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Active/Passive in Spinoza's Philosophy

The following was posted on 1/28/2002 to the Spinoza Ethics Slow Reading list (see Related Sites)

    ...With regard to the terms "dynamic" and "static" and also, as mentioned in recent posts, the terms "active" and "passive", I believe we have to be careful about being swayed in our thinking by the confusions of our own imagination. When I see/hear the terms active or dynamic I cannot help but imagine bodies in motion: "Those kids are so active they're going to wear me out!" On the other hand with the terms passive or static something like this might come to mind: "She sat passively, seeming not to notice the activity around her." I won't be surprised if someone here is thinking: "Oh, there he goes again, pointing out the obvious."

    But I believe if we pay attention to Spinoza's use of such terms we might begin to realize he's using them differently --especially as he often reminds us of the distinction he makes between imagination and Understanding, duration and Eternity, etc.

    Of active and passive nature, as was pointed out recently, he said:

========= E1: PROP. 29, Note:
...by nature viewed as active we should understand that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself, or those attributes of substance, which express eternal and infinite essence, in other words (E1P14C1, and E1P17C2) God, in so far as he is considered as a free cause.

...By nature viewed as passive I understand all that which follows from the necessity of the nature of God, or of any of the attributes of God, that is, all the modes of the attributes of God, in so far as they are considered as things which are in God, and which without God cannot exist or be conceived.

    Nature is "active" in Spinoza's sense when it involves nothing outside of itself (to put it negatively.) The motion and rest of particular bodies does not belong to "nature viewed as active" but to "nature viewed as passive":

========= E3: PROP. 2:
...the motion and rest of a body must arise from another body, which has also been determined to a state of motion or rest by a third body, and absolutely everything which takes place in a body must spring from God, in so far as he is regarded as affected by some mode of extension...

    So in this sense the motion of all particular bodies is passive even though we might use the term "active" in a different sense from Spinoza to say that "Moving bodies are active, while resting bodies are not."

    Now Spinoza also uses the terms "active" and "passive" with regard to our mind:

========= E3: PROP. 1:
Our mind is in certain cases active, and in certain cases passive. In so far as it has adequate ideas it is necessarily active, and in so far as it has inadequate ideas, it is necessarily passive.

    What does he mean here? Does he mean that our mind is "in motion" or "at rest"? Does he mean that it is "dynamic" when we imagine, for instance, the earth or a machine whose parts are moving but "static" when we imagine that same machine with its parts not moving? Or does he mean that our mind is active when we are following, step-by-step, a particular chain of reasoning but passive when it contemplates a single thing?

    He previously said that our mind has inadequate ideas (is passive) "whenever it perceives things after the common order of nature" --even with regard to knowledge of itself, its own body, and of external bodies:

========= E2: PROP. 29 Corollary, Note:
--I say expressly, that the mind has not an adequate but only a confused knowledge of itself, its own body, and of external bodies, whenever it perceives things after the common order of nature; that is, whenever it is determined from without, namely, by the fortuitous play of circumstance, to regard this or that; not at such times as it is determined from within, that is, by the fact of regarding several things at once, to understand their points of agreement, difference, and contrast. Whenever it is determined in anywise from within, it regards things clearly and distinctly, as I will show below.

    As an aside, where he says; "Whenever it is determined in anywise from within..." how many of us simply imagine ourselves as an independent being exercising free will in this "determination from within" rather than as a particular mode of the attribute of thought following necessarily from the divine nature?

    Anyway, Spinoza says that the mind does have adequate ideas whereby he said it is "active":

========= E2: PROP. 38:
Those things, which are common to all, and which are equally in a part and in the whole, cannot be conceived except adequately.

    and later;

========= E2: PROP. 45:
Every idea of every body, or of every particular thing actually existing, necessarily involves the eternal and infinite essence of God.

    and from this;

========= E2: PROP. 47:
The human mind has an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God. ...
========= E2: PROP. 47, Note:
--Hence we see, that the infinite essence and the eternity of God are known to all. Now as all things are in God, and are conceived through God, we can from this knowledge infer many things, which we may adequately know, and we may form that third kind of knowledge of which we spoke in the note E2P40N2, and of the excellence and use of which we shall have occasion to speak in Part 5.

Men have not so clear a knowledge of God as they have of general notions, because they are unable to imagine God as they do bodies, and also because they have associated the name God with images of things that they are in the habit of seeing, as indeed they can hardly avoid doing, being, as they are, men, and continually affected by external bodies

    Keeping in mind the last paragraph of the above note; when Spinoza said in Part 1 that:

========= E1: PROP. 20, Corollary 2:
--Secondly, it follows that God, and all the attributes of God, are unchangeable.

    ...are we perhaps imagining bodies in motion or at rest and trying to apply these ideas to "nature viewed as active"?

    Does change involve time and place? If so...

========= E5: PROP. 29, Note:
--Things are conceived by us as actual in two ways; either as existing in relation to a given time and place, or as contained in God and following from the necessity of the divine nature. Whatsoever we conceive in this second way as true or real, we conceive under the form of eternity, and their ideas involve the eternal and infinite essence of God, as we showed in E2P45 and E2P45N, which see.

    ...If not, what do we mean by change and perhaps more importantly how do we conceive actual things?

    Things conceived under the form of Eternity (not endless time) involve no change and are not active/passive or dynamic/static in the ordinary sense of these terms.


I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
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tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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