SPINOZA: The Improvement of the Intellect

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter IV Section 3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


III. The Improvement of the Intellect

Opening Spinoza’s next book, we come at the outset upon mile of the gems of philosophic literature. Spinoza tells why he gave up everything for philosophy:

After experience had taught me that all things which frequently take place in ordinary life are vain and futile, and when I saw.that all the things I feared, and which feared me, had nothing good or bad in them save in so far as the mind was affected by them; I determined at last to inquire whether there was anything which might be truly good, and able to communicate its goodness, and by which the mind might be affected, to the exclusion of all other things; I determined, I say, to inquire whether I might discover and attain the faculty of enjoying throughout eternity continual supreme happiness. … I could see the many advantages acquired from honor and riches, and that I should be debarred from acquiring these things if I wished seriously to investigate a new matter. But the more one possesses of either of them, the more the pleasure is increased, and the more one is in consequence, encouraged to increase them; whereas if at any time our hope is frustrated, there arises in us the deepest pain. Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it we must direct our lives in such a way as to please the fancy of men, avoiding what they dislike and seeking what pleases them. … But the love towards a thing eternal and infinite alone feeds the mind with a pleasure secure from all pain. … The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. … The more the mind knows, the better it understands its forces and the order of nature; the more it understands its forces or strength, the better it will be able to direct itself and lay down the rules for itself; and the more it understands the order of nature, the more easily it will be able to liberate itself from useless things; this is the whole method. 

The greatest good is the knowledge of the union which the mind has with the whole of nature. This sounds like the goal of Indian Yoga.

Only knowledge, then, is power and freedom; and the only permanent happiness is the pursuit of knowledge and the joy of understanding. Meanwhile, however, the philosopher must remain a man and a citizen; what shall be his mode of life during his pursuit of truth? Spinoza lays down a simple rule of conduct to which, so far as we know, his actual behavior thoroughly conformed: 

  1. To speak in a manner comprehensible to the people, and to do for them all things that do not prevent us from attaining our ends…. 
  2. To enjoy only such pleasures as are necessary for the preservation of health.
  3. Finally, to seek only enough money … as is necessary for the maintenance of our life and health, and to comply with such customs as are not opposed to what we seek.

Spinoza opts for very simple living in his pursuit of knowledge.

But in setting out upon such a quest, the honest and clear-headed philosopher comes at once upon the problem: How do I know that my knowledge is knowledge, that my senses can be trusted in the material which they bring to my reason, and that my reason can be trusted with the conclusions which it derives from the material of sensation? Should we not examine the vehicle before abandoning ourselves to its directions? Should we not do all that we can to perfect it? “Before all things,” says Spinoza, Baconianly, “a means must be devised for improving and clarifying the intellect.” We must distinguish carefully the various forms of knowledge, and trust only the best. 

Spinoza first concern is to find the criterion that could be applied to test the trustworthiness of knowledge.

First, then, there is hearsay knowledge, by which, for example, I know the day of my birth. Second, vague experience, “empirical” knowledge in the derogatory sense, as when a physician knows a cure not by any scientific formulation of experimental tests, but by a “general impression” that it has “usually” worked. Third, immediate deduction, or knowledge reached by reasoning, as when I conclude to the immensity of the sun from seeing that in the case of other objects distance decreases the apparent size. This kind of knowledge is superior to the other two, but is yet precariously subject to sudden refutation by direct experience; so science for a hundred years reasoned its way to an “ether” which is now in high disfavor with the physicist élite. Hence the highest kind of knowledge is the fourth form, which comes by immediate deduction and direct perception, as when we see at once that 6 is the missing number in the proportion, 2:4::3:x; or as when we perceive that the whole is greater than the part. Spinoza believes that men versed in mathematics know most of Euclid in this intuitive way; but he admits ruefully that “the things which I have been able to know by this knowledge so far have been very few.”

Spinoza concludes that the highest kind of knowledge comes by immediate deduction and direct perception. Compare this to Buddha’s insistence on seeing things as they are.

In the Ethics Spinoza reduces the first two forms of knowledge to one; and calls intuitive knowledge a perception of things sub specie eternitatis—in their eternal aspects and relations,—which gives in a phrase a definition of philosophy. Scientia intuitiva, therefore, tries to find behind things and events their laws and eternal relations. Hence Spinoza’s very fundamental distinction (the basis of his entire system) between the “temporal order”—the “world” of things and incidents—and the “eternal order”—the world of laws and structure. Let us study this distinction carefully: 

It must be noted that I do not understand here by the series of causes and real entities a series of individual mutable things, but rather the series of fixed and eternal things. For it would be impossible for human weakness to follow up the series of individual mutable things, not only because their number surpasses all count, but because of the many circumstances, in one and the same thing, each of which may be the cause of the thing’s existence. For indeed, the existence of particular things has no connection with their essence, and is not an eternal truth. However, there is no need that we should understand the series of individual mutable things, for their essence … is only to be found in fixed and eternal things, and from the laws inscribed in those things as their true codes, according to which all individual things are made and arranged; nay, these individual and mutable things depend so intimately and essentially on these fixed ones that without them they can neither exist nor be conceived.*

*”For although nothing exists In nature except Individual bodies, exhibiting clear individual effects according to particular laws; yet, in each branch of learning, those very laws—their investigation, discovery and development—are the foundation both of theory and of practice.” Fundamentally, all philosophers agree.

Underlying the infinite variables of the universe there are fixed relations in the form of natural laws.

If we will keep this passage in mind as we study Spinoza’s masterpiece, it will itself be clarified, and much in the Ethics that is discouragingly complex will unravel itself into simplicity and understanding. 


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