Thursday, December 21, 2017

Aristotle: Causation and Being


In several places Aristotle distinguishes four types of cause, or explanation. First, he says, there is that of which and out of which a thing is made, such as the bronze of a statue. This is called the material cause. Second, there is the form or pattern of a thing, which may be expressed in its definition; Aristotle’s example is the proportion of the length of two strings in a lyre, which is the formal cause of one note’s being the octave of another. The third type of cause is the origin of a change or state of rest in something; this is often called the “efficient cause.” Aristotle gives as examples a person reaching a decision, a father begetting a child, a sculptor carving a statue, and a doctor healing a patient. The fourth and last type of cause is the end or goal of a thing—that for the sake of which a thing is done. This is known as the “final cause.”

Although Aristotle gives mathematical examples of formal causes, the forms whose causation interests him most are the substantial forms of living beings. In these cases substantial form is the structure or organization of the being as a whole, as well as of its various parts; it is this structure that explains the being’s life cycle and characteristic activities. In these cases, in fact, formal and final causes coincide, the mature realization of natural form being the end to which the activities of the organism tend. The growth and development of the various parts of a living being, such as the root of a tree or the heart of a sheep, can be understood only as the actualization of a certain structure for the purpose of performing a certain biological function.


For Aristotle, “being” is whatever is anything whatever. Whenever Aristotle explains the meaning of being, he does so by explaining the sense of the Greek verb to be. Being contains whatever items can be the subjects of true propositions containing the word is, whether or not the is is followed by a predicate. Thus, both Socrates is and Socrates is wise say something about being. Every being in any category other than substance is a property or a modification of substance. For this reason, Aristotle says that the study of substance is the way to understand the nature of being. The books of the Metaphysics in which he undertakes this investigation, VII through IX, are among the most difficult of his writings.

Aristotle gives two superficially conflicting accounts of the subject matter of first philosophy. According to one account, it is the discipline “which theorizes about being qua being, and the things which belong to being taken in itself”; unlike the special sciences, it deals with the most general features of beings, insofar as they are beings. On the other account, first philosophy deals with a particular kind of being, namely, divine, independent, and immutable substance; for this reason he sometimes calls the discipline “theology.”

It is important to note that these accounts are not simply two different descriptions of “being qua being.” There is, indeed, no such thing as being qua being; there are only different ways of studying being. When one studies human physiology, for example, one studies humans qua animals—that is to say, one studies the structures and functions that humans have in common with animals. But of course there is no such entity as a “human qua animal.” Similarly, to study something as a being is to study it in virtue of what it has in common with all other things. To study the universe as being is to study it as a single overarching system, embracing all the causes of things coming into being and remaining in existence.
The unmoved mover

The way in which Aristotle seeks to show that the universe is a single causal system is through an examination of the notion of movement, which finds its culmination in Book XI of the Metaphysics. As noted above, motion, for Aristotle, refers to change in any of several different categories. Aristotle’s fundamental principle is that everything that is in motion is moved by something else, and he offers a number of (unconvincing) arguments to this effect. He then argues that there cannot be an infinite series of moved movers. If it is true that when A is in motion there must be some B that moves A, then if B is itself in motion there must be some C moving B, and so on. This series cannot go on forever, and so it must come to a halt in some X that is a cause of motion but does not move itself—an unmoved mover.

Since the motion it causes is everlasting, this X must itself be an eternal substance. It must lack matter, for it cannot come into existence or go out of existence by turning into anything else. It must also lack potentiality, for the mere power to cause motion would not ensure the sempiternity of motion. It must, therefore, be pure actuality (energeia). Although the revolving heavens, for Aristotle, lack the possibility of substantial change, they possess potentiality, because each heavenly body has the power to move elsewhere in its diurnal round. Since these bodies are in motion, they need a mover, and this is a motionless mover. Such a mover could not act as an efficient cause, because that would involve a change in itself, but it can act as a final cause—an object of love—because being loved does not involve any change in the beloved. The stars and planets seek to imitate the perfection of the unmoved mover by moving about the Earth in a circle, the most perfect of shapes. For this to be the case, of course, the heavenly bodies must have souls capable of feeling love for the unmoved mover. “On such a principle,” Aristotle says, “depend the heavens and the world of nature.”

Aristotle is prepared to call the unmoved mover “God.” The life of God, he says, must be like the very best of human lives. The delight that a human being takes in the sublimest moments of philosophical contemplation is in God a perpetual state. What, Aristotle asks, does God think of? He must think of something—otherwise, he is no better than a sleeping human—and whatever he is thinking of, he must think of eternally. Either he thinks about himself, or he thinks about something else. But the value of a thought depends on the value of what it is a thought of, so, if God were thinking of anything other than himself, he would be somehow degraded. So he must be thinking of himself, the supreme being, and his life is a thinking of thinking (noesis noeseos).

This conclusion has been much debated. Some have regarded it as a sublime truth; others have thought it a piece of exquisite nonsense. Among those who have taken the latter view, some have considered it the supreme absurdity of Aristotle’s system, and others have held that Aristotle himself intended it as a reductio ad absurdum. Whatever the truth about the object of thought of the unmoved mover, it seems clear that it does not include the contingent affairs of individual human beings.

Thus, at the supreme point of Aristotle’s causal hierarchy stand the heavenly movers, moved and unmoved, which are the final cause of all generation and corruption. And this is why metaphysics can be called by two such different names. When Aristotle says that first philosophy studies the whole of being, he is describing it by indicating the field it is to explain; when he says that it is the science of the divine, he is describing it by indicating its ultimate principles of explanation. Thus, first philosophy is both the science of being qua being and also theology. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Plato: Phaedo


The life and teachings of Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.) stand at the foundation of Western philosophy. He lived in Athens during a time of transition (Athens' defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) ended the Golden Age of Athenian civilization) and had a tremendous influence on the Athenian youth of his day. Socrates himself never recorded his thoughts, so our only record of his life and thought comes from his contemporaries. These accounts are mixed and often biased by the authors' personal interpretations.

It seems that Socrates led a very simple life, renouncing wealth and holding himself aloof from political ambitions, preferring instead to mingle with the crowds in Athens' public places, engaging whomever he could in conversation. Nonetheless, he did serve as a hoplite (heavy infantryman) in several battles during the Peloponnesian War, and was distinguished by his fortitude and bravery. In 399, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, of inventing new deities, and of corrupting the youth of Athens.

The most likely reason for this trial is Socrates' close association with a number of men who had fallen out of political favor in Athens. But because an amnesty had been declared for political offenders, other charges had to be brought against him. Socrates was found guilty by a narrow margin and then sentenced to death. Socrates' response to the charges brought against him are recorded by Plato in The Apology.

Plato (c. 427-347 B.C.), the author of The Phaedo, was one of Socrates' greatest admirers, and our knowledge of Socrates stems mostly from Plato's dialogues (for competing accounts, see Aristophanes' satirical presentation in The Clouds and the writings of Xenophon). Plato was born into a prominent Athenian family, and was expected to pursue a career in politics. However, the short-lived Spartan-imposed oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants (404-403) and the trial and execution of his mentor, Socrates, led Plato to become disgusted with Athenian political life, and he devoted himself instead to teaching and philosophical inquiry. To that end, he founded the Academy around 385 B.C., which counted Aristotle among its students. The Academy lasted in one form or another until 527 A.D., 912 years in total, and served as the prototype for the Western university system.

Plato's thought is mostly recorded in the form of dialogues which feature Socrates as the protagonist. Apparently, the Socratic dialogue was a genre form at the time; not just Plato, but many of Socrates' other students recorded philosophical debates in this form. Plato's dialogues are generally classed into early, middle, and late periods. The early dialogues were written soon after Socrates' death, and in them we get the clearest picture of Socrates and Socratic philosophy. As Plato matured, however, he developed an increasingly distinct voice and philosophical outlook. The figure of Socrates in the middle and late dialogues, of which the Phaedo is one, becomes more of a mouthpiece for Plato's own views. In particular, the Phaedo has Socrates discussing the thoroughly Platonic Theory of Forms. Though the dialogue tells the story of Socrates' last hours before his execution, we should make no mistake in recognizing that the account is purely fictional, and serves the purpose of advancing Plato's theories rather than of telling an accurate story. The Phaedo was written after Plato founded the Academy, and it is intended as a philosophical work for an audience of philosophers.


  Socrates  -  The protagonist of the Phaedo, and most of Plato's dialogues. Socrates is one of the most important figures in the history of Western philosophy, standing at the source of the rational tradition initiated by himself, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates himself arguably never advanced any of his own doctrines. However, in Plato's middle and later dialogues, the figure of Socrates no longer represents the man himself. Instead, the figure of Socrates is used as a mouthpiece through which Plato advances his own views. In the Phaedo we find Socrates a seventy-year-old man about to die, and propounding all sorts of Platonic doctrines. He is calm and contented as he faces death, confident in the good fortune that awaits him after death.

 Simmias  -  The main interlocutor, along with Cebes, of the Phaedo. He is a Pythagorean philosopher from Thebes who has come to speak with Socrates before his death.
  Cebes  -  The main interlocutor, along with Simmias, of the Phaedo. He is a Pythagorean philosopher from Phaedondas who has come to speak with Socrates before his death.

  Phaedo  -  The narrator and namesake of the dialogue. He is a handsome young man from Elis who has become enamored of Socrates and his teachings. Like Plato, the historical Phaedo dedicated himself to philosophy, and wrote Socratic dialogues in honor of his mentor. None of Phaedo's writings are with us today.

  Echecrates  -  A Pythagorean philosopher from the Peloponnesian town of Phlius. He encounters Phaedo in Phlius and asks him to tell the story of Socrates' final hours. On a couple of occasions in the dialogue, the narrative is interrupted by a brief conversation between Echecrates and Phaedo.

  Crito  -  An old friend of Socrates, of about Socrates' age. Crito is the main interlocutor of the Crito, an earlier dialogue which takes place in Socrates' prison cell. In the Phaedo, Crito does not participate much in the philosophical discussion, playing the role of best friend to Socrates more than that of interlocutor.

Xanthippe  -  Socrates' wife. Xanthippe was reputedly a shrewish and unpleasant woman. Considering the nonchalant way Socrates treats both her and his children in this dialogue, however, we should hardly be surprised. It seems that in his desire to detach himself as much as possible from the material world, Socrates has also detached himself from his family.
  Prison officer  -  The man standing guard over Socrates during his month in prison. The officer has grown very fond of Socrates, and the two have had many conversations together. When it comes time for Socrates to die, the officer tells Socrates that he is the finest man he has ever had the privilege of knowing, and bursts into tears.


In the remote Peloponnesian town of Phlius, Echecrates encounters Phaedo of Elis, one of the men present during Socrates' final hours. Eager to hear the story from a first-hand source, Echecrates presses Phaedo to tell what happened.

A number of Socrates' friends were gathered in his cell, including his old friend Crito and two Pythagorean philosophers, Simmias and Cebes. The account begins with Socrates proposing that though suicide is wrong, a true philosopher should look forward to death. The soul, Socrates asserts, is immortal, and the philosopher spends his life training it to detach itself from the needs of the body. He provides four arguments for this claim.

The first is the Argument from Opposites. Everything, he says, comes to be from out of its opposite, so that for instance a tall man becomes tall only because he was short before. Similarly, death is the opposite of life, and so living things come to be out of dead things and vice versa. This implies that there is a perpetual cycle of life and death, so that when we die we do not stay dead, but come back to life after a period of time.

The second is the Theory of Recollection. This theory suggests that all learning is a matter of recollecting what we already know. We forget much of our knowledge at birth, and can be made to recollect this knowledge through proper questioning. That we had such knowledge at birth, and could forget it, suggests that our soul existed before we were born.

The third is the Argument from Affinity. Socrates draws a distinction between those things that are immaterial, invisible, and immortal, and those things which are material, visible, and perishable. The body is of the second kind, whereas the soul is of the first kind. This would suggest that the soul ought to be immortal and survive death.

At this point, both Simmias and Cebes raise objections. Simmias suggests that perhaps the soul is like the attunement of a musical instrument. The attunement can only exist so long as the instrument exists, and no longer. Cebes admits that perhaps the soul is long-lived, and can outlive many bodies, but argues that this does not show that the soul is immortal.

Socrates replies to Simmias by pointing out that his theory of attunement is in conflict with the Theory of Recollection, which proposes that the soul existed before the body. As for Cebes, Socrates embarks on a complex discussion of causation that ultimately leads him to lay out his fourth argument, positing the unchanging and invisible Forms as the causes of all things in this world. All things possess what qualities they have only through participation in these Forms. The Form of Life is an essential property of the soul, Socrates suggests, and so it is inconceivable to think of the soul as ever being anything but alive.

Socrates concludes with a myth of what happens to souls after death. Then he has a bath, says some last goodbyes, drinks the poisonous hemlock, and drifts imperceptibly from this world to the next.


The Phaedo stands alongside the Republic as the most philosophically dense dialogue of Plato's middle period. It contains the first extended discussion of the Theory of Forms, four arguments for the immortality of the soul, and strong arguments in favor of the philosophical life. It also contains Plato's moving account of Socrates' final hours and his compelling myth about the fate of the soul after death. More than most of Plato's other writings, the Phaedo is in constant dialogue with the Pre-Socratic theories of the world and the soul, in particular those of Pythagorus, Anaxagoras, and Heraclitus.
Philosophically, the Theory of Forms is the most important aspect of the dialogue. Though we find hints toward such a theory in dialogues like the Meno, the Phaedo is the first dialogue where Forms are mentioned explicitly and play a fundamental role in advancing Plato's arguments. Yet Plato does not seem at all compelled to argue for the theory itself. The Forms are introduced without any fanfare by Socrates, and immediately agreed upon by all his interlocutors. Later, in discussing his method of hypothesis, Socrates asserts that he can think of nothing more certain than the existence of Forms, and all his interlocutors agree.

Due to the haste and ease with which the theory is introduced and put to work, a number of clarifying questions are left unanswered. For instance, what is the scope of Forms? Socrates normally alludes to non-material ideas, such as the Form of Beauty, or the Form of Justice, though he also appeals to numbers--such as the Form of Threeness and the Form of Oddness--to relative terms--such as the Form of Tallness and the Form of Equality--and to the Forms of Life and Death. An argument can be made that he also alludes to the Form of Fire and the Form of Snow, which would open the field even wider. We might ask what sort of things Forms are that they can encompass such a wide range.

There are also questions as to what Plato means in saying that the Form of Equality is equal, or in saying that material objects participate in different Forms. More detailed treatments of these questions are given in the Commentary to sections 72e-78b and 100b-102d, respectively.

The Phaedo gives us four different arguments for the immortality of the soul: The Argument from Opposites, the Theory of Recollection, the Argument from Affinity, and the final argument, given as a response to Cebes' objection. Plato does not seem to place equal weight on all four of these arguments. For instance, it is suggested that the Argument from Affinity by no means proves the immortality of the soul, but only shows that it is quite likely. The Theory of Recollection and the final argument seem to be given the greatest import, as both of them follow directly from the Theory of Forms. But while the Theory of Recollection can only show that the soul existed before birth, and not that it will also exist after death, the final argument purports to fully establish the immortality of the soul, and is considered by Plato to be unobjectionable and certain.

The account of Socrates' death gives us a portrait of a man so detached from the needs and cares of his body that his soul can slip away without any fuss at all. Plato does not present this as strict asceticism, though, but rather a lack of excessive concern for earthly things. (In this sense, one could argue Plato's ideal is somewhat similar to the Buddhist "middle way.")

The Phaedo is one of Plato's great masterpieces, combining difficult and profound philosophy with a lively and engaging narrative. As a result, it is one of the rare philosophical classics that is easily readable and rewarding of rewarding careful study.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Aristotle : The Lyceum

While Alexander was conquering Asia, Aristotle, now 50 years old, was in Athens. Just outside the city boundary, he established his own school in a gymnasium known as the Lyceum. He built a substantial library and gathered around him a group of brilliant research students, called “peripatetics” from the name of the cloister (peripatos) in which they walked and held their discussions. The Lyceum was not a private club like the Academy; many of the lectures there were open to the general public and given free of charge.

Most of Aristotle’s surviving works, with the exception of the zoological treatises, probably belong to this second Athenian sojourn. There is no certainty about their chronological order, and indeed it is probable that the main treatises—on physics, metaphysics, psychology, ethics, and politics—were constantly rewritten and updated. Every proposition of Aristotle is fertile of ideas and full of energy, though his prose is commonly neither lucid nor elegant.

Aristotle’s works, though not as polished as Plato’s, are systematic in a way that Plato’s never were. Plato’s dialogues shift constantly from one topic to another, always (from a modern perspective) crossing the boundaries between different philosophical or scientific disciplines. Indeed, there was no such thing as an intellectual discipline until Aristotle invented the notion during his Lyceum period.

Aristotle divided the sciences into three kinds: productive, practical, and theoretical. The productive sciences, naturally enough, are those that have a product. They include not only engineering and architecture, which have products like bridges and houses, but also disciplines such as strategy and rhetoric, where the product is something less concrete, such as victory on the battlefield or in the courts. The practical sciences, most notably ethics and politics, are those that guide behaviour. The theoretical sciences—physics, mathematics, and theology—are those that have no product and no practical goal but in which information and understanding are sought for their own sake.

During Aristotle’s years at the Lyceum, his relationship with his former pupil Alexander apparently cooled. Alexander became more and more megalomaniac, finally proclaiming himself divine and demanding that Greeks prostrate themselves before him in adoration. Opposition to this demand was led by Aristotle’s nephew Callisthenes (c. 360–327 bce), who had been appointed historian of Alexander’s Asiatic expedition on Aristotle’s recommendation. For his heroism Callisthenes was falsely implicated in a plot and executed.

When Alexander died in 323, democratic Athens became uncomfortable for Macedonians, even those who were anti-imperialist. Saying that he did not wish the city that had executed Socrates “to sin twice against philosophy,” Aristotle fled to Chalcis, where he died the following year. His will, which survives, makes thoughtful provision for a large number of friends and dependents. To Theophrastus (c. 372–c. 287 bce), his successor as head of the Lyceum, he left his library, including his own writings, which were vast. Aristotle’s surviving works amount to about one million words, though they probably represent only about one-fifth of his total output.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


The Archeology of Knowledge is Foucault's attempt, after the fact, to describe theoretically the method he used in his first three books of history (Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and The Order of Things). This is, then, not the presentation of a formal theory built logically from axioms, but a description of a specific kind of approach to history (a 'way of speaking' about history). Archeological analysis seeks to describe the history of discourse, the set of 'things said' in all its interrelations and transformations. These processes occur at a very specific level, which is neither the level of the events of history, nor the level of a teleological 'progress' of ideas, nor the level of an accumulation of formal knowledge, nor the level of the popular or unspoken 'spirit of the times.' The analysis of discourse abandons all preconceptions about historical unity or continuity, describing instead the processes of discourse in all their disruptions, thresholds, differences, and complex varieties.

Foucault begins with a polemic Introduction (Part I), noting recent shifts in historical method, relating these shifts to the newly uncertain status of the historical document, and critiquing histories that depend on loose notions of continuity as unhelpful and outdated. He says that these histories are also narcissistic, because what they really seek in forms of historical continuity is the assurance that history depends on the constant present of a transcendent human consciousness.

Part II, 'The Discursive Regularities,' asks what kinds of unities really do exist in the history of discourse. Foucault tries four hypotheses, in which unity is based on the object of discourse, the author(s) of discourse, the concepts used in discourse, or the theories and themes of discourse. Each hypothesized basis for discursive unity turns out to be something more complex than we thought it was, and each turns out not to be the single basis for unity, but one aspect of a discursive unity that can only be described in its variability and complexity. The four hypotheses do yield four specific levels at which discursive formations can be analyzed, however: the formation of objects of discourse, the formation of enunciative positions or modes, the formation of theoretical strategies, and the formation of concepts.

In Part III, 'The Statement and the Archive,' Foucault takes a step back from the level of discursive unities and attempts to describe the discursive field from its smallest elements to its most general totality. The smallest units are statements; although they have no single, stable unit (they change size according to their field of use), they form the most detailed level at which discourse can be analyzed. 'Statement' really refers more to a specific aspect of articulated language than it does to a unit of language. The statement is the level of the active, historical existence of a set of signs. The rest of Part II is devoted to maintaining the rigorous description of the statement as a positive, describable, specific aspect of history as Foucault moves up to the level of the archive, which is 'the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.'

Part IV addresses the difference between Foucault's archeological method and that of the history of ideas. For the four issues of originality, contradiction, comparison, and change, Foucault shows that his method replaces broad continuities and generalizations with specific, describable relations that preserve the differences and irregularities of discourse. The last chapter in this part, 'Science and Knowledge,' deals with the reasons that archeological analysis has focused on the history of the sciences, and with the details of how this focus is carried out. Foucault concludes with an intriguing, often poetic, dialogue between himself and a hypothetical critic of his method. In it, he defends archeology against charges that it is essentially structuralist and that it invests discourse with transcendence over other elements of history.

Continuity, Discontinuity, and Contradiction

The Introduction and first chapter of the Archeology focus largely on a contradicting received ideas about the continuity of history. Foucault argues that even the new study of the history of ideas, although it targets moments of transition between historical worldviews, is ultimately dependent on continuities that break down under closer inspection. The history of ideas marks points of discontinuity between broadly defined modes of knowledge, but the assumption that those modes exist as wholes fails to do justice to the complexities of discourse. Discourses emerge and transform not according to a developing series of unarticulated, common worldviews, but according to a vast and complex set of discursive and institutional relationships. These relationships are defined as much by breaks and ruptures as by unified themes; in fact, discontinuity is an integral component of unified discursive formations.
 Discontinuities in discourse can take the form of internal contradictions, and here too Foucault takes the history of ideas to task for failing to examine its own assumptions. The history of ideas depends on a view of discursive contradictions as obstacles to be explained away in historical analysis. Paradoxically, however, it also takes contradiction as the deep, almost metaphysical principle on which discourse depends (without contradictions, what would there be to discuss?). Foucault sees both these notions of contradiction as violations of the attempt to describe discourses on their own terms. For him, contradiction is yet another general label for a set of widely divergent discursive processes. Foucault critiques not only assumed forms of historical continuity, but also assumptions that historical discontinuity is one (continuous) kind of thing.

Foucault's emphasis on discontinuities is also a function of his strict definition of what discourse is and his tireless insistence on describing that discourse in its clear, definable details, without any 'interpretation.' The archeological method aims to describe discourse only in its active existence in the world, and eschews any reading of it that seeks a psychology, a spirit, or anything else beyond the statement itself and its describable relations with other statements. This means that archeology must assume nothing about the hidden unities that secretly bind together the many things people say; any discursive unity must be described anew, on its own terms.


Foucault's version of discourse is the most pervasive theoretical idea in the Archeology. The term has a history as the object of study for a new kind of history, the history of ideas. But Foucault devotes much of the Archeology to refining and winnowing the usual sense of discourse into an object of analysis that is very strictly delimited. The first major alteration that Foucault makes is a casting aside of everything but the processes of discourse itself. Thus, his method studies only the set of 'things said' in their emergences and transformations, without any speculation about the overall, collective meaning of those statements. Archeology does not describe history through discourse; it describes the history of discourse.

Foucault carries his insistence on discourse-in-itself down to the most basic unit of things said: the statement. Just as discourse is never taken as a partial sign of a greater, partially hidden historical truth, so individual statements are never taken as expressions of a psychology, nor even as vehicles for referential meanings and propositions. Foucault addresses statements only in the specific conditions of their emergence and transformation; these conditions are themselves discursive (and sometimes institutional).

Thus, discourse is not just a set of articulated propositions, nor is it the trace of an otherwise hidden psychology, spirit, or encompassing historical idea; it is the set of relations within which all of these other factors gain their sense (their conditions of possibility). This argument is responsible both for the immense success of Foucault's method and for the most persistent criticisms of it. The idea that discourse can be described in and of itself, not as a sign of what is known but as a precondition for knowledge, opens up limitless possibilities for showing that what we think we know is actually contingent on how we talk about it.


One of the most important themes of the Archeology is Foucault's evolving description of what knowledge is. Since the archeological method sets aside any psychological notions and any assumptions of the rational progression of history, its take on knowledge is unique and quite radical. The history of ideas (and some of Foucault's earlier work as well) deals with the series of epistemes through which a given science has progressed; the term denotes a prevailing mode of knowledge and investigation. In the Archeology, Foucault carefully redefines the notion of the episteme. The term no longer refers to a set of things known by a collective scientific subject, but rather to a set of discursive relations without content and without a knowing subject.

The episteme, then, is that specific set of relations that makes it possible for discourse to be taken as 'knowledge' and then as 'science;' it mediates between less systematic discursive positivities and increasingly regularized ones. Knowledge itself, as far as Foucault's method is concerned, is just another discursive effect, albeit one of the most pervasive and important ones. Knowledge in a given historical period is not defined by propositions proved, nor even by things 'known' by an individual or collective someone (remember, no psychology). Knowledge becomes the unstable, complex set of discursive relations that make it possible for a statement to qualify as something that is 'known.' If the history of ideas was concerned with showing the transition between modes of knowledge, archeology is concerned with describing the transformation of the conditions that determine what counts as knowledge.

Other work of Foucault's explores these issues in a way that is more political and more personal. Foucault increasingly analyzes the conditions that define what counts as knowledge in terms of the way those conditions are bound up with systems of surveillance, discipline, and power. The question also becomes one of how we come to know ourselves and to be known (and labeled) as selves.

Archeology and the Archive

Foucault calls his new historical method an 'archeology' to designate a kind of impersonal, objective historical analysis that replaces the interpretation of history with a rigorous and detailed description of historical discourse. Contemporary trends in historical studies have been defined, according to Foucault, by a crisis in the status of the document as the basis for reading history. How should documents be interpreted? Foucault's answer is not to 'interpret' them at all, and indeed to relocate the basic element of historical study from the document to the statement (which is only loosely bound to the specific document in which it is read).

This redefinition of the document in terms of positively describable statements (and, ultimately, positive discursive formations) means that Foucault must also redefine the historical archive. The archive, then, can no longer be seen simply as a collection of documents, and can no longer be interpreted as the collective knowledge of a given culture or period. Instead, the archive must be seen in terms of the conditions and relations that define statements and discourses; the archive then appears, to archeology at least, not as a set of things but as a set of general rules concerning the longevity of statements. Thus, the archive is defined as 'the general system of the formation and transformation of statements.' Critics of Foucault argue that the archeological method is impossibly (even obsessively) strict about refusing to see the archive as a sign of something else. Foucault wants to describe statements at a semi- scientific, archeological distance (in fact, he notes that this distance is the only thing that allows us to describe an archive accurately). Historical statements are then taken not as signs of something else that the historian must read 'in' them, but as 'monuments' to be described almost as one would describe a physical artifact. Foucault admits that other kinds of analyses of language (like grammar or literary criticism) may have their own validity; he just wants to focus exclusively on the way statements arise and function in discourse. But is such a purifying project really possible? Critics have suggested that this anti- interpretive, 'archeological' distance of the historian from the archive is impossible, and that Foucault is ignoring the discursive conditions by which his own analysis is defined.

 Subject Position

The replacement of a psychologized, actual subject of a statement by a subject 'position' built into the statement has proved one of the most transformative ideas to come from Foucault's work. Although the Archeology was written before Foucault's long, intensive engagement with issues of identity and power, it provides the theoretical ground for that later work.

In analyzing discourse in and of itself, the notion that each statement has an author becomes irrelevant (because the author is not a part of the discourse itself). Instead, what archeology finds is that each statement is coded as coming from a specific position within the discursive and institutional field. This position involves a whole host of factors, among which the most crucial for Foucault's later work are those of authority and knowledge. The possibility of making statements that count as knowledge (or as expert opinion, or as scientific fact) depends on a wide range of discursive conditions, from the formation of specific 'objects' of knowledge to the formation of 'strategies' for deploying one theory against another. One such condition is that of the statement's 'enunciative modality,' the specific mode in which it is formulated as coming from a particular subject position.

A given enunciative modality (i.e., a given subject position) does not depend on an attachment to an actual author. One enunciative modality can be used by many authors, and one author can use many different enunciative modalities. Archeology is able to recognize this contingent, variable nature of subject positions because it never looks beyond the statement to an actual, psychological author. The resulting idea, that our identities as agents in discourse are themselves aspects of discourse, has been explosively influential, yielding whole academic fields that examine the discursive constitution of identity.

This can also be a profoundly disturbing idea, because it emphasizes the extent to which our selfhood is scattered beyond us rather than originating with us. Foucault's language in the Archeology notes this dissociative effect: 'Thus conceived, discourse is not the majestically unfolding manifestation of a thinking, knowing, speaking subject, but, on the contrary, a totality, in which the dispersion of the subject and his discontinuity with himself may be determined.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Beyond Good and Evil - Friedrich Nietzsche

Beyond Good and Evil is a comprehensive overview of Nietzsche's mature philosophy. The book consists of 296 aphorisms, ranging in length from a few sentences to a few pages. These aphorisms are grouped thematically into nine different chapters and are bookended by a preface and a poem. While each aphorism can stand on its own, there is also something of a linear progression between aphorisms within chapters and from one chapter to another. Nonetheless, each aphorism presents a distinctive point of view, and even the individual chapter summaries omit a great deal.
The preface accuses philosophers of dogmatism, and the first chapter explores this claim. Every great philosophy, Nietzsche asserts, is little more than the personal confession. Philosophers build up complex systems of thought to justify their own assumptions and prejudices. If we can dig these out, we can see what these philosophers value most deeply, and so gain insight into their character.

Nietzsche contrasts their dogmatism with the "free spirit" that is not caught up in a particular point of view. He hopes the philosophers of the future will be characterized by such an experimental method, willing to try out any hypothesis, and follow any argument all the way to its conclusion.

After a discussion of the religious spirit, which he claims is a kind of dogmatism, Nietzsche embarks on a series of epigrams, most of which highlight our bizarre psychological make-up. Next, he looks at the long history of moral systems as a set of different attempts at self- overcoming. He speaks out strongly against the morality of the "herd" that encourages a dull mediocrity in all. He finds such a mediocrity in modern scholarship, which is overly concerned with digging up dry, dull facts. Nietzsche's ideal philosopher creates meaning and values, and does not simply deal with empty facts.

Nietzsche asserts that there is an "order of rank" according to which the spiritual strength of all people can be measured. Because of this difference between people, it would be absurd to apply one moral code to all people. Nietzsche suggests that the strongest people are marked by a cruelty to themselves, according to which they mercilessly expose their every prejudice and assumption in order to dig more deeply into themselves. At bottom, however, everyone has prejudices. To prove this point, Nietzsche launches an eight-page tirade against women.
Next, he addresses the question of nationalities and nationalism, drawing on a kind of Lamarckism that sees different nationalities or "races" as inherently having certain characteristics. Among other things, Nietzsche attacks anti- Semitism, criticizes the English, and advances the concept of the "good European," who rises above nationalist sentiment to find true individuality.
The final chapter presents Nietzsche's conception of "what is noble": a solitary, suffering soul, who has risen so far above the common rabble as to be unrecognizable and totally misunderstood by them. He closes the book with a weak poem about such a noble soul sitting on a mountaintop wishing he had more friends.

Overall Analysis and Themes

An understanding of Nietzsche's work as a whole relies on a solid grasp of his views on truth and language, and his metaphysics and conception of the will to power. At the very bottom of Nietzsche's philosophy lies the conviction that the universe is in a constant state of change, and his hatred and disparagement of almost any position can be traced back to that position's temptation to look at the universe as fixed in one place. Nietzsche is skeptical of both language and "truth" because they are liable to adopt a fixed perspective toward things.

Words, unlike thoughts, are fixed. Our thoughts can flow and change just as things in the universe flow and change, but a word, once uttered, cannot be changed. Because language has this tendency toward fixity, it expresses the world in terms of facts and things, which has led philosophers to think of the world as fixed rather than fluid. A world of rigid facts can be spoken about definitively, which is the source of our conception of truth and other absolutes, such as God and morality.

Nietzsche sees the facts and things of traditional philosophy as far from rigid, and subject to all sorts of shifts and changes. He is particularly brilliant in analyzing morality, showing how our concept of "good," for instance, has had opposite meanings at different times. The underlying force driving all change is will, according to Nietzsche. In specific, all drives boil down to a will to power, a drive for freedom and domination over other things. The concept of "good" has had different meanings over time because different wills have come to appropriate the concept. Meaning and interpretation are merely signs that a will is operating on a concept.

Because facts and things depend for their meaning on ever-shifting and struggling wills, there is no such thing as one correct or absolute viewpoint. Every viewpoint is the expression of some will or other. Rather than try to talk about the "truth," we should try to remain as flexible as possible, looking at matters from as many different perspectives as possible. Nietzsche's ideal "philosophy of the future" is one that is free enough to shift perspectives and overturn the "truths" and other dogmas of rigid thinking. Such philosophy would see moral concepts such as "good" and "evil" as merely surfaces that have no inherent meaning; such philosophy would thus move "beyond good and evil." Nietzsche's ideal philosophers would also turn their will to power inward, struggling constantly against themselves to overcome their own prejudices and assumptions.

Nietzsche's unorthodox views on truth can help to explain his unusual style. Though we can follow trains of thought and make connections along the way, there is no single, linear argument that runs through the book. Because Nietzsche does not see the truth as a simple, two-dimensional picture, he cannot represent it accurately with a simple linear sketch. Nietzsche sees the world as complex and three-dimensional: more like a hologram than a two-dimensional picture. And just as a hologram is a three-dimensional image made up of infinitesimal two- dimensional fragments, each approximating the whole, Nietzsche presents his worldview in a series of two-dimensional aphorisms, each approximating a more complex worldview. Beyond Good and Evil is Nietzsche's perspectivism in practice: we can read every aphorism as one different perspective from which to look at Nietzsche's philosophy. There is some sort of line we can trace, moving from perspective to perspective, but essentially we end up with Nietzsche's philosophy in 9 big pieces and 296 smaller fragments. In this way, Nietzsche attempts to find the expression of his thoughts in language that best preserves their fluidity and three-dimensionality.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Plato: Forms as genera and species

Successful development of the theory of forms depended upon the development of a distinction between two kinds of predication. Plato held that a sentence making a predication about a sensible particular, “A is B,” must be understood as stating that the particular in question, A, displays a certain property, B. There are ordinary predications about the forms, which also state that the forms in question display properties. Crucially, however, there is also a special kind of predication that can be used to express a form’s nature. Since Plato envisaged that these natures could be given in terms of genus-species trees, a special predication about a form, “A is B,” is true if B appears above A in its correct tree as a differentia or genus. Equivalently, “A is B” has the force that being a B is (part of) what it is to be an A. This special predication is closely approximated in modern classifications of animals and plants according to a biological taxonomy. “The wolf is a canis,” for example, states that “wolf” appears below “canis” in a genus-species classification of the animals, or equivalently that being a canis is part of what it is to be a wolf (Canis lupus).

Plato’s distinction can be illustrated by examples such as the following. The ordinary predication “Socrates is just” is true, because the individual in question displays the property of being just. Understood as a special predication, however, the assertion is false, because it is false that being just is part of what it is to be Socrates (there is no such thing as what it is to be Socrates). “Man is a vertebrate,” understood as an ordinary predication, is false, since the form Man does not have a backbone. But when treated as a special predication it is true, since part of what it is to be a human is to be a vertebrate. Self-predication sentences are now revealed as trivial but true: “the Beautiful is beautiful” asserts only that being beautiful is (part of) what it is to be beautiful. In general one must be careful not to assume that Plato’s self-predication sentences involve ordinary predication, which would in many cases involve problematic self-exemplification issues.

Plato was interested in special predication as a vehicle for providing the real definitions that he had been seeking in earlier dialogues. When one knows in this way what Justice itself really is, one can appreciate its relation to other entities of the same kind, including how it differs from the other virtues, such as Bravery, and whether it is really the whole of Virtue or only a part of it.

By means of special predication it is possible to provide an account of each fundamental nature. Such accounts, moreover, provide a way of understanding the “pure being” of the forms: it consists of the fact that there cannot be a true special predication of the form “A is both B and not-B.” In other words, special predication sentences do not exhibit the phenomenon of rolling around between being and not being. This is because it must be the case that either B appears above A in a correct genus-species classification or it does not. Moreover, since forms do not function by being exemplars of themselves only, there is nothing to prevent their having other properties, such as being and unity, as appropriate. As Plato expresses it, all forms must participate in Being and Unity.

Because the special predications serve to give (in whole or in part) the real definitions that Socrates had been searching for, this interpretation of the forms connects Plato’s most technical dialogues to the literary masterpieces and to the earlier Socratic dialogues. The technical works stress and develop the idea (which is hinted at in the early Euthyphro) that forms should be understood in terms of a genus-species classification. They develop a schema that, with modifications of course, went on to be productive in the work of Aristotle and many later researchers. In this way, Plato’s late theory of the forms grows out of the program of his teacher and leads forward to the research of his students and well beyond.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Aristotle: Ethics

The surviving works of Aristotle include three treatises on moral philosophy: the Nicomachean Ethics in 10 books, the Eudemian Ethics in 7 books, and the Magna moralia (Latin: “Great Ethics”). The Nicomachean Ethics is generally regarded as the most important of the three; it consists of a series of short treatises, possibly brought together by Aristotle’s son Nicomachus. In the 19th century the Eudemian Ethics was often suspected of being the work of Aristotle’s pupil Eudemus of Rhodes, but there is no good reason to doubt its authenticity. Interestingly, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics have three books in common: books V, VI, and VII of the former are the same as books IV, V, and VI of the latter. Although the question has been disputed for centuries, it is most likely that the original home of the common books was the Eudemian Ethics; it is also probable that Aristotle used this work for a course on ethics that he taught at the Lyceum during his mature period. The Magna moralia probably consists of notes taken by an unknown student of such a course.


Aristotle’s approach to ethics is teleological. If life is to be worth living, he argues, it must surely be for the sake of something that is an end in itself—i.e., desirable for its own sake. If there is any single thing that is the highest human good, therefore, it must be desirable for its own sake, and all other goods must be desirable for the sake of it. One popular conception of the highest human good is pleasure—the pleasures of food, drink, and sex, combined with aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. Other people prefer a life of virtuous action in the political sphere. A third possible candidate for the highest human good is scientific or philosophical contemplation. Aristotle thus reduces the answers to the question “What is a good life?” to a short list of three: the philosophical life, the political life, and the voluptuary life. This triad provides the key to his ethical inquiry.

“Happiness,” the term that Aristotle uses to designate the highest human good, is the usual translation of the Greek eudaimonia. Although it is impossible to abandon the English term at this stage of history, it should be borne in mind that what Aristotle means by eudaimonia is something more like well-being or flourishing than any feeling of contentment. Aristotle argues, in fact, that happiness is activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Human beings must have a function, because particular types of humans (e.g., sculptors) do, as do the parts and organs of individual human beings. This function must be unique to humans; thus, it cannot consist of growth and nourishment, for this is shared by plants, or the life of the senses, for this is shared by animals. It must therefore involve the peculiarly human faculty of reason. The highest human good is the same as good human functioning, and good human functioning is the same as the good exercise of the faculty of reason—that is to say, the activity of rational soul in accordance with virtue. There are two kinds of virtue: moral and intellectual. Moral virtues are exemplified by courage, temperance, and liberality; the key intellectual virtues are wisdom, which governs ethical behaviour, and understanding, which is expressed in scientific endeavour and contemplation.


People’s virtues are a subset of their good qualities. They are not innate, like eyesight, but are acquired by practice and lost by disuse. They are abiding states, and they thus differ from momentary passions such as anger and pity. Virtues are states of character that find expression both in purpose and in action. Moral virtue is expressed in good purpose—that is to say, in prescriptions for action in accordance with a good plan of life. It is expressed also in actions that avoid both excess and defect. A temperate person, for example, will avoid eating or drinking too much, but he will also avoid eating or drinking too little. Virtue chooses the mean, or middle ground, between excess and defect. Besides purpose and action, virtue is also concerned with feeling. One may, for example, be excessively concerned with sex or insufficiently interested in it; the temperate person will take the appropriate degree of interest and be neither lustful nor frigid.

While all the moral virtues are means of action and passion, it is not the case that every kind of action and passion is capable of a virtuous mean. There are some actions of which there is no right amount, because any amount of them is too much; Aristotle gives murder and adultery as examples. The virtues, besides being concerned with means of action and passion, are themselves means in the sense that they occupy a middle ground between two contrary vices. Thus, the virtue of courage is flanked on one side by foolhardiness and on the other by cowardice.

Aristotle’s account of virtue as a mean is no truism. It is a distinctive ethical theory that contrasts with other influential systems of various kinds. It contrasts, on the one hand, with religious systems that give a central role to the concept of a moral law, concentrating on the prohibitive aspects of morality. It also differs from moral systems such as utilitarianism that judge the rightness and wrongness of actions in terms of their consequences. Unlike the utilitarian, Aristotle believes that there are some kinds of action that are morally wrong in principle.

The mean that is the mark of moral virtue is determined by the intellectual virtue of wisdom. Wisdom is characteristically expressed in the formulation of prescriptions for action—“practical syllogisms,” as Aristotle calls them. A practical syllogism consists of a general recipe for a good life, followed by an accurate description of the agent’s actual circumstances and concluding with a decision about the appropriate action to be carried out.

Wisdom, the intellectual virtue that is proper to practical reason, is inseparably linked with the moral virtues of the affective part of the soul. Only if an agent possesses moral virtue will he endorse an appropriate recipe for a good life. Only if he is gifted with intelligence will he make an accurate assessment of the circumstances in which his decision is to be made. It is impossible, Aristotle says, to be really good without wisdom or to be really wise without moral virtue. Only when correct reasoning and right desire come together does truly virtuous action result.

Virtuous action, then, is always the result of successful practical reasoning. But practical reasoning may be defective in various ways. Someone may operate from a vicious choice of lifestyle; a glutton, for example, may plan his life around the project of always maximizing the present pleasure. Aristotle calls such a person “intemperate.” Even people who do not endorse such a hedonistic premise may, once in a while, overindulge. This failure to apply to a particular occasion a generally sound plan of life Aristotle calls “incontinence.”

Action and contemplation

The pleasures that are the domain of temperance, intemperance, and incontinence are the familiar bodily pleasures of food, drink, and sex. In treating of pleasure, however, Aristotle explores a much wider field. There are two classes of aesthetic pleasures: the pleasures of the inferior senses of touch and taste, and the pleasures of the superior senses of sight, hearing, and smell. Finally, at the top of the scale, there are the pleasures of the mind.

Plato had posed the question of whether the best life consists in the pursuit of pleasure or the exercise of the intellectual virtues. Aristotle’s answer is that, properly understood, the two are not in competition with each other. The exercise of the highest form of virtue is the very same thing as the truest form of pleasure; each is identical with the other and with happiness. The highest virtues are the intellectual ones, and among them Aristotle distinguished between wisdom and understanding. To the question of whether happiness is to be identified with the pleasure of wisdom or with the pleasure of understanding, Aristotle gives different answers in his main ethical treatises. In the Nicomachean Ethics perfect happiness, though it presupposes the moral virtues, is constituted solely by the activity of philosophical contemplation, whereas in the Eudemian Ethics it consists in the harmonious exercise of all the virtues, intellectual and moral.

The Eudemian ideal of happiness, given the role it assigns to contemplation, to the moral virtues, and to pleasure, can claim to combine the features of the traditional three lives—the life of the philosopher, the life of the politician, and the life of the pleasure seeker. The happy person will value contemplation above all, but part of his happy life will consist in the exercise of moral virtues in the political sphere and the enjoyment in moderation of the natural human pleasures of body as well as of soul. But even in the Eudemian Ethics it is “the service and contemplation of God” that sets the standard for the appropriate exercise of the moral virtues, and in the Nicomachean Ethics this contemplation is described as a superhuman activity of a divine part of human nature. Aristotle’s final word on ethics is that, despite being mortal, human beings must strive to make themselves immortal as far as they can.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Spinoza's Political Philosophy

Spinoza was a penetrating political theorist whose writings have enduring significance. In his two political treatises, Spinoza advances a number of forceful and original arguments in defense of democratic governance, freedom of thought and expression, and the subordination of religion to the state. On the basis of his naturalistic metaphysics, Spinoza also offers trenchant criticisms of ordinary conceptions of right and duty. And his account of civil organization, grounded in psychological realism, stands as an important contribution to the development of constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Despite being perhaps the most tolerant country in early-modern Europe—a sanctuary for free thinkers and members of religious minorities—the United Provinces were riven by religious conflict, as the Dutch sought to establish their identity after gaining independence from Spain. The confessional rifts of the seventeenth century were certainly an important part of context in which Spinoza composed his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus [hereafter: TTP].
The early part of the seventeenth century was marked by a religious schism that rapidly took on political significance. In 1610, forty-four followers of liberal theologian Jacobus Arminius—referred to as Arminians—wrote a formal “Remonstrance,” which articulated the ways in which they deviated from orthodox Calvinism, particularly with respect to the issues of self-determination and grace. The Arminians, or Remonstrants, defended religious toleration on the grounds that faith is expressed in the conscience of the individual, and so is not subject to the coercive power of the state. The doctrinal and political views of the Remonstrants were opposed by the conservative Gomarists (followers of Franciscus Gomarus), or Counter-Remonstrants. For a little over a decade (roughly 1607–1618), the dispute raged on, expanding outward from Holland and Utrecht. Finally, in 1618, a national synod convened (the Synod of Dort) to define more clearly the public faith. The fallout from the Synod of Dort was disastrous for the tolerant Arminians. The Advocate of the States of Holland, Johan Oldenbarnevelt, who staunchly defended the Remonstrants, was put to death. And Arminians throughout the country were purged from town councils and universities (Israel 1995, 452ff).

The second half of the century witnessed its own major theologico-political dispute in the United Provinces. At the center, once again, were two theologians: Johannes Cocceius, a liberal theology professor at Leiden, and Gisbertus Voetius, Dean of the University of Utrecht. Disputes between Cocceian and Voetians began over abstruse theological matters, but developed into a larger political and cultural affair. The Voetians led the assault on the Cartesian philosophy being taught in the universities. They thought that the new science advocated by Descartes, with its mechanistic view of the material world, posed a threat to Christianity in a variety of ways (Nadler 1999, 151–2 and 308–310). Spinoza's philosophy was reviled not only by the Voetians, but also by moderate Cocceian-Cartesians, who sought to distance themselves from radicals.

Spinoza was no stranger to religious persecution. As is well known, he was himself excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam in 1656. While Spinoza apparently endured the excommunication with characteristic equanimity, fellow Dutch apostate Jew, Uriel da Costa, was unable to bear the indignity of excommunication from the Amsterdam Jewish community. In 1640—when Spinoza was only eight years old—da Costa, who had denied the immortality of the soul and challenged the status of the Torah as divine revelation, took his own life.

Da Costa's suicide surely made a lasting impression on Spinoza, but it did not affect him as personally as did the treatment of his friend Adriaan Koerbagh at the hands of Dutch authorities in the years leading up to the publication of the TTP. In 1668 Koerbagh published two treatises that provoked the wrath of the Calvinist clergy. In the more scandalous of the two—Een Bloemhof van allerley lieflijkheyd (A Flower Garden of all Kinds of Loveliness)—Koerbagh ridiculed a number of traditional religious doctrines and practices, and, in the process, articulated his own religious and metaphysical views. Among the shocking views that he advanced were that Jesus is not divine, that God is identical with nature, that everything is necessitated by the laws of nature (the laws of God), and that miracles are impossible. These are all positions that Spinoza consistently endorsed. However, while Spinoza was famously cautious, Koerbagh was not, publishing the works in Dutch (thereby making them accessible to the general literate public) under his own name. Consequently, Koerbagh was tried and sentenced on charges of blasphemy. During his subsequent imprisonment under squalid conditions Koerbagh became ill, and he died soon thereafter (in 1669). It is generally supposed that it was Koerbagh's imprisonment and death above all else that precipitated the publication of the TTP (Nadler 1999, 170).

Spinoza's political thought draws from a number of sources, both classical and modern. As one commentator puts it, “Spinoza formed new conclusions from facts and concepts borrowed from others” (Haitsma Mulier 1980, 170). It is worth briefly considering some of the sources of the “facts and concepts” that he inherits.

At some point in the mid-1650's (around the time of his cherem, or excommunication) Spinoza began studying Latin with Franciscus Van den Enden. Van den Enden was an ex-Jesuit and radical egalitarian with revolutionary tendencies. He was put to death in 1674 after having been found guilty of conspiring to depose Louis XIV in order to establish a free republic in Normandy. Van dan Enden was an anti-clerical democrat who appears to have profoundly influenced Spinoza. One commentator has gone so far as to call Van den Enden “the genius behind Spinoza,” claiming that Van den Enden's writings “contain a political theory which is in fact the same as the one worked out by Spinoza” (Klever 1996, 26). Whether or not this assessment is fair, it is clear that Spinoza's thinking was nourished through his association with Van den Enden and the larger radical Cartesian circle in Amsterdam (Nyden-Bullock 2007).

Hobbes' influence on Spinoza is unmistakable. We know that Spinoza read De Cive carefully and that it was among his possessions when he died in 1677. He might also have read Leviathan, which appeared in Latin in 1668, as Spinoza was completing the TTP, although we do not know this for sure (Sacksteder 1980). I will discuss Spinoza's work in relationship to Hobbes' in some detail below (sections 2.1 and 2.2, below). Here I want to mention the impact of Dutch Hobbesians on Spinoza. Hobbesian thought was introduced into Dutch political discourse by Lambert van Velthuysen, an anti-clerical, liberal physician (Tuck 1979; Blom 1995). Velthuysen's Dissertatio is an unabashed defense of Hobbes' thought, in which the duty to preserve oneself is given pride of place (esp. Sect. XIII). Spinoza read and admired Velthuysen as a “man of exceptional sincerity of mind,” and was thus disconcerted when Velthuysen denounced the TTP as the work of a cunning atheist (Epistles 42 and 43).

Aside from Velthuysen, the other primary Dutch conduits for Hobbesian thought prior to Spinoza were the De la Court brothers (Petry 1984; Kossman 2000). Most of the De la Courts' writings were published by Pieter De la Court after the death of his brother Johan in 1660. However, because it remains unclear how much Pieter added and how much he profited off his studious younger brother, I will refer to these authors of these writings simply as the De la Courts, so as to avoid attribution problems. The De la Courts were ardent republicans who maintained good relations with Johan De Witt. Indeed, De Witt is thought to have written two chapters in the second edition of their book Interest van Holland (see Petry 1984, 152). The De la Courts adopted the basic features of Hobbesian anthropology, but eschewed juridical concepts like “right” and “contract” (see Malcolm 1991, 548), opting to analyze the civil condition in terms of the competing interests of participants. According to them, the aim of the state is to ensure that the interests of rulers are tied to the interests of the ruled, which is possible only if one adopts a series of institutional measures, such as the use of blind balloting, the removal of hereditary posts, and the rotation of offices. Republics, they argued, will be marked by greater checks against self-interested legislation than monarchies (see Blom 1993). Spinoza evidently studied these works carefully; his institutional recommendations in the Tractatus Politicus [hereafter: TP] reflect his debt to the De la Courts (Petry 1984; Haitsma Mulier 1980).

It was likely the writings of the De la Courts that impressed upon Spinoza the perspicacity of Niccolo Machiavelli. The notion of balancing the interests of competing parties was ultimately derived from Machiavelli (see Haitsma Mulier 1993, 254–255). Spinoza's Political Treatise is shot through with Machiavellian insights and recommendations. Right at the outset of the work, Spinoza parrots Machiavelli's critique of utopian theorizing, elevating statesmen over philosophers, since only the latter begin with a realistic conception of human psychology (TP 1/1; cf. Machiavelli's Prince I.15). Machiavellian realism pervades Spinoza's political writings, playing a particularly large role in the constitutional theorizing of the TP. Spinoza, like Machiavelli, understood that prescriptions for improving the governance of a state can be offered only after one has a proper diagnosis of the problems and a proper grasp of human nature.

Basic Features of Spinoza's Political Philosophy

Three of the most striking and important claims of Spinoza's Ethics are that (1) all things come to exist and act necessarily from the laws of God's nature (e.g., EIP29 and EIP33), (2) nature does not act on account of some end or purpose (EI Appendix), and (3) nature is everywhere and always the same (EIII Preface). Collectively, these three claims entail that human behavior, like the behavior of everything else, is fully necessitated by, and explicable through, the immutable—and non-providential—laws of God or Nature. This forms a significant part of the metaphysical backdrop against which Spinoza develops his political theory. For the sake of simplicity, I will call the view that is constituted by these three theses Spinoza's naturalism. This naturalism led him to adopt radical views regarding the source and status of rights, obligations, and laws, distinguishing his work from other seventeenth-century political theorists.

Spinoza's naturalism excludes transcendental conceptions of God. Those who believe in a transcendent God “imagine that there are two powers, distinct from each other, the power of God and the power of natural things…. they imagine the power of God to be like the authority of royal majesty, and the power of nature to be like a force and impetus” (TTP 6/81). Of course, on Spinoza's account, God is not a transcendent legislator, God is nature itself. Spinoza's naturalism entails that all claims of entitlement deriving from God's will are specious. This is a direct rebuke not only of defenders of the divine right of kings, but also of most accounts of natural rights as entitlements that were embraced by many seventeenth-century theorists.

Moreover, this naturalism also rules out dualistic views of nature according to which there is a normative order of things, or a way that things should be, that stands in contrast to the actual order of things. This view undermines the teleological assumptions that form the basis of natural law theory, whether Thomistic or Protestant. Even those who wished to separate natural law from theology (e.g., Pufendorf), and those who de-emphasized the role of God's will—as Grotius does in his famous etiam si daremus passage—still supposed that there is a way that things ought to be, a normative natural order that can be decoupled from the actual order of things. According to this view, humans act contrary to nature when they act contrary to the prescripts of right reason. Spinoza attacks this view, according to which “the ignorant violate the order of nature rather than conform to it; they think of men in nature as a state within a state [imperium in imperio]” (TP 2/6). The phrase “imperium in imperio” famously appears also in the preface to Ethics III, where Spinoza is characterizing the non-naturalist view that he opposes. In both of these passages, Spinoza criticizes the assumption that man is governed by his own set of rational, normative laws, rather than the laws that govern the rest of nature. It is precisely this position that Spinoza undercuts when he writes in the Ethics that “the laws and rules of Nature…are always and everywhere the same” (EIII preface) and in the TP that “whether man is led by reason or solely by desire, he does nothing that is not in accordance with the laws and rules of nature” (TP 2/5).

In short, by adopting the view that nature is univocal and that man is governed by the same laws as everything else in nature, Spinoza rejects the natural law tradition (Curley 1991; A. Garrett 2003; for contrasting views, see Kisner 2010 and Miller 2012). And even if Spinoza's naturalism is viewed as part of a larger naturalistic trend in Dutch political thought (Blom 1995), his disavowal of normative conceptions of nature and rejection of teleology indicates a clear break with tradition. To appreciate the depth and significance of Spinoza's naturalism, it will be helpful to compare his views on natural right and obligation to Hobbes'.

One of the most notorious features of Spinoza's political thought is his account of natural right. He introduces this concept in TTP 16, where he boldly writes:
By the right and order of nature I merely mean the rules determining the nature of each individual thing by which we conceive it is determined naturally to exist and to behave in a certain way. For example fish are determined by nature to swim and big fish to eat little ones, and therefore it is by sovereign natural right that fish have possession of the water and that big fish eat small fish. For it is certain that nature, considered wholly in itself, has a sovereign right to do everything that it can do, i.e., the right of nature extends as far as its power extends…since the universal power of the whole of nature is nothing but the power of all individual things together, it follows that each individual thing has the sovereign right to do everything that it can do, or the right of each thing extends so far as its determined power extends. (TTP 16, 195; cf. TP 2/4).
In claiming that the right of nature is coextensive with the power of nature and that the coextensivity of right and power applies mutatis mutandis to the individuals in nature, Spinoza is simply rejecting non-naturalism, rather than making a positive normative claim. So although Spinoza is often seen as subscribing to the view that “might makes right” (see Barbone and Rice 2000, 19; McShea 1968, 139), this is misleading in a sense, if it is taken as implying that Spinoza is redefining right in terms of power. In fact, I take it that the coextensivity thesis is not to be understood as offering a new normative standard; rather, it is intended as a denial of any transcendental standard of justice (see Curley 1996, 322; Balibar 1998, 59). To say that something is done by right in Spinoza's sense is just to say that there is nothing in virtue of which that action can be judged impermissible. So, even if Spinoza's account implies that Cortés conquered the Aztecs by right, it does not follow that it was necessarily the right, or proper, thing to do (see TP 5/1; see section 2.3).

Spinoza's brazen denial of natural proscriptions on what one can do roused the ire of early readers (e.g., Pufendorf 1934, 159). Of course, Thomas Hobbes, Spinoza's great predecessor, had made a similar claim. Indeed, Spinoza's account of natural right is often taken as evidence that he is a Hobbesian. Hobbes' account of natural right has been the subject of much interpretative dispute, in part because it seems to undergo a shift between his early political writings and Leviathan. In De Cive Hobbes defines right as “the liberty each man has of using his natural faculties in accordance with right reason” (1.7). In other words, natural right is the liberty to do anything consistent with the natural law (ibid. 2.1). This includes the right to do anything that one judges to be necessary for one's preservation (1.8–1.9). Hobbes adds one proviso here, which may be called the “sincerity clause,” namely that one violates the law of nature, or acts without right, when one acts in a way that one does not sincerely believe contributes to one's preservation (1.10n). And later Hobbes suggests that because “drunkenness and cruelty” cannot sincerely be thought to contribute to self-preservation, drunken and cruel actions are not performed by right, even in the state of nature (ibid., 3.27). In short, as A. G. Wernham puts it, on Hobbes' view, man's natural right “covers only some of his actions” (Wernham 1958, 14). Specifically, it covers those actions that are not contrary to the law of nature.
In Leviathan, however, Hobbes seems to advance an account of natural right that is apparently not bound by such normative constraints (Ch. 14). But while it may seem that in the later work Hobbes strips the concept of natural right of all normative content, even the view expressed in Leviathan may be seen to be at odds with a thoroughgoing naturalism. To see this, consider Spinoza's reply to his friend to Jarig Jelles, when asked what sets his views apart from Hobbes':
With regard to political theory, the difference between Hobbes and myself, which is the subject of your inquiry, consists in this, that I always preserve the natural right in its entirety [ego naturale jus semper sartum tectum conservo], and I hold that the sovereign power in a State has right over a subject only in proportion to the excess of its power over that of a subject. (Epistle 50)

What Spinoza is criticizing here is the Hobbesian view of contracts (covenants) or the transference of one's natural right. The transferability or alienability of one's natural right to judge how to defend oneself serves as the foundation of Hobbes' political theory; it allows him to explain the formation of the commonwealth and the legitimacy of the sovereign. In Spinoza's view, however, Hobbes violates naturalism here. By conceiving of one's natural right as something like an entitlement that can be transferred, which in turn leads him to drive a wedge between right and power in the commonwealth, Hobbes never fully rids his account of the vestiges of the juridical tradition that Spinoza sought to overturn.

The difference between Hobbes and Spinoza on right bears directly on their distinct accounts of obligation. Hobbes thinks that we incur binding obligations when we make pledges under the appropriate conditions. By contrast, Spinoza maintains that “the validity of an agreement rests on its utility, without which the agreement automatically becomes null and void” (TTP 16/182; cf. TP 2/12). To demand otherwise would be absurd, since men are bound by nature to choose what appears to be the greater good or lesser evil. We are bound by nature to act on our strongest interest and cannot be obligated by previous agreements to break this inviolable psychological law of nature.
By adhering to a strict naturalism about right and obligation and maintaining that “the sovereign power in a State has right over a subject only in proportion to the excess of its power over that of a subject” (Epistle 50), Spinoza, unlike Hobbes, places the burden of political stability on the sovereign rather than the subject (see Wernham 1958, 27). The commonwealth must be structured so as to promote compliance; when there is excessive vice or non-compliance, the blame must be “laid at the door of the commonwealth” (TP 5/3). So, whereas Hobbes argues that the sovereign is always vested with nearly absolute legislative authority, Spinoza claims that “since the right of a commonwealth is determined by the collective power of a people, the greater the number of subjects who are given cause by a commonwealth to join in conspiracy against it, the more must its power and right be diminished” (TP 3/9). If a sovereign is to maintain its right, it must legislate wisely, so as not to incite insurrection. So while Spinoza does not accord to the people a proper right of revolution, he proposes a naturalistic equivalent, since the right of the state is essentially constituted, and limited, by the power of the people (TP 2/17) (see Sharp 2013).
Thus, when Spinoza points to the differences between his view of natural right and Hobbes' in his letter to Jelles, differences that might appear negligible to the casual reader, he is identifying a significant distinction (see Wernham 1958, 35). Spinoza's thoroughgoing naturalism leads him to reject the sharp distinction that Hobbes draws between civil state—the product of artifice—and the state of nature, along with the concomitant conception of obligation that arises with the inception of the commonwealth. But given his naturalism and repudiation of rights and obligations as traditionally understood, one might be left wondering how or whether Spinoza could offer a normative political theory at all.

As Curley rightly points out, to deny that there is a transcendental standard of justice is not to deny that there is any normative standard by which we can evaluate action (Curley 1996). Even if one can act irrationally without violating nature that does not mean that all of one's actions have the same normative status. As Spinoza puts it, “it is one thing, I say, to defend oneself, to preserve oneself, to give judgment, etc., by right, another thing to defend and preserve oneself in the best way and to give the best judgment” (TP 5/1). The goodness of an action is to be judged in relation to whether the action aids one's striving to preserve and augment one's power (see EIVP18S; TP 2/8; TTP 16/181). The striving to preserve and augment one's power, which constitutes one's actual essence (EIIIP7), provides a standard for moral judgments: things are good or bad to the extent that they aid or diminish one's power of acting (Curley 1973). And just as the individual ought to do those things that maximize his or her own power or welfare, Spinoza takes it as axiomatic that the state ought to do those things that maximize the power of the people as a whole (e.g., TTP 16/184).

Spinoza's Argument for Toleration

Spinoza is often remembered for his contribution to the liberal tradition, due, in large part, to his defense of the freedoms of thought and speech in TTP 20. However, the tolerationism expressed in TTP 20 appears to stand in tension with the Erastian claim of TTP 19. How can Spinoza be a liberal about religious practice while also defending the view that the state maintains full right over matters of religion (TTP, Ch. 19)? Three things must be noted in response to this puzzle. First, unlike Locke's tolerationism, Spinoza's defense of civil liberties in TTP 20 is not fundamentally a defense freedom of worship (Israel 2001, 265–266). Rather, it is essentially a defense of the freedom to philosophize; freedom of worship is at best an incidental byproduct of this primary aim. Second, Spinoza sharply distinguishes between one's outward expressions of faith and one's inward worship of God. Sovereign authority over religious expression concerns only the former, leaving the latter the domain of the individual, for reasons that we will examine in a moment. Both of these positions can be understood as lending support to the Arminian cause against Calvinist Theocrats (Nadler 1999, 12). Finally, it should be mentioned that Spinoza's denial that freedoms concerning outward religious expression must be protected points to the limited nature of his brand of toleration. The sovereign retains full discretion to determine which actions are acceptable and what forms of speech are seditious. As Lewis Feuer ruefully notes, Spinoza does not offer anything resembling Oliver Wendell Holmes's standard of “clear and present danger” to constrain sovereign intervention (1987, 114).
What are Spinoza's arguments for his, albeit limited, defense freedoms of thought and speech? The first argument is that it is strictly impossible to control another's beliefs completely (20, 250–51). Since right is coextensive with power, lacking the power to control beliefs entails lacking the right to do so. However, since Spinoza admits that beliefs can be influenced in myriad ways, even if not fully controlled, this argument amounts to a rather restricted defense of freedom of conscience.
Next, the argument shifts from considering what the sovereign can do to what it would be practical or prudent for a sovereign to do. Spinoza offers a battery of pragmatic reasons in defense of non-interference. For instance, he argues that “a state can never succeed very far in attempting to force people to speak as the sovereign power commands” (20, 251). Men are naturally inclined to express what they believe (ibid.), and so just as attempts to regulate beliefs fail, so do attempts to regulate the expressions of these beliefs. Moreover, even if a state were to regulate speech, this would only result in the erosion of good faith [fides] on which civil associations depend, since men would be “thinking one thing and saying something else” (20, 255). It is thus foolish to seek to regulate all speech, even if it is also “very dangerous” to grant unlimited freedom of speech (20, 252).
Spinoza also argues that in general the more oppressively a sovereign governs, the more rebellious the citizens will be, since most people are “so constituted that there is nothing they would more reluctantly put up with than that the opinions they belief to be true should be outlawed” (20, 255). 

The source of oppression and the resistance to it have a common root on Spinoza's account, namely, ambition, or the desire for others to approve of the same things that we do (see EIIIP29; cf. Rosenthal 2001 and 2003). Men being constituted as they are, when differences of opinion arise—as they inevitably do—they are inclined to foist their standard on others and to resist others' attempts to do the same. So, however common attempts to regulate the beliefs, speech, and behavior of others may be, it is politically unstable to do so. Moreover, Spinoza argues that it is often the least wise and the most obnoxious who initiate moral crusades, and just as it is often the wisest and most peace-loving who are the targets of such campaigns (20, 256–58).

It is worth noting that these arguments in defense of civil liberties are thoroughly pragmatic; they rely on psychological principles and empirical observations to illustrate the instability and imprudence of oppressive governance (see Steinberg 2010b). They are not principled arguments that depend on rights or the intrinsic value of liberty, much to the frustration of some commentators (Feuer 1987; Curley 1996).

Social Contract in the TTP

A good deal of scholarly attention has been placed on Spinoza's account of the social contract in the TTP. Spinoza introduces the contract in Chapter 16, when considering how people escape the pre-civil condition. Here he claims that “[men] had to make a firm decision, and reach agreement, to decide everything by the sole dictate of reason” (16, 198), which requires, as he later makes clear, that each transfers one's right to determine how to live and defend himself to the sovereign (16, 199–200); cf. EIVP37S2). He also cites the establishment of the Hebrew state, with Moses as the absolute sovereign, as an historical example of a social contract (19, 240). The social contract seems to confer nearly boundless authority on the sovereign. So long as we are rational, “we are obliged to carry out absolutely all commands of the sovereign power, however absurd they may be” (16, 200).
However, if Spinoza really relies upon the social contract as a source of legitimacy, several problems arise. First of all, it seems unlikely that such a contract could ever have been formed, since the legitimating strength of a social contract seems to depend on the farsighted rationality of humans, and yet Spinoza clearly thinks that the majority of men are not generally rational (see Den Uyl 1983).
But even if such a contract were possible, a much greater problem remains for Spinoza. How can we take seriously a legitimacy-conferring contract without violating the naturalism that is at the core of Spinoza's metaphysics? What is this right that is surrendered or transferred? And how can one really transfer one's right, given the coextensivity of right and power? Moreover, Spinoza's naturalistic, utility-based account of obligation (see 2.2, above) seems to preclude the possibility of a binding social contract.

Some commentators take these problems with Spinoza's social contract to be insurmountable, and for this reason they regard him as coming to his senses when be abandons the contract in the TP (Wernham 1958, 25–27). Others have tried to reinterpret the contract in a way that is makes it consistent with his naturalism. For instance, Barbone and Rice distinguish between two concepts that have been rendered in English as “power.” On the one hand there is potentia, which is the power that is essential to the individual (Barbone and Rice 2000, 17). This power in inalienable. What is transferable is one's potestas, i.e. one's authority (Barbone and Rice 2000, 17) or coercive power (Blom 1995, 211).
While this interpretation has the virtue of cohering with Spinoza's claim that he “always preserve[s] the natural right in its entirety” (Epistle 50), since one's right, or potentia, always remains intact, it leaves unexplained how potestas, which Barbone and Rice describe as a “super-added” capacity, fits into the natural order. What can it mean to possess, transfer, or renounce one's potestas? And how can transferring or revoking it result in an obligation, given Spinoza's utility-based account of obligation?
The best way to understand what it means to possess or give up one potestas is in psychological terms. Curley suggests this when he looks to Hobbes' claim in Behemoth that the “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people” (EW VI, 184, 237—cited in Curley 1996, 326) as a way of understanding Spinoza's conception of sovereign formation. One could also cite Hobbes' famous claim in Leviathan that “reputation of power is power” (Ch. 10) as an expression of the same point. These passages can be understood as supporting the view that power is not transferred by way of a speech act, but rather by standing in the psychological thrall of the sovereign. Sovereignty is the product of psychological deference rather than the formal transference of rights or titles. We may call this the psychological interpretation of the social contract.

Some evidence in support of the psychological interpretation comes in TTP 17, where Spinoza claims that sovereign power or authority derives from the will of its subjects to obey (17, 209–10; cf. TP 2/9–10). There are places in the text, however, when Spinoza seems to imply that we have obligations to the sovereign irrespective of our psychological or motivational state. In some of these instances, a careful reading reveals that nothing of the sort is implied. For instance, his claim that “we are obliged to carry absolutely all the commands of the sovereign power, however absurd they may be” (16, 200) is contingent on our behaving rationally and wanting to avoid being regarded as enemies of the state. Still, there are other places when he does imply that de facto obedience is neither necessary nor sufficient for establishing the legitimacy of a civil body. For instance, he claims that the sovereign alone has right over religious matters such as interpreting Scripture, excommunicating heretics, and making provisions for the poor (19, 239 - 40), despite the fact that the church had, in fact, been exercising power in these matters. But this too can be reconciled with Spinoza's naturalism, provided that we understand that the power or authority of clerics devolves upon them from the power or authority of the sovereign.