Specificity and Intelligibility in Spinoza

Spinoza points out something about intelligibility in his Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione which I find myself considering quite often as of late (possibly owning to my job, where I see a lot of unintelligibility). Namely, Spinoza notes at paragraph 55 that there is a relationship between how specifically we conceive something and and how well we understand it. He says in part:

Thus the more general existence is conceived, the more confusedly it is conceived and the more readily it can be ascribed to any one thing. Conversely, the more singularly existence is conceived, the more clearly it is then understood, and the less likely we are to ascribe it (when we are not attending to the order of Nature) to anything other than the thing itself. This is worth noting.

That is, when we think of something under a relatively broad concept, we are relatively less informed about it, and more likely to confuse it with something else. By contrast, something is better understood when it is brought under more specific concepts.

Imagine that I ask you to go to the store and buy fruit. When you return with bananas, you might think it unreasonable if I told you you had got it wrong and that I had wanted apples. “You should have been more specific, then,” you might think, and by Spinoza’s lights, you’d be right.

(For those with an interest in the history of ideas, we seem to find an echo of this in a passage in Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature 1.1.5.3:

When a quality becomes very general, and is common to a great many individuals, it leads not the mind directly to any one of them; but by presenting at once too great a choice, does thereby prevent the imagination from fixing on any single object.)

All this might not seem like much to get excited about, and might even seem obvious when reflected on, but I think Spinoza is challenging a stance that had come down through medieval philosophy from Neoplatonism, that the most real and knowable things of all are the most abstract (Being, Oneness, etc.). I think we can read Spinoza here as repudiating that notion.

One other thing: someone might well ask, What is the object of knowledge here? If it is a particular, then all this seems fair enough–the more we know about a particular’s properties, then more we understand about it. But what if the object of knowledge is a universal? Those by definition we can’t understand without understanding them at a certain level of generality. I’ll eschew that point for the moment, and just point out that in the sentence preceding the text quoted above, Spinoza asks us to imagine thinking of a man:

So if we were to conceive the existence of Adam, for example, under the general category of existence, this would be the same as if, to conceive his essence, we were to focus our attention on the nature of being, so that we end up by defining Adam as being.

Here the chosen example of conceiving of an individual man would seem to imply that Spinoza is talking about particulars. On the other hand, we seem to be asked to conceive of Adam’s essence here, where an essence is presumably a kind of universal. Perhaps the issue here is that Spinoza isn’t always clear about whether an essence is meant to be a universal or a sort of individual.

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Justin K. Ellis

Justin K. Ellis

I graduated with a BA in philosophy years ago, and I write on western philosophy and Buddhism. Consider me a slightly qualified amateur.