Spinozist Psychology and the French Enlightenment

Alexander Douglas

Heythrop College University of London

Spinoza’s influence on the Enlightenment has been the subject of recent interest, largely kindled by the work of Jonathan Israel. Israel proposes that Spinoza provided the intellectual foundation for a pan-European movement promoting democracy and egalitarianism: the ‘Radical Enlightenment’. Like most Spinoza scholars, I am unconvinced. As others have argued, Spinoza’s philosophy provides few arguments to support the normative position Israel identifies with the Radical Enlightenment and even provides arguments against it. Nevertheless, there is, I propose, one idea of Spinoza’s that was used by some Enlightenment thinkers in defence of their radical agenda. Both Spinoza and these Enlightenment thinkers believed that all human action arises from a fundamental striving for self-preservation (distinct from the more traditional notion that self-preservation is simply the norm at which human action ideally aims). And they agreed this striving was the key to founding a science of psychology akin to modern physics. Modern physics, which in Enlightenment was the model of true understanding, had a formal structure in which descriptive and predictive laws were derived from simple inertial principles. Spinoza went further than any other early modern thinker in developing a psychology with the same formal structure, from the basic principle that each person (indeed each thing) strives after self-preservation to the full extent of her power: his conatus doctrine. Despite this continuity, I argue that the attempt by Enlightenment radicals to appropriate Spinoza’s psychological theory was misguided. Spinoza derived his conatus doctrine from non-empirical premises. In contrast, Enlightenment Spinozists were committed to empiricist verificationism. Yet the conatus doctrine appears to be empirically unverifiable, though not for the oft-cited reason that all potential violations of it can be interpreted as agents lacking power. As Edwin Curley noted, this can be avoided if the conatus doctrine is embedded in a broader theory specifying the degree of power agents possess. Rather, the problem lies in the essence-relativity of conatus. People are said to strive to remain what they essentially are, yet we have little evidence of what each person essentially is, besides what he or she appears to be striving at. Nevertheless, the conatus doctrine can be rendered empirically verifiable. This requires embedding it into Spinoza’s broader psychological theory according to which desire is social. This aspect of Spinoza’s theory has been seldom commented upon. Yet it arises from concerns about how we become aware of our own striving, as we must if voluntary actions are to be explained in terms of striving. The idea that we can become aware of our striving through introspection is unrealistic, as is the idea that we can do so through trial and error. Spinoza introduces the more realistic idea that each person’s conscious striving depends in part upon his or her perception of what others strive for. Yet this theory, according to which conatus is fundamentally social, fits poorly with other commitments the Enlightenment philosophes held. Although Spinoza may have inspired the kind of modern psychological theory developed in the Enlightenment, his own theory has a very different character.