Free Will And The Art Of The Spinozan Spin


To Schuller in October 1674 Spinoza writes that created things “are all determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and determinate way.” Over a year later (December 1675) Spinoza writes to Oldenburg that “All things follow with inevitable necessity from God’s nature.”

You might think this a philosopher who definitely does not believe in Free Will. And I would agree with you. But Spinoza, being Spinoza — a man who cannot allow himself the reckless joy of cutting a straight, broad path across philosophy but must zig and zag a narrow one– refuses to make such an outright statement as “there is no Free Will.” No… Spinoza must tack only so far one way, and then head back the other. The same man, between the two letters cited above, writes also the following:

We act freely and are the cause of our actions,” he tells Blynenbergh in January 1665.

But what about all this “all things flow with inevitable necessity from God’s nature” stuff? Don’t worry. Spinozan explication is like the weather… if you don’t like it, just wait… it’ll change. In the same sentence, Spinoza tacks back to add…

“…notwithstanding that we act necessarily, and from God’s decree.”

What are we to make of this? As I’ve said before, Spinoza is a philosopher’s philosopher… By this I mean that his statements are so juxtaposed and catercornered that the attempt to nail down his specific beliefs provides philosophers with what they love best: bones for contention. The verbal contortions of Spinoza also provide experts in the field with a feeling that we all treasure… the feeling of being an expert in one’s field… Amateurs like me cannot help but play the fool when talking about the work of a philosopher like Spinoza– we dilettantes may read twenty letters that lead us to believe that Spinoza says one thing– but we won’t know that tucked away in some paragraph in some other work, Spinoza has further whittled his words, thus altering their meaning.

Still writing to Blynenberg, Spinoza spins the idea of human Free Will this way: he argues that, though our actions are performed necessarily, our coinciding desires “affirm” these actions. By acting in precisely the ways in which we want to act, we enjoy a sort of freedom, at least as far as Spinoza is concerned. In fact, he says that man is never so free as when he affirms his necessarily caused acts.

Of course, we should bear in mind that for Spinoza, even God, himself, is not completely Free– He must do some things “necessarily.”

Writing to Boxel in September 1674 (SPINOZA: Letters by Shirley et al), Spinoza claims that God must “necessarily” know himself– that God cannot NOT know himself.

So does acting “necessarily” mean not acting “freely?” Not if you put the Spinozan Spin on it: “That thing is Free which exists and acts solely from the necessity of its own Nature,” he tells Schuller in October 1674, adding, “so you can see, I place Freedom– not in Free Decision– but in Free Necessity.” Free Necessity? A concept oh so Spinozan! (We won’t even open up the can of worms about what defines one’s “Nature.”)

Spinoza sees no conflict between Freedom and Necessity. Now, if we were talking about “Constraint,” says Spinoza, that would be different. If one is attempting to act necessarily according to one’s own Nature, but is obstructed in this endeavor, then one could be said to be subject to Constraint, and Constraint is, indeed, an impingement upon Free Decision.

Spinoza sees the whole concept of Free Will as merely a mental construct that we piece together from the summation of our independent volitions. But, he says, we should not confuse the construct with the cause.

He makes the following analogy– Free Will is no more the cause of a particular volition than color is the cause of white. “Color” — “Free Will”– these are merely human-constructed categories of specific items, not causes themselves. Spinoza writes Oldenburg in 1661 that “particular volitions, since each needs a cause to exist, cannot be said to be Free, but they are “necessarily determined.”

Nothing is less within men’s power than to control their appetites,” Spinoza tells Schuller in October 1674. Human Freedom, he announces, “consists solely in this: that men are conscious of their desires, yet unaware of the causes by which their desires are determined.”

Here, Spinoza gives the famous example of the stone which has been tossed in the air. If the stone awakes to consciousness during the flight, it will “surely think it is completely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than that it so wishes” […] “This then is that human Freedom which all men boast of possessing.”

At heart, I believe Spinoza best summed-up his true beliefs when he mentioned in a letter to an acquaintance that humans can will this-or-that particular outcome, but we are not free to will as we will (a statement I believe Schopenhauer will pick-up on later).

—– —– —–

Other Posts on SPINOZA from Hammering Shield:

On Walking The Path Of Truth With Spinoza

Some Of Spinoza’s More Heretical Notions

Spinoza’s God (Don’t Worry, He’s Not Angry)

Spinoza’s Evil

How Reading Spinoza Is Like An Acid Trip

The Modes, Attributes, and Imagination Of Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza’s Eternal Substance

So Did Spinoza Not KNOW He Was An Atheist?


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