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Active/Passive in Spinoza's Philosophy, Example

A question was raised recently in a Spinoza discussion group with regard to the mind's Inner Activity. Here is a response:

Hello All,

    Spinoza writes "we are passive as regards something when that something takes place within us, or follows from our nature externally, we being only the partial cause" but that we are active "when anything takes place, either within us or externally to us, whereof we are the adequate cause." (E3D2.) By adequate cause he means "a cause through which its effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived" (E3D1.) My body is constantly being affected by external bodies and in turn affecting other bodies. When my mind is engaged with this dance of bodies, by directing attention toward its senses only, it seems that all things are external and it pays no attention to its own nature. It does not see that these "external things" are actually just different configurations of its own bodily senses (E2P16C2.) In Gurdjieff's terms I do not "remember myself" but rather become "identified" with these "external things" and loose myself in them.

    While the body continues, the dance continues. But the mind also has the ability to turn attention in a different direction (let's call this "inward" so as not to imagine something like just turning to find a different "external" dance partner) and by so doing to disengage from this dance of the senses (E5P2) even while they continue to operate. When my mind turns its attention on itself and makes use of "ideas which are common to all", and which ideas are "equally in a part and in the whole", it cannot help but form adequate ideas (E2P38) and in so far as it does so it is inwardly active. Spinoza tells us also that the mind knows when it has an adequate idea (E2P43) so if I'm not certain whether an idea is adequate then it's not.

    I had a very busy week in my job and had committed to completing a project by a particular time. At one point I got bogged down by a bug in the code I was writing and I began to panic. The dance became like a jitterbug and I was not leading! I was hopelessly focused on external images of what would happen if I did not complete the project on time. I have a particular external image of myself which involves how others seem to perceived my abilities and I felt as though my very existence was being threatened. Finally I began to focus on my state of mind rather than on the external image or the apparent bug in my code. Almost instantly the panic began to fade as I thought about what was happening in my thinking and I began to separate my thinking process from the external images and from the apparent bug. In this calmer state I was able to remind myself what the code was supposed to accomplish and as I examined the preceding steps more closely I realized that at one point I had used a logical "and" rather than an "or" and immediately knew this had caused the erroneous results.

    At this point I might (as more commonly happens), have patted myself on the back at having maintained my image and, with my client none the wiser for my panic, proceeded back into the dance. However, I continued this time to work on the project at hand with little sense of time constraints or external praise. This event seemed to work as a "wakeup call" and my mind turn from being driven passively by externals to working actively with adequate ideas.

    Closer to the moment I would like to add that when I started thinking about writing this message I encountered some tendency to focus externally on how it might be viewed by all of you and I worried again about my external image. As I began to write however, my mind turned inward to a degree and began to separate these external passive ideas from adequate, inwardly active ideas.


In further response to some comments made by another member...:

    I had been working on the project already for about six days and was doing the final processing and hoping to deliver the results by the end of the day (as I had promised.) I remember feeling all day like I was running an obstacle course that was somewhat familiar and so I kept looking at the time and thinking that, it would be tight, but if I kept pushing and held my concentration I'd get it done. There was a continuous feeling of tension in this but I already had laid out the final steps that needed to be done and so the "reward" of turning it over to the client seemed to be within my grasp (this is that external affirmation I often look for in my job.) Then I ran a step I was working on and the results were completely unexpected. I didn't panic immediately, this type of thing happens now and then, but when I looked over the preceding steps and didn't see the bug right away that's when I panicked.

    As I mentioned in the previous message I finally began to focus on my state of mind rather than on the external image or on the apparent bug in my code and almost instantly the panic subsided. As I began to separate my thinking process from the external images, the time, and from the apparent bug I noticed that the tension and that feeling of running forward through an obstacle course was gone. What is most interesting to me is that although I still had several hours of work left to do I proceeded with a certain clarity in my thinking that had not been there before the bug. I now felt un-pressured by time and quite relaxed however I was probably progressing faster than I had before the bug occurred. Spinoza mentions in the Improvement that:

    "The ideas which we form as clear and distinct, seem so to follow from the sole necessity of our nature, that they appear to depend absolutely on our sole power; with confused ideas the contrary is the case. They are often formed against our will."

    Before the bug occurred the images of running, time passing, and the client waiting seemed to be formed against my will while after the event things seemed to follow smoothly and clearly as required by the task at hand. I did encounter a few more momentary missteps but they were corrected with no panic or tension.

    In Essence Friendship,

I welcome any thoughts on the above subject.
You may send email to:
tneff [at] earthlink [dot] net

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