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
Vygotsky, the founder of the cultural-historical school, considered Spinoza as
a guiding star of psychological science . 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.
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.
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 . 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
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
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” . Thinking as act of a mode of extension – one could scarcely
imagine anything less acceptable for Spinoza.
concept of thinking as “only a property, a predicate, an attribute” of body, as
“just a mode of existence of the body” , is equally unacceptable for
Ilyenkov himself. Generally, for a “wise materialist” , 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”.
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’” .
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” , 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.
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.
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” . Res singularis is definitely explained
here as “one action” (una actio).
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.].
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.
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” . 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.
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].
“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].
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
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.
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.
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
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” .
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.
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” .
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”” .
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...
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” .
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” .
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.
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.
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.
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,
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”
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.
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.
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №8 - 2016