Polemics on res cogitans, or how to improve Spinoza's theory of mind

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №8 - 2016

Author: Maidansky Andrey, Belgorod State University, Russia

Lev Vygotsky, the founder of the cultural-historical school, considered Spinoza as a guiding star of psychological science [1]. And the remarkable Soviet philosopher Evald Ilyenkov accounted himself a Spinozist. Both Ilyenkov and Vygotsky strived to read Spinoza materialistically, moreover they treated his philosophy in a Marxist perspective.

About three years ago a sharp, at times impolite polemics began among Ilyenkov followers. They concerned a concept of “thinking body”, as Ilyenkov interpreted Spinoza’s res cogitans in his “Dialectical Logic”, Essay II. To my mind, such an interpretation is not only inadequate and in fact absolutely unacceptable for Spinoza, but that it runs counter to Marxist dialectical logic, as the latter is expounded by Ilyenkov himself.

Regarding the inadequacy, even the most implacable defender of “thinking body”, L.K. Naumenko, agreed. De facto, as he expressed it, Spinoza’s res cogitans is a human mind, not body. Well, one could hardy contest that, because Spinoza not once or twice gave such a definition of mind in a plain text [2]. However Naumenko, at one with all the Ilyenkov “old guard”, affirms that the Teacher improved Spinoza’s theory of mind, he advanced it by replacing mind with “thinking body”.

If one takes another de facto look, it appears that the concept of “thinking body” degrades Spinoza directly backwards – to Hobbes and Gassendi. In their Objections to Descartes’ “Meditations” these materialists in unison argued that the subject of thinking is a body and that a “thinking thing is something corporeal” [3].

It is no accident that Ilyenkov borrows Hobbes’ analogy between thinking and walking in order to elucidate Spinoza’s views. And I don’t know where he had found it in Spinoza that “it is not a special ‘soul’…, that thinks, but the body of man itself” [4]. Thinking as act of a mode of extension – one could scarcely imagine anything less acceptable for Spinoza.

That concept of thinking as “only a property, a predicate, an attribute” of body, as “just a mode of existence of the body” [5], is equally unacceptable for Ilyenkov himself. Generally, for a “wise materialist” [6], thought is a mode of existence of matter, not of bodies. Body is only one real mode of existence of matter. And thought is another – the incorporeal, ideal mode. While for an “unwise” materialist, for an empiricist à la Hobbes or Gassendi, “matter” is a mere synonym for “body”.

Unlike his pupils, Ilyenkov was perfectly conscious of the logical deficiency of the concept of “thinking body”. At the end of Essay II Ilyenkov courteously corrected his pseudo-Spinoza by a purely Marxist postulate: “Labour, the process of changing nature by the action of social man, is that ‘subject’ to which thought belongs as ‘predicate’” [7].

Labour is the true subject of thought. And the subject of labour is by no means a body, but the “social man”, who works by the use of his body and, equally, by his mind. A man, considered as the “ensemble of social relations” [8], which evidently are none other than acts, deeds being performed by people in respect to each other; the very set of common activities which unite individuals into the single whole, viz. society.

Here is actually the point where Marxist philosophy picks up the baton from Spinoza. The latter discovered in activity, regarded as an efficient causation, the universal principium individuations.

For instance, if A and B are acting together or doing some common deed, they ought to be considered as a single thing AB: “If a number of individuals concur in one action, so as to be all jointly the effect of one cause, I consider them all therein as one singular thing” [9]. Res singularis is definitely explained here as “one action” (una actio).

Human body and mind are doing one and the same deed – that is why they are, for Spinoza, the single thing, and not two different substances. But they do their deed in absolutely different ways, duobus modis, which have nothing at all in common.

For Spinoza activity is the sole criterion of reality. Any thing exists only insofar as it acts or has an effect on other things, appearing as a cause of their being. To cease the activity is equivalent to loss of the “actual” existence, even if that thing is still being perceived as present here and now.

Spinoza’s credo is to judge things by their deeds, and in no other way. “The more a thing acts the more perfect it is” [Eth. V pr. 40].

With regard to God, to “exist” means to “act on himself”, to be a cause and, at once, an effect of this cause. Spinoza’s God should be regarded as a unique and free, eternal and absolutely infinite causal act. It is an act of God’s ‘self-naturing’. Thus, in Spinoza’s concept of God Nature substance the general principle of Deed has found its absolute expression. And the Marxist concept of labour as a “substance and-subject” of the world history appears as a further, more concrete development of Spinoza’s idea of God as Deed. In both cases – “im Anfang war die That”.

In TIE Spinoza assumed that man has acquired intellect by nature. By some “native force” (vis nativa) mind creates simple ideas and uses them as instruments for another opera intellectualia. Hence it appears that ideas arise from the work of mind, and not from the motions of body along the geometrical contours of external bodies, as Ilyenkov posed it.

Not ideas, but mere images arise from the bodily motions. Ideas are modes of thought, whereas images are modes of extension, so one should “distinguish accurately between an idea or concept of the mind and the images of things” [Eth. II pr. 49 sch.].

Ilyenkov’s statement that body, while moving along an outward form, “creates an adequate idea”, rests on a complete confusion between “bodily images” (imagines corporeae, – TIE) and thoughts or ideas. The queerest thing is that in his brilliant “Dialectics of the Ideal” Ilyenkov himself fought so passionately with this same confusion of the material with ideal.

Having blotted out the distinction between image and idea, one loses immediately the qualitative difference between human and animal activities, between res cogitans and some asinus turpissimus. Ilyenkov draws quite a legitimate conclusion on behalf of his pseudo-Spinoza: “The actions of animals, especially these of the higher animals, are also subsumed, though to a limited degree, under Spinoza’s definition of thinking” [10]. The bodies of animals are thinking a bit as well, there remains only a difference in degree – their ‘thoughts’ are somewhat worse than human ones.

In exactly the same way Gassendi wrote about animals’ right of thought: “Undoubtedly, they lack for human reason, but they have reason of their own kind... The difference between us and them in this respect, apparently, is only in a greater or lesser degree (secundum magis et minus)” [Objectiones V, § 7].

In “factual” Spinoza there is no trace of that vulgar reduction of the concept of thinking. On the contrary, he painstakingly ploughs up the boundary path separating actions of a thinking thing from actions of animal, or the acquiring of ideas from the imaginative perception of outlines. Spinoza agrees with Buridan that an ass, being affected by external causes with equal force, should inevitably die. But man should be considered not as a thinking thing, but as the stupidest ass, if he dies in a similar case [CM II, cap. 12].

For Spinoza, to “think” means to understand causes of things. The soul of the animal dwells in a world of outlines, but the thinking thing acts in a world of causes and effects. Only this latter world is real. Spatial outlines are just imaginative forms of reality, some ‘objective appearance’ of real bodies as modes of extended Nature. “Nature has no outline but imagination has” (William Blake).

An image of a circle in the mind of a mathematician is the same as that image in the mind of an ass. However, the ass does not have any concept of the “efficient cause” of circle, i.e. of the mode of plotting the circle. This difference is cardinal, qualitative, not just “in degree” – secundum magis et minus. The ass perceives only an outline, acquiring thus a “bodily image” of the circle, while the mathematician, if he is not ass, makes an idea of circle, revealing its cause. Therefore he thinks, and the ass does not.

Ilyenkov took notice of Spinoza’s example of the definition of a circle and interpreted it absolutely right. Being a Marxist, he always regarded ideas, thoughts as modes of practical activity, as schemata of remaking things by human labour. Thinking as such is labour, die allgemeine Arbeit, as Marx called the area of pure thought, science. To think – it is not easy work even for a human being.

Due to the conception of labour as a substance and-subject of thought, Ilyenkov advanced much further than Spinoza in comprehension of genesis of personality, which is, for Spinoza, the only real res cogitans excepting God-Nature itself.

Is the person actually a body capable of moving itself along any external outline? No, Ilyenkov answered, “within an individual body there exists not the person but his/her one-sided (abstract) projection onto the screen of biology” [11]. Each person is an “ensemble of social relations” which is only incarnated, represented in some body, both in a living body of a man and in his “inorganic body” (Marx), in material culture.

Personality is, as Ilyenkov defined it, “the total sum of relations of a man to himself as if to some ‘other’... That is why the body of a person is not an individual body of homo sapiens, but at least two such bodies – ‘MY’ and ‘YOURS’, united as if into a single body by social-human bonds, relations, interrelations” [12].

So, each person disposes of two bodies at least. And personality (thinking mind) appears to be “only a property, a predicate, an attribute” of none of these bodies. “As such the person is situated not within a particular body, but right outside it. It is within a system of real interrelations of this particular body with another similar body by mediation of things situated in the space between them and linking them up into “as if a single body”, guided by “as if a single mind”” [13].

This turn of speech – una quasi mens, unumque corpus – is traced straight back to Spinoza’s Ethic [IV, pr. 18, sch.]. Also the very comprehension of personality in Ilyenkov is congenial to that of Spinoza. I mean the genuine, authentic Spinoza and not that Spinoza-materialist from the pages of “Dialectical Logic”, the comrade-in-arms with Hobbes and Gassendi...

There are no “thinking bodies” in heaven and earth, they are dreamt of in philosophy by empiricists. Human body is not a subject, but mere object and instrument of thought. Personality, Ilyenkov writes, “realises itself in an organic body of a man, transforming this body into an obedient, steering easily tool” [14].

Thinking mind, person is a purely ideal phenomenon. The category of ideal indicates a watershed between human personality and animal psyche, lacking of thought: “Being properly understood, the category of ideal embraces those and only those forms of reflection, which are peculiar to human being and absolutely alien to whatsoever animal, even if the latter has a highly developed nervous activity and psyche” [15].

If so, do we have a right to consider as “properly understood” the pseudo-Spinozistic definition of thought, that subsumes actions of animals, “though to a limited degree”? Apparently, we don’t. There is no ideal inside the animal mind (except this mind itself, as an idea of the animal’s body). The animal mind is a function of its organic body. That is why the animal cannot think, and it is not a res cogitans.

Ilyenkov flatly rejects the presence of the ideal in animals, regardless of the “degree” of their psychic development. His own works on personality and on the concept of ideal raze the “thinking body” chimera to the ground. And they perfectly harmonize with factual Spinoza. Spinoza’s distinction between images and ideas is essentially the same with the distinction drawn by Ilyenkov, between objective ideal forms and “subjective images” of mind.

Vygotsky and Ilyenkov admit Spinoza’s definition of mind as the “idea of body”. But if a sensible mind (psyche in general) is an idea of the individual organic constitution of a living being, then thinking mind is, over and above sensibilia, an idea of social, inorganic body. Man thinks inasmuch as his activity is guided not by the instincts of his organic body, but by the cultural needs or, so to say, appetitus socialis. Thought, and everything ideal, comes into being when instincts are being replaced by the artificial claims of mankind.

Vygotsky raises this conjecture to a full-fledged “cultural-historical” theory. At that point the real improvement of Spinoza’s theory of mind occurs. The object of human thought, especially of intellect, is a social “quasi-body” (quasi corpus, nempe societatis, – TTP III), or a total “ensemble of social relations”.

“Like body, like mind, idea, cognition as well” [KV II, Prf. n. 11]. Vygotsky and Ilyenkov asserted that potentiain tell ectusseu liberta shumana is precisely coextensive with the mass and quality of inorganic body of mankind, being created by human labour. Intellect and freedom are not granted to the human body by Mother Nature, they are being acquired by his labour throughout all the history of humanity.


1. “[We need] to revive Spinozism within Marxist psychology. The light of great works of Spinoza, like the light of outermost stars, reaches us after several centuries. Only a psychology of tomorrow could realize Spinoza’s ideas” (Two fragments of Vygotsky’s notebooks, in: RGGU Bulletin, Psychology, 2006, no. 1, p. 295).

2. “Mentis definitio, quod ea sit res cogitans” (Epistolae, 34). “Mentem humanam diximus esse rem cogitantem” (Cogitata Metaphysica, II, cap. 12).

3. Hobbes: “... rem cogitantem esse corporeum quid” (Objectiones Tertiae).

4. Ilyenkov E.V. Dialectical Logic, p. 22.

5. Ibid., p. 23.

6. Lenin’s expression by which Marxists like to call themselves. And Ilyenkov reckoned Spinoza as well among the “wise materialists”.

7. Ibid., p. 54.

8. The famous definition of human essence in Marx: “das ensemble der gesellschaftlichen Verhältnisse”.

9. “Quod si plura individua in una actione ita concurrant, ut omnia simul unius effectus sint causa, eadem omnia eatenus ut unam rem singularem considero” [Eth. II def. 7].

10. Dialectical Logic, p. 34-35.

11. How Person Appears. Moscow, 1983, p. 330.

12. Ibid., p. 329.

13. Ibid., p. 330.

14. Ibid., p. 328.

15. Dialectics of the Ideal, in: Ilyenkov E.V. Art and the Communist Ideal. Moscow, 1984, p. 25.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №8 - 2016

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