Spinoza and Modern Psychology

Short Biography and Background

               Baruch Spinoza was originally born in 1632 in Amsterdam, which was an area renowned for its religious freedom. Spinoza was born into a family that possessed economic means that presented him with a reasonably comfortable upbringing and childhood, until he reached the age of 17. At the age of 17, Spinoza was needed in the family importing business, which cut his studies short. Before needing to end his studies, Spinoza had been considered one of the more intelligent and promising pupils in his school, and would likely have been chosen to continue higher level studies focused on the Torah. As an interesting note, four years after beginning his work with his family business, Spinoza’s father died. Spinoza was granted his father’s estate, to which his sister disputed based on Jewish law. Spinoza took her to court and won, receiving his father’s estate – however, it would seem that this was done on principle, as once Spinoza won the court case, he gave his inheritance to his sister anyway (Scruton, 2002).

               Two years after his father died, Spinoza was issued the writ of herem, which is the harshest excommunication that was ever given by the by Spinoza’s Sephardic community in Amsterdam (which is more than a bit ironic given that this Sephardic community was only in Amsterdam in the first place due to Portuguese violence against their community, forcing them to flee). The reason for this writ being issued (and still being unrevoked to this day – even though some prominent Jews have supported him, such as David Ben-Gurion calling him the first Zionist) is due to the emergence of Spinoza’s radical philosophy that ran directly counter to Sephardic Jewish teaching and law. Perhaps one of the more “damning” aspects of his beliefs was his assertion that the Bible and Pentateuch were non-Mosaic documents (Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670). On top of this, Nadler (2008) writes that some of the other aspects of Spinoza’s words that got him banned from his community were his assertions in the non-immortality of the soul, his rejection of a “Providential God” (that is, the God of Abraham), and his express spoken disagreement with Jewish law.

               After Spinoza was given his writ of herem, and his acceptance of the Latin name Benedictus de Spinoza, many were surprised at the fact that he did not convert to Christianity. Given his Latin (and thus implicitly Christian) name, along with his associations with ex-Jesuits and other Christian individuals and his expulsion from his Jewish community, many historians still find it surprising that Spinoza did not convert to Christianity.

               Moving on from the expulsion in Spinoza’s younger life, Spinoza was a far quieter individual after this scandal rocked his life. For the following 21 years of his life, Spinoza spent it writing philosophy and making a modest (but comfortable) living as a lens-grinder. Even though his life may have been quieter, he was still producing writings that caused controversy and conflict in his life. One of these that came later in his life was when he wrote in defense of Jan de Witt, while writing in opposition of the Prince of Orange. With this, he had one of his friends, Gottfried Leibniz, come to visit him and warn him that, due to his writings, he was in danger from the Prince of Orange. He died at the age of 44, due to a lung illness, which may have been due to breathing in the glass dust from his lens grinding work.

A Glimpse into Spinoza’s Philosophy and Theology

               Let us first begin with the work of Spinoza himself, from which we can then use to reflect on how his ideas may have influenced following psychology and philosophy, and perhaps other branches of science as well. First is his arguments surrounding religious scripture, which I believe provide an insight into many of his other endeavors. In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, he says:

…is further evident from the fact that most of them assume as a basic principle for the understanding of Scripture and for extracting its true meaning that it is throughout truthful and divine–a conclusion which ought to be the end result of study and strict examination; and they lay down at the outset as a principle of interpretation that which would be far more properly derived from Scripture itself, which stands in no need of human fabrications.

From this quote, we can get a glimpse into what he thought about scripture – that we should take scripture exactly as it is, and not read anything from dogma, personal belief, or anything into it that is not explicitly stated in the (Jewish) scripture itself.

               Building off this, we can see Spinoza’s arguments in favor of a God – although this argument is likely a very different God from what those raised in a Judeo-Christian worldview would recognize as God. While Spinoza may have eschewed the dualistic nature of Descartes arguments, there were many aspects of Descartes that Spinoza utilized when crafting his arguments. One of these similarities was in Spinoza’s use of his ontological argument that God exists. In Spinoza’s ethics (published after his death, possibly due to a fear of repression of the work and retaliation from the Sephardic community), Spinoza stated “whether there is a God, this, we say, can be proved.” (Spinoza, Ethics, 1677). Spinoza’s argument of the form of God and the philosophy that stemmed from it is termed, fittingly, Spinozism. Spinozism, if we were to condense it into one statement, is the philosophical position that God can be understood as a “singular self-subsistent substance, with both matter and thought being attributes of such.” (Nadler, Baruch Spinoza: God or Nature, 2020). Here, we can see the explicit repudiation of Cartesian dualism and the articulation of a nonphysical monistic worldview. For Spinoza, this monistic God stood in stark contrast to the God that was taught by both Jews and the (ex) Christians that he consorted with. This God, the “God of Spinoza” as Einstein referenced when asked about his own beliefs, was in and of everything that we perceive, and in and of everything that we are unable to perceive. God, to Spinoza, is the essential fabric of the universe.

               Here, it will be appropriate to continue our explication on the understanding of God that Spinoza possessed, or as Spinoza referenced it, the Substance of God. If we look to Spinoza’s Ethics (Spinoza and Morgan, The essential Spinoza: Ethics and related writings, 2006), God can be understood as “the sum of the natural and physical laws of the universe and certainly not an individual entity or creator.” Here, we can again look to the explications provided by Nadler (2001). Nadler states that, from the quote presented above and other aspects of Spinoza’s writings, that we can understand the “substance” of God to be the substances and aspects of every part of the universe – every expression, law, substance and aspect that we can see and those that we cannot are all part of the concept of God in Spinoza’s view.

               As touched on earlier, while Spinoza lines of reasoning and argumentation coincided with some of the ontological arguments that Descartes used, much of the rest of Spinoza’s work was in direct contrast to the debate swirling around Cartesian dualism during his lifetime (and still today). In direct relation to Spinoza’s monistic worldview was one of his other main departures from the thoughts of Descartes – determinism. For Spinoza, determinism meant that the way the universe has unfolded, and will unfold moving forward, could not have happened any other way. While this deterministic outlook does not specifically address the question of free will, it is rather easy to see how this view of the universe can and will remove the possibility that individuals possess agency and free will over their actions.

Now let us discuss some of the more direct relationships between Spinoza’s philosophy and the realm of psychology. One of the most commonly discussed constructs that pervades every subfield of psychology (in some form or another) is the construct of the mind. Less than 40 years before Spinoza wrote his famous works, Descartes published some of his most impactful writings. From these, the concept of the mind was massively altered in the landscape of philosophy and, subsequently, psychology. For Spinoza, given that everything in our universe is monistic and subsumed within the nonphysical entity of God, the mind must be housed within this God as well. In Edwin Curley’s 1985 The Collected Works of Spinoza, we can see the quote from Spinoza “the human Mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God.” Further, Spinoza expands upon this view: “Whatever happens in the object of the idea constituting the human Mind must be perceived by the human Mind.” To continue expanding on our understanding of Spinoza’s view of the mind, it will be helpful to provide one more quote. “The object of the idea constituting the human Mind is the Body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else.” As we discussed earlier in this paragraph, Spinoza published his works very soon after Descartes. From these quotes, we can see a very explicit rejection of the dualistic viewpoint that Descartes proposed in his works. Although we can see a very strong rejection of this Cartesian view, it is rather obvious which of these viewpoints became more generally accepted within American and Western society. As a result of this societal acceptance of the dualistic Cartesian viewpoint, the language that is spoken in both academic and clinical psychology is, usually (for better or worse), of a dualistic viewpoint.

In her 1907 work Spinoza and Modern Psychology, Amy Tanner discusses the contributions that Spinoza made to the field of psychology. Perhaps by looking at one viewpoint from over 100 years ago on the modern psychology of the day, we can see how the effects on the psychology of the 21st century – and perhaps a bit beyond the scope of just psychology. In this account, Amy Tanner discusses the relevance that Spinoza has for the concept of the role that the mind has in the preservation of the body, and of the mind itself. The dualistic nature of concept is justified (due to Spinoza being explicitly Monistic) by Tanner as she talks about Spinoza’s linguistics. To begin, we must understand that “there is but one substance, God, which manifests itself under the two attributes of thought and extension.” (p. 514). To then understand how Spinoza can speak of mind and body, along with different concepts, separately, Tanner helps by explicating – “…mind and extension are not different substances but the same seen under a different attribute.” (p. 514). Tanner then goes on to discuss how this interdependence of mind and body can lead us to the conclusion that “nothing is more important to mental balance than bodily health.” (p. 516). For something written more than a century ago, in a fledgling field, this is quite prophetic for how the field of psychology would develop. One of the most well supported and efficacious methods to combatting depression is through behavioral activation – or as Tanner would put it, improving our mental balance through bodily action and health.

While there is a plethora of work that we can discuss related to Spinoza and his writings on politics, I will not delve into it in this paper, given that it is not necessarily relevant. It is safe to say, as a short explication of his views, that they stem mainly from and are heavily influenced by his theology and his nonphysical monistic understanding of the universe.

Impact of Spinoza’s Work on Modern Psychology and Philosophy

One of the most interesting effects (although perhaps a tenuous one) that we can see in Spinoza’s work on the psychology of today is the thread that we can see stretching from him to the field of behaviorism. I am sure that this claim is one that will be met with a raised eyebrow or two, but I think that it is one that is worth making. My reasoning for this is in the monism that we see in Spinoza, and the inverse of it that we see in behaviorism, and particularly in Skinnerian behaviorism. For Spinoza, existence was defined by a nonphysical monism, where there was one single substance throughout all, and that substance was God. For Skinner and some of the more radical behaviorists, there was, like Spinoza, an existence that was comprised by one single substance. However, for them it was not that of God, but matter. The thread that I want to tie between Spinoza and radical behaviorism is not one of conflict (of which there would obviously be plenty), but in the rejection of dualism that both were strong proponents of. Through Spinoza, one of the more powerful repudiations of the dualistic world view was born. Although the belief in God as all was certainly not the route that we see taken in behaviorism, we can see an affirmation of the belief in a Monistic worldview.

While this string between Spinoza and Behaviorism is a peripheral one at best, given the fundamental conflict between nonphysical and physical Monism, one string that is far more reliable is the support of determinism (or at least repudiation of free will) that both Spinoza and many of the behaviorists (including Skinner) would have claimed. While determinism predates Spinoza by multiple centuries, his reinterpretation of the construct is one that gives weight to the arguments today, in concurrence with those who came both before and after him. Determinism has massive implications for psychology and beyond in our modern times. In the world of psychology, particularly forensic psychology, if we were to come at the issue of crime and psychopathology from a deterministic worldview, the way that we interact with criminals would, of a necessity, change drastically. One of the most widely known modern philosophers to delineate the shift this would necessitate is Sam Harris, when he talks about how this would (or at least, should) shift our treatment of criminals from a focus of punishment to one of rehabilitation (Harris, Moral landscape: How science can determine human values, 2011). In addition to the alterations that a more deterministic worldview would likely engender within forensic psychology, it is not hard to imagine that it would also have far reaching ramifications within the greater field as well. One of the aspects of modern-day psychotherapy (and many other fields) is the willingness and propensity of those who conduct it as a profession to speak in the language of the laity. As the language of the laity is, generally within the United States and much of the Western world, one of Cartesian dualism, and thus one that inherently accepts free will, treatment of psychological disorders often has an element, and sometimes a rather significant one, of the onus being on the individual to “take control” of their disorder and have a very prominent and active role in the journey to well-being. If Spinoza’s understanding of determinism were to become a more dominant influence than it is today, it would fundamentally change the way that therapy is conducted, and the way that individuals are rehabilitated. Even before it could have an effect on rehabilitation, however, it would remove, or at least drastically reduce, the propensity for the justice system to engage in punitive treatment of offenders.

Another image of how Spinoza’s work has influenced the multifaceted field of psychology can be seen in how he addressed the emotions, or at least certain emotions. As we talked about above, Spinoza pushed back against the Cartesian view of the mind. Another contrast with Descartes is Spinoza’s discussion and understanding of emotions. Spinoza talks about the emotions as being, in some sense, cognitive in their nature. We can see Spinoza discuss a wide range of emotions in the preface of part three of his Ethics:

The Affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow from the same necessity and force of nature as any other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worthy of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing, by the mere contemplation of which we are pleased.

Here, we can see Spinoza talk about the origin of the emotions being similar to the origins of everything else that is in existence. They are caused by the world around us, while also have a synergistic effect on the world around us. Spinoza also talks about the importance of understanding our emotions, stating that simply contemplating these emotions is something that is worthy of our attention and energy. While the connection to the explicit functioning of modern psychology may not be of a nature of direct links in this aspect, we can certainly see the connection in the realm of attending to our emotions and the benefits that are inherent in understanding ourselves.

               To go back to an earlier discussion of free will, it will be helpful to continue our conversation on this topic. It has already been established that Spinoza does not support the notion of free will. Here, we will discuss some of his writing on the topic and try to understand, in more detail, the effects that this has had on modern psychology. In Ethics 2, Spinoza states “In the Mind there is no absolute, or free, will, but the Mind is determined to will this or that by a cause which is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so to infinity.” Here, the behaviorist view is on full display. I find it helpful to understand behaviorism, in a very basic way, through the metaphor of an equation. When conducting an equation, it is necessary, or at least highly advised, to have all the individual variables. If the equation is exceedingly complicated (or perhaps extremely simple), we may be able to get an approximation of the outcome even if we are lacking a few of the individual variables here and there. The more pieces that we are missing, the further away from the truth we find ourselves. If we are to be able to understand behavior on an individual basis, then we will need as many variables to plug into this equation as possible. Bringing this metaphor back to the science of behaviorism, we can see that if we are to have an accurate understanding of why a 47-year-old individual behaves the way they do, then there are an unbelievably massive number of variables that we would need in order to have a complete understanding of the behavior. The above quote from Spinoza provides another way for us to look at how one can understand why one behaves the way that they do. His use of the word “determined” is crucial. Again, taking the 47-year-old individual, we need to continuously go back, even before their birth, to the actions of their mother while they are in-vitro (and on and on), if we are to have a complete and total understanding of their Mind and Behavior (which will, again, vary wildly depending on which definition, or lack thereof, that is employed for Mind). Drawing again from the works of Curley (1985), we can gather a sense of the “metaphysical naturalism” that is present in the above quote. From Curley and this quote, it is apparent that Spinoza believes that human will and freedom are inextricable from their natural and physical causes. However, Spinoza does not utilize this as a way to extricate ourselves from either a responsibility or understanding from the actions that we take. Instead, Spinoza encourages us to continue to understand the natural world and our place within it, so that we can have a richer understanding and, thus, more power which allows to be more active participants in the natural world. While this is not the concept of free will that many in the Western world have in the Cartesian sense, it is, nonetheless, an affirmation of human freedom.

               Like politics, religion and psychology, Spinoza also had much to say about metaphysics. However, similar to the treatment of Spinoza’s politics in this paper, we will not spend time discussing his metaphysics. Not because they are not worth discussing, but because they are both outside the bounds of this discussion, and my understanding of Spinoza and metaphysics in general.

In Sum

               Spinoza was a renegade during his life and had a profound impact on the thinking of his day. Today, he is still a renegade, with a view that is either shunned, scoffed at, glanced at with interest or, most likely, completely unknown. Even though many have likely never heard of him, Spinoza has had an indelible effect on modern philosophy, metaphysics, theology, psychology and, perhaps, even physics (as we see saw earlier with his influence on Einstein).

               While the goal of this paper was to give some background into how Spinoza has influenced the field of psychology, there is so much more to him than his effect on that particular field and what has been discussed here. Introductions are a good thing, as they can show us a glimpse into something that we would not otherwise have had our eyes opened to. But that is just what they are – an introduction. This paper should be seen as very little more than that – while I hope to have contributed something new to the conversation, it is still likely not much more than an introduction. For those who already knew something of Spinoza, perhaps this will give them reason to continue learning about him. For those who have never heard of him, perhaps this will be the catalyst to learn about a fascinating man, who was a theologian, philosopher, thinker and quiet revolutionary.

References

Harris, S. (2011). Moral landscape: How science can determine human values (1st Free Press paperback ed). Free Press

Nadler, Steven (2001]. “Baruch Spinoza”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (substantive revised ed.).

Nadler, Steven (2020). “Baruch Spinoza: God or Nature”. In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University.

Scruton, Roger (2002). Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spinoza, B. (2002). Complete Works (S. Shirley & M. L. Morgan, Eds.). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Spinoza, B. de, & Curley, E. M. (1985). The collected works of Spinoza. Princeton University Press.

Spinoza, B. de, & Morgan, M. L. (2006). The essential Spinoza: Ethics and related writings. Hackett Pub.

Spinoza, Benedictus de (1670). Tractatus Theologico-Politicus: Gebhardt Edition 1925

Tanner, Amy (1907). Spinoza and Modern Psychology. The American Journal of Psychology. University of Illinois Press.

Questions

Growing up, my favorite (and often only) pasttime was reading. Usually this would be novels like Lord of the Rings, the Belgariad, or other fantasy novels. I loved the chance to get lost in these worlds, in these stories. For me, it was the chance to experience something so detached from reality so as to make the life I lived, which was (and is) a wonderful one, seem more wondrous in its own right.

Today, while I still enjoy getting lost in these stories at times, I find that my portal to different worlds, often fantastical worlds, is through the exercise of asking questions. These questions are often based in reality, but when they themselves are responded to again and again with more and more questions, the original premise often finds itself, while ostensibly based in the world that I and others inhabit, so far off from the land of reality that those around me often exclaim as to their ridiculousness, often with voices heavily steeped in exasperation.

While these questions usually do abound in reality to begin with, it is the sheer impossibility of the following questions that I find the most joy in. A question about being adopted may stray into questions centered on the morality of, well, frankly, whatever. How these questions meander down into these unrelated landscapes is something that I am unsure of, but I am quite certain that I love the experience.

For me, the question is not whether or not I enjoy this process, but why. For me, the value of a question does not lie in the answer that follows from it. In fact, I believe that finding an answer inherently devalues the question that answered it. This is not to deny the practical necessity of answering many of the questions that we have – it is merely an affirmation of my joy in the unanswerable nature of certain questions.

Perhaps the true joy of an unanswerable question is simply the quest to find this eternally hidden answer. Seeking the solution to these questions leads to more and more questions, some of them with solutions that enrichen, some with answers that call into question the central nature of who we are as a person. More often than not, however, the quest simply ends once the mental exactitude of creating more and more questions finds itself run out of gas.

At the end of all these questions, I often find that the people around me ask, sometimes kindly and sometimes otherwise, what the point of it all is. Perhaps the joy of these unanswerable questions (and sometimes unending) is the utter and complete lack of practicality and purpose. The process of asking these queries is the purpose in and of itself. It is the painful ecstasy of realizing that there often are no answers, or at least no honest ones, to morality, God, politics, family or a million other things. That there is no point, that there is no end, that there is no purpose whatsoever, that is why I engage in these questios – or dialogues when the situation is perfect.

In our modern culture, we are often (but not always) told that our actions should always have a goal. When we have spare time during the week, we are encouraged to develop a side hustle, become entrepenours on the side, expand our income generating abilities. When we are exhausted, we are told to take some time to “recharge our batteries” so that we can get back to the real world of production and generation of whatever the fuck it is that we are supposed to generate. We are not machines with batteries to recharge. We are not income earners, or capitalists (or Marxists for that matter) – we are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, students and learners, we are those without the answers. And at the end of the day, there is nothing quite so pursposeful as seeking through the unending exercise of questioning.