The Spinoza and Leibniz Show, Part 3

In the last episode, Spinny and Leiby showed that for a certain definition of some of the key terms of our common-sense conceptual apparatus, of substance and property, cause and effect, part and whole, it was logically necessary that all substances, that is all really properly existing things, be indivisible and not interact with each other.

This is in a sense quite a direct and intuitive move: if we understand ‘substance’ as ‘what can be understood to exist without implying the existence of anything else’, then the only substance is the total system, not any element of it. Leibniz, who believed in a personal God, could then say that there are a multitude of such insulated systems, one of which is me, but I know that the others exist, and what they are like, because of my faith that God created them and made them exactly the way I think they are (when I’m thinking properly).

Spinoza, sensible enough to reject a God of this sort, instead had to say that only one substance exists (in his words “God or Nature”) of which I and you are simply aspects. I’m going to focus on Spinoza because I don’t believe in God. Now we ask – what lesson can we actually draw from this 17th-century Dutch jew’s work?

One option is to accept Spinoza’s definitions and thus his conclusions. This might seem like merely a semantic thing, like we just have to change how we use words and not what we actually believe, but it is a bit more radical than that. This is because on Spinoza’s view there is no ontological difference between ‘matter’ and ’empty space’. There are differences in the way they behave, certainly (e.g. empty space doesn’t repel things in the way that matter does) but they’re not fundamentally different – it’s not that one is existence and one is lack of existence.

This is because if the whole system is the single substance, then that means the whole spatial matrix, spacetime itself, is that substance – rather than it being one thing, and then other things existing in it. What we think of as matter, bodies, particles, etc. are not in space, they are parts of space with particular properties. This isn’t a totally crazy view – it’s actually quite close to many modern ideas that make the basic scientific reality a matter of fields of force, rather than discrete particles.

This doctrine also helps Spinoza to develop his idea that substance doesn’t have parts, for the following reason: whereas the parts of conventional material objects are distinct and can exist independently (i.e. would be ‘substances’ themselves) a region of space is constitued by its boundary, which implies the further space beyond it. That is, the whole of space isn’t made by adding together regions of space, but rather regions are made by limiting the whole of space (similar things were argued a century or so later by Kant).

So there is a degree of content to Spinozism, it’s not just a semantic change. But I think in fact it may have further implications – though I won’t draw them out here (that’s for the next episode).

Now let’s suppose that you think Spinoza is a silly. For whatever reason, you want to resist his conclusions. Fine, but that means resisting his premises too, crucially his definitions of substance and cause.

This is where the real lesson lies. We might take a number of views of those concepts (and the associated framework of categories, quantity, relations, properties, things-which-have-properties, etc.). Two questions in particular: we might regard that framework as being definable, or as indefinable, and we might regard it as being real, or as ideal.

To clarify what I mean by ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ – real means a feature of the world we think about, ideal means a feature of our thought. For example, sexiness is generally agreed to be ideal – without any people to find things sexy, nothing we be sexy, sexiness isn’t part of the basic ‘furniture of the world’. We ‘impose’ it. Similarly with, say, colour – things aren’t just sitting there being red, they are reflecting electromagnetic radiation until we direct our trichromatic eyes at them in certain lighting conditions and see them as being red.

So that sets up four neat little options: indefinable and real, indefinable and ideal, definable and real, definable and ideal. Now the biggest lesson to draw from the Spinoza and Leibniz show, I think, is that they exhibit the results of holding our conceptual framework to be definable. If we want to disagree with them, then we need to either say that this framework is indefinable, or give better definitions.

Maybe better definitions can be given – I can’t particularly think of any, so I’m going to proceed on the assumption that Benny and Freddy were taking their shared project along pretty much the best route they could. Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, another cru of EMPs, had a related tussle over the idea of substance, and my impression of it is that they tried to define it otherwise and ended up destroying it.

So that leaves ‘indefinable’. But here’s the rub. It’s pretty clear how something can be indefinable and ideal – for example, there’s no way to express what the colour blue looks like, what distinguishes it from, say, a green of a similar darkness. But that makes sense, that we can’t express the idea, because the idea is all there is. Blueness isn’t a feature of the world, it’s a feature of our mental life.

But making the whole framework of our worldview ideal is quite a big step, perhaps. Because if the real world isn’t a collection of substances possessing properties and causally producing effects on each other, what is it? Do we know? Can we even express it? If we can’t express it, can we even say it exists? In a word, making these things ideal turns us into ‘idealists’ (in the philosophical sense, not the political or Marxist sense). That may be ok (indeed I think it would be correct) but it’s not just pootling along as were before, it’s a tricky and somewhat confusing step.

So if we want to avoid both Spinozism and idealism (whether Kantian or Berkeleyan) we’re left with the idea that our conceptual framework is real but indefinable. Maybe that’s a workable position – but it seems puzzling to me. The thing is, it’s by means of definitions, articulations, cognitive thoughts, with complexity and structure, that we connect our mental life with the external world (right?).

If science is correct, then many features of the way that I perceive and think about various objects are quite unlike the objects themselves (e.g. sugar has a chemical structure, its sweet taste comes from how it interacts with my tongue and brain). Me having ‘accurate’ knowledge of taste is mainly about me tasting the same things as sweet on different occasions, so that I can predict what will be sweet and what won’t, and what other feelings it will produce (e.g. will it affect my digestion) – that is, stuff about structure and complexity. The organisation is how accurate info gets from out there into my head.

So there seems to be something a bit puzzling in the idea of something in my head that isn’t itself an organised structure, a complex of anything (i.e. that’s indefinable) which has somehow got there from outside. Without a more detailed consideration of perception and thought and so forth, this argument will remain just a vague feeling, but it still seems significant to me.

So in conclusion: our options seem to be fourfold – 1) say that our conceptual framework is properly defined by Spinny and Leiby, and then embrace Spinozism, 2) say that our conceptual framework is properly defined in some other way, 3) say that our conceptual framework is indefinable because it’s ideal, ‘only in the mind’, and thus become a Kantain or somesuch, or 4) try to explain how ideas can be real but indefinable.

If we consider 2. and 4. to be ucomfortable and difficult, then 1. and 3. are the options, and we can then formulate the lesson to draw from the Spinoza and Leibniz show:  they show us what the alternative to Kantianism is, when worked out in detail.

But it may be worse than that. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to show how even accepting Spinozism, we are still driven ineluctably towards the gaping abyss of Kantianism.

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