Saturday, November 26, 2011

Spinoza on truth and falsity

In Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds, I attribute to Spinoza the view that no belief is false (though I think i also emphasize that nothing rides on the accuracy of the historical claim).  Rather, there are more or less confused beliefs, and in the extreme case there are empty words--words that do not signify any proposition.

I was led to the attribution by a focus on passages, especially in Part II of the Ethics and in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, that insist that every idea has an ideatum, that of which it is the idea, and hence corresponds to something real.  The claim that every idea has an ideatum is central to Spinoza's work.  It is a consequence of the central 2 Prop. 7 (which is the most fecund claim outside Part I) which claims that the order and connection of ideas is the order and connection of things, and it is also a consequence of the correspondence of modes between attributes.

These passages stand in some tension, however, to other passages where Spinoza expressly talks of false ideas, which are basically ideas that are too confused to be adequate or to be knowledge (the details won't matter for this post).

I think it is easy to reconcile the two sets of passages when we recognize that Spinoza has an idiosyncratic sense of "true" and "false".  In Spinoza's sense, an idea is true if the individual having the idea is right to have it, and it is false if the individual having it is not right to have it (cf. Campbell's "action-based" view of truth, but of course Campbell will not go along with Spinoza's internalism), where the individual is right to have the idea provided that she knows the content, or knows it infallibly.  And Spinoza, rationalist that he is, has an internalist view of knowledge, where knowledge is a matter of clarity and distinctness and a grasp of the explaining cause of the known idea.

Hence, Spinoza uses the words "true" and "false" in an internalist sense.  But we do not.  "True" as used by us expresses a property for which correspondence to reality is sufficient, and "false" expresses a property incompatible with such correspondence.  Since every belief has an idea (in Spinoza's terminology) as its content, and according to Spinoza every idea corresponds to reality, namely to its ideatum, it follows that in our sense of the word, Spinoza holds that every belief is true and no belief is false.

The ordinary notion of truth includes ingredients such as that correspondence to reality is sufficient for truth and that truth is a good that our intellect aims at.  Spinoza insists on the second part of this notion, and finds it in tension with the first (cf. this argument).  But the first part is, in fact, the central one, which is why philosophers can agree on what truth is while disagreeing about whether belief is aimed at truth, knowledge, understanding or some other good.

So, we can say that in Spinoza's sense of "true", it is his view that some but not all beliefs are true.  And in our sense of "true", it is his view that all beliefs are true.  The sentence "Some beliefs are false" as used by Spinoza would express a proposition that Spinoza is committed to, while the sentence "Some beliefs are false" as used by us would express a proposition that Spinoza is committed to the denial of.

This move of distinguishing our sense of a seemingly ordinary word like "true" from that of a philosopher X is a risky exegetical move in general. Van Inwagen has argued libertarians should not hold that compatibilists have a different sense of the phrase "free will".  But I think there are times when the move is perfectly justified.  When the gap between how X uses some word and how we use it is too great, then we may simply have to concede that X uses the word in a different sense.  This is particularly appropriate in the case of Spinoza whose views are far from common sense, whose philosophical practice depends on giving definitions, and who expressly insists that many disagreements are merely apparent and are simply due to using the same words in diverse senses.  (Actually, I also wonder if van Inwagen's case of free will isn't also a case where the phrase is used in diverse senses.  Even if so, we should avoid making this move too often.)

Addendum: This reading is in some tension with 1 Axiom 6 which says that a true idea must agree with its ideatum. While strictly speaking, this sets out only a necessary condition for a true idea, and hence does not conflict with what I say above, it is not unusual for Spinoza to phrase biconditionals as mere conditionals. If we read 1 Axiom 6 as a biconditional, then maybe we should make a further distinction, that between the truth of an idea and truth of a believing. We take the truth of a believing to be the same as the truth of the idea (or proposition) that is the object of the believing. But Spinoza distinguishes, and takes more to be required for the truth of a believing. We then disambiguate various passages. The problem with this is that on Spinoza's view, the believing is identical with the idea. But nonetheless maybe we can distinguish between the idea qua believing and the idea qua idea?

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