In order to grasp the significance of Spinoza's concept of 'idea' and its role in his Epistemology it is critically important to begin with “On the Improvement of the Understanding” "Tractatus Intelectus Emendatione"(TIE), because it is the only place where Baruch explicitly details his completely unique concept of ‘idea’.
The intended meaning of his ‘idea’ has effectively eluded and flummoxed even the finest minds that have commented on the “Ethics”. That is for two reasons; 1- Without an adequate grasp of the details in the “Fragment” which efficiently serves as the linchpin for the “Ethics”, Spinoza’s revolutionary grasp of human epistemology and the existence and operating functions of the ‘active’ mind, will remain out of reach. And 2- Most if not all of the commentators on the subject, pre-supposed that by ‘idea’ Spinoza intended either; a judgement, a mental image, a propositional statement or an abstraction formed from impressions from the ‘sensible’ world. But he meant none of these things and that is precisely why we are here today. An important reminder- In the ‘Fragment’ [TIE] Baruch emphasized that the ‘idea’ does not, in any way, involve words. With this firmly in mind, let us continue.
In this response to the question above an outline and explanation of the main message of the ‘Fragment’ will be presented which will be accompanied by interspersed quotations from one of the true ‘scholars’ of Spinozan explication, Professor Earl E Harris. The quotes are taken from his, “Salvation from Despair”, A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy, (1973- Martinus Nijjhof, The Hague Netherlands), pp 87-88.
In the ‘Proemium’ to the ‘Fragment’ Baruch announces his intention, to make known and accessible to the reader, the nature of the ‘human character’ which comprises the innate and organic operation and functioning of the mind. He describes it thusly; “What that character is we shall show in due time, namely, that it is the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.” (TIE, p. 6). What we need to ferret out is exactly what constitutes this ‘union’.
From that ‘axiomatic’ starting point he sets out to discover if there is any possibility that the human mind has any built-in capacity or potential to obtain to any type of knowledge which can be affirmed to be absolutely certain, that is, true. To do this he begins by detailing the four kinds of knowledge [perception] which taken together, constitute the spectrum of inputs which every person absorbs from the extended world.
The first three, he discovers, each serves its own limited purpose and can, up to a point, prove useful in; everyday living [imagination], in gathering unverifiable information [sensation] and in solving problems and in thinking rationally [reasoning]. None of these three involves certainty because they are involved with ‘images’, and ultimately he realized that only with the fourth kind, [intuitive understanding] could certainty be achieved. By intuitive here he means a type of knowing which essentially within its compass includes encapsulating the efficient or proximate cause of the object ‘being considered’.
He discovered that this certainty was only made possible due to the activity and presence in every human mind of the ‘adequate idea’. This ‘idea’ is innate, within the mind, and serves as a ‘tool’ or ‘agency-in-act’, which organically connects and effectively ‘anchors’ the mind in ‘its union existing between it and the whole of nature.’ This means that the extended world and the mind are virtually inter-operationally connected. A most startling and revolutionary claim, to say the least.
Let us pause here for a moment to dwell on the enormity of what has just been stated. What Spinoza discovered in the ‘idea’ runs counter to virtually every depiction of any possibility for human knowledge ever discussed or imagined possible. Every philosopher before or after him and virtually all of contemporary science posit humans as ‘passive’ receptors of ‘impressions’ from the sensible world. These impressions then formulate, by various descriptions, ‘mental images’ which serve as unverifiable judgements or ‘mental entities’, usually depicted as some distillation of the Empirical paradigm or ‘materialism’.
Now along comes Baruch and says, ‘No way, my friends, you’ve got it all wrong’.
Since the time and space available makes demands on us to be brief, elaboration on this revolutionary discovery by Spinoza will not be possible, for now. It is incumbent on us, to move along and to offer a bit more of detail on this process before signing off. At this point Professor Harris will assist us to flesh out this revolutionary assertion by Spinoza.
In order to expand on this organic aspect of the mind; its role as ‘agency-in-act’, along with its constituent element of the ‘idea’, and its role of ‘potency-in-act’, we will lay a bit of groundwork for Earl Harris’ compressed and succinct demonstration of the idea. The role of the idea, both in its role as conduit for the absorption of data cum knowledge, as well as performing as the active ‘ingredient’, so to speak, in its function of ‘melding’ with the world of ‘extension’, represents Spinoza’s breakthrough in his discovery of the primary functioning operations in the assimilation and accumulation of an individual human’s knowledge base. One currently ascribed to misapprehension about human experience which caused Leibniz to posit ‘windowless monads’ must be addressed.
As an integral part of ‘the whole of Nature’, people are not segregated off from the world. We are as interconnected as any other integrated element in nature which in its totality comprises the universal system.
We have no problem dealing with animals being able to sense objects outside their visual range and to sense immanent unforeseen dangers in the form of severe storms and wildfire. Why should we believe that humans are walled off inside their bodies like, “kingdoms within a kingdom”?
Once the significance of this comes clear it becomes possible to begin to accept our active participation in the gathering of knowledge which has effectively allowed for civilization to grow and for science to advance. Now we must ask; How does this work? Enter Professor Harris. Under the sub-title, Idea Ideae, in “Salvation from Despair”, on page 87, we find;
“As the idea of the body is the mind, so the idea of that idea is the idea of the mind. In “de Intellectus Emendatione” [TIE] Spinoza explains that every idea is the “objective essence” of its ideatum, of which the actuality is the “formal essence.” But the idea is a different entity (or mode) from its object (although they are identical in substance), if only because they exist in different attributes. The idea of a circle has no center or circumference [no properties]. So, he says, the idea has a formal essence of its own, of which the objective essence is the idea of the idea (idea ideae). This is further explained in the Ethics (II, xxi, S) as “nothing else than the form of the idea so far as it is considered as a mode of thought and apart from its relation to its object.” Its relation to its object, we already know, is substantial identity (or, as Spinoza says in some context of adequate ideas, exact correspondence).”
Simply stated an ‘idea’ has a real-time life of its own. For example; someone sees a movie, really enjoys it, and relates the entire experience to a friend. When that friend later views the same film, they report back that the experience of ‘seeing’ the film was exactly the same as the ‘picture’ that formed in their mind when it had been described. That ‘idea’ of the film was contained within the memory of one mind and conveyed, in its entirety, to the friend.
Thus the ‘formal’ essence and the ‘objective’ reality made a perfect match. The idea is real. We use them every day; we just remain unaware of their presence and potency. That is, until now!
One final thought from Earl Harris and we will sign-off. When Spinoza titled his Fragment [TIE] “On the Improvement of the Understanding”, what follows is what he had in mind; Professor Harris continues;
“The inherent self- reflectiveness of consciousness is what enables us to purify the intellect and progress from confused and inadequate ideas [the first three kinds of knowledge mentioned above] to clear and true knowledge [the fourth kind of knowledge, intuitive understanding]. It is because we can reflect upon what we think, and know that we know, that we can criticize and improve our thinking. Idea Ideatum, therefore, is nothing but the consciousness of one’s own thinking, or the idea of one’s own mind. Spinoza speaks of a series of ideae idearum (ideas of ideas) ad infinitum, strictly no regress is involved, only an unlimited capacity for reflection or self-knowledge. The object of an idea and the idea of the object are substantially identical. Both are the same essence, one formal and the other objective. Thus the idea of an idea is strictly the same object or entity merely conscious (or more fully conscious) of itself.” (“Salvation from Despair”)
Because it is so vital to ‘see’ Spinoza’s ‘idea’ at work in our own minds, one more example;
Each morning when a person gets into the driver seat of their car and starts the engine or motor, they have no need to ask themselves if they ‘know’ how to drive. They ‘know’ that they ‘know’ how to drive. Beyond that, if called upon to do so, anyone who drives could ‘teach’ someone else to do so. This would involve dictating to the learner from memory, the steps involved; like, open the door, seat yourself and attach your seatbelt. Before starting the car, check the mirrors, make sure your field of vision is unobstructed, etc, etc. In fact, many people could prepare a written outline of the entire process which would then serve as a training manual. Once the trainee obtains their operator’s license it can be said that the ‘instructor’, ‘captured’ the idea encapsulated in their mind and transferred that ‘adequate idea’ of how to drive to another person who successfully ‘absorbed’ the contents of the idea, made it their own and re-converted it into the reality of driving an automobile. This transfer of the idea from one mind to another ‘demonstrates’ that the ‘idea’ is a quantifiable, measurable entity and fulfils any empirical stricture placed upon it.
This idea exists as a real entity. It is measurable, remember the training manual. The idea [in mind] and the object [driving] are the same thing expressed as micro-sets in ‘modality’ of the two infinite attributes of ‘thought’ and ‘extension’. Finally, the driver’s manual serves as the idea, of the idea [in the mind] of the idea [driving lesson]. The manual which could be used by virtually anyone to teach themselves how to drive, demonstrates or ‘proves’ the existence of an ‘idea’ independent of the mind!
Exhausted yet? Have no fear, this is extraordinarily difficult to track and to take in whole.
Take all the time necessary to reflect on this information, it is admittedly difficult to absorb and perhaps even challenging to accept. Find ways to ‘see’ it operating in your own life. Once you have successfully accomplished this task you will stand ready to join those of us who understand that a human being is much more than a passive receptor. We are full-fledged and very much engaged participants in one of the universe’s most unique and ever evolving possibilities, the ‘creata’!
Semper Sapere Aude!
Charles M Saunders