Beyond Parallelism: Body, Mind, and Individuation in Part II of Spinoza’s Ethics
(Page references to Curley, 1994)
Summary: the body is a pattern of unified activity; the mind is shaped by the interaction of this pattern with its environment.
To begin, the nature of the human body/mind is founded on the basic individuation of things; here’s IID7:
And if a number of individuals so concur in one action that together they are all the cause of one effect, I consider them all, to that extent, as one singular thing. (p.116)So a composite individual is defined in terms of the coordinated action of its parts.
Following the discussion of the parallelism of mind and body as modes following from the corresponding attributes of God, Spinoza makes some surprising claims in IIP12 and 13:
Nothing can happen in that body which is not perceived by the mind […] The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body…and nothing else. (p.123)
However, when it comes to human beings, both of these statements will be superseded by the account which follows.
The key is to understand the nature/form/essence of the human body as opposed to simple bodies. Here is the start to the scholium to IIP13:
From these [propositions] we understand not only that the human mind is united to the body, but also what should be understood by the union of mind and body. But no one will be able to understand it adequately, or distinctly, unless he first knows adequately the nature of our body. For the things we have shown so far are completely general and do not pertain more to man than to other individuals, all of which, though in different degrees, are nevertheless animate. (p.124)
So we need to know more about what distinguishes the human body from other bodies.
Now we move to the interlude on the nature of bodies which follows IIP13. Spinoza discusses bodies in terms of their motion and rest – it must be said that he does not successfully present a complete non-circular account of bodies (there is no definition of a ground level simple body independent of its motion or vice versa). But overlooking this for present purposes, Spinoza gives us an account of how a number of bodies can unite to compose a further composite body or individual. Here’s the definition following A2``:
When a number of bodies, whether of the same or of different size, are so constrained by other bodies that they lie upon one another, or if they so move, whether with the same degree or different degrees of speed, that they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed matter; we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or individual, which is distinguished from the others by this union of bodies. (p.126)
The nature and form of such an individual is defined in terms of this union. We see here that the component parts only matter to this nature qua their participation in the unifying action (consistent with IID7).
L4 strengthens the point by asserting that this nature or form will be retained upon substitution of like parts (p.126). L5 and L6, by defining the fixed relationship of motion among the united parts in terms of a ratio of motion of rest, is intended to convey a notion of yet more flexibility to the composite body to retain its nature under changing conditions.
The scholium to L7 goes further to contemplate second and third order composite bodies, each of whose components has different natures (i.e. different patterns of union), which can maintain their form in myriad additional circumstances:
And if we proceed in this way to infinity, we shall easily conceive that the whole of nature is one individual, whose parts, that is, all bodies, vary in infinite ways, without any change in the whole individual. (p.127)
This passage foreshadows the human striving toward God’s perfection that we find later in the Ethics.
Spinoza concludes in the body postulates that the human body “is composed of a great many individuals of different natures, each of which is highly composite.” It can “move and dispose external bodies in a great many ways” (p.128).
These complex characteristics of the body underlie the complex nature of the human mind, discussed in IIP14 and IIP15. Our ideas about external objects follow from the affects these have on our complex body. In fact, the subtlety of the complex body allows Spinoza to define imagination and memory (IIP16 and IIP17) which adds a critical temporal dimension to the workings of the associated human mind.
With this in place, the subsequent propositions replace the simple picture of mind/body union which originally followed from the parallelism of thought and extension. The mind is associated with the complex composite body; and constituted as it is by a unified action of its many different parts, it does not know the body or itself in any simple or complete manner (IIP19):
The human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that it exists, except through ideas of affections by which the body is affected. (p.131)
I interpret this as follows: The body is not simple passive thing sitting in a vacuum, but rather has a nature defined by an enduring pattern of complex activity (which is capable of acting as a unified higher order cause). Within the totality of God/Nature, this pattern is defined relative to all its interactions with the world which lies outside its nature. (Note that this could include non-essential interactions which take place from “within” the spatial dimensions of the body as well as “external” bodies.) The mind only knows the body (the pattern) as it is affected.
In IIP20 and IIP21, another element is introduced which adds further nuance to the mind, that is, in addition to defining the mind as the idea of the body, there also exists the idea of the mind (idea of the idea). So to the extent the mind knows the affections of the body, it knows the ideas of these affections (IIP22). It follows that as the mind only knows the body via the affections, it only knows itself “insofar as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body” (IIP23, p.133).
Looking ahead, IIP23 is cited when S wants to assert we are “conscious” of our striving to preserve our being (IIIP9)
I think IIP24 is particularly helpful for deepening our understanding the human mind and the scope of consciousness:
The human mind does not involve adequate knowledge of the parts composing the human body.” Dem.: The parts composing the human body pertain to the essence of the human body itself only insofar as they communicate their motions to one another in a certain fixed manner… and not insofar as they can be considered as individuals, without relation to the human body. (p.133)
The body’s essence is the unified pattern of action. Each part could be separated and interact with the world in some other manner (and will do so after I die, for instance), but this has nothing to do with our essence. Nevertheless, God’s idea of the part includes its connections with a great many ideas which go beyond the part’s participation in our body’s essence (and thus with the idea that constitutes our mind). Hence our mind does not know its parts as individuals.
The picture of the human being here is not that of a lump of matter, but that of an activity. Not only that, but the human mind is shaped by this activity as it continually bumps up against everything else in its environment. (Again, I note that there can be things “within” the body which also don’t contribute to the pattern).
While the derivation of IIIP6 and 7 is debated by scholars, it is certainly the case that the discussion of the nature of humans/composite individuals in Part II sets the stage very clearly: the striving to preserve the unified activity of its parts is the essence of such an individual.
(Note: nothing distinguishes humans/living things/other things in terms of ontological categories: differences are due to degrees of complexity in pattern and interactions.)