 Similarly, I suppose, it would seem to be a condition of my being me, as opposed to being that structurally identical individual halfway across the universe, that I am the ratio of motion and rest here and that other individual is the ratio of motion and rest way over there.

35 Spinoza instances in Letter 64 “motion and rest” in the case of extension as an example of an immediate infinite mode.

36 Spinoza provides a sketch of a complex individual in the material on physics in Part 2 of the Ethics. I think Letter 32, about the worm in the blood, suggests a similar picture. There seem to be different levels of structures, where sometimes a macro is set up to that in can “regulate” the micro levels, so that, for example, the blood’s nature regulates the proportion and arrangement of the lymph and chyle particles.

37 This is signaled in the passage by the remark, “Indeed, these mutable particular things depend so intimately and essentially (so to phrase it) on the fixed things that they can neither be nor be conceived without them.”

38 [PROBABLY SKIP Although ingenious, Spinoza’s account is not without difficulty it seems to me. In particular, he is asking a lot of the idea of a ratio of motion and rest, a pattern of motion and rest. It is not obvious that the notion is robust enough to do the work he requires of. Purely geometrical essences, for example, do not admit of the flexibility that Spinoza requires: you stop being a circle as soon as you start being an ellipse. So there is something difficult here. By pointing this out, I don’t mean to be saying it is clear that Spinoza’s project can’t be made to work. Rather, I think find his few discussions of this topic too schematic to be able to tell.]

39 We won’t, he thinks, be able to account for in this way why it is not possible to find more than three mutually perpendicular lines through a common point, for example.

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