Spinoza's adequate knowledge: Can he avoid being called a dogmatist?


Within Spinoza's System (laid down in the Ethics), the difference of inadequate from adequate knowledge is crucial. Perhaps it is even the central cornerstone of his system, because adequate knowledge seems to be both a necessary and sufficient condition to attain virtue, happiness, blessedness. Without Spinoza's theory of adequate knowledge, his system could not rightly be called Ethics, because adequate knowledge, and adequate knowledge alone, grounds the possiblity of an ethical life.

I wonder, however, how Spinoza's view on adequate knowledge can be both so central and so sketchy, that it seems not only to evade my grasp, but also that of all of the commentators I've read. I just don't understand what adequate knowledge is. For Spinoza, it evidently comprises two sorts of knowledge and at least this point shouldn't be subject to debate: the second kind of knowledge is knowledge of the common notions while knowledge of the third kind is intutitive knowledge. But - and here things start to get messy - how can Spinoza claim to have knowledge of these kinds without being rightly called a dogmatist? I don't see much hope for Spinoza to evade this reproach, even though I would like to see him avoid it.

Moritz Wolff

Posted 2020-01-10T13:35:55.420

Reputation: 190

See Spinoza’s Method for Epistemology with references.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-10T14:26:24.917

Maybe useful: Richard Mason Spinoza : Logic, Knowledge and Religion (2016, Routledge), Part II. Knowledge.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-10T14:33:11.313

The IEP article is very elucidating concerning the overall architecture of Spinoza's epistemology, but it leaves out the details. For example, common notiones appear mainly in EIIP37-39 and it is quite hard to understand for example Spinoza's proof of his assertion that the common notions can only be conceived adequately (P38). If we assume that a common notion is a universal property of modes conceived under a given attribute (as defined in the IEP article), what can it mean for such properties to be necessarily conceived adequately? I'm a bit lost here. – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-10T17:13:14.260

Abraham has an interesting take in Spinoza's Concept of Common Notions: "thinking functional when saying adequate brings us to the root of what Spinoza calls a common notion", adequate thought understands some common function. But on the "proof" he only says that it follows from Spinoza's definition of the essence, which involves "hair-splitting diferentiations that may seem incomprehensible and even paradoxical at first reading yet grow upon you and become quite self-evident as your study of ETHICS II progresses".

– Conifold – 2020-01-11T05:01:49.620

The context is Descartes' philosophy; we have "adequate knowledge" of e.g. mathematical truths, and the criteria of "clearness and distinctness" give us a way to achieve adequate knowledge of God and so on. Having said that, what do you mean with "dogmatist" ? Spinoza, as well as D, was not an empiricist for sure... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-11T09:29:45.583

The concept of knowledge for Descartes was explained into Regulae; for Spinoza, see Intellectus Emendatione.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-11T09:32:59.403

See D's "Rule III": "As regards any subject we propose to investigate, we must inquire not what other people have thought, or what we ourselves conjecture, but what we can clearly and manifestly perceive by intuition or deduce with certainty. For there is no other way of acquiring knowledge." This is also crucial for S' decision to develop the Ethics axiomatically. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2020-01-11T09:35:36.420

Thanks for your answers Conifold and Mauro Allegranza - i will definitely check out Abrahams take on the common notions. Mauro: To me it sometimes seems like that Spinoza just takes it for granted that common notions exist and that humans have access to them - without arguing for it. Could Spinoza be a dogmatist in this sense? To declare that we can clearly and manifestly perceive them is not very satisfactory. Having said that: What are the common notions anyway? Are the propostions of the Ethics examples of common notions as well? – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-11T13:25:32.270

Spinoza is an unapologetic dogmatist, just as Euclid was. The Ethics starts with definitions and axioms that are to be accepted without justification. How does one justify the axioms? By building a system on them that has plausibility as a whole. Considering the Euclidean genealogy, it seems relevant that Euclid's common notions are those most common to how geometric magnitudes function. We grasp a common notion when we grasp how a type of things functions in full generality, and that comes with a kind of certitude that Descartes ascribed to clear and distinct ideas. They are their own witness – Conifold – 2020-01-12T08:53:14.447

We later find this sort of thing in Kant's synthetic a priori and especially Husserl's "full adequacy" of "meaning fulfilling acts" after performing eidetic variation on some essence, where "we do not merely see it, but we see it to be true" (LI VI, §65). Of course, Spinoza would likely reject such phenomenological recourse, but it seems to me that part of his strategy in Ethics II is to persuade not by argument but by direct appeal to exercise of one's own intellect, along the lines laid out, just as one would appeal to that to justify the postulates and common notions of geometry. – Conifold – 2020-01-12T09:41:46.440

@Conifold: So the common notions would be the axioms of the Ethics and to get to know them is to know how they function, i.e. which conclusions can be drawn from them? If not, could you give more examples for what common notions are? Spinoza himself, if I do remember it correctly, gives the examples of motion and rest or extension concerning bodies. However, there seem to be more common notions. Examples would be helpful for understanding your take on the common notions better. – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T11:53:38.967

I think the axioms of Ethics are more like Euclid's postulates. Common notions of "modes under an attribute", instances of an essence, as Husserl would say, are general rules of how they work in virtue of being such instances. Be they magnitudes, moving bodies, or what have you. Abraham uses chess, wheels and watches as mundane examples. So they are not, in principle, pre-codified but open ended, waiting to be grasped "adequately". Spinoza is similarly open on attributes, only thought and extension are named, but God is a "substance of infinite attributes". – Conifold – 2020-01-12T12:17:25.563

"Even though Spinoza did not set out to demonstrate the elements of watch-making, he follows quite logically along the same lines. After all, what is it that he unveils in ETHICS if not the functions of the mind with its middlemost common notion?" Schliesser has an interesting post on Spinoza's common notions of motion/rest.

– Conifold – 2020-01-12T12:35:45.760

Ok, so what kinds of objects correspond to the common notions? Common notions are evidently ideas. But the "order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things." (EIIP11) What kinds of modes - conceived under the attribute of extension - correspond to common notions? Are these the infinite modes? – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T12:57:04.193

They are "intrinsic properties of modes within an attribute", so they do not correspond to any modes, they are shared by all of them. Rules in the order of ideas correspond to (common) natures in the order of things, laws of motion reflect dynamic qualities of bodies, etc. – Conifold – 2020-01-12T13:24:11.183

Let us continue this discussion in chat.

– Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T14:42:34.423



A full answer to your question would be very difficult here but there is a reasonably straightfoward account in the Ethics of how one type of 'adequate knowledge' is possible. This account is not dogmatic in my view.

Three grades of knowledge

The three grades of knowledge are readiy set out. There is knowledge:

  1. From signs; as for example when we hear or read certain words, we recollect things and form certain ideas of them similar to them, through which ideas we imagine things [Schol. Prop. 18, pt. 2]. These two ways of looking at things I shall hereafter call knowledge of the first kind, opinion or imagination.

  2. From our possessing common notions and adequate ideas of the proper- ties of things [Corol. Prop. 38, Prop. 39, with Corol. and Prop. 40, pt. 2]. This I shall call reason and knowledge of the second kind.

Besides these two kinds of knowledge, there is a third, as I shall hereafter show, which we shall call intuitive science [intuitive knowledge: GT]. This kind of knowing advances from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things.

(Spencer Carr, 'Spinoza's Distinction Between Rational and Intuitive Knowledge', The Philosophical Review, Vol. 87, No. 2 (Apr., 1978), pp. 241-252: 242.)

Second grade of knowledge

The first grade of knowledge apppears a plausible candidiate, and might on its own rebut the charge of dogmatism. As regards the second grade of knowledge, Spinoza tells how we form common notions (notionum communium). Common notions are necessarily adequate and constitute knowledge albeit only of the second kind:

They are common notions are structural features that all modes within an attribute share (E2P38; the corollary appeals to Lemma 2, which in turns follows from the definition of a body E2D1).

(Eric Schliesser, 'Spinoza on the Politics of Philosophical Understanding', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 111 (2011), pp. 497-518 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Aristotelian Society: 512.)

In propositions 37-40 of Part II Spinoza explains that we can form common notions from our perceptions of objects and that these notions are necessarily adequate. His idea is, roughly, that all bodies [modes: GT], by virtue of involving the conception of the same attribute, agree in certain respects; every body and every part of every body has something in common. Spinoza's view of the relationship between mind and body and his doctrine of perception lead him to hold that any such common notion can only be perceived adequately. (At IIP13L2 Spinoza gives "being capable of motion and rest" as an example of what is common to all bodies.) The first scholium to proposition 40, the scholium just preceding the classification, is concerned with distinguishing these common notions from universal ideas drawn from experience which we might confuse with common notions. Throughout, Spinoza is talking about how we do and how we should handle our experience of natural objects.

(Carr: 245.)

I omit conisideration of the third grade of knowledge, intuitive knowledge or scientia intuitiva, for two reasons. In the first place it raises difficulties which cannot be dealt with briefly; and secondly, the task was to counter the criticism that Spinoza's account of adequate knowledge is dogmatic. In presenting a case that the first and second grades of knowledge have argumentative support in Spinoza's text and are not merely assertively claimed, I believe I have vindicated him against the charge of dogmatism. This is not to say that Spinoza's arguments are correct as they stand. I do not need to show that the arguments are cogent, only that they are arguments which as such give the slip to the censure of dogmatism.

Geoffrey Thomas

Posted 2020-01-10T13:35:55.420

Reputation: 34 276

Thanks for your cogent summary. I'd like to dismiss the thought that Spinoza is a dogmatist concerning the common notions, because - as you have shown - he does provide arguments for his views. He can show that a) there must be common notions (by EIIL2 and EIIP7) and b) that common notions must be perceived adequately (by EIIP38). However, wouldn't you agree that Spinoza does not provide an acount of how common notions can be perceived at all? In EIIP39d he asks what happens, if "the human body is affected by an external body through that, which it has in common therewith". – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T11:47:00.160

But how can one be affected by something, which is a general property? This to me seems a bit mysterious and I have no idea how the process of forming common notions proceeds in detail. – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T11:47:05.933

And as long he does not provide a convincing account of how this process happens in detail, the mere assurance that it does occur has an air of dogmatism about it - don't you think? – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T11:48:28.560

Moritz Wolff. Thank you for your careful attention to my answer. I'd reply to your last comment as follows. Dogmatism is present not when one's arguments fail - and I didn't mean to commit myself to the cogency of Spinoza's arguments - but when a claim is made without argument or when (hardly possible in a posthumous text) a relevant objection is ignored. I can't see that the Spinoza of my answer is a dogmatist on either score. – Geoffrey Thomas – 2020-01-12T12:45:38.330

Ok, let's leave the charge of dogmatism behind. What I'm interested in is what you think how - within Spinoza's framwork - the process of forming common notions goes about. For example I would like to understand better what it means, as Spinoza describes it in EIIP39d, that "the human body is affected by an external body through that, which it has in common therewith". I cannot make sense of this. How a body is affected by another body - I'm fine with this. But how can I be affected by something that is "common to all"? – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T12:52:09.780

1This is a valid and important matter but doesn't it need a separate question? This I invite you to put. I was simply responding to the charge of dogmatism which for the purpose of discussion you now set aside and that's fine. You raise important points but I don't think this question is the proper forum for them. Best - GLT – Geoffrey Thomas – 2020-01-12T13:00:02.437

Allright - so let's see you in the next post. – Moritz Wolff – 2020-01-12T13:06:21.983