Spinoza and the Problem of Freedom

The concept of freedom is undoubtedly central to Spinoza’s philosophy. Indeed, as one distinguished commentator has noted, “the only evaluative distinction finally recognized in his philosophy, other than the distinctions between true and false, and between adequate and inadequate, ideas, is the distinction between freedom and servitude.”[1] And yet, despite its centrality, Spinoza’s account of freedom and activity is still rather poorly understood, on the whole. It is perhaps not surprising that Spinoza’s readers should find his account of freedom to be somewhat perplexing, not only because he rejects traditional ways of conceiving of the problem of freedom, but also because his own metaphysical positions severely constrain the sort of account that he could offer. In this paper I will explore the challenges that Spinoza faces as an austere naturalist and the way in which he meets these obstacles. Ultimately, I will show that Spinoza has a rather rich, multi-leveled conception of freedom, which may be expressed in a wide variety of ways. After sketching the contours of this graduated account, I will indicate the relevance of my interpretation for understanding Spinoza’s notion of civil liberation. However, before launching into his account, it would be somewhat instructive to begin by surveying some conceptions of freedom that would have figured prominently into the context in which Spinoza was writing.

I. Background to the problem

Theories of human freedom in the period immediately prior and leading up to the time during which Spinoza lived were—with a few exceptions—intimately bound up with theological considerations.

In the Catholic world, there had been a divide among late sixteenth-century theologians regarding the relationship between human freedom and divine foreknowledge. The Dominicans, following Aquinas, claimed that God has natural knowledge (scientia naturalis)—knowledge of both himself and of all possible states of affairs that conform to natural laws—and that he has free knowledge (scientia libera)—knowledge of those things that follow from acts of his will. Yet, they claimed that neither God’s foreknowledge nor his concurrence in all human acts are incompatible with human freedom.

Luis de Molina (1535-1600), a Portuguese Jesuit, thought that the Dominican position did not provide adequate provisions for human freedom. He sought to rectify this problem by introducing the notion of middle knowledge (scientia media), which is knowledge that God has of what “each [agent] would do with its innate freedom were it to be placed in this or in that or, indeed, in infinitely many orders of things” (Concordia, 4.52.9). This middle knowledge allows for the possibility of free, undetermined, human action. Molina’s indeterministic (incompatibilistic) account of freedom is well-captured in the following formulation: “That agent is said to be free who, all the requisites for acting having been posited, can act or not act, or so perform one action that he is still able to do the contrary” (ibid., disp. 2). The dispute that ensued from this theological difference between the Dominicans and the Jesuits, became so vitriolic that a congregation of ministers [De Auxiliis] had to be called (1598-1607) to settle the matter.[2]

A parallel situation emerged in Calvinist Holland. This quarrel sprang from a polemic between two theology professors at the University of Leiden in the early seventeenth century: Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641) and Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius, a reformer amongst the reformed, maintained, like Molina, that God’s foreknowledge does not necessitate human actions, but rather God has hypothetical knowledge of how we would act (of our own free volition) in certain circumstances (see e.g. Disp. Publ. 4.5, 4.7, and 4.34).[3] Arminius regarded freedom from God’s preordination (and the resistibility of grace) as a necessary condition of moral responsibility—according to him, responsibility for our salvation lies within our power. Forty-four like-minded ministers issued a formal “remonstrance” to the orthodox Calvinist position in 1610, which was followed by a “counter-remonstrance” delivered by the orthodoxy, spearheaded by Gomarus, which reaffirmed the central tenets of orthodox Calvinist teachings, including “supralapsarian” (before the fall) predeterminism. This conflict came to a head in 1618-19 with the Synod of Dort (Dordrecht), where ministers from throughout the United Provinces convened to settle this dispute. Orthodox Calvinism was ultimately confirmed by the canons of Dort, and Arminians were purged from the universities. Nevertheless, the spirit of Arminianism, reflected in the belief that faith is properly expressed inwardly (rather than publicly) and that freedom of religious practice ought to be protected, was very much alive during the time in which Spinoza wrote.

Apart from these theological accounts of free will, certain philosophical—if still theologically-inspired—accounts would also have been common currency during Spinoza’s time. One philosopher whose views on the matter would have been of paramount importance to Spinoza was René Descartes.

Descartes himself is somewhat ambivalent when it comes to specifying the conditions for free action. Minimally, he requires that a free act must not be compelled by natural (as opposed to supernatural), external causes—it must be internally initiated, or spontaneous. Descartes’ characterization of spontaneity turns on his dichotomy between the active and passive functions of the soul. He presents this distinction rather starkly in Passions of the Soul I, 17:

Those I call its actions are all our volitions, for we experience them as proceeding directly from our soul and as seeming to depend on it alone. On the other hand, the various perceptions or modes of knowledge present in us may be called passions, in a general sense, for it is often not our soul which makes them such as they are, and the soul always receives them from the things that are represented by them (335).[4]

So, according to this division, our perceptions—be they clear and distinct or confused and mutilated—are passive, whereas our volitions as active. This way of carving up the active/passive divide allows Descartes to argue that we are free if and only if we act voluntarily (from volitions). We act voluntarily both insofar as we form judgments and insofar as we act in the psycho-physical sense, i.e. insofar as our practical judgments (which involve an act of volition) give rise to corresponding motion in our body (limbs).

In Meditations IV Descartes gives an account of judgment with a view towards explaining the source of error in light of God’s omnipotence and benevolence. His epistemological theodicy turns on the claim that judgments arise from the cooperation of two faculties—the will and the intellect. While the human intellect is necessarily limited in its scope, the human will is formally boundless. Error arises when we assent (an act of will) to ideas that we grasp only confusedly. Leaving the problem of error aside, this account of judgment is directly relevant to the issue of freedom, since in it Descartes contends that all judgments (proper) involve a spontaneous act; in forming a judgment we actively adopt a particular stance in relation to the content.[5] Since assent is implicit in any belief, we act spontaneously, or freely, whenever we form a belief, and a fortiori whenever we act on the basis of a belief.

Since Descartes contends both that freedom (indeterminacy) of the will is so evident as to be regarded among the “most common notions that are innate in us” and that God has “a power so immeasurable that we regard it as impious to suppose that we could ever do anything which was not already preordained by him” (Pr. I, 40; 206), it would seem that he has a paradox on his hands that he is obliged to sort out. However, Descartes thinks that it is best to leave this quagmire alone, since “[We] get ourselves into great difficulties if we attempt to reconcile this divine preordination with the freedom of our will, or attempt to grasp both these things at once…we cannot get a sufficient grasp of [God’s preordination] to see how it leaves the free actions of men undetermined. Nonetheless, we have such close awareness of the freedom and indifference which is in us, that there is nothing that we can grasp more evidently or more perfectly” (Pr. I, 41; 206). Rather than entering into this thorny mess, Descartes proposes that we leave aside the question of consistency and remain satisfied that each of these two antinomial positions is true.

Together with the theological views sketched above, Descartes’ account of freedom would have served as a crucial part of the background against which Spinoza was writing.[6] Despite this (and his overall indebtedness to Descartes), as we shall see, Spinoza’s account bears little resemblance to traditional models. One pivotal doctrine separates Spinoza from these predecessors (and his contemporaries as well), namely his commitment to immanent necessitarianism. In the next section I will consider this and two other doctrines that shape and constrain Spinoza’s idiosyncratic account of freedom.

II. Three constraints on the type of account that Spinoza can offer

(A) Immanent Necessitarianism

The most striking way in which Spinoza breaks with traditional discussions of freedom is in his acceptance of an uncompromising immanent necessitarianism. By “necessitarianism,” I mean the view expressed in IP29 that “in nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.” I call his brand of determinism immanent in that the source of this necessity is intrinsic to the laws of nature and the natural causal order itself. And while orthodox Calvinists—following Calvin himself—accepted a certain form of determinism, namely divine predestination, it was heresy to claim that that nature itself is the source of this necessity. For this reason, immanent necessitarianism, along with the scandalous doctrine of substance monism, from which necessitarianism is, in part, derived, struck most readers—or, more commonly, gossipy members of Dutch society whose knowledge of Spinoza was gleaned from one of many demonizing caricatures—as utterly abhorrent.

Substance monism, which, as I just mentioned, is the basis for Spinoza’s necessitarianism, is the view that “except God, no substance can be or be conceived” (EIP14). The claims that God is causa sui and that “whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God” (IP15) conjointly establish a certain brand of immanence, according to which there is nothing extrinsic to God’s nature in virtue of which It acts (see IP17).[7] Since everything that is possible ‘falls under the infinite intellect,’ and since God’s nature is fixed and immutable, the actual order of things is the only possible order of things, and all events may be understood as the law-governed unfurling of God’s nature (or essence).

With this doctrine in place, Spinoza proceeds in the appendix to Part I of the Ethics to offer the following diagnosis of why we tend to regard ourselves as free: “Men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]” (EI appendix). So, whereas Descartes argued that we are immediately aware of our freedom when we act voluntarily, Spinoza counters by claiming that consciousness of a voluntary act is not tantamount to consciousness of our freedom, since volitions themselves have a causal history. Spinoza here, as elsewhere, advises us against blindly accepting the appearances of things.

From this it is clear that, although he never mentions Descartes by name in the passage cited to above, Spinoza goes to some length to debunk not only the notion of freedom of the will in general, but also to directly confront what he sees as some of the particular errors inherent in the Cartesian view. For instance, he concludes—contra Descartes—that acts of (mental) assent are as compelled as everything else. He argues that “the will and the intellect are one and the same” (IIP49C); ideas are not like “mute pictures on a panel” (IIP49S2) waiting to be assented to or denied, but rather they are intrinsically dynamic in the sense that our affirmation or denial is built into our acts of conceiving (of things).[8] Particular volitions, then, are nothing apart from ideas, and the mental realm is every bit as law-governed and necessitated as the physical (IIP7).

By arguing for immanent necessaritarianism, Spinoza appears to be hoist by his own petard, since he forecloses virtually all routes of arguing for human freedom that would have been common in his time: both indeterministic and compatibilistic varieties! Indeed, because of the force and vivacity of Spinoza’s critique of traditional accounts of freedom, casual readers often lose sight of Spinoza’s (constructive) model of freedom, which is so central to his entire ethical project.

(B) Reductive Naturalism

Spinoza’s commitment to naturalism further constrains how he can conceive of freedom. It is admittedly a rather difficult task to formulate naturalism in such a way that it neither admits false positive nor false negatives. As a rough and ready definition, Arthur Danto’s seems quite reasonable:

[Naturalism is] a species of philosophical monism according to which whatever exists or happens is natural in the sense of being susceptible to explanation through methods which, although paradigmatically exemplified in the natural sciences, are continuous from domain to domain of objects and events…[thus, there cannot] exist any entities or events which lie, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation (Danto, 1967, p. 448).

With this general characterization in mind, let’s turn to the well-known preface to Ethics III, which serves as the most central testament to Spinoza’s naturalism. Here he writes:

Most of those who have written about the affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of Nature, but of things which are outside Nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion [imperium in imperio]. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of Nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself.

The view presented above represents the position that Spinoza wants to rebuke, since it labors under a kind of naïve anthropocentrism. And while it is possible to regard nature as nomologically variegated, Spinoza’s naturalistic worldview is deflationary, or reductive, not admitting such restrictions of domain. This reductive aspect to Spinoza’s naturalism is most clearly expressed later in the preface, where he states:

Nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, that is, the laws and rules of Nature, according to which all things happen, and change from one form to another, are always and everywhere the same. So the way of understanding the nature of anything, of whatever kind, must also be the same, namely, through the universal laws and rules of Nature.

With this reductionist thrust in mind, we may summarize Spinoza’s naturalism in the following way: the only real properties that exist are natural properties, and these properties are governed by uniform laws.

Naturalism of the sort that Spinoza espouses serves as a constraint on the type of account of freedom that he can offer in that whatever ‘being free’ may consist in, it must be explicable in natural terms. Human volitions cannot be regarded fundamentally different from impulses found elsewhere in nature. So, whatever human freedom consists in, it too must be amenable to standards of natural explanation, and must be similar in kind, though not in degree, to freedom exhibited by other ‘finite modes.’

(C) Monism

Finally, by arguing that there is only one (infinite) substance—God, or Nature—Spinoza is forced to blaze a new path if he is to provide a plausible account of modal individuation and agency. Accounts of agency and individuation prior to Spinoza generally appealed to some notion of substantial particulars (substance pluralism), which was essential to the Christian concern for the immortality of the soul.

To give a very brief history here, we should start with Aristotle, who argued [in Metaphysics Zeta and Eta] that matter is the principle of individuation for hylomorphic unities. The problem with this account, from the perspective of the Medieval philosophers, who attempted to wed Aristotelianism and Christianity, is that if matter is the basis for individuating substances, when the soul separates from the body upon death, there would seem to be no way of distinguishing between such purely incorporeal substances. This was precisely the conclusion of the twelfth century Muslim Aristotelian, Averröes, who claimed that after death, all souls join with the universal soul. To avoid this consequence, late Medievals such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Francisco Suarez sought to accord an individuating role to (substantial) form.

Descartes rejected the hylomorphic background adopted by the scholastics. Nevertheless, he too relies on substance pluralism in order to offer an account of human agency. Strictly speaking, according to Descartes, God is the only fully independent thing, and hence the only absolute substance. Still, there can be no doubt that we are—in some sense—discrete, self-contained thinking things.

And even though Descartes does not establish how (in virtue of what) immaterial substances are individuated, he still—to his satisfaction—establishes that they are distinct, or at least that he, as a thing that thinks is distinct from other immaterial substances.

Unlike both the scholastics and Descartes, Spinoza’s substance monism precludes a substance-based (form or soul) account of agency or individuation. Whatever individual, finite things are, they are not discrete substances; some other account must be offered in its place. The challenge for Spinoza is compounded by his claim that God or nature is an indivisible plenum. And, whereas Descartes maintains that extended substance contains real distinctions, i.e. a plurality of substances, Spinoza considers this view to be inconsistent with his plenary monism, according to which there is no way of ‘really’ dividing off units of matter (see IP15).

While Spinoza does have an account of individuation and individual essence(s), the problem of agency is a specter that haunts Spinoza’s metaphysics. After all, one is inclined to wonder whether Spinoza’s monistic, necessitarian, naturalistic worldview does not rob humans of agency, both by “making [us] adjectival on regions of space” as one prominent commentator puts it[9] and by positing that our nature and everything that follows from it is the logical outcome of an infinite web of antecedent causes. Surely this conjures up what Daniel Dennett has called the ‘fear of the vanishing self’ (Elbow Room), which is well captured by the following quotation from Cicero’s De Fato (it should be noted that this is not Cicero’s own view):

If everything happens by fate, everything occurs by an antecedent cause and if impulse [is caused], then also what follows from impulse [is caused]; therefore, assent too. But if the cause of impulse is not in us then impulse itself is not in our own power; and if this is so, not even what is produced by impulse is in our power; therefore, neither assent nor action is in our power (39-40).

On this picture, agency seems to shrink to a nearly ‘extensionless point’ (to paraphrase Thomas Nagel). This, then, is the formidable challenge that Spinoza faces: how to make room for agency, activity and freedom in light of the doctrines of immanent necessitarianism, naturalism, and monism. Nonetheless, his burden may be ours, since at least some of us are committed to these positions, and yet are not willing to dispense with freedom altogether.

III. Towards an account of free action: internality and essence

In order to overcome this challenge, we must consider how agency is possible within the strictures of Spinoza’s metaphysics. But before we can discuss the possibility of agency, we must first consider how Spinoza can carve out a space for individuality at all, in light of his substance monism. According to his physical account of individuation (in the so-called ‘physical digression’ between IIP13 and IIP14) finite modes are distinguished from one another on the basis of motion and rest.[10] Complex (or composite) bodies form a single unit (individual) to the extent that their ‘parts’ (or submotions) maintain a certain fixed ratio of motion and rest. So, a human being—the paradigmatic individual—is a unity insofar as her submotions (think of the functioning of one’s organs, etc.) maintain the same precarious balance of motion and rest, even if the materials that enters into this unity are in constant flux (due to the ongoing processes of decay and regeneration). We can see at once from this example that Spinoza intends this unity (of motion and rest) not merely to be physical, but also functional. The relationship between functionality and individuation is made apparent in an earlier definition, in which Spinoza says that “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” (ID7).

In light of this, then, we may say that an individual is an individual insofar as it exhibits a sort of physical coherence that itself results in some kind of functional coherence. This is a start then at carving out some space for internality and agency in Spinoza. However, it is only after he gives an account of the essence(s) of physical/functional unities that we can truly begin to sort out the internal/external (or the active/passive) divide.

This account comes at EIIIP4-7, a set of propositions that are collectively referred to as the conatus doctrine. In these propositions, Spinoza purports to show that “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power [quantum in se est], strives [conatur] to persevere in its being” (IIIP6) and that “the striving [conatus] by which each thing strives [conatur] to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing” (IIIP7). This rather loaded thesis hearkens back to diverse sources, ranging from Lucretian physics to Hobbes’ account of the passions. Spinoza clearly intends the notion of ‘striving’ to be maximally general so as to account for both the mere ‘existential inertia,’ or stability, of relatively simple bodies (such as rocks, lamps, and chocolate bars) as well as the conscious and multi-layered deliberative striving of human beings.[11]

However, there is a deep equivocation in the conatus doctrine, one that is the source of much confusion in the secondary literature. On the one hand Spinoza often uses “striving” in a way that is synonymous with “trying”—as a sort of primordial, power-seeking (or teleological) drive. On the other hand, when he claims in IIIP7 that the striving (conatus) of a thing is its “actual essence,” he makes it clear that “striving” in this context means the actual exertion of causal power—our essence lies in our actual power, not merely in our drive for power. While I think that Spinoza is in fact somewhat muddleheaded on this point, we ought to understand the claim of the conatus as two separate doctrines:

(1) All singular things qua singular things try [strive in first sense] to persevere in their existence.

(2) In the second sense, to strive means to exert (and extend) one’s power. Our actual power is our essence, and the more we act from our essence (rather than from external causes), the more we will act in empowering ways.[12]

While Spinoza holds both of these doctrines to be true, only the latter claim (striving as the actualization of one’s one power) purports to be a claim about essences, and so it alone is directly relevant to the issue of internality and internal causation. We will recall that Spinoza says that we act (freely) insofar as we act from our natures; so, if power is our essence, we act freely only insofar as we act from our power (striving in sense #2 above), or from those mechanisms that are functionally related to our power.[13] We will elaborate a bit on what is meant by a ‘mechanism that is functionally related to our power’ in due time. But before turning away from this issue, I simply want to note that by defining one’s essence in terms of her (causal) power, Spinoza asks us to reconceive of internality; to be internal is not to be subcutaneous, but rather it is to participate in and contribute to the maintenance of our ratio of motion and rest. With this rather cursory account of internality in place, let us turn to his (positive) account of action (and freedom) in the Ethics.

IV. Freedom in the Ethics

For simplicity of exposition, we may distinguish between three different ways in which we can be said to act freely on Spinoza’s account. The first way in which we can be the internal cause of effects is simply by forming adequate ideas.[14] This is what Spinoza plainly states in IIIP1: “…insofar as it has adequate ideas, [our mind] necessarily does certain things.” Whatever effects follow from an adequate idea—and some effects must follow (IP36)—must be internally caused by the adequate idea, and in turn my mind. Such apparently “theoretical” knowledge is also intrinsically “practical” in that it renders me more powerful. Admittedly, this is a somewhat foreign notion of activity, though it recalls Aristotle’s account of the pure energeia of nous (or the pure activity of mind/intellect).

In Ethics V, the connection between adequate comprehension and power is made apparent. For instance, particular passions when adequately understood (through the laws of the affects) cease to be passions (VP3). Through such cognitive emendation, we achieve a certain self-control (which, again, is a kind of power) which is accompanied by a feeling of joy (laetitia). This is a clear echo of the Hellenistic notions of ataraxia and apatheia (Epicureans/Skeptics/Stoics)—both of which refer to a state of serenity and freedom from suffering.

Aside from this rather arcane notion of action, Spinoza also seems to have a more conventional theory.[15] This is what we find in Ethics IV, where Spinoza regularly speaks of acting from the dictates of reason. Here, the suggestion seems to be that reason can advise us on how we are to act (in an ordinary, mundane sense), and that to the extent that we follow reason’s dictates, we will be free. We can see from this how Spinoza departs from the negative liberty tradition. In order for one to be free, it is not enough for her simply to be allowed to do whatever she desires (or to act for any old reason), one must actually act knowingly, i.e. have a clear conception (adequate idea) of what she is doing and why she is doing it, which is a rather stringent demand for Spinoza.

These two modes of action—to wit, forming adequate ideas and acting from the dictates of reason—afford us a certain degree of what we might call cognitive liberation. This level of freedom is achieved through a process of clarifying the intellect, and thereby overcoming the manacles of ignorance. It is Spinoza’s notion of cognitive freedom, which may be seen as part of a rich tradition in the history of ideas, that most commentators focus on (if they focus on his conception of freedom at all). What is most original and most controversial in what I have to say is that, according to Spinoza’s own writings, there is another way in which we may be said to act freely—albeit to a somewhat lesser degree.

V. Prudential mechanisms and internality

In order to ferret out the lower register of freedom (activity), we must turn again to consider the question of internality, here with an eye towards what could count as internal mechanisms or sources of activity. Let’s start by turning again to the dictates of reason. At various points, Spinoza refers to them as the laws of one’s own nature, i.e. as internal laws. But in what sense are these prescriptions one’s own? There are at least two reasons why these dictates might be regarded as internal (one’s own), the most salient of which (at least for our purposes) being that they are functionally related to one’s power or essence. They are councils for successful striving, which, when heeded, necessarily conduce to one’s power. These laws preserve, sustain, and expand my essence, and so are rightly regarded as internal.

What I want to suggest is that based on Spinoza’s principles all laws that tend to bind and preserve our ratio of motion and rest (i.e., that conduce to our power)—be they ‘dictates of reason’ or biological laws such as those of respiration and circulation—ought to be regarded as internal. If this account is correct, then functional explanations of the sort employed in the philosophy of biology—namely, ‘explanations whereby some biological property is explained by demonstrating its usefulness to the organism in question’ (definition of “functional explanation” from Oxford Companion to Philosophy)—are internal explanations; actions that follow from mechanisms that are functionally related to one’s perseverance (functions) are rightly regarded as internally caused. Since (free) action consists in internal causation (IIID2), when we act from prudential or internal mechanisms, we may be regarded as free agents (in the strict sense). Simply put, one is free to the extent that she acts on the basis of laws, rules, or mechanisms that tend to conduce to her power or essence.

On the basis of such an interpretation—which seems to me to be thoroughly consistent with both the letter and the spirit of Spinoza’s writing—we could count hardwired prudential tendencies exhibited by all complex organisms among internal (or liberating) mechanisms. This would include reflexes, instincts, and so-called Fixed Action Patterns.[16] Any particular instance of genetic predisposition to self-maintenance may be seen as a non-intentional (non-deliberative) prudential mechanism that has evolved on the basis of its tendency towards preservation. These hardwired, non-intentional prudential tendencies will generally promote one’s power, and so may rightly be regarded as internal laws, which, when operative, result in (free) actions.

However, reflexes (and instincts) are fairly dumb, by which I mean that while they have evolved on the basis of their preservational tendency, and are hence functionally related to one’s striving to some degree, this involuntary (or, non-deliberative) mode of activity occurs even in the absence of a legitimate threat.[17] All of our reflexes and instincts are like this—they are generally conducive to our well-being, but not necessarily conducive to our well-being in any particular instance. Such mechanisms ought to be regarded as less than fully internal, since their relationship to one’s power (striving 2) is far more tenuous (or less reliable), than the dictates of reason, for instance.

So, if we were to develop this account with sufficient care, we would need to identify and account for distinctions between degrees of internality among prudential mechanisms—and the spectrum is great, indeed. For instance, in addition to instincts, reflexes and the like, there are other forms of prudential tendencies that are more circumstance (or time) sensitive, and so are less likely to misfire (i.e. they are more reliable). These would include the learned, but non-intentional patterns of self-preservational activity of so-called ‘lower’ animals, as well as actions that proceed from the sophisticated information-tracking and deliberative capacities of human beings.

The point here is that, based on Spinoza’s conception of internality, we can see that action proper (or liberation) isn’t confined to the rarified heights of philosophical reflection, but rather may be expressed—even if only to lesser degrees—in somewhat more mundane ways, for instance through the simple exercise of good habits, or even by way of the mere beating of one’s heart. Indeed, one might say that some degree of liberation literally takes place in the blink of an eye.

VI. Relevance of this conception of freedom to civil liberation

Let me close by suggesting how this graduated conception of liberty may help to illuminate our understanding of Spinoza’s political writings. In the final chapter of his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza boldly declares that “the purpose of the state is, in reality, freedom” (232). This statement has been met with general consternation. Though it has been widely interpreted, these disparate interpretations seem to share one thing in common: they all agree that if Spinoza thinks that the state plays a role in the liberation of its citizens, liberty must mean something different in these works than what it means in the Ethics.[18] Since in the political works Spinoza speaks of liberation as something that can come about through mere adherence to the (rational) laws (TP 4/5; cf. 3/3 and 3/6), it is tempting to draw such a conclusion.

However, I suggest that Spinoza really does mean that the state plays a direct liberating role in the lives of its citizens and that this notion of liberation is precisely the same as that which is described in the Ethics. What stands in the way of general recognition of this point, is that most commentators fail to appreciate the graduated nature of the concept of freedom; the lower register of the continuum of liberation, in particular, has been overlooked. Once we understand that one can be liberated—at least to a limited degree—by acting in generally prudential ways, as I have suggested above, we can see why Spinoza should think that a well-organized civitas can liberate its citizens. The state, when well-constituted, brings the divergent interests of its citizens into general harmony, limits injurious behavior, (perhaps) assists in the process of good (moral) habituation, fosters hope (which is itself relevant to freedom: “a free people is led more by hope than by fear” [TP 5/6]), and generally promotes prudential behavior. Only when we recognize that freedom is graduated concept and that one may actualize her power in a wide range of ways, which is what I have suggested in this brief paper, may we begin to understand the political works as they were intended, namely as part and parcel of Spinoza’s overarching project of human emancipation.


1. Stuart Hampshire, “Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom” (298).

2. The conclusion, as Tuck rather casually puts it, was that “the Jesuits should stop calling the Dominicans Calvinists, and that the Dominicans should stop calling the Jesuits Pelagians” (Natural Right Theories, 52).

3. Recent scholarship suggests that Arminius was not only aware of Molina’s Concordia, but actually may have incorporated Molina’s theory of middle knowledge into his own writings, though he never mentions the Jesuit by name. See Richard Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Though of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 154-166, and Eef Dekker “Was Arminius a Molist?” Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 27, 2 (summer 1996), 337-352.

4. See also PS I.13, he says that volition “is the only, or at least the principal, activity of the soul” (my emphasis).

5. We may put the distinction between perception and volition in contemporary terms by distinguishing between the propositional content and the propositional attitude of a belief.

6. Not to be overlooked as well is Thomas Hobbes, whose acceptance of the compatibility of natural determinism and freedom would have put him on common ground with Spinoza, though their accounts are vastly different in other respects.

7. Given his conflation of conceptual and causal dependence, Spinoza could conclude on this basis alone that everything that is, is caused by God.

8. For a full account of the dynamism of ideas, see Michael Della Rocca “The Power of an Idea,” Nous 37:2 (2003), pp. 200-231.

9. Jonathan Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, p. 93.

10. This phrase ‘motion and rest’ may be something of an abstract placeholder.

11. In addition to the claim that all things strive to preserve themselves, Spinoza also supposes that human striving exhibits a ‘power-augmenting’ tendency, thereby fusing together Stoic and Epicurean aspects of striving (as noted by Edwin Curley). And while the demonstration for the power-augmenting (Epicurean) tendency may be lacking, there may be grounds, independent of his demonstration, for accepting some form of hedonistic egoism.

12. Spinoza basically thinks of power as causal power, which is expressed most obviously in our self-preservation—to be able to cause ourselves to persist is to have a certain power! Another example of the exercise of power is having a certain control over our affects (emotions)—by steeling ourselves against destructive external (passive) passions, we exercise a certain power. There are others ways in which we can exercise our causal power (which I will not explicate), all of which will be accompanied by joy (laetitia), which, according to Spinoza, indicates a transition from a lesser to greater state of power.

13. If we take striving in the first sense, namely as a kind of drive, this definition seems to be too permissive, since all behavior is some sort of manifestation of this drive, yet not all behavior is action in sensu stricto.

14. Adequate ideas are internal in the sense that I have full conceptual knowledge the thing that is the object of my idea—something like a priori knowledge.

15. In contemporary terms, Spinoza is a “causalist,” i.e. one who thinks that reasons are a kind of cause. Following Della Rocca (Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza), I submit that the best way to understand Spinoza is as some sort of non-reductive monist, who maintains that an idea (i.e. a mental state) can, under another description (i.e. a brain state), be the cause of an action.

16. A FAP is “a behavior sequence that, like a reflex, is innate, unlearned, and involuntary, and that will occur even when it serves no function” (Dretske, Explaining Behavior, p. 4), such as when squirrels bury acorns.

17. For a good example of this see Dennett’s Sphex example in Elbow Room. A sphex is a wasp that has a prudential habit of stopping short of her burrow to check for intruders before dragging a paralyzed prey (cricket) in to feed to her grubs. However, if one moves the prey a few inches while she is casing the burrow, she will drag it back to the threshold and repeat the procedure. This game could be iterated dozens of times, and yet the sphex does not deviate from her routine.

18. For example, Douglas Den Uyl claims that: “freedom takes on a more limited normative content in the politics” (Power, State and Freedom, p. 114).

Freedom, Justice, and IdentityIWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XVIII/1
© 2005 by the author

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Preferred citation: Steinberg, Justin. 2005. Spinoza and the Problem of Freedom. In Freedom, Justice, and Identity, ed. T. Nesbit and J. Steinberg, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 18.