Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione

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Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione
Title page of Spinoza's TIE from the Opera Posthuma
Author Baruch Spinoza

Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (1677) or On The Improvement Of The Understanding, is a seventeenth-century unfinished work of philosophy by the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The Tractatus was first published in 1677, the year of Spinoza's death, by some of his closest friends, along with other works including the Ethica and the Tractatus Politicus.[1] The Tractatus is an attempt to formulate a philosophical method that would allow the mind to form the clear and distinct ideas that are necessary for its perfection. It contains, in addition, reflection upon the various kinds of knowledge, an extended treatment of definition, and a lengthy analysis of the nature and causes of doubt. The characteristic of the work is the discussion of different form of perception at Chapter IV and illustration of the best one in relation with the experience and intelligence at the next Chapter. He also addresses the issues of memory and forgetting.

Theory of knowledge[edit]

Spinoza commenced this treatise with the intention of digging deep into the problem of Knowledge, but the work was never completed. In his other works epistemological discussions are intimately linked with the rest of his philosophy. Indeed, even in the Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding epistemological views are almost inseparably connected with ethical and religious ones. That is the consequence of his characteristic conception of "Knowledge". For Spinoza "Knowledge" is "life", not in the sense that contemplation is the highest life, but in the sense that knowledge is the means of holding together the threads of life in a systematic unity that can fill its proper place in the cosmic system. In this sense the effort after the highest knowledge becomes part of the cosmic activities by which cosmic unity is maintained, and so part of the very life of God.[2]

There are two things which must be borne in mind in connection with Spinoza's conception of knowledge. The first is his insistence on the active character of knowledge. The ideas or concepts by means of which thought construes reality are not like "lifeless pictures on a panel"; they are activities by which reality is apprehended; they are part of reality, and reality is activity. The second point is that Spinoza does not divorce knowing from willing. Man always acts according to his lights. If a man's endeavours appear to fall short of his knowledge, that is only because his knowledge is not really what it is held to be, but is wanting in some respect. On the one hand, reason, for Spinoza, is essentially the "practical reason". On the other hand, the highest expression of willing is experienced in that striving for consistency and harmony which is so characteristic of reason. For Spinoza, then, as for Francis Bacon and all the Renaissance thinkers, "Knowledge is power", but in a much deeper sense than Bacon intended.

Opinion, reason, intuition[edit]

Spinoza's account of knowledge is particularly interesting as a clue to the way in which he gradually built up his ontology. He distinguishes three ascending grades of knowledge, namely, opinion, reason and intuition. By "opinion" Spinoza means the lowest grade of knowledge in which one assents to what one hears, perceives or imagines. It is the pre-scientific stage of knowledge. Its main characteristic is that objects and events are apprehended as detached things, without any insight into their connection or laws. The second grade, or "reason", is that in which we have an insight into the connections of things and events, and their laws; it is the stage of scientific knowledge. This grade of knowledge is greatly superior to the first, inasmuch as a knowledge of their connections and laws makes things more intelligible. But even this stage is imperfect because rather abstract. It reveals the course of single threads in the fabric of reality, not the whole pattern; it traces "world-lines", but affords no synoptic vision of the cosmos as a whole. It is the function of the third grade of knowledge, "intuition", to complete the scheme. In intuitive knowledge the cosmic system is grasped as a whole. This highest stage is only possible for a mind that has been through the discipline of the rational stage. Unlike the mystics, Spinoza does not regard intuitive vision as a substitute for thought and entirely different from it, but rather as its highest fruit — it is "thoughtfulness matured to inspiration".[3] The three stages in the acquisition of the knowledge might be roughly compared with the three stages in the acquisition of the knowledge of a new language. First come the separate letters of the alphabet; then combinations of letters into words and of words into sentences, etc., in accordance with the laws of grammar; lastly comes the stage when the significance of a whole sentence or paragraph is grasped at a glance. So it is with the great book of Nature. First comes the perception of apparently isolated facts and events; next comes the understanding of their interconnections and laws; finally comes the intuition of the structure and significance of the whole — the vision which sees all things in God, and God in all things.[2]

Interconnected reality[edit]

Spinoza's theory of knowledge appears to make the ontological assumption that reality is an interconnected system. Spinoza himself regarded it as an ultimate intuition. And his theory of knowledge was in some ways a justification of that view. To realise this it is necessary to grasp the fundamental distinction which Spinoza draws between "opinion" and "reason", or perception and understanding. A percept or an image is, for Spinoza, something entirely different from and idea or concept. Conception or understanding is an activity which grasps interconnections, and has nothing to do with images as such. Perception and imagination, on the other hand, are concerned with images and not with connections. And the laws of these two kinds of activities are as different as are their objects. Perception, or imagination, is concerned with images and follows the laws of association; conception or understanding is concerned with connections and follows the laws of logic. Hence Spinoza's insistence that "we can not imagine God, but we can conceive Him".[4] Hence also Spinoza's rejection of Baconian empiricism. From observations of particulars as such it would be impossible, according to Spinoza, to derive laws or necessary connections. The laws or general truths of science rest, in the last resort, not on their correspondence with objects of perception, but on their harmonious interconnection in a system of truths. Spinoza, accordingly, dispenses with an external criterion of truth. "The true," he maintains, "reveals itself and the false."[4] The ultimate test of truth is more truth or more knowledge, or the coherence of all that is known. The false or untrue betrays itself by its incoherence with what is already known. In fact, Spinoza for the most part regards ideas or concepts from the point of view of their adequacy rather than their truth, in order to avoid the suggestion of a merely external correspondence such as is usually associated with the term "truth". Concepts (or "ideas" in this sense) are acts of thought by which the laws and interconnections of things and events are apprehended. They are adequate in so far as they really enable us to systematise a certain range of facts. In that case they are also true, for they agree with the facts. The primacy, however, is with the adequacy of the concept, because until we have the adequate concept we cannot apprehend the facts in such a way that is said to be in agreement with them, or to be true.[2]

Coherence theory of truth[edit]

In the history of philosophy Spinoza was the first to elaborate the coherence theory of truth. In his time mathematics was the only science that could serve as a model of such a coherent system. Hence his addiction to the method of geometry. The significance of his use of this method has been misinterpreted. His sole aim was to express his philosophy in as coherent and objective manner as possible.[5] Two points should be noted in particular. In the first place, Spinoza did not suppose that science or philosophy can dispense with observation or experience. He fully realised the importance of experience in the very setting of the problems which science and philosophy seek to solve; and it is known from his letters that he carried out many chemical and physical experiments. All that he insisted upon was that science involves much more than mere observation, that it needs concepts not derived from experience. It was his intention to write about scientific method, and to show that Bacon's ideas about it were inadequate; but this was one of several plans which he did not live long enough to carry out. The second point is that Spinoza had no delusions about the conclusiveness of the geometrical method. He himself had expounded the philosophy of Descartes in that method, although he thoroughly disagreed with it. Above all it is important to note that, for Spinoza, the highest knowledge ("intuitive" or "clear" knowledge) is something much fuller and richer than the abstract assertions usually associated with the term knowledge.[2] In another work he describes it as

...feeling and enjoying the thing itself.[6]


  1. ^ Ludovico Geymonat, "Storia del Pensiero Scientifico e Filosofico" (History of Science and Philosophy). Ed. Garzanti, 1970, Italy.
  2. ^ a b c d For this section cf. espec. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911), Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. S.v. "Spinoza" — see also int. al., A. Wolf's, Spinoza; His Life and treatise on God and Man, London, 1933; Richard McKeon, The Philosophy of Spinoza: The Unity of His Thought, Ox Bow Pr., 1928; Ray Monk & Frederic Raphael, The Great Philosophers. Phoenix, 2000, s.v. "Spinoza", pp. 135-174.
  3. ^ Cit. on A. Wolf's loc. cit., 1933.
  4. ^ a b Cf. The correspondence of Spinoza, G. Allen & Unwin ltd., 1928, p. 289. See also John Laird, Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol. 3, No. 12 (Oct., 1928), pp. 544-545.
  5. ^ Cf. Monk & Raphael, op. cit., pp. 139-141.
  6. ^ The Short Treatise on God, Man and his Well-being, London: A. & C. Black, 2006 - scanned, University of Toronto, Internet Archive.

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