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Determinism, Freedom, and The Problem of Suicide: Scholarly Issues on Spinoza’s Thought

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Spinoza’s Ethics is perhaps one of the most radical philosophical doctrines ever written, and was so inflammatory that Spinoza was excommunicated from the church for the many of the views contained within it. Today, many philosophers are still debating what Spinoza meant by many of his arguments, and more importantly, whether they were correct. Much of the literature about Spinoza concentrates on his metaphysics, particularly the one substance, but there are also many debates about Spinoza’s ideas on fatalism, freedom, and free will. By Justin Galindo.

It was Christian Wolff who would produce one of the first published works of any significant length that would seek to dismantle Spinoza’s arguments. Wolff had interesting reasons for criticizing Spinoza. In 1723, he was dismissed from the philosophy faculty at the University of Halle for being a “fatalist and Spinozist,” and then banished from Prussia. This banishment was the result of the king being under the impression that Wolff’s determinist views implied “that deserters from the army should not be punished since they could not help deserting (Morrison, p 405).” After this dismissal, Wolff began to publish works that not only defended his own views, but also critiqued those of Spinoza. Wolff’s criticisms towards Spinoza’s determinist ideas consisted of two main distinctions, those between what are possible and impossible, and those that are necessary or contingent. Wolff starts with his Principle of Non-Contradiction, where that which is possible involves no contradictions and that which is impossible involves contradiction, and then moves on to assert that necessary and contingent are defined in this manner: the necessary is defined such that its opposite is impossible; the contingent defined such that its own opposite is possible (p 407). Using these definitions, Wolff goes on to claim that the definition of contingent in Part Four, Definition 3 of Ethics is incorrect, because the contingent is that which is not impossible, not that which does not have the reason for its existence within itself. Referring to another of Spinoza’s works, Cogitata Metaphysica (I, 3), Wolff claims that Spinoza’s distinction between the necessary and the impossible clearly shows a lack in understanding of that which is necessary. Ultimately this leads him to the conclusion that “the present ordering of things could be otherwise,”—a large digression from Spinoza and it is perhaps for this reason that he was later reinstituted at the University of Halle (p 408-409). While Wolff’s contentions raised conclusions seemingly quite different than those of Spinoza, Morrison wonders whether the king wasn’t right after all. For, even though Wolff thinks the world could have been other than that which it is, it is necessarily so by God’s decree; in this sense agreeing with Spinoza on the necessity of the present world, and hence, determinism (p 420).

There would be other challenges to the idea of fatalism, as there would be many challenges to different aspects of Spinoza’s thought over the coming centuries. However, Jonathon Bennett’s A Study Of Spinoza’s Ethics, published in 1984, seems to be the catalyst for most recent interest in Spinoza’s thought as Bennett brought up multiple counter arguments for many of Spinoza’s main points. In fact, Bennett is so often mentioned in the journal articles, that any newer study of Spinoza would be incomplete without mentioning Bennett.

In A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Bennett distinguishes the way that Spinoza has defined the term “free.” The first definition given by Spinoza is Part One, Definition 7, where it states, “That thing is called free which exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. However, that thing is called necessary, or rather compelled, which is determined by another to exist and to operate in a certain and determinate way (Parkinson, p 75).” This is the freedom of self-causedness, and Bennett asserts that in the demonstration for Part Two, Proposition 48, when Spinoza disproves that humans have free will, he was mistaken to use this definition. Bennett thinks it would have been wiser for Spinoza to say man does not have free will based off of Part One, Proposition 28. Freedom is not a very important topic again until Part Four where Bennett accuses Spinoza of using a different definitions of freedom interchangeably, making the point that, “My being ‘free’ in the 1d7 sense is my being the cause of all that happens in me, i.e., having adequate ideas; i.e., using reason; i.e., living by the guidance of reason; i.e., being ‘free’ in the Part Four sense (Bennett 317).” So, in all of Bennett’s work on Spinoza he moves between ‘self-caused’ and ‘living by the guidance of reason’ as if they were synonyms. Using this definition of ‘free’ to find inconsistencies in Spinoza’s thought (some taken from sources other than Ethics), Bennett arrives at the conclusion that Spinoza’s morality is better explained not as a morality of causal self-sufficiency, “but rather of completeness of voluntary control (p 328).” Unfortunately, if Spinoza were to have proceeded along these lines, he would have ultimately undermined many of his other arguments, not the least of which is his egoist argument in Part Three, Propositions 4-6. This argument is based upon the idea of a non-self-destructive essence, which cannot mesh with the idea of a voluntary will. Also, Bennett’s proposal “abolishes most of the demonstrations in Part Four: their appearance of being arguments all depends on the morality’s being based on the dictates of ‘reason’, with this understood in terms of causal self-sufficiency; take away that last concept and the elaborate structure of mostly invalid arguments collapses into a shapeless pile of rubble (p 328).” It’s a fairly ingenious counter-attack to Spinoza’s ideas of freedom, but one that should be read more in-depth to be fully grasped.

The non-self-destructive essence mentioned above is what provides the controversy for the following topic: Spinoza’s position on suicide. Yet, before we discuss that proposition, it’s best to discuss some of the ones that come before. The first substantive claim by Spinoza regarding suicide occurs in the scholium for Part Four, Proposition 18, which is in turn based off Spinoza’s account of the conatus, or self-preservation. From this Spinoza produces his three main assertions on suicide: (1) self-preservation is never a means to an end, (2) virtue is always to our advantage, and (3) suicide is a form of mental incompetence by which the agent has become overcome by external forces that oppose his nature (Barbone and Rice, p 230). This point is further elaborated on in the scholium for Part Four, Proposition 20: “that a person should strive not to exist from the necessity of his nature, or to be changed into some other structure [forma], is as impossible as that something arise from nothing—as anyone can see with even the smallest consideration [mediocri meditatione] (p 231).” Unfortunately for Spinoza, most philosophers did not see this as clearly as he did. Of course the first major contention examined by Barbone and Rice is by Jonathon Bennett. Referring to Spinoza’s example of Seneca in Part Four, Proposition 20, Bennett analogizes, “Suppose that you are so built that you prefer an apple to an orange, and an orange to anything else. If I eat our only apple have I forced you to select an orange? No (Bennett, p 237).” By this example, Bennett clearly thinks that Seneca was not controlled by external factors as Spinoza claimed he would have had to been, because it was ultimately Seneca that took his own life. Barbone and Rice defend Spinoza’s view on the point that Bennett’s situation would need the requisite of being required to pick some piece of fruit, so to select the orange would be to select the most appealing option of those that remain (Barbone and Rice, p 232). In this example, Bennett’s example fails to refute Proposition 20 of Part Four. Barbone and Rice stand by the idea that Nero cunningly devised a situation in which there was no outcome but Seneca’s death, and the fact that Seneca killed himself did not mean he choose to die, rather he choose the way in which he would die to avoid a greater evil (p 236). Matson provides what is probably the best objection to Part Three, Proposition 4—the sun. Eventually, the sun will cease to exist, most likely because it will burn itself out, and if the essence of an entity is self-preservation, how do supporters of Spinoza explain this counterexample? Barbone and Rice answer that Matson has accidentally equated essence and existence, because essences are eternal and if the essence of the sun was burning, there could not be anything that opposed burning within its essence (p 240), thereby disproving Matson’s point. Barbone and Rice make several other admirable defenses of Spinoza’s theories, realizing that little points like this can easily dismantle some philosopher’s doctrines by chopping away at the edges.

It is this constant promotion of alternate theories and interpretations that promotes scholarly discussion and progress in the study of certain works. Often, just one or two articles with a certain reinterpretation of an argument can change how all scholars read the work, and this paper was merely a small sampling of the secondary literature available on Spinoza.

Annotated Bibliography


Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary Of Philosophy, 2nd Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press 1995. This is the only philosophy desk-reference I own, and it has become an invaluable tool when reading philosophy. It is especially handy for journal articles that throw around complicated terms with no definitions on the assumption that you already know them.

Bennett, Jonathon. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics. New York: Hackett Publishing Company, 1984. If you want to get any further into Spinoza’s Ethics than mere surface knowledge, this is definitely the place to start. Most all the current philosophers when talking about Spinoza reference Bennett, and, contrary to most critical accounts of philosophy, I found this book quite accessible.

Curley, Edwin. A Spinoza Reader. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994. This is the most popular scholarly translation of The Ethics as well as several other writings of Spinoza. Look here for other writings by Spinoza that shed a little more light on his philosophy.

Garrett, Don. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. New York: Cambridge University Press 1996. This is part of the series that Cambridge produces as companions to most major philosophers. It includes ten submissions by talented scholars about Spinoza’s philosophy, and can be a diving board for a more critical look at Spinoza’s philosophy.

Gullan-Whur, Margaret. Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza. New York: St. Martin’s Press 2000. This is the most recently published biography of Spinoza, and if you want to know why Bertrand Russell called Spinoza, “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” this is the place to look.

Harris, Errol E. Spinoza’s Philosophy: An Outline. New Jersey: Humanities Press 1992. This is a quick summarization of Spinoza’s philosophy by a prominent philosophy scholar. Useful if you want to brush up on Spinoza, but not a place to go for further study.

Kashap, S. Paul. Spinoza & Moral Freedom. New York: SUNY Press 1987. A very good retelling of Spinoza’s ethics for the layman that puts Spinoza’s philosophy in a much more easily read style. I only read two chapters from the book, but was extremely impressed at how accessible he made the often complicated philosophy of Spinoza.

Parkinson, G.H.R. Spinoza: Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press 2000. This is the most recent scholarly translation of the Ethics that I know of and the one we used in class. Several helpful sections are included that aren’t in some other versions; i.e. the chapter summaries and the glossary. This is an accessible translation as is possible while staying in Spinoza’s geometric framework of writing.

Journal Articles

Barbone & Rice. “Spinoza and the Problem of Suicide” International Philosophical Quarterly 34 (2), June 1994: pg 229-241. This is a great article about the problem of suicide in Spinoza’s philosophy. The authors reference most of the major players in Spinoza’s thought and provide helpful commentary.

Curley, Edwin. “Donagan’s Spinoza” Ethics 104 (1), October 1993: pg 114-134. Not being able to get my hands on a copy of Donagon’s Spinoza, another book that is a frontrunner in the study of Spinoza, I decided I’d get the next best option, a review of the book by Edwin Curley, the translator of the most popular version of Ethics. In providing his critique of the book, he also summarizes some of Donagon’s main points—a double whammy.

Mason, Richard. “Spinoza on the Causality of Individuals” Journal of the History of Philosophy, April 1986: pg 197-210. Wow, make sure you have a good grasp of Spinoza’s ideas on causality before you try to tackle this one. The article seeks to answer the question, “Where does ultimate causality lie?” And, after three readings, I’m still not sure exactly where the authors stand.

Morrison, J. C. “Christian Wolff’s Criticisms of Spinoza” Journal of the History of Philosophy 31 (3), July 1993: pg 405-420. When put in a pickle, you can find an argument for anything. Here, a detirminist philosopher of the early 18th century tries to maintain his determinist nature while disproving the fatalism of Spinoza. He makes some interesting distinctions, largely relying on semantics to disprove Spinoza.

Rorty, Amelie Oksenberg. “The Two Faces of Spinoza” Review of Metaphysics 41, December 1987: 299-316. The author starts off with a good premise by questioning the irony of Spinoza’s optimism of attaining freedom through knowledge, while at the same time regarding all ideas, whether adequate or inadequate as necessary. She provides many interesting points, but continues to “straddle the fence” throughout the article by never clearly picking one side or the other of her arguments.

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