Strange Wonder
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Strange Wonder


Spinoza In Plain English Book 2 Part 7: (Propositions 12–19)

In our last essay we discussed Spinoza’s fascinating view of individuality, which circumvents a number of the conundrums the philosophy of selfhood usually tangles itself in. He argues that when a number of bodies communicate their motions to each other in a consistent ratio so that they produce an action together, that is what we call an individual thing. An individual things is thus a conscious, organized, consistent pattern of energy. If that pattern remains mostly consistent we consider the individual to remain itself; as the pattern breaks down less and less so. Thus someone with a major brain injury may truly have become, in a key sense, a new individual. Someone who is dying is having their individuality dissolve.

A human is an individual thing, yet when modified by the addition of a technological extension beyond its body (a wheelchair, in Beth Lord’s example) then together a new individual is formed. When a group of humans work together on a football team, that is a new individual thing (probably not a person), and likewise going on up higher levels of organization, for example a country(and downward also, as in the groups of bacteria in the human gut that coordinate with the human nervous and digestive systems).

This definition allows Spinoza to neatly account for what individuality is and how it is maintained over time: even if you lose an organ (or have a transplant) you can still be meaningfully called the same individual as long as the overall way that your parts communicate motion to each other is not strongly impacted.

As your cells die and are replaced you do not become a different person. As the number of changes multiply (say you lose a leg and an arm) then the form of your individuality changes. Eventually you can no longer be said to be the same individual- say, when those aspects of yourself that exercise a wide determination over the way your various parts communicate motion to each other are themselves lost (e.g. from personality altering brain damage).

Spinoza then takes this in a logical but startling direction: And if we continue like this ad infinitum [following the combinations of individuals into higher levels of cooperation and interdependence] we shall easily conceive that the whole of nature is one individual thing, ​whose parts, i.e. all bodies, vary in an infinite number of ways without any change to the whole individual.

This is what Spinoza elsewhere calls “the face of the whole universe”- the one infinite continuum of physical being as an expression of both the whole and all of its parts in interdependence with each other.

Photo by Somya Dinkar:



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