Monday, May 07, 2018

Spinoza on emotions

After my intermezzo on Marx last week, I want to write again on Spinoza. I introduced him as a philosopher whose work is often obscure and difficult to understand. If one compares him with his mental opponent Descartes it is certainly true. When I read Descartes’s Discourse on Method for the first time many years ago, I was surprised how easy to understand his argumentation was, even though I read it in French. When you read Spinoza’s work, you need a lot of background knowledge and often you are wrestling with his style and his ideas, even when you read it (as most of us will do, including me) in translation in your native language. Nevertheless, I can advise you to give it a try. Especially Spinoza’s Ethics is a wonderful book and if you use a good introductory guide to the work – like Lord’s  Spinoza’s Ethics, which I have also used: – it will help you to enrich your life and to understand yourself and the world around you better. This is especially so for the later parts of Ethics. If you consider the ontological part of the book too difficult, you can skip Part 1 and also Part 2 and immediately jump to Part 3, where Spinoza starts to write on the emotions of man, so actually about you and me. He devotes two parts to this theme. In the last part of Ethics, Part 5, he writes on human freedom and free will. Let me concentrate here on Part 3.
In Part 3 it becomes clear that Spinoza is not only a deep thinker but also an attentive observer of man. For in 45 pages (my edition) he succeeds to distinguish even 48 emotions, all explained by a shorter or longer clarification. Remarkable is also that he succeeds to ground all these emotions in three basic emotions: desire, pleasure and pain (or as Lord calls them: desire, joy and sadness). If you find 45 pages too long to study, Spinoza lets his explanations follow by a summary of ten pages. Spinoza’s definition of the three basic emotions are probably not exactly as you expect, so I’ll give them here (quoted from the summary):
“I. ‘Desire’ is the actual essence of man, in so far as it is conceived, as determined to a particular activity by some given modification of itself. ...  By the term desire ... I here mean all man’s endeavours, impulses, appetites, and volitions, which vary according to each man's disposition, and are, therefore, not seldom opposed one to another, according as a man is drawn in different directions, and knows not where to turn.
II. ‘Pleasure’ is the transition of a man from a less to a greater perfection.
III. ‘Pain’ is the transition of a man from a greater to a less perfection.”
You may find it strange to describe pleasure and pain as transitions, but as Spinoza explains:
“I say transition: for pleasure is not perfection itself. For, if man were born with the perfection to which he passes, he would possess the same, without the emotion of pleasure. This appears more clearly from the consideration of the contrary emotion, pain. No one can deny, that pain consists in the transition to a less perfection, and not in the less perfection itself: for a man cannot be pained, in so far as he partakes of perfection of any degree. Neither can we say, that pain consists in the absence of a greater perfection. For absence is nothing, whereas the emotion of pain is an activity; wherefore this activity can only be the activity of transition from a greater to a less perfection—in other words, it is an activity whereby a man's power of action is lessened or constrained.”
I have added the latter quotation also in order to give you also an impression of the way Spinoza argues.
As always, I must restrict myself in my blogs and so I cannot summarize the other emotions here (but didn’t Spinoza do it himself in his book?). But if you are going to read the chapter, pay then special attention to the passages on passionate love (propositions XXXIII - XXXVIII): It is as if Spinoza himself has been betrayed by a lover.
Although the list of emotions is already quite long, Spinoza says that he didn’t describe them all: “I have neglected the outward modifications of the body observable in emotions, such, for instance, as trembling, pallor, sobbing, laughter, &c., for these are attributable to the body only, without any reference to the mind.” (Comments on proposition LIX)
I’ll end my notes on Spinoza’s definitions of emotions with a quotation. Desire is for Spinoza the most important emotion. It’s a kind of drive or impulse to get what we like, to attain a goal, etc. Does this mean that we desire the object because we consider it good? Not at all: “in no case do we strive for, wish for, long for, or desire anything, because we deem it to be good, but on the other hand we deem a thing to be good, because we strive for it, wish for it, long for it, or desire it.” (Comments on proposition IX) Think about it when you want to follow your desires.

Quotations from Spinoza, Benedict de, The Ethics, on

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