An Account of Power and Possibility in Spinoza

Barry, Galen, Philosophy - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lolordo, Antonia, Department of Philosophy, University of Virginia

The study of modality is the study of possibility and necessity. It is an area of philosophy that is of special concern to the early moderns, in part due to its connection to traditional theological debates. Within the period, questions of modality fall into roughly three categories. First, there are those concerning the analysis and distribution of modality. What does it mean for something to be possible or necessary? Which things are possible and which are necessary? Second, there are questions pertaining to the epistemology of modality. How can we know which things are possible and which necessary? What role does modality play in philosophical methodology? Lastly, there are questions surrounding the grounding of modality. If x is possible, in virtue of what is it possible? What connection do modal truths have to God? Spinoza is famous for his necessitarianism, which is the view that nothing could have been otherwise than it in fact is. There is a vast literature on Spinoza’s necessitarianism, as well as early modern objections to it. Surprisingly, however, much less has been said about Spinoza’s views on other questions of modality. My dissertation is an attempt to reconstruct some of his answers to those questions.
In the first two chapters I focus on two problems for Spinoza’s modal epistemology. First, many people think that we experience the world’s contingency, especially as it pertains to human freedom. For example, when I choose toast over cereal for breakfast I don’t merely believe in the contingency of my choice—I seem to directly experience it. Necessitarianism appears to leave this feeling unexplained. I reconstruct Spinoza’s account of modal representation and argue that things appear contingent to us because of the tendency of the mind to project its own features onto the world. Our experience of contingency, including the experience of our own freedom, is in fact the mind spreading its causal ignorance onto the world. Second, I examine the role that hypothetical cases play in Spinoza’s methodology. Hypothetical cases are situations which we treat as possibly true. But if nothing is merely possible, as necessitarianism claims, then it’s not obvious that Spinoza can use arguments that appeal to hypothetical cases. I examine Spinoza’s theory of impossibility and the role that impossibilities play in his most important arguments. On my account, impossibilities—including those used as hypothetical cases—are merely linguistic beings that can be expressed only in words. When we entertain a hypothetical case, what we are really doing is entertaining an actually existing linguistic entity, such as a sentence. The sentence is contentless, but we are deceived by its grammatical structure into thinking that it represents a genuine possibility. These linguistic beings can be used as hypothetical cases because the goal of the arguments in which they appear is to show that our use of language is inconsistent. In chapters three and four I focus on an important use of hypothetical cases in the Ethics where Spinoza argues that God exists because he is more powerful than any other substance would be, if it existed.
The rest of the dissertation places Spinoza in the debate over the grounding of possibility. Nearly all early modern rationalists, from Descartes through the early Kant, agree that God acts as the ground of modal truths. They are motivated by a desire to avoid attributing full-blown independence to anything other than God. But for the theist there is a problem: some ostensible possibilities are of a nature that is plausibly incompatible with God’s nature. Pain, sin, and divisible bodies, for example, all seem like genuine possibilities, but God is a perfect being incapable of pain, sin, or division. Most rationalists respond to the dilemma by either denying that these things are possible or attempting to explain how God can ground the possibility of something which his nature lacks. Spinoza’s account avoids this dilemma because every possibility is a particular instance of God’s general power. I argue his account also allows him to respond to two early modern objections to monism. The first objection claims that Spinoza cannot explain the existence of diversity if there is ultimately only one thing, God. The second objection claims that Spinoza lacks the resources to explain the existence of motion. For most early moderns, matter is inert and incapable of moving itself—it is in motion only because a transcendent, spiritual God gives it a push. Spinoza can answer these objections by explaining how all possibilia, including the possibility of motion and diversity, are grounded in God’s power.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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