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CONATUS IN SPINOZA (1632-1677)

UNAQUAEQUE RES, QUANTUM IN SE EST, IN SUO ESSE PERSEVERARE CONATUR. (EIIIP6)

Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza (1632-1677)

Stuart Hampshire | Wikipedia | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Edward W. Younkins | Antonio Damasio

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From Stuart Hampshire's Introduction to Benedict de Spinoza's Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, London 1996: Under both attributes, Thought and Extension, reality is to be understood in terms of a scale of complexity within which individual things are ranged from the most simple, which are elementary particles under the attribute of Extension, up to the most complex physical systems, similarly, thoughts, including desires and perceptions, range from the most rudimentary appetites for nourishment or sex (desires) and specific reactions to the environment (perception) up to the fully articulate desires and beliefs of human beings. There is a scale of complexity in the mental domein of desires and perceptions matching the scale of complexity among the physical objects. A human body, and particularly the brain, is an extraordinary complex thing, and Spinoza remarks that its powers are still unknown. We do know that a person's appetites, unlike the appetites of animals, can become conscious and articulate desires and become also the objects of thoughtful reflection.

It is of the nature of thought to be reflexive and our independence and freedom reside in this native power, which is a reflection of the complex structures and powers of the human body and brain. All individual things, from top to bottom of the scale, strive to preserve themselves and to protect and extend their independence of the environment as far as they can. Their individual nature, whether as persons or as animals, or as (in the ordinary sense) inanimate objects, is a function of their power of self-maintenance in the face of external influences. In their political and social conflicts and in their struggles for power and for liberty, human beings are only conforming to a universal law of nature. The prescriptions of morality must be understood as guides to social harmony and peace, which is the common interest of all reasonable persons, as they strive to survive.

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From Spinoza, 1951, 1987, in Spinoza and Spinozism, by Stuart Hampshire, Oxford 2005: Human beings are finite modes within Nature, which, like all other particular things, persist and retain their identity only so long as a certain total distribution of motion and rest is preserved among the system of ultimate particles (corpora simplicissima) composing them; they constantly suffer changes of state or modifications of their nature in interactions with their environment; but, being relatively complex organisms, they can be changed in a great variety of different ways without their cohesion, or their 'actual essence' as particular things, being destroyed. The identity of any paticular thing in Nature logically depends on its power of self-maintenance, that is, on its power to maintain a sufficiently constant distribution of energy in the system as a whole in spite of constant changes of its parts; the 'actual essence' of any particular thing simply is this tendency of self-maintenance which, in spite of external causes, makes it the particular thing that it is. This is part of the meaning of the all important Proposition VII of Part III of the Ethics: 'The endeavour (conatus) wherewith each thing endeavours to persist in its own being is nothing more than the actual essence of the thing itself.' The greater the power of self-maintenance of the particular thing in the face of external causes, the greater reality it has, and the more clearly it can be distinguished as having a definite nature and individuality. Within Spinoza's definitions, therefore, it is necessarily true that every finite thing, including a human being, endeavours to preserve itself and to increase its power of self-maintenance; the conatus is a necessary feature of everything in Nature, because this tendency of self-maintenance is involved in the definition of what is to be a distinct and identifiable thing.

This point needs to be emphasized to avoid misunderstanding of Spinoza's moral theory. That all men seek first their own preservation and security appears in Hobbes and in many other philosophers as a supposed truism on which moral and political philosophy must be founded. Whatever may have been Hobbes' intention, the army of philosophers, psychologists and economists who have followed him in accepting this premise have generally accepted it simply as a fact about human nature, and as confirmed by dispassionate observation of human conduct. Other philosophers and psychologists, opposing Hobbes, have simply denied that it is confirmed by observation; they have argued that, as a matter of fact, it is untrue. This controversy about human psychology, whatever its merits, is largely irrelevant to Spinoza's moral theory; he also says that all men seek first their own preservation and the extension of their own power; but, in saying this, he is not simply making a statement about the observed facts of human behaviour; he is deducing a consequence which is applicable, not peculiarly to human beings, but to all finite things. Therefore, in order to refute his contention, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to cite propositions of empirical psychology; it is necessary to show that in general his whole terminology is either inapplicable or inconsistent, and to attack the logical system of which this doctrine is a part. (emphasis added)

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From Spinoza and Spinozism, by Stuart Hampshire, 2001-2004, Oxford 2005: [O]n a ladder of increasing complexity, Spinoza constructs a radical naturalism of his own. The two universal and complementary [sic] attributes, thought and extension, each determine a range of descriptions applicable to the activities and actions of individuals throughout the natural order. The first set of descriptions, under the heading Thought, marks the place of an activity as part of a scheme of self-maintenance which belongs to a particular individual and to a particular type of individual.

One may think of the individual's scheme of self-maintenance as the individual's strategy to preserve its own identity and integrity in spite of its interactions with external things and in spite of the complexity of its parts. If within an assumed anthropomorphism there is a stategy, then there must be a thought. When a person reflects on a person's activities, including their own, then the anthropomorphism drops away, and the thought of strategies for preserving identity becomes transparent and is acknowledged as thought. The desires and intentions and plans of individual persons fall perfectly under the heading of Thought, and we cannot conceive of ourselves or other animals except as embodied persons or as embodied animals. In our perceptions of the external world we make allowances and adjustments for our position in spatial relation to other objects, and our body fixes our position. We cannot imagine perception of an external world occurring in human experience except under these constraining conditions. We conceive ourselves as forming particular parts of a single res extensa, and therefore as in our bodies subject to the laws of physics which govern the movements of all material things in the perceived physical world. At the same time every person's body has some internal coherence among its parts, matching the internal coherence of the mind that reflects it [emphasis added]. The conatus, the drive to self-maintenance and coherence, is a universal feature both of any person's mind and of his body. Spinoza famously remarked that we still (in his time) did not know what the body was capable of doing on its own and with its own resources. He presumably meant that the brain, the nervous system and the other organs of the body would tend to repair themselves or to find necessary replacements when they were damaged. 'A balance of motion and rest' was Spinoza's phrase for the homeostatic functioning of the human body, which tends to return to its normal state when the balance is once disturbed and when it can recover itself by itself.

We have a use for these reflexive verbs ('recover themselves') when talking about biological systems as Spinoza conceives them. As commentators (Pollock and others) have often remarked, he anticipated discoveries in biology, specific and detailed discoveries, which were not made until near the end of the nineteenth century and which only became commonplace in the twentieth century. Working on human eyesight, and studying optics and the perception of light, Spinoza concluded that no account could be given of the behaviour of objects in space in terms which were purely and simply, and exclusively mechanical. There had to be an internal force which preserves the integrity and individuality of the whole thing.

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From Conatus and Conatus in Spinoza, in the Wikipedia: Conatus (Latin for effort; endeavor; impulse, inclination, tendency; undertaking; striving) is a term used in early philosophies of psychology and metaphysics to refer to an innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself. This "thing" may be mind, matter or a combination of both. Over the millennia, many different definitions and treatments have been formulated by philosophers. Seventeenth-century philosophers René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz, and their Empiricist contemporary Thomas Hobbes made important contributions. The conatus may refer to the instinctive "will to live" of living organisms or to various metaphysical theories of motion and inertia. Often the concept is associated with God's will in a pantheist view of Nature. The concept may be broken up into separate definitions for the mind and body and split when discussing centrifugal force and inertia. (...)

The concept of the conatus, as used in Baruch Spinoza's philosophy of psychology, is derived from sources both ancient and medieval. Spinoza reformulates principles that the Stoics, Cicero, Laertius, and especially Hobbes and Descartes developed. One significant change he makes to Hobbes' theory is his belief that the conatus ad motum, (conatus to motion), is not mental, but material.
Spinoza, with his determinism, believes that man and nature must be unified under a consistent set of laws; God and nature are one, and there is no free will. Contrary to most philosophers of his time and in accordance with most of those of the present, Spinoza rejects the dualistic assumption that mind, intentionality, ethics, and freedom are to be treated as things separate from the natural world of physical objects and events. His goal is to provide a unified explanation of all these things within a naturalistic framework, and his notion of conatus is central to this project. For example, an action is "free", for Spinoza, only if it arises from the essence and conatus of an entity. There can be no absolute, unconditioned freedom of the will, since all events in the natural world, including human actions and choices, are determined in accord with the natural laws of the universe, which are inescapable. However, an action can still be free in the sense that it is not constrained or otherwise subject to external forces.
Human beings are thus an integral part of nature. Spinoza explains seemingly irregular human behaviour as really "natural" and rational and motivated by this principle of the conatus. In the process, he replaces the notion of free will with the conatus, a principle that can be applied to all of nature and not just man.

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From Benedict De Spinoza (1632-1677), in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: In opposition to what he saw as a tendency on the part of previous philosophers to treat humans as exceptions to the natural order, Spinoza proposes to treat them as subject to the same laws and causal determinants as everything else. What emerges can best be described as a mechanistic theory of the affects.

In working out this new perspective, the first thing on Spinoza's agenda is to clear away what he sees as the most pervasive confusion that we as humans have about ourselves. This is the belief in free-will. Spinoza has nothing but scorn for this belief and treats it as a delusion that arises from the fact that the ideas we have of our actions are inadequate. "[M]en believe themselves to be free," he writes, "because they are conscious of their own actions and are ignorant of the causes by which they are determined" (IIIP2S). If we were to acquire adequate ideas of our actions, since these would carry with them knowledge of their causes, we would immediately see this belief as the delusion that it is.
Spinoza's position on this matter is quite obviously dictated by the determinism of his metaphysics. The mind, as a finite mode, is fully determined to be and to act by other finite modes. To posit a faculty of will by which it is made autonomous and independent of external causal determinants is to remove it from nature. Spinoza will have none of this. As it is fully part of nature, the mind must be understood according to the same principles that govern all modes.

The first and most important of these principles is what has come to be known as the Conatus Principle:
IIIP6: Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in being.
The correct interpretation of this principle is far from clear, but it appears to posit a kind of existential inertia within modes. Each mode, to the extent of its power, so acts as to resist the destruction or diminution of its being. Spinoza expresses this by saying that each mode has an innate striving (conatus) to persevere in being. This striving is so central to what a mode is that he identifies it as a mode's very essence:
IIIP7: The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.
Though a bit mysterious as to what it means to say that the striving of a mode is its essence, this identification will play a key role in Spinoza's ethical theory. Among other things, it will provide the basis upon which he can determine what is involved in living by the guidance of reason.

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From Spinoza, on Freedom, Ethics, and Politics, by Edward W. Younkins, in the on-line Philosophy Resource Center: [For Spinoza] man is a modification (or mode) of the unique, infinite substance that is God or Nature. Nature is an indivisible, uncaused, and substantial whole and is the only substantial whole. God is simply nature under another attribute. Every single mode is caused by God's infinite power that necessarily creates the whole of nature. Spinoza thus conceives of God as the immanent cause of Nature. Spinoza's God is the cause of all things because all things follow necessarily and causally from his divine nature. This is in contrast to the Judeo-Christian idea of God as a transcendent being who causes a world separate from himself to exist by creating it out of nothing.

Man is a composite mode of the attributes of thought and extension and therefore man only knows two attributes of God or Nature - mind and body. Mind and body are different aspects of a single substance that Spinoza calls alternately God and Nature. For Spinoza, man is non-durational and rooted in the timeless essence of God, expressly as one of the innumerable specific ways of God being externalized. The mind and the body are different expressions under thought and under extension of the same existent - the human person.

Human beings are bound by the same natural laws as are all other segments of the universe. Man is an integral part of nature and therefore subject to its laws. In Spinoza's system, men are undisputably part of nature, a domain governed by cause and effect. However, the human body, including its corresponding mind, is significantly more complex than other entities with respect to its composition and in its dispositions to act and to be acted upon. For Spinoza, action refers to the human power to influence causal chains. He explains that all thinking is action and that all action has its concomitant in thought.

According to Spinoza, primacy of self-interest is a basic law of human nature. He says that human beings share a common drive for self-preservation and seek to maintain the power of their being. Conatus is the power to preserve in being. Spinoza's conatus principle states that human individuals aim to persist in being in order to assert themselves in the world in their distinct individuality. Like all things in nature, man through his body and through his mind strives to persevere in his being and his mind is conscious of this striving. It is in man's capacity to think that he differs from all other natural entities.

Spinoza explains that all things in nature proceed from an eternal necessity. Viewing cause and reason as equivalent terms, Spinoza says that there is no freedom if we understand freedom to be to the power of performing an action without cause or reason. Everything, including man, is bound by laws of nature and other natural constraints. Human beings have a caused nature and are not outside nature. Nature's bounds are set by laws which have attachment to the eternal order of the whole of Nature, of which man is but a part. Man functions as an individual relative to other entities, and, at the same time, he is part of the universe.

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From Looking for Spinoza - Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, by Antonio Damasio, Orlando 2003: Not content with the blessings of mere survival [of the individual], nature seems to have had a nice afterthought: The innate equipment of life regulation does not aim for a neither-here-nor-there neutral state midway between life and death. Rather, the goal of the homeostasis endeavor is to provide a better than neutral life state, what we as thinking and affluent creatures identify as wellness and well-being. (...)

It is apparent that the continuous attempt at achieving a state of positively regulated life is a deep and defining part of our existence - the first reality of our existence as Spinoza intuited when he described the relentless endeavor (conatus) of each being to preserve itself. Striving, endeavor, and tendency are three words that come close to rendering the Latin term conatus, as used by Spinoza in Propositions 6, 7 and 8 of the Ethics, Part III. In Spinoza's own words: "Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being" and "The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing". Interpreted with the advantages of current hindsight, Spinoza's notion implies that the living organism is contructed so as to maintain the coherence of its structures and functions against numerous life-threatening odds. (...)

What is Spinoza's conatus in current biological terms? It is the aggregate of dispositions laid down in brain circuitry that, once engaged by internal or environmental conditions, seeks both survival and well-being. In the next chapter, we shall see how the large compass of activities of the conatus is conveyed to the brain, chemically and neurally. This is accomplished by chemical molecules transported in the bloodstream, as well as by electrochemical signals transmitted along nerve pathways. Numerous aspects of the life process can be so signaled to the brain and represented there in numerous maps made of circuits of nerve cells located in specific brain sites. By that point we have reached the treetops of life regulation, the level at which feelings begin to coalesce.

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(last modified 25 January 2016)

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