A Mystery in Spinoza’s Psychological Theory

In his Ethics, Spinoza often discusses how our emotions lead us to ‘strive to imagine’ various things. We strive to imagine things that affect us with joy (3p12) and things that exclude the existence of what causes us sadness (3p13). We strive to imagine someone we hate being affected with sadness and someone we love being affected with joy (3p26).

What does it mean to ‘strive to imagine’ something? To a contemporary reader, it can often seem that Spinoza is talking about ‘cognitive dissonance’: we try to imagine the world in a way that makes us feel good.

In some cases, this is what he seems to mean. For instance, he tells us that we can see ‘how it easily happens that people think too well of themselves and those they love, and think too poorly of those they hate’ (3p26s): this follows, apparently, from the previous propositions, which describe us striving to imagine the things that make us joyful and exclude what makes us sad.

But if this were all Spinoza meant, his psychological theory would do a poor job of explaining human behaviour. People act on the basis of their emotions, for Spinoza, and not only on their beliefs. In fact there is no clear distinction between emotions and beliefs. If emotions only led us to imagine the world in favourable ways, rather than to attempt to change the world, then they would explain our fantasies but not our actions.

Spinoza is quite clear, however, that emotions lead us to act. In 3p28d he declares that ‘Whatever we reckon leads to joy, we strive, as far as we can, to imagine … that is, as far as we can, we strive to regard it as present or actually existing.’ But this is not a mere striving to fantasise; Spinoza continues: ‘But the mind’s striving or power in thinking is equally the striving of the body or power in acting … therefore, we strive to the utmost to make the thing exist.’ So now it seems that when Spinoza speaks of ‘striving to imagine’ things being the case, he means striving to make them the case, and then perceiving them to be so. It doesn’t help that the Latin word ‘imaginor’ can be used to mean both ‘imagine’ (in the sense of fantasising) and ‘perceive’.

Later (3p50s), Spinoza reverts to the fantasy/error interpretation of ‘striving to imagine’. From the fact that we strive to imagine ourselves and those we love being joyful, and those we hate being sad, it follows, he tells us, that ‘we are constituted by nature to easily believe what we hope for and only with difficulty believe what we fear’. This, he tells us, is the origin of ‘the superstitions by which people everywhere fall into conflict’.

Why, however, wouldn’t it rather follow that we strive to make ourselves and those we love joyful (and those we hate sad — Spinoza has a hard vision of human psychology)? Why wouldn’t our striving to imagine such things lead us towards action rather than superstition – to change the world rather than be more prone to believe it congenial? This is what the activist interpretation of ‘striving to imagine’ would entail.

More generally: when does our ‘striving to imagine’ lead us to fantasy or error, and when does it lead us to action? Spinoza doesn’t seem to make it clear. Perhaps insofar as we strive to imagine only true things, our striving to imagine something must lead us to strive to really bring it about, and not simply to fantasise that it is true.

But none of this is made very clear in the crucial parts of the Ethics (3 and 4), so far as I can see. Can anyone help?

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: https://axdouglas.com/

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