The cognitive theory of Spinoza

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The next significant emergence of the cognitive stream was provided by the Dutch-born philosopher Baruch Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) in The Ethics (1677/1955). Scruton warns:

Spinoza's greatness and originality are hidden behind a remote, impassive, and often impenetrable style. Few have understood his arguments in their entirety.

This seems to apply particularly to Spinoza's writing on emotions. He sets out in The Ethics to provide derivations from first principles of the essential properties of different emotions and the relationship between them. Our account of this task is considerably simplified but hopefully true to the original intention (see Damasio, 2003, for a fuller discussion).

Spinoza's ideas have some similarities with those of Aquinas (and incidentally those of Hume) in that he talks of an initial non-cognitive reaction which is then cognitively elaborated by the presence of "ideas". Spinoza states: "By emotion I mean the modifications of the body, whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modifications" (The Ethics, 1677/1955, p. 130). In other words, there is an initial modification, and also the idea of that modification, and it is the combination of these two things that makes the emotion.

However, there are a number of important differences between Spinoza's formulation and previous models. Spinoza proposed that the initial emotional reactions were either of desire, pleasure, or pain, and that these were responses to external objects in the absence of cognitive evaluation. This contrasts with the Thomistic view that the initial non-cognitive reactions are in the form of impulses. Spinoza's second-level emotions such as love, anger, fear, hate, and so on, are the first-level emotions accompanied by an idea about the causal object. So, love is the experience of pleasure accompanied by the idea that some person is the cause of the pleasure. What is unusual about this model is the fact that the cognitive component (the accompanying idea) has no explicit causal role, it just occurs together with the first-level experience of pleasure, pain, or desire. So, if we consider once again the case of Susan and the bear, in this scenario Spinoza would have to say: that the presence of the bear caused an experience of pain in Susan; that this experience of pain would be accompanied by the idea that the future actions of the bear were uncertain; and that the pain plus the idea are the emotion of fear.

Spinoza's account is clearly a cognitive one, because the belief or idea is essential to emotion. However, it is a theory in which cognitions have no causal role and, thus, Spinoza's theory is an example of what we have called a weak cognitive theory of emotions. In this respect, it differs from the traditional Aristotelian view.

A problem with non-causal cognitions of this type is that it is never clear how emotions can give rise to behaviour. By what means does Susan come to be running away from the bear? As Lyons (1980) argues, "Spinoza's emotions cannot of themselves generate behaviour because they are just feelings plus beliefs about their causes" (p. 40). So, not only do the cognitions have no causal role, but the emotion proper has no clear functionality.

A further problem, as with the earlier Thomistic view, concerns the non-cognitive nature of the initial experiences of desire, pain, or pleasure. Again, the aetiological criteria for each of these are unclear and we are left with the event problem. In addition, an initial reaction of pain or pleasure by reference to which the emotion is defined is unable to accommodate the fact that emotions such as love can sometimes be pleasurable and sometimes be painful (see Chapter 10); similarly, for hate and numerous other emotions (Lyons, 1980). A similar charge can be levelled at any of the so-called evaluative theories that rest on an initial reaction that is either positive or negative (e.g., Hume, Aquinas, Solomon).

Finally, Spinoza's account of emotions seems overinclusive. His idea of an emotion embraces anything that involves pain, pleasure, or desire and an accompanying idea. Emotions therefore include headaches, being tickled, having one's back rubbed etc. This is clearly at odds with folk-psychological views of what is and what is not an emotion (Q.1).

From our particular twenty-first-century perspective, Spinoza and Aquinas seem to fare less well than Aristotle as emotion theorists. Nevertheless, their work clearly has considerable merit, if only for the fact that the concepts of emotions described within go against the grain of the philosophical thought of the times. However, the true resurgence of cognitivism in emotion theory occurred in the middle of the twentieth century with the work of Anglo-American philosophers such as Anthony Kenny and psychologists such as Magda Arnold.

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Exploring EFT

Exploring EFT

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