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Note: All references to Spinoza indicate Spinoza (1985).
The self has once again become a fashionable topic in philosophy, given a boost through recent advances in cognitive- and neuro-science which find it intriguing that an entity as familiar as the self continues to elude full scientific investigation. To put it in formal terms, the problem we face is how to account for the referent of the first-person pronoun: when we say, for example, that I am typing this paper, who is this ‘I’ that is being described? The problem of the self has intimate connections with that of personal identity and the mind and body’s relationship, but they are not the same: what makes the self distinctive is its first-personal character.
In this paper I will present a brief sketch of two philosophies on the topic of the self, namely Spinoza’s and the Buddhist’s. As this paper presents only a sketch of a very large project, I do not specify which tradition of Buddhism is presented for comparison with Spinoza. What I intend to do is present the core view from each school of Buddhism in order to proffer it as a single whole (inasmuch as this is possible). More nuanced interpretation of Buddhism, especially on the self, must await further studies. A search through the literature on Spinoza and Buddhism provides only very scanty result: one of the earliest works on the topic is Melamed (1933), where only a handful of others—Wienpahl (1971), Wienpahl (1972), and Ziporyn (2012)—explore it in a more contemporary vein. This is rather surprising given the fact that Spinoza aims to give an account of how the best possible life can be achieved, which appears to be Buddhism’s goal, too. For Spinoza, the key to this is achievable only through intellectual understanding, which compares to the Buddhist view that wisdom (or paññā) is necessary for realizing such life. The metaphysics are similar, too: all things are interconnected for Spinoza, since they are modes of either the attribute of body (if they are material things), or of the attribute of the mind (if they are mental entities). In any case, all are parts of the one substance: God. We might thus read Spinoza as claiming that things, whether physical or mental, do not possess independent existence in themselves because the only thing that possesses such an existence is God. In Buddhism, rather similarly, things are also interconnected; and though it is well-known that Buddhist philosophy entertains no conception of a personal God, the Buddhist must surely find some comfort in Spinoza’s conception. The fundamental laws of nature for the Buddhist, such as that of Karma or cause and effect (idappaccayatā), seem to fit nicely with Spinoza’s conception of things in nature, all of which must follow these laws to such an extent that nothing within it can happen accidentally (Proposition 28, Book I). Please note that I use the Pāli terminology in this paper as a matter of convenience; as said earlier, the Buddhism I present is a generic one which does not distinguish between Theravada or Mahayana, nor any other.
The dearth of studies comparing these philosophies aside, I would like to compare and contrast them with reference to the self. There is a clear reason for this, apart from the fact that the self has become fashionable: Buddhist philosophy, as is well known, is distinctly skeptical regarding it. It is, in fact, the hallmark of almost all schools of Buddhist philosophy that its inherent existence is denied. (By ‘inherent existence’ it is meant that the self could, theoretically, exist without any relation to other factors). Buddhism maintains that the self as we know it—that thing by which we to refer ourselves when we use the first-person pronoun—is but an illusion, albeit a very useful one. Spinoza does not talk much about the self in the Ethics , but he does discuss the human mind and body, and we can thus infer how he would conceive of the self as a referent of the first-person pronoun. The point I would like to make in this paper is that there are more similarities between Spinoza and Buddhism than there are differences. Analyses of how the Buddhist views the conception of the self could shed light on Spinoza’s own view on the union of the mind and body, which is notoriously difficult to comprehend. Furthermore, a close look at how Spinoza formulates his view concerning the mind and body could provide insight on how Buddhist philosophy might approach the issue in general. Hence, the benefits go both ways.
More specifically, I would like to contend that for Spinoza, as well as the Buddhist, the self does not strictly speaking exist. One cannot practically deny the reality of such a thing, but the apparent conflict and how it can be resolved will be discussed more extensively later. The merits of comparative studies are numerous: one not only discovers points of similarity and discrepancy between two systems, but also receives philosophical purchase from the comparison itself. In this sense Spinoza’s view of the self as a union of individual mind and individual body, and of bodies in general as objects of the mind, as well as his view of the mind as necessarily embodied, could function as a yardstick with which the Buddhist view can be compared. Marshall (2009), on the other hand, argues that Spinoza does not believe the mind and body are numerically identical. His view hinges on the ontological status of the Spinozistic attributes, which do not directly touch upon the argument presented in this paper. In the same vein, the Buddhist analysis of the self might also benefit our understanding of Spinoza, as we shall see in the following sections. All this has ultimately to do with Spinoza’s God and the Buddhist’s Dharma, or reality in the ultimate or absolute sense. I contend that an understanding of the nature of one can improve that of the other. Spinoza’s God possesses a number of interesting points of comparison with the Buddhist’s ultimate reality, and understanding these points is essential for grasping the notions of self in both traditions.
Spinoza’s Self as Mode of Union of Mind and Body
Spinoza discusses the mind and body in Book II of the Ethics. In Proposition 11 Spinoza says as follows: ‘The first thing that constitutes the actual being of a human Mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.’ He goes on to claim that the ‘particular thing’ that is ‘actually existing’ is the body. Proposition 13 says that ‘the object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of Extension which actually exists, and nothing else.’ Thus, he seems to be saying that the mind is constituted by a thought, or an idea that one has of a particular physical thing. Without such a relation there can be no mind. To the extent that a mind has such a relation to an individual object, it must become an individual mind. Spinoza sees a parallel between mind and body, a view known as parallelism. His own unique view, however, is that both mind and body are attributes of God, such that there can be no body which is not accompanied by a mind, and vice versa. Every individual mind has to have a bodily object to which it is related, and every bodily object must be accompanied by a mind. In Proposition 3 of the same book Spinoza states, ‘In God there is necessarily an idea, both of his essence and of everything that necessarily follows from his essence.’ Given that every existing thing flows from God’s infinite essence in infinite ways, there is an idea of everything whatsoever. In other words, there is a one-to-one correspondence between every idea and every physical object, and this parallelism is established by the fact that all ideas and bodies are modes of the two attributes of God, each attribute being an essence of Him. To wit, both physical and mental objects are parts of one and the same God. When considered one way (under one attribute) God appears to be physical; but considered another way, under another attribute, God appears to be mental. As physical and mental objects are only modes of the two attributes, they are, collectively speaking, identical; and when considered as individual things, their physical and mental characters manifest themselves as such by constituting its very being. In other words, a physical object is also mental; a mental object is also physical. This absolute parallelism is thus the strongest of its kind, since two traditionally polarized elements are conflated.
As said earlier, Spinoza does not specifically discuss the self in the Ethics, but he does mention the human mind and body in Proposition 16: ‘The idea of any mode in which the human Body is affected by external bodies must involve the nature of the human Body and at the same time the nature of the external body.’ For him, the human mind is the idea of the human body. This follows from the discussion above. Thus, it is not possible for the human mind to exist without its corresponding body. Spinoza also states that the idea of the mind and body are one and the same, viz. Proposition 20: ‘There is also in God an idea, or knowledge, of the human Mind, which follows in God in the same way and is related to God in the same way as the idea, or knowledge, of the human Body;’ and Proposition 21: ‘This idea of the Mind is united to the Mind in the same way as the Mind is united to the Body.’ The latter proposition is particularly important in that it points to Spinoza’s view of self-consciousness, i.e. the act of the mind when directed to itself. Put simply, what Proposition 21 suggests is that when the mind is directed towards an object, the manner in which the direction takes place is the same whether it is directed outward, to an external object, or inward, to itself. Coupled with the above consideration, it might be said that the union of the mind and body—the parallelism discussed earlier—is of the same sort of idea as the relation between the mind and the mind itself. Thus, as there is a strong parallel between mind and body, there is also a parallel between the mind and the idea of the mind. Here is where we receive a glimpse of how Spinoza might view the self: when the mind is directed inward, it establishes a union between the perceiver and the perceived, the subject and the object. The self, then, is this union between mind and body that is individual and limited only to a particular human being. The self is composed of both physical and mental elements, and belongs to the body.
Does the Self Absolutely Exist According to Spinoza?
Perhaps Spinoza’s boldest claim regarding the self resides in his idea of the conatus in Propositions 6 and 7 of Book III. Proposition 6 states, ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.’ Proposition 7, meanwhile, claims that ‘the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.’ The basic idea here is that for each individual thing there exists a force that strives to preserve it. This does not sound traditionally Spinozistic, but rather quite mystical: how could it be that such a force exists in each individual thing? The content of Proposition 6 follows from that of Proposition 4, which reads, ‘No thing can be destroyed except through an external cause.’ Thus, for each thing to remain with itself, it must have a natural tendency to remain so unless an external force destroys it. Proposition 5 supports this in saying, ‘Things are of a contrary nature, i.e. cannot be in the same subject, insofar as they can destroy the other.’ Since a thing is an expression of God’s act and reason, and since contrary things destroy themselves, a thing persists within its own being because persistence is simply a consequence of having no contrary nature within itself. Thus the conatus happens as a logical result of there being a thing that persists in itself alone. Proposition 5’s claim is that if one thing can destroy another, then the two are contrary and cannot inhere within the same subject. For example, love and hate are contrary to each other; love is the force that preserves things, and hate the opposite. So love and hate are like contrary chemical compounds that destroy each other as soon as they come into contact. For Spinoza, the reason the world is still here is that the power of love is more than that of hate; and each thing, when left to itself, owes its being and persistence to that power, since love is ‘a Joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause,’ and Joy is ‘a man’s passage from a lesser to a greater perfection’ (See Definitions 2 and 6 in Proposition 59, Book III). As perfection cannot be achieved without reality (sc. man’s ascent towards God), love is a means by which joy is achieved; it is through love that one ascends to God. In Spinoza’s terms this actually entails that one achieves full understanding of reality through becoming absolutely in tune with the causality and rationality of nature.
So the picture is this: each of us contains a conatus, a natural tendency to preserve our beings which are in fact our very essence. The conatus strives to preserve our beings and by doing so realizes that it can do more, i.e. achieve its essential nature through striving to surpass itself in order to attain union with God. In less mystical terms, this means that the conatus strives to achieve a full union of the individual with God, or the ultimate reality, thereby erasing any substantive boundary between the individual and reality itself.
All in all, then, can the conatus be considered the self? In one way it certainly can. As all things contain their conatus, so does an individual human being, whose essence is certainly her conatus. However, what is strange about the conatus of a human being is that it must always be absolutely the same: the conatus of each human being is nothing more than that striving force that exists within it. Here the supposed essence of human beings is no different from the essence of simple things like rocks and trees. But if this is the case, then all human beings must be identical, since they share the same type of essence. There can be no difference in conatus between one human being and another, because the conatus is only that striving perseverance present within each of us, and nothing more. Thus, it cannot be identical with the self because the self of each individual must by nature be unique. Nonetheless, the conatus appears to be the closest thing in Spinoza’s system to such an individual self. That the self is not the same as the conatus does not necessarily imply that the self does not exist in Spinoza’s system, however: individual and unique traits of a human being may still be found, but they are particular in the same way an individual object over there might be particular. The task of the human being is to achieve what he calls ‘the intellectual love of God’—the striving towards perfection which is achieved when one has full understanding and leads one’s life in accordance with reason. Here the uniqueness of this situation does not play a role; instead the idea is to forgo these traits of individuality by merging with the One, so to speak, through losing one’s unique individual traits.
The Buddhist Doctrine of the Non-Self
Let us look at how Buddhism views the self. The view of Buddhism is here a vast topic: unlike Spinoza’s philosophy, the view of the self is central to Buddhist thought and there is, as a result, a vast amount of relevant literature within all traditions of Buddhism. In this short paper I shall be able to focus on only one aspect of the argument that concerns itself with the division of the self into five khandhas, which are literally translated as ‘heaps’ or ‘aggregates.’ A basic tenet in Buddhist philosophy in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions is that the self is regarded as being composed of form (rūpa), feelings (vedanā), perceptions (saññā), thought formations (sankhāra) and consciousness (viññāna). (For an introduction to Buddhist philosophy, see Siderits, 2007 and Gethin, 1998. The analysis of the self as consisting of five elements here is fundamental in all Buddhist schools.) These five elements can be grouped together into physical and mental entities whereby form belongs to the former and the other four aggregates to the latter. The argument is that, as the self is divisible into these five aggregates, it cannot be found as an inherently existing entity because the self dissolves itself by virtue of being so divisible. Any characteristic that is thought to belong to the self, such as having a certain personality, is not found to belong to any of these aggregates. The personality may be thought to belong to perceptions and memories, but these are fleeting and constituted by countless short episodes, so cannot be considered as a candidate for the self that is thought to endure as a source of personality. The same kind of analysis applies when the self is equated with the body. In short, the Buddhist takes up the usual way in which the self is conceived: as existing as a life-giving soul, and finds that it is nothing more than a collection of these five aggregates. As none of them possess the characteristic that is necessary for their being a substantial self, the latter cannot exist. Note, however, that for the Buddhist the self does exist: to categorically deny this would be insupportable since we all refer to ourselves as a basic mode of communication. The problem, then, is the exact nature of this thing to which I refer in using the word ‘I.’
One of the most important places in the canonical Scripture where the Buddha specifically discusses the Doctrine of the Non-Self is the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, or the Discourse on the Non-Self Characteristics (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015). According to the standardized account, the Buddha, having just attained Nirvana, turned to his original five disciples and convinced them that he had attained Liberation. After giving his first teaching, one of these disciples began to understand the basics of his ideas, resulting ultimately in all five disciples attaining this Liberation. The topic of the second teaching, Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, is precisely the nature of the Non-Self. The Discourse begins as follows:
Thus it was heard by me. At one time the Blessed One was living in the deer park of Isipatana near Benares. There, indeed, the Blessed One addressed the group of five monks.
‘Form, O monks, is not-self; if form were self, then form would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since form is not-self, therefore form leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.’
Feeling, O monks, is not-self; if feeling were self, then feeling would not lead to affliction and it should obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus;’ and indeed, O monks, since feeling is not-self, therefore feeling leads to affliction and it does not obtain regarding feeling: ‘May my feeling be thus, may my feeling not be thus’ (Anatta-lakkhana Sutta, 2015).
The Buddha is referring to the five khandas mentioned earlier. The self is understood to be exhaustively divided into these five elements, and the Buddha’s strategy in the Sutta is to show that each of these five elements cannot validly function as the self of the person. ‘Form’ in the excerpt above is the traditional translation of Pali rūpa, meaning the body, i.e. whatever material form that makes up what is normally understood the self. The Buddha points out that this form cannot be identified with the self, because if it were, we must be able to control it with the will. We must, for example, be able to tell the body not to age; and the fact that this is not possible demonstrates that form and the self are not identical. When the body ages or otherwise follows its natural course in a way that we do not like, ‘suffering’ or ‘affliction’ is the result. The Pāli term for this is dukkha, which refers to things not according to our wishes and hence engendering dissatisfaction. The key point is that form does not follow our will, and that if form is to be identified with the self, it must do so. The Buddha then applies the same argument to all other components of the self, with the very same result. The overall conclusion is that we cannot find the self anywhere; the self, in other words, is an illusion. That our form or other khandas follow their own trajectory rather than submit to our will demonstrates that they are a part of the natural order and do not consult us in their doing so. Our aging hair will continue to turn white, for example, no matter how much we will it not to; but it turns white as a part of the natural order of which humans are already a part.
If the argument depends on the claim that form does not follow the will, then is the will itself to be identified with the self? Here the will is part of the mental components of the khandas: recall that there are four mental khandas (the body is identified with rūpa, the only one physical khanda), namely feeling, perception, thought formation, and consciousness. The idea is that any mental act falls under either of these four elements, and none other. The will must thus be a part of either one of these things. This entails that when we have a will or a desire—that I want my hair to be black, for example—it does not actually adhere to whatever we want it to be. The desire is like a thought and according to the Sutta we cannot control it. Sometimes we have a desire or a thought, but sometimes we do not. Many have experienced this difficulty in controlling their thoughts; it seem that they can be so unruly that we often have a hard time restraining them. It is possible that sometimes the thought or the desire that I want black hair arises, but some other times it does not. Those who practice meditation will always be familiar with such difficulties. We cannot focus upon a single thought for very long; and in this way our thoughts and desires follow the natural order in the way of our bodies. It is in this sense that the Buddha argues that the self cannot be found anywhere, since even our will can elude our control.
The point made by the Sutta, then, is that whenever we gaze inside, where we normally expect to find our enduring selves, we in fact find nothing. Instead we unearth mere parts of the natural order that follow their own logic and cause-and-effect relations, and which bear no significance to the self. Even our consciousness follows the natural order in this way. The only reasonable conclusion from this is that what we normally conceive to be the self is but an illusion which does not exist independently.
However, if the Buddha argues that there is no self, then what are we referring to when we use the first-person pronoun? When we flee from danger, for example, what exactly are we trying to preserve? The Buddha’s point is not that he wants to eliminate all discussion on the ego; instead he wants to point out that our normal conception of it is in fact inaccurate. It is somewhat similar to apprehending a rainbow, thinking that it is substantial and has enduring existence, while it is in fact only an mirage borne out of light and water particles. In the same way we could say that the five khandhas are more basic in that the existence of the self depends upon them, just as the existence of the rainbow depends upon the light and moisture in the air. However, saying that the rainbow is only an appearance does not mean that it does not exist at all, for we can ostensively perceive it. In the same manner, the self exists even though it is, in basic reality, only an appearance. Hence, when we are running from danger, what we want to preserve is precisely ourselves, which consist of the mind and body combined in such a way that gives rise to a unique personality. The Buddha’s central message is that it is one’s attachment to this union of mind and body that engenders that unique personality—the self—which is the source of all humanity’s afflictions. Once we fully realize that the self is nothing but an appearance caused by our own misconceptions, the root of suffering dissipates and we are liberated at last.
Self and Ultimate Reality
The key to seeing whether Spinoza’s view on the self agrees with that of the Buddhist thus lies in Spinoza’s constructed perspective. If he denies that it exists inherently, as something whose existence necessarily depends on that of others, then his view would on the whole agree with the Buddhist’s. Recall that, for Spinoza, modes are an attribute of substance considered as limited by their own kind (Definition 5 in Proposition 10 of Book I). That is, a physical object is a piece of extended matter whose outer limit is defined by other objects. If that is the case, then it can be seen that the very being of the object depends crucially upon others. Without the other objects to provide its outer limit, how could the object even exist as an object at all? In the same vein, a self (that is, a union of individual body and individual mind) is limited by its relations with other selves. It is certainly the case that its body is limited by other physical objects, and the mind is also delimited in the same way. And the self, seen from the first-person perspective as a union of mind and body pertaining to one particular person, is thus limited in the same way by other body-and-mind complexes. This points to rather a striking similarity between Spinoza and the Buddhist.
Another point of similarity lies in the emphasis on the presence of natural order in both traditions. We have seen that, for the Buddhist, the khandhas are not to be considered as constituting a self because they follow this natural order—the cosmic law of cause and effect—and not the will of the subject. Spinoza also pays a great deal of attention to this: in Proposition 28, Book I, he states unequivocally that everything that happens does so because of a cause, and this continues ad infinitum. Even the conatus, the force that preserves the integrity of a particular thing, is not to be identified with the self, as we have seen above. The reason for this is that, for Spinoza, every object has its own conatus, and not only a human being whose self we are concerned with in this study. The conatus should, in fact, be viewed more as the force that is inherent everywhere in cosmic reality, and not specifically something that is capable of thinking and desiring in the way that we normally take to be the qualities of the self.
What about the actual metaphysical status of the self? According to Spinoza, it is something that is both physical and mental at the same time—just as substance itself can be seen as constituted essentially by mind and matter—the difference being that while substance is only one, the selves are parts of the substance, just as modes are. This is clear from the fact that they cannot be divided. Furthermore, Propositions 11 and 12 of Book II confirm that there is a strict parallel between the mind and body: what goes on with these substances at a cosmic level also occurs on the more local level of the human being. There is, however, one difference between Spinoza and the Buddhist: for Spinoza the self is both mental and physical; but this is not necessarily the case within certain Buddhist traditions. According to the Abhidhamma, the mind and body are classified as two distinct and incompatible fundamental categories of basic reality, which consists of mind (citta), mental formations or mental states (cetasika), form (i.e., physical matter—rūpa), and Nirvana (Anuruddhācariya, 1979). The Mahayana tradition, following Nāgārjuna, claims instead that mind and matter are not in the end strictly separated, as both belong ultimately to emptiness itself, which is characterized as nature insofar as it is considered to be devoid of any inherently existent characteristics. For the Mahayana, all things are empty by nature; that is, they are what they are only to the extent that certain causes and conditions apply to them. They cannot exist beyond these causes and conditions. Nāgārjuna explains this thoroughly in Chapter IV of his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, which argues that the five khandhas cannot be conceived as existing independently or objectively (Nāgārjuna, 1995). No assertion regarding the khandhas is tenable since no substantive statement can be made of them, since their existence depends upon other factors; and to make any substantive statement demands that each of the khandhas remain still, so to speak, so that assertions or theorizations can be made of them. This is a hugely complex matter, but suffice to say that, according to the Mahayana, mind and matter could be regarded as belonging to the same category of being, which is not unlike Spinoza’s view regarding the relation between God and individual modes. This results from everything being considered a part of emptiness: since all things lack inherent existence and cannot be separated—because separation presuppose some kind of objective substance—then to separate things as mental and physical would be to presuppose that there exists objective categories of ‘mental’ and ‘physical’—which contradicts the premise that all things lack inherent existence. Thus, to classify things in such a way, one must depend on one’s own conceptualization and convention (Nāgārjuna, 1995, Verse 18, Chapter 24, and also Verse 5, Chapter 5.) This claim is also dependent on whether it is possible to talk of emptiness as itself a category of being. If emptiness can be considered as being in some way, then there is a straightforward means by which it can be compared to Spinoza’s God. Another strand in Buddhist philosophy claims that ‘emptiness’ is only a word that designates a condition whereby all things are interdependent with other things, and since everything possesses this characteristic, the notion of emptiness as an entity is but a semantic device. Garfield argues that Nagarjuna subscribes to this view that emptiness is not to be equated with a kind of self-subsisting void that looms over conventional reality. On the contrary, emptiness and conventional reality are themselves one and the same. This is the case for Spinoza as well, as God, or Nature, is nothing but the collection or the totality of all things (Nāgārjuna, 1995, pp. 90-93). In any case, however, I would like only to show that there is at least one strand of Buddhist thought that appears to equate mind and matter, thus making it rather amenable to Spinoza’s thought. This point requires much further elaboration and analysis, however, and I will need to consider both emptiness in Mahayana thought and Spinoza’s God in order to discover points of comparison. A study of the conception of the self in both Spinoza and Buddhist philosophy cannot fail to look at how each view ultimate reality and how comparisons might thus be made.
A discussion of the conceptions of the self in either Buddhism or Spinoza would not be complete without a discussion of the ‘highest possible perfection’ from each perspective. If there is ultimately no self, as the Buddhist argues, then who is liberated when they reach Nirvana? And to Spinoza, who is it that possesses this intellectual love of God? Who achieves blessedness, which is for him the highest human perfection? The Buddhist’s rejoinder is that, ultimately speaking, the question is unsound because it presupposes that there is somebody who obtains the quality of ‘having attained Nirvana.’ To him, there is no such person to attain Nirvana in the first place. A standard source for this point is the Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta (2015) where the Buddha argues that it cannot be claimed that the Tathāgata (the one thus gone, or the Buddha) either survives after death or does not survive, because either way the claim presupposes the existence of something (namely, the Tathāgata) whose confirmation or negation leads to the opposite view. Instead the Buddha claims that existence always depends on causes and conditions; thus it cannot be said of someone who has attained Nirvana that he either survives or does not survive, because in either case the existence is presupposed without the dependence upon causes and conditions. Without this presupposition, then, the question of whether he exists after death or not makes no sense. Nirvana is attained when there is a realization that there is in the last analysis no self as an inherently existing entity. The standard Buddhist understanding of this problem is that one is at this moment disabused from one’s own delusions. One has, in analogy, long mistaken a rope for a snake, and once this realization has dawned upon one’s mind, one is ‘liberated’ from the fear of a snake that was never there. One has mistaken the five khandhas as one’s own self, but after practising and traveling along the Buddhist path, one gains the realization that what has taken to be the self has all along been something else. As a result, one is ‘liberated’ from all the afflictions and problems that accompany the belief in the existence of oneself. By so realizing, one is said to have attained Nirvana.
For Spinoza, the highest possible human perfection is achieved through the ‘intellectual love of God’ (Proposition 33, Book V). Spinoza defines this very important concept in Proposition 33 of Book V: ‘The intellectual love of God, which arises from the third kind of knowledge, is eternal,’ and also, more substantively, in Proposition 36: ‘The Mind’s intellectual love of God is the very Love of God by which God loves himself, not insofar as he is infinite, but insofar as he can be explained by the human Mind’s essence, considered under a species of eternity; i.e., the Mind’s intellectual love of God is part of the infinite Love by which God loves himself.’ The idea is that blessedness is achieved through what Spinoza calls the ‘third kind of knowledge,’ that is, intuitive knowledge one has of God himself as opposed to conceptual or direct perceptual knowledge. The distinction here is based on what Spinoza calls ‘adequate ideas’ (Defition 4 of Book II). These are ideas which are absolutely true, as they are related directly to God and contrast with ‘inadequate ideas.’ In Proposition 36 of Book II, Spinoza clearly distinguishes between these notions when he claims that the inadequate or confused sort are connected with a ‘singular mind,’ where ideas directly connected to God are true. The singular mind that Spinoza speaks of has an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhist’s view of the self as a source of confusion. Here the main idea appears to be the same: perfection is achieved through the dissolution of the self and identification of oneself with the whole or the totality. Spinoza’s notion that ideas are essentially eternal also seems to support the Buddhist interpretation I am suggesting. Roughly, ideas are themselves eternal as parts of the eternal God; as bodies are parts of God ,or Nature (who is eternal and contains many of God’s qualities), so are ideas. The Buddhist would in principle agree with Spinoza here, because to realize eternality one must transcend one’s own egoistic perspective and realize that one has all along been a part of the eternal and the cosmic. Though I cannot offer a full account of this difficult aspect of Spinoza’s thought here, suffice to say that as far as parallelism between mind and body goes, the eternality of mind is mirrored by the eternality of the body; but it is not the body of an individual person, but body per se as a part of nature. The atoms of a corpse, for example, remain despite the fact the person is dead (See also Garrett, 2009). Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge involves the realization that all things are connected as necessary parts of a single God and that everything is interconnected through the necessary chain of cause and effect. This, to me, sounds very much like Buddhism.
To conclude, we might say there are a number of similarities between the conception of the self within Spinoza and Buddhism. First, they are both unions of mind and matter that are limited by their own kind. This is meant both literally and metaphorically: the self is limited physically by the existence of others; but also recognized as such to the effect of limiting what the self is. This is in line with the idea that selves are not merely inert object, but the seats of subjectivity and the source of thoughts and ideas. In Buddhism, this is supported by the tenet that everything is interconnected (idappaccayatā), such that a recognition of there being one thing necessarily requires the recognition of others. Secondly, though Spinoza’s view that mind is constituted by body does not seem to find a direct support in Buddhism, if we interpret the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness in such a way that it is to be equated with ultimate reality, then mind and matter each belong to it. In this sense emptiness can roughly be considered to possess two major characteristics: mental and physical. This would be much in line with Spinoza’s theory of the attributes; if it is possible that emptiness can be recognized as an entity (a view that some Buddhist schools have developed), then mind and matter do indeed appear to run alongside the Spinozistic line of thought. Alternatively, we might say that Spinoza’s view of substance and attributes appears to follow an interpretation of the Mahayana that looks at emptiness as equal to ultimate reality.
What about the Buddhist’s denial of the self’s inherent existence? Although Spinoza does not seem to specify his views here, he does to some extent discuss the human mind and body, which are obvious corollaries of this matter. Furthermore, the whole purpose of the Ethics is to achieve a blessed life, and it must be someone’s self who achieves this as a result of following the path suggested in Spinoza’s suggestions. Thus, it seems incongruent for one to conclude that Spinoza gives short shrift to the self simply because he does not discuss it directly in his Ethics. Since it is always the self that eventually achieves blessedness, it is implied that Spinoza in some way recognizes the self’s existence. But if we think along these lines, Buddhism also recognizes the existence of the self, because in the end it is the self of the practitioner who, after arduous labor, arrives at Nirvana’s shores. In the same vein, I think it equally possible to suggest that in the Ethics the existence of the individual self is similarly tenuous. For one thing, Spinoza acknowledges that in the end there is only one thing, namely God, or substance. All the selves out there are thus only modes of God’s attributes (Proposition 13, Book I). Modes have some level of existence, but they do not exist categorically as God does.
Aggi Vacchagotta Sutta. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.072.than.html 26 July 2015.
Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The discourse on the not-self characteristic (SN 22.59). 2010. N.K.G. Mendis, transl. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 13 June 2010. Retrieved from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.059.mend.html 26 July 2015.
Anuruddhācariya, Bhadanta. 1979. A Manual of Abhidhamma: Being Abhidhammattha Saṅgaha of Bhadanta Anuruddhācariya, Nārada Mahā Thera, ed. and transl. 4th Ed. Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society.
Garrett, Don. 2009. Spinoza on the essence of the human body and the part of the mind that is eternal. In A Cambridge Companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Olli Koistinen, ed. Cambridge University Press.
Gethin, Rupert. 1998. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.
Marshall, Colin. 2009. The mind and the body as ‘one and the same thing’ in Spinoza. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17(5).
Melamed, S. M. 1933. Spinoza and Buddha: Visions of a Dead God. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Nāgārjuna, 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nāgārjuna’s Mūlamadhyamakakārika. Jay L. Garfield transl. Oxford University Press.
Siderits, Mark. 2007. Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Spinoza, Baruch. 1985. The Collected Works of Spinoza. Edwin Curley, ed. and transl. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wienpahl, Paul. 1971. Ch’an Buddhism, Western thought, and the concept of substance. Inquiry,14.
Wienpahl, Paul. 1972. Spinoza and mental health. Inquiry, 15.
Ziporyn, Brook. 2012. Spinoza and the self-overcoming of solipsism. Comparative and Continental Philosophy 4(1).
George P. Simmonds
Oxford Brookes University
The interpretive mayhem engendered by Immanuel Kant’s Critique has, in the space of two centuries, yet to provide a standard or altogether satisfactory exegesis of transcendental idealism, a theory which on all counts lies at the very heart of Kantian philosophy. This paper aims to delineate two of transcendental idealism’s most salient readings in hope of proffering a well-considered comparison and, ultimately, a proposal that neither interpretation provides an account which conforms unerringly to Kant’s own promulgations.
Part I: Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
The Kantian doctrine of transcendental idealism concerns itself with the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, i.e.. objects as they appear to us and objects as they are in and of themselves. Kant’s finishing thesis on the matter posits the human mind as an active contributor to the objects of its perception and thus, in some way, a direct authority upon the nature of reality as we know it (McCormick, 2012, §4).
An exhaustive exposition of transcendental idealism demands a full consideration of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1998), an enterprise well beyond the scope of this paper. Thankfully, in the ‘Transcendental Aesthetic,’ however, Kant assures us that his views on space and time are of particular relevance here, and it is upon these views that the present section will aim to focus (Janiak, 2012, §6). It may, for the sake of clarification, be useful to juxtapose the Kantian notion of space and time with that of Newton (see Newton, 1990, pp.85-109, 823-60), whose transcendental realism epitomises the notion of external reality Kant aimed to oppose. With an eye to Newtonianism he writes:
Those […] who assert the absolute reality of space and time, whether they be subsisting or only inhering, must themselves come into conflict with the principles of experience. For if they decide in favour of the first […], then they must assume two eternal and infinite self-subsisting non-entities (space and time), which are there (yet without there being anything actual) only in order to comprehend everything actual within themselves (Kant, 1998, pp.166-7).
Here Kant presents the transcendental realist position as one which posits space and time as a pair of quasi-objects which exist independently of the human intuition. Without attending to Kant’s direct objections to this concept, it should suffice to say that he does not conceive of space and time as objects, quasi-objects, or indeed anything to be considered independent of human intuition. For him, they are to be conceived neither as things-in-themselves nor properties that can be perceived or verified empirically; they are rather ‘forms of intuition,’ that is, ‘a priori elements of sensible perception’ which would not ‘subsist in themselves’ if one were to contemplate them in abstraction from the minds of those to whose perception they are essential (Guyer, 2006, p.53). It is in this that Kant proffers the notion of the synthetic a priori proposition: observations on these necessary forms are synthetic, since ‘the predicate […] is not logically or analytically contained in the subject,’ but simultaneously a priori because they are ‘verifiable independently of experience,’ since they essentially constitute it (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015). These forms are not, in other words, borne out of the objects themselves but imposed upon them as necessary conditions of the mind’s ‘receiving’ the external world (Schulting and Verburgt, 2011, p.5). When we look at a tulip as it is situated within spatiotemporal reality, then, we are not seeing it as it is, but as it appears to us following the intuition’s attempt to sort it into forms more easily digested by the understanding (van Cleve, 1999, p.134).
But what is the nature of an object beyond the veil of the mind? What are objects like when we are not considering them? It is when we ask questions like these that we stumble into Kant’s controversial distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves or, more concisely, phenomena and noumena. While on the one hand we have the phenomenon, an object as we perceive it through the prism of our intuition and understanding, on the other we have the noumenon, an object ‘unembellished’ by the mind and thus in possession only of those properties that are intrinsic to it (Walsh, 1901, pp.464-5). Things-in-themselves are on all counts considered inscrutable: while Kant claims we are able to perceive phenomena and acquire empirical truths regarding their relations, he insists that we will never apprehend the ‘unknown somethings’ of which appearances are mere representations (Kant, 1998, pp.276-96). This, he says, is impossible from the perspective of the finite mind.
As noted in Braiche (2008), a great deal of tension exists among Kantian scholars where transcendental idealism is concerned. While some interpret it as a doctrine interested in making ontological claims, others read the Critique as propounding an epistemic thesis (pp.2-3). The question of whether Kant intends to suggest that reality consists in two ontologically distinct worlds (one phenomenal, the other noumenal) is pivotal here; and it is around this question that the following sections will work.
Part II: Strawson and the Noumenal World
Needless to say, it is usually the thing-in-itself that provokes interpretive issues. Even Jacobi, one of the Critique’s earliest commentators, famously claims that ‘the “thing-in-itself” is the kind of concept without which it is impossible to enter Kant’s system, but with which it is impossible to get out of the system’ (Jacobi, 1912, p.304). Strawson’s The Bounds of Sense (1996) takes similar issue with Kant’s reliance on noumena and attempts to release transcendental idealism from its inconsistencies by attributing its metaphysical system to Berkeleyan idealism; that is, the notion that external reality is but a phenomenal illusion. ‘The only element in transcendental idealism which has any significant part to play in those structures,’ he writes, ‘is the phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions’ (p.246). Despite the extremity of this deduction, Strawson’s ‘sortings of wheat from chaff’ are broadly acknowledged to stand among transcendental idealism’s most canonical interpretations (Bennett, 1986, p.340).
In reaching these conclusions Strawson focuses on the troublesome relationship between phenomena, noumena, and our cognitive faculties. He begins from what has become known as the ‘two-worlds’ reading of transcendental idealism, a view from which things-in-themselves and their appearances occupy two distinct realities, only the latter of which being comprehensible from the human perspective. The former, that noumenal ‘sphere of supersensible reality,’ must on Kant’s view transcend our intuitive notions of space and time as well as those ‘pure concepts’ which follow from them (such as that of causation) (Strawson, 1996, p.236). This interpretation is not without textual evidence. In Kant’s own words:
We should consider that bodies are not objects in themselves that are present to us, but rather a mere appearance of who knows what unknown object; that motion is not the effect of this unknown cause, but merely the appearance of its influence on our sense (Kant, 1998, p.435).
On this reading, then, we are to consider phenomena and noumena as ontologically distinct objects, one inhering within space and time and the other in some sort of transcendental realm of aspatiotemporal things-in-themselves. This is not to say that these worlds do not interact, however. Strawson insists that human experience must be the result of some ‘complex quasi-causal relation’ between phenomena and noumena, a connection he terms the ‘A-relation’ (Strawson, 1996, p.236). It is by way of this ostensible quasi-causality that noumena and human minds are able to ‘collaborate’ in their formation of the phenomenal world (Braiche, 2008, p.9).
But Strawson does not believe this relationship comports with Kant’s earlier conception of things-in-themselves as unknowable objects that do not conform to the modes of experience central to phenomenal nature. In support of this thesis he questions two aspects of the transcendental-idealist system in hope of bringing the notion of the thing-in-itself into question (Matthews, 1969, pp.206-7).
First, if noumena are unknowable and cannot be cognised, how is that we are able to know that they cause phenomena, or that they are in fact there at all? On Strawson’s reading of Kantian epistemology, things-in-themselves do not fall within the category of ‘possible human experience’ and thus possess neither the capacity to be verified nor any significant meaning as theoretical concepts. To insist that noumena exist despite this would be to approach transcendental idealism as a rationalist, where to claim that they do not would be to fall worryingly close to the extreme idealism of Berkeley (Strawson, 1996, pp.237-40). Kant here faces a dilemma, for he fits comfortably into neither camp. Second, if such notions as space, time, and causation do not exist beyond the realm of appearances, how is it that the A-relation is possible? How is it, in other words, that noumena are able to provide us with the material from which our cognitive faculties are able to construct phenomena? This, too, is a problem for Kant since it is not clear how this might occur without presupposing concepts of causation and, by extension, the forms of space and time (ibid., pp.246-8). While his epistemology is challenged on the first confutation, his ontological account of things-in-themselves is undermined in the second.
The Critique provides no easy way out of these difficulties and this, for Strawson, ‘tolls the death knell’ for transcendental idealism (Braiche, 2008, p.2). If we recall his statement that the doctrine’s only remaining foothold is the ‘phenomenalistic idealism according to which the physical world is nothing apart from perceptions,’ we see that Strawson chooses to equate Kant with Berkeley, both of whom deny the external existence of phenomena yet fail to affirm the things-in-themselves that would otherwise ground them in reality (Strawson, 1996, p.260). And thus Kant is, where his idealism is concerned, considered nothing more than an ‘inconsistent Berkeley’ (Allison, 2004, p.4).
Part III: Allison’s Two Aspects
How might transcendental idealism be navigated from Strawson’s impasse? According to the account proffered in the Bounds, Kant is describing two different classes of objects: the tulip as we see it, and the tulip as it is in and of itself. This is a metaphysical interpretation, and from this approach arises Strawson’s refutation. Allison does not read transcendental idealism this way; rather he views it as an appendage of Kant’s epistemic ideas. For him, the Critique does not intentionally discuss the ontologies of two distinct-yet-somehow-interactive tulips, but a single tulip considered in two different ways (Allison, 2004, pp.229-35). This, at least theoretically, diverts transcendental idealism away from the ambush Strawson prepares in his own exegesis.
Allison does not contend that there is nothing to be considered beyond phenomena: while he does not award things-in-themselves their own ontological status in the way of Strawson, he nonetheless acknowledges them as an important aspect to Kantian philosophy. On his view, sometimes linked with the ‘two-aspects’ position, what distinguishes a thing-in-itself from its appearance is not the domain of existence it occupies but the way in which the human mind considers it. Given that our cognitive faculties actively process and order the external world, thus giving rise to phenomena, it follows that an object of this reality may retain its own sort of existence where these devices are not present. This does not, however, entail the treatment of this existence as a separate, ontologically distinct entity, for it is simply an object of the phenomenal world considered in abstraction from the conditions under which we perceive it (Allison, 2004, pp.33-6). This interpretation is no more lacking in textual evidence than Strawson’s:
We can have cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance […] We [presume] the distinction between things as objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves (Kant, 1998, p.116).
As seen above, phenomena and noumena are ‘the very same things’ considered in different contexts. We cognise phenomena as they appear to us within space and time, adorned with all the concepts part and parcel to human experience; while noumena are these same manifestations considered (via transcendental reflection) in the notional absence of such conditions. In this they retain a sort of methodological or formal status, but by no means an ontological one. This kind of formal significance is in no way peculiar to human thought: in theoretical physics we often consider objects abstracted from their necessary properties, but we do not insodoing commit ourselves to the belief that these abstracted entities exist in any real sense of the word (Allison, 1978, pp.53-4).
To avoid Strawson’s critique, Allison emphasises noumena’s negative role as more a description of what phenomena are not than an account of what might exist beyond the realms of possible experience. This account gives things-in-themselves a viable position within Kantian epistemology without force-feeding them the unwieldy metaphysical significance found in two-worlds interpretations. It shifts, in other words, the axis of the phenomena-noumena distinction from the way things are to the way (or whether) our cognitive faculties respond to them (Braiche, 2008, p.14).
Part IV: A Hopeless Case?
It seems fair to say that the accounts of both Strawson and Allison more-or-less conform to Kant’s original proposition; they would not, otherwise, be so widely discussed as valid interpretations. It is worth considering, however, that throughout the Critique Kant himself appears to oscillate between a two-worlds and a two-aspects position. Transcendental idealism is by no means a straightforward discipline to comprehend, and it could be that our failure to reach a univocal reading of its postulations owes to the irresolution of its author (Matthews, 1969, p.204). To end on a quotation from Wood (2005):
I think much of the puzzlement about transcendental idealism arises from the fact that Kant himself formulates [it] in a variety of ways and it is not at all clear how, or whether, his statements […] can be reconciled or taken as statements of a single, self-consistent doctrine. I think Kant’s central formulations suggest two quite distinct and mutually incompatible doctrines (pp.63-4).
Allison, H.E. (1978). Things in Themselves. Dialectica. 32 (1).
Allison, H.E. (2004). Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defence. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bennett, J. (1968). Strawson on Kant. The Philosophical Review. 77 (3).
Braiche, M. (2008). Strawson and Allison on Transcendental Idealism. Unpublished undergraduate dissertation. Lewis & Clark College.
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Guyer, P. (1987). Kant and the Claims of Knowledge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Guyer, P. (2006). Kant. London: Routledge.
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Janiak, A. (2012). Kant’s Views on Space and Time. Available: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/kant-spacetime/. Last accessed: 17/04/15.
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Langton, R. (1998). Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
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Strawson, P.F. (1996). The Bounds of Sense. London: Routledge.
Van Cleve, J. (1999). Problems from Kant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Wood, A. (2005). Kant. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.
University of Toronto
In this short paper I will be presenting and evaluating the arguments provided by Keller and Nelson in their paper, ‘Presentists Should Believe in Time-Travel.’ I will show that their presuppositions, which are essential to their arguments, have the potential to devastate their central position. We will see that one of these presuppositions comes into conflict with the General Theory of Relativity, and I will demonstrate that this endangers both their own agenda and presentism as a whole.
Keller and Nelson (2001) attempt to show that there are at least some cases of time travel that are compatible with presentism, that is, the view that only the present is real (p.334). Before these scenarios are presented, they assess the nowhere argument (see Axiom 1), which they claim offers a fundamentally incorrect interpretation of the presentist view and must as a result be dismissed. We will revisit the nowhere argument (hereon NA) in Section III. (more…)
University of St Andrews
In this paper I am going to be arguing that the account of identity through change of composition offered by E.J. Lowe is inadequate due to a misconception regarding what it means for one thing to be the same as the original. I wish to argue for a more common-sense view of the matter, as supported by Hobbes, where identity is dependent on physical composition and two things cannot be identical to one. The discussion will mainly be concerning the puzzle of the ship of Theseus as that is what Lowe’s main argument is based around.
This area of metaphysics is concerned with what it means for two things to be identical, but in what sense? According to Leibniz Law, whatever is identical with one thing is that very thing itself, and so whatever is true of one thing is also true of whatever is identical to that thing. More simply put: if a has all the same properties as b, a and b are identical. I agree with Lowe here, that this realisation is trivial and lacks any metaphysical significance; it is clearly just common sense. However, I feel it is important to mention this as a starting place for our conception of identity, even though it is not particularly profound. From here, Lowe turns to the problem of change, where philosophers usually distinguish between what is numerically identical and what qualitatively identical. Lowe’s focus in this section of text, though, is on change of composition. He addresses the question of how much something can change (if at all) before it is no longer the thing it once was.
The example, on which Lowe bases his views about this problem, is the puzzle of the ship of Theseus, a legend reported by the Greek historian, Plutarch. The story goes that the ship was left in the harbour at Athens after Theseus died and it was preserved for many years. After some time, the parts began to decay and they were replaced one-by-one by new parts. Eventually, nothing of the original ship was left and the question, of whether this renovated ship is the same one that Theseus sailed in, remains. Lowe’s immediate response to this is that ‘an artefact can undergo replacement of its parts […] if the replacement occurs in a gradual and piecemeal fashion’ (Lowe, 2012, p.25) and so the renovated ship is still identical with the original ship. It is clear that this change in the ship has occurred over a period of time, but how can a ship that contains none of the original parts actually be that ship as it was when it was made? Lowe returns to this point, but first explores what it would mean for us to place a limit on how much of something can be changed before there is a loss of identity. He claims that it would make no sense to argue that the ship could not undergo a change to any of its parts and still be identical with the original. Some philosophers are in conflict with this, though: notably Chisholm, Leibniz and Moore, who believe in what is known as mereological essentialism. This argues that ‘for any whole x, if x has y as one of its parts, then y is a part of x in every possible world in which x exists’ (Chisholm, cited: Plantinga, 1975, p.468). The implication of this, assuming it is true, is that nothing can survive any change and keep its identity. In some ways this is an easier position to adopt as it saves one having to decide how much change is allowed but, of course, since when have philosophers been concerned with what is easiest?
Lowe’s response to the first part of the puzzle seems to create a further conflict. He argues that the renovated ship is in fact identical with the original even though none of its parts are. I wish to partly favour the mereological essentialists on this matter, both because there seem to be no connection between the original ship and the renovated ship, and because of the next puzzle in the story and Lowe’s beliefs about it, which are as follows.
This final part of the legend was first considered by Hobbes, but it has been retold in several ways since (see Aune, 1985, pp.82-3). Hobbes asks us to imagine that the original parts of Theseus’ ship were kept in a warehouse and one day reassembled in the same way they were before. There would then be two ships which looked almost identical, but there is a worry concerning which is the original. Lowe argues that both have a claim to being the original ship, though accepts that it is not possible for both to be. He continues to maintain that the renovated ship is identical with the original ship and shows that it is not possible for both ships to be identical with original because they ‘are two quite distinct ships, each having a quite distinct location’ (Lowe, 2012, p.28). This leaves him with a problem and, to avoid being left with neither ship being identical (as the mereological essentialists would have to argue), Lowe suggests two solutions to the problem, which he labels radical and later intolerable.
The first solution is to bring back the conception of the two ships both being identical with the original and accept that the same ship can be in two different places at once – the harbour and the warehouse. Lowe quickly rejects this on the grounds that it goes completely against common sense, which is interesting because I would argue the same of his later concepts, and make it impossible for us to know how many ships with one identity are present in any one place. This is a bit of an impossible situation and allows us to make no progress. The second solution offered is little better and falls prey to the same criticisms. The idea is that both ships were originally in the harbour as two quite distinct ships and became separated by a process of renovation and removal. As well as the above issues, this view forces us to conceive no longer of the ship of Theseus as one entity, but the whole point of the discussion hangs on the fact that is.
We come now to the main argument Lowe’s offers as a solution to the puzzle. Interestingly, he claims that his opinion concerning the problem at hand is a common-sense conception but, as we shall see, the implications of such a proposition render it rather a misconception. His first claim is that, at the middle stage, the ship parts in the harbour belong to the ship in the harbour and those in the warehouse ‘belong to no ship at all at that time’ (Lowe, 2012, p.31). He continues by upholding his original view that the renovated ship is the ship of Theseus and it is a mistake to say that the reconstructed ship refers to one ship in the two different situations; one where renovation does occur and one where it does not.
The important part of this argument is where the greater issue comes in. Lowe made a claim and then later contradicted himself concerning whether identity can depend on the existence of another entity. He insists a few pages before his main line of argument that the identity of two things can only concern those things, independently of what else exists. However, his proposed solution seems to indicate that he does in fact believe this, arguing that the reconstructed ship would have been identical with the original if renovation had not occurred and attempting to make it sound more plausible by suggesting that the reconstructed ship could not have existed if renovation had not happened, in the renovation situation. I do not doubt that there would need to be parts in the warehouse for reconstruction to happen, but I find the notion of a renovated ship having a greater claim to being the original than a reconstructed one, highly contentious not to mention unsettling. Even considering all else Lowe says about his view of the problem, he still takes it for granted that the identity of the ship of Theseus has neither been lost nor moved.
Before coming to what Hobbes argues about this, I want to show the implications for such an argument to indicate what we are allowing by accepting what Lowe says as true. From there, I will present a more plausible explanation of the issue at hand and show that common sense is not as far out as we might at first think. Although arguably a fairly silly illustration, the following situation shows what Lowe has forced himself to believe. In the TV show Only Fools and Horses, there is a character called Trigger who earns an award for saving money by having the same broom for twenty years. Upon investigation, he reveals that said broom has in fact had seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles in that time and, unsurprisingly, one of the men listening demands to know how it can still be the same broom. Trigger responds by showing them a photograph of himself and his broom as proof, but this fails, and I think quite rightly, to convince his listeners. It is clear that, for Trigger, replacing one part of the broom at a time does not do anything to its identity as the ‘original broom’, but surely with both a new handle and a new head, the resulting broom is a completely new one; just because Trigger thinks it is the same broom does not mean that it is.
We can make this dilemma equal to the one of the ship of Theseus by supposing that the original handle and head of the broom are kept and later glued back together, leaving us with two brooms. Which then has the identity of the original broom? I would question whether there might be people who follow Lowe on the ship, but disagree with Trigger on the broom. My worry is that, in the former case, the time period and number of pieces tricks people’s perception. With the ship, there are numerous pieces that are changed over a very long time, whereas the broom has just two and these changes have taken place over twenty years. It seems that this difference allows one argument to be sensible and the other quite the contrary. The reality is that they are essentially the same situation and what applies to one, must apply to the other.
This leaves us having to decide how else to solve the problem. Thomas Hobbes puts forward a different and seemly more plausible answer to the puzzle:
Lastly, if the name be given for some accident, then the identity of the thing will depend on the matter; the accidents that were, are destroyed, and the other new ones are generated, which cannot be the same numerically; so that a ship, which signifies matter so figured, will be the same as long as the matter remains the same; but if no part of the matter be the same, then it is numerically another ship; and if part of the matter remain and part be changed, then the ship will be partly the same, and partly not the same. (p.138)
Hobbes’s argument is quite simply that identity depends on original matter and something with none of the same matter is numerically a different thing. He even goes on to add that at the in-between stage, the ship is partly the same and partly not the same. This might leave us with the question of where the original ship is once renovation has happened as it cannot be in the harbour. Presumably, the ship is now where its parts are – in the warehouse – and so in the non-reconstruction situation, the original ship of Theseus simply ceases to exist as a ship. If the parts are just thrown into the warehouse and never used for anything, the ship just exists in parts, if they are actually burnt, then there is clearly nothing left of the ship. I do not want to argue for intermittent existence however, as it seems to make no sense to say that something can be between existing and not existing. All I, and I believe Hobbes, are trying to say is that the ship is just in another form; the entity itself still exists, but it is no longer ship-like in appearance. Provided the parts are restorable, its appearance can be made to resemble a ship once again. Therefore, according to Hobbes, the ship now in the harbour is very similar to Theseus’ ship, but it is not identical with it.
To show support for this argument, I feel that it is necessary to explain what the proposed conception of identity is based upon. No-one would argue that identity is not about things being the same, but there might be disagreement about what is the same. Hobbes, as well as the mereological essentialists, hold the view that identity is based on constituent parts and a change of parts is a change or loss of identity. To them, an entity’s parts are its essence and therefore a necessary part of its identity. This seems to be common sense, for if identity is not based on constituent parts, what else can it based on? Surely arguing that something with completely new parts is identical to the original leaves the criteria for identity completely arbitrary. I feel that this is nonsense and that identity is not open to allowing complete change.
As mentioned previously, I do not wish to argue for mereological essentialism, but for Hobbes’ slightly weaker conception of identity. The main issue with mereological essentialism is that it would deny that a reconstructed ship or a ship left in the harbour without renovation is identical with the original. This is because this view allows no change to occur; in the first case, the ship would have to be put back together with glue or nails and other new material which would change its composition, and in the second case, the decaying would also change it, albeit naturally. For the mereological essentialists, it is very difficult for anything to keep its identity; it would keep having a new one.
As a result of this, it seems that I have only given a definition of identity which works for objects and this could be a potential problem for the discussion that would follow this; that of personal identity. This particular discussion really concerns artefacts, as in the puzzle of the ship of Theseus, and so I will not go into too much detail about this further issue. However, I feel that it should be noted that the current argument would lead us either to accepting that we do change identity when all our cells are renewed (as is said to happen every seven years) or, if we refuse to do that, we would need to conceive of the mind as not entirely material and argue for a dualist position. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into this, but it would be another interesting discussion.
In conclusion, then, Lowe’s conception of identity and the ideas he puts forward to support it, fail to account for the way we understand identity and leave us with implications that are implausible. Lowe argues for the renovated ship being identical with the original, but this leaves us with rather arbitrary criteria on which we place our understanding of identity. Because of this, I have proposed a view first suggested by Thomas Hobbes that makes constituent parts an essential aspect of the identity of something. It seems that the mereological essentialists go too far with an allowance of zero percent change and leave us with a never-ending cycle of renewed identity. On the other hand, I would argue that Lowe goes too far the other way and so his view is equally problematic. By appealing to the common sense view I have suggested, we avoid any issues of arbitrary criteria, two things having the same identity and something with more identical parts having less identity.
Aune, B. (1985), Metaphysics: The Elements, United States: University of Minnesota Press.
Lowe, E. (2002), A Survey of Metaphysics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hobbes, T. (1839; 1655), The English Work of Thomas Hobbes, Volume I, London: John Bohn.
Plantinga, A. (1975), On Mereological Essentialism, The Review of Metaphysics, 28 (3).
University of St Andrews
In this essay I am going to be arguing that Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial, on the grounds that his argument results in two positions which cannot coexist, however both he and Scotus do give us a good reason to think that it might be, as several of their key premises are difficult to refute. Scholastic thought in the area of the philosophy of mind began with Aristotle and involves talk of souls rather than minds, but the soul encompasses an intellectual power (possessed only by humans), a sensitive and locomotive power (possessed by humans and animals) and a nutritive power (possessed by humans, animals and plants). Nowadays, we would probably say that these powers are the operations of the mind and brain, and scarcely mention the soul. However, our concern here is less the semantics, but the nature of the soul or mind and so I will use the term soul just as the scholastics and Aristotle do to avoid confusion.
Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy of mind is an attempt to reconcile the teaching of Aristotle with that of Christian doctrine, and therefore philosophy with theology; the primary concern being Aristotle’s non-reductive physicalism and the Christian teaching of the afterlife, for which St. Paul and Augustine are the authorities. Aristotle’s main point is that the soul is the form of the body; ‘form’ in the sense of the configuration of elements that something is composed of. He believed that the soul was this configuration and this left him with some form of non-reductive physicalism; non-reductive because, although the mind and body are not separable, they are not identical either, and physicalism because the soul is the brain’s and nervous system’s set of capacities and they are therefore inseparable. As all this is physical, there is no problem with assigning these capacities to organs in the body, but Aristotle decides that he cannot do this with the thinking aspect of the soul; there is no organ which it links to. He holds onto this belief due to a commitment to the idea that the configuration (the concept) of an object is in the mind, but the object itself is not.
However, this presents him with a tension and results in a form of dualism, whereby the intellect is formless and therefore not blended with the body, making it only a potentiality. He attempts to solve this problem by pertaining to the possibility of two different intellects: an active and a passive. The passive is where forms reside and is inseparable from the body, whereas the active (that by which we do our thinking) is separable; the active intellect depends upon the passive and so some of the intellect is immaterial and some is not.
It is from here that Aquinas begins his work. Christian doctrine teaches us that there is an afterlife and a resurrection of the body and Aristotle argues that the agent intellect is a part of the soul which survives death, for it is separable from the body. The problem is that Christian doctrine does not give us a reason to believe in substance dualism. We see this in St Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi:
But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Saviour. He will take these weak mortal bodies of ours and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same mighty power that he will use to conquer everything, everywhere.
The problem for Aquinas is that his Christian beliefs lead him towards favouring physicalism, but he also supports Aristotle who takes something of a substance dualist line; he then has to find a way of linking Christian doctrine to dualism if he is to hold onto both. As it is personal immortality that Aquinas wishes to account for, it makes sense for him to argue that the agent intellect (which we saw in Aristotle) does survive death. This agent intellect is not the human person though, for it is incorporeal and immortal, so he has not yet established personal immortality, but has cleared the way for some kind of dualism.
In Summa Theologiae, 75 ad 2, Aquinas sets out to prove that the human soul is incorporeal and subsistent, amongst other things. This is our concern as it brings out his conclusion that the soul is immaterial also. The argument is in seven key parts, but this is not where the greatest problem is, as we shall see. Aquinas writes:
I answer that, it must necessarily be allowed that the principle of intellectual operation, which we call the soul of man, is a principle both incorporeal and subsistent. For it is clear that by means of the intellect man can know all corporeal things.
This final sentence demonstrates the first of the key points; that we understand that which our senses perceive through the intellect. That which receives this information cannot itself have anything it receives information about as part of its nature and, as all bodies have their own nature, it cannot be a body either. This covers points one to three. Four states that because of two and three, it cannot be supported by an organ and therefore, five – it has an operation which the body does not. This operation is in the intellectual principle (to use Aquinas’ language) and so it must subsist; that is, be dependent on nothing and stand alone. Aquinas now concludes seven, that the intellectual principle is both incorporeal (as shown by three) and subsistent (which we see in five and six). Subsistence for Aristotle is essentially the same as being a substance. This is not in the scientific sense of the word, but much more generally – a thing, an entity. What this means for Aquinas is that his argument is becoming dualist in nature with reference to the soul. This view of subsistence applies to a notion of strong subsistence, but Aquinas also speaks of a weak one, whereby something is a part of a substance which is itself subsistent in the stronger sense of the word. An example of a weakly subsisting thing could be a hand or foot; whilst it is a thing in and of itself, its existence is dependent on the body.
So what is the dilemma? For the soul to have its own operation, it must have a particular mode of existence; that is, as an individual or as part of an individual one. This seems to make sense as it would be nonsense to say that a property, such as colour or shape, is an object’s operation; an operation can only be an action. Aquinas now makes the leap from the soul’s having its own operation to its existing independently – this is strong subsistence. However, Aquinas then says:
Since the human soul is a part of human nature, it can be called this particular thing in the first sense, as being something subsistent; but not in the second, for in this sense the composite of the body and soul is said to be this particular thing.
We now see that he is introducing weak subsistence and attempting to argue that the soul is both weakly and strongly subsistent simultaneously. Before proceeding to the problems this presents, it is important to see why Aquinas would want to argue this. We have seen that for the soul to have its own operation it must be subsistent and this subsistence must be in the stronger sense because it alone is ‘this particular thing’. Aquinas now writes that in the second sense, that is, where things that are parts of a subsisting thing are excluded, it is not the soul that is ‘this particular thing’, but the composition of body and soul. It is this composition that he wishes to hold onto which results in the need for a weakly subsisting soul. As soon as the soul is given the label of ‘this particular thing’ – the ‘substance’ for Aristotle, the human body becomes superfluous and the unity of the human being – the encompassment of spiritual and corporeal substances – is lost. Both Aquinas and Aristotle stand for the belief that one can think of and understand an object because the object’s form resides in the intellect, but preserving the unity of the human being is inconsistent with the soul having an operation which the body does not share and this threatens the original idea that the soul is incorporeal. Aquinas endeavours to give an account of the soul as a strongly and weakly subsisting thing at the same time, which is impossible, but a loss of either would undermine his whole thesis and Aristotle’s too.
It is clear that this attempt will not work unless something is given up, but Aquinas does not offer us such a solution. John Duns Scotus, on the other hand, is not convinced by Aquinas’ argument, but does seem inclined to reach a similar conclusion. Scotus, as a fellow scholastic, is determined to prove the existence of an immaterial soul, but without making any claims devoid of reason. In chapter six of Opus Oxoniense, he states that three propositions would have to be established before we could reach the conclusion that the soul is immaterial through reason. These are (I) the intellective soul is the specific form of man, (II) the intellective soul is incorruptible and (III) the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. It is the first of these propositions that concerns us here, but the third I wish to come back to, as its discussion shows Scotus’ own feelings on the matter, and Scotus himself suggests that the second cannot be proven even though there might be good reasons for it. It seems that we do know the first proposition by natural reason, but this would not fit with Aquinas’ beliefs about subsistence and the incorporeal nature of the soul. Scotus is not concerned about this, in fact he aims to show the difficulties in Aquinas’ argument and rework it at the same time.
There are several sections to Scotus’ main argument for the first proposition and it presents him with two conclusions. The first premise is that all sense knowledge is sense experience of particular things and not concepts. He then adds that human beings possess knowledge that is beyond knowledge of particulars; we have knowledge of concepts, deductions and inferences also. From here Scotus takes two paths: one to reach the conclusion that this knowledge we have over and above that of particulars is our specific form, on the grounds that this knowledge is understanding and it is what distinguishes us from the animals, and the other to show that the part of the soul which understands must be immaterial. It the second proof which we are interested in and from here, Scotus demonstrates that the knowledge we call understanding is something immaterial, but no organic knowledge can be immaterial because it is only sensed if it is received. This means that no bodily organ can be responsible for said knowledge and the part of the soul which does the receiving of this knowledge must itself be immaterial.
Scotus’ conclusion seems to follow on from his premises and create a coherent and valid argument, but how are we to take ‘immaterial’ in this sense? Scotus writes:
This word “immaterial” is frequently used by the Philosopher in this connexion, but it appears to be ambiguous. There are three relevant ways in which it can be understood.
These three ways he goes onto explain are: (I) not linked to a bodily organ, (II) not extended and (III) abstract. He explains that the argument only works with the use of the first or second sense of immaterial, but the only one we can have surety over is the third. We need to get from this abstract notion of the immateriality of the soul to an incorporeal one. One way to do this would be to question Aristotle’s mind/world identity thesis and distinguish between the concept and its content. Both Aristotle and Aquinas assume that a concept can be inferred from its content, but it could be the case that the concept (or the intellect using it) is an accident of the brain and therefore material, but with abstract content.
However, even if this move does work there is still the difficulty mentioned above with the third of Scotus’ propositions; that is, that the specific form of man will not remain forever outside the composite. This problem is in fact one of Scotus’ own. Although he considers his conclusion to be likely, he does not think that they were absolutely conclusive; it is possible that the soul cannot exist apart from the unity of spirit and body. Scotus concludes the section on a priori proof with: ‘the conclusion, then, which follows from these three propositions is not sufficiently known a priori by natural reason.’
In conclusion, Aquinas does not succeed in proving that the soul is immaterial on the grounds that he requires the soul to have both strong and weak subsistence and the two cannot coexist. It seems too that Scotus’ criticism of Aquinas is fair as it is his almost unwavering acceptance of Aristotle which leads him to such a difficult position to maintain as Aristotle’s conclusions are just as problematic. Scotus shows us that progress can be made when the original mind/world identity thesis is abandoned, but that there is still a long way to go if pure reason is to secure such conclusions. We can see that a proof of this argument has not been achieved, but that both Aquinas and Scotus have given us reasons to think that an argument for the soul or mind as an immaterial entity should not be abandoned, but constructed differently with reference to the location of concepts.
Aquinas, T. (1265-1274), Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1947) [online] retrieved 25th May from: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP/FP075.html#FPQ75OUTP1
Aristotle (ca. 350 BC), De Anima. Translated by Smith, J. [online] retrieved 23rd May from: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Aristotle/De-anima/de-anima2.htm
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, (Published in 1996), United States: Tyndale House Publishers
Scotus, J., Philosophical Writings. Translated by Wolter, A. (1987), Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company