Saturday, February 10, 2007

Speaking of Spinoza (Psychology)

Questions from the Ethics and Spinoza's psychological theory:
“…everyone has the power of clearly and distinctly understanding himself and his emotions, if not absolutely, at any rate in part, and consequently of bringing it about, that he should become less subject to them.”

Unproven assertion that understanding emotions means one is less subject to them. What’s Spinoza’s proof?

There is an old saying that goes "Knowing is half the cure." This is what self awareness offers, the ability to ACT differently after knowing how much influence the emotions held before that awareness. For those of us who have overcome serious depression, Spinoza is telling what seems to be an obvious truth, but still requires a bit more than just my anecdotal advocacy. Let me put it another way. Spinoza sees mind and emotion (much as he does mind and body) as two languages describing the same event. What if one doesn't speak the language of the other, or perhaps doesn't even hear the other at all?

What if we were able to have any level of emotion we wanted at any given time? How about anger? What if every time you felt angry you acted out? You would probably lose your job, spouse, and most of your friends pretty fast. Now what if you never realized that you became angry? Or never knew the source of the anger? Or what changes anger creates in your biochemistry that exacerbates the rage? Or how acting out, even if it achieves short term goals i.e. control or manipulation, truly destroys long-term happiness? Now even Spinoza admits that it will likely come down to matter of degrees as to how successful one would be in reigning in the emotions, but at least he is not asking anyone to deny or change them. Be angry, just be reasonable about it. There is another old saying that goes "Do not teach your children not to anger; teach them rather how to be angry."

“. . . hence it will come to pass, not only that love, hatred, &c. will be destroyed (V. ii.), but also that the appetites or desires, which are wont to arise from such emotion, will become incapable of being excessive (IV. lxi.).”

If love, hatred, etc. are destroyed, how can the appetites or desires, arising from such emotions, simply become incapable of being excessive. Logically, they should likewise be destroyed, their foundation having been eradicated.

Spinoza just says that with constant application of reason and the habituation of reasoned emotional reaction, little by little the behavior modification becomes second nature. The emotion isn't dead, just sedated. For example, in my recovery from Depression, I discovered that as time went on and I would slowly apply self-awareness (admitting to and knowing my moods) that certain situations that would have, in the past, triggered an almost autonomic and heightened emotional response, suddenly did not effect me in the same way. This is, by the way, how many of us living with depression gauge our emotional progress. Not only did I not act out as I was prone to do, but the level of emotion was mitigated to almost naught.

I will agree that the last part about 'eradication' is unrealistic and a mistaken assumption on Spinoza's part.

“For it must be especially remarked, that the appetite through which a man is said to be active, and that through which he is said to be passive is one and the same.”

One cause produces two diametrically contradictory effects? So what’s the impinging variable (switch) that turns one on and the other off?

To demand that one is turned off or turned on is a misnomer. If it's on. It's on. Emotion is a chemical reaction triggered by thoughts of pain or pleasure. The question is where will it go once it starts or who will stop it if necessary? Reason gives me the tools to stop and think before I do something stupid. Myself, when I get manic and a little too 'Esther', a condition nicknamed for my grandmother, I run, skip rope, and hit the heavy bag rather than just sit around and stew. There were any number of other avenues I could have taken to self medicate or escape. Even now, years later, I still have to re-mind myself sometimes to get my sorry ass to the gym. That is reason overcoming the inertia of depression. (I'm in really good shape by the way.)

We are still living under the false assumption that intellect and emotion are two very separate functions. They are not at all. Read Daniel Goleman's "Emotional Intelligence". His work confirms much of what Spinoza's psychology is saying here. In addition, one could say that Spinoza is all along only speaking in short-term remediation and not toward eradication.

“In like manner all appetites or desires are only passions, in so far as they spring from inadequate ideas; the same results are accredited to virtue, when they are aroused or generated by adequate ideas.”

(1) What makes an idea adequate? Adequate for what? Adequate implies a goal.
(2) Are appetites generated by ideas? I am hungry, not because I’m thinking about food, but because of physiological processes having nothing to do with thoughts.
(3) Isn’t saying all appetites and desires are only passions simply a tautology? Are all passions likewise just appetites and desires?

I'll answer them in order:

1) By example. Your teacher is giving an exam on cell biology. You master the knowledge of cell structure, cell division, cell function, etc. You show mastery of the knowledge required to understand the cell. Your teacher gives you an 'A'. You now have an adequate idea. The goal, if there is one, is to know what the 'f' is going on around you. A non-adequate idea would be an opinion or statement about cells not based in fact i.e. created by an Omnipotent Transcendental Deity who takes personal interest in my choice of reading material and condemns my soul to Eternal damnation for studying Spinoza.

2) Ask Pavlov. If I even just smell someone else smoking weed, I get the munchies. Seriously though, hunger is a desire based in our physiology. Have you ever tried not to be hungry when your body demanded food? Yet, the thought of pleasure that comes from the good memories of a tasty dish (or woman) will induce an 'appetite' for that thing. As Bill Cosby says "There's always room for Jello."

3) Good question and you're right for asking it. Many philosophers think Spinoza uses a 'perfectionist' language that tries to make distinctions without any real differences. I'll give it a shot here. Desire (conatus) is part of our natural being, whereas pain and pleasure are derivatives of that desire which determine what 'appetites' we will mentally form images of being drawn to or repelled from. This 'desire' could be homeostasis (striving), 'passion' the unchecked or unaware physical wanting (determined), and 'appetite' the psycho-mental imagery that connects them (imagined). Do not think of passion as an active, but as a passive; determined solely by non-conscious influences. In other words, passion is the opposite, sort of speak, of an adequate idea.
re: “For all desires, whereby we are determined to any given action, may arise as much from adequate as from inadequate ideas (IV. lix.).”

All desires MAY arise from etc, etc? How can one test the hypothesis if it is hedged with the qualification MAY? (I’ll pass on how one distinguishes an adequate idea from an inadequate idea.)

Spinoza says "may" arise because human beings also have genetic predispositions or physical conditions that already mitigate or exacerbate desires. One may be a complete nincompoop when it comes to an 'adequate idea' of emotions, but he might also be the kind of person who just never gets angry. even when we think he should!

Kol Tuv

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