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Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?

Tim Thornton’s Question

In Floris van der Burg’s excellent study of the conceptual similarities between the work of contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson (a favorite of mine) and Baruch Spinoza, in which he fruitfully uses each philosopher to critique the other…Davidson to apply the linguistic turn to Spinoza and Spinoza to re-articulate the largely unstated metaphysical bias of Scientific materialism in Davidson, I found a powerful footnote and it has been tugging on me since I read the book over a year ago.

Van der Burg is exploring Davidson’s un-Spinozist collapse of metaphysical Substance into matter, while retaining a conceptual dualism, the mental and the physical which corresponds to Spinoza’s Attributes of Thought and Extension. Mentioned in passing is a criticism put to Davidson by a Wittgensteinian friend of the author:

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27, Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality, Floris van der Berg)

The Hidden Third Attribute?

This remark is I believe far more cutting than it would seem at first glance, for it extends beyond Davidson, revealing the very architecture of Spinoza’s re-division of a Scholastic inheritance. When the question is turned to Spinoza, in light of a comparison to Campanella’s Three Primalities discussed here in my last post, we see that Spinoza has turned one traditional division of Being, what both Campanella and Augustine called Amore, into a conatus driven, epistemologically grounded, expression of power (and not a conceptual Attribute). For Spinoza, modal essences (conatus) are striven in two Attributes, across epistemic states of relative power and Being. Tim Thornton’s Wittgensteian question opens up the very nature of the distinction Spinoza is attempting to make. There is a sense in which Spinoza has taken the third Attribute of Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore [to be, to know, to love] (transfigured in Campanella as potentia, sapientia, amor), and displaced it along a vector which distinguishes the modes. It can be argued that buried in this transfiguration of amore are the distinctions that allow Spinoza to turn his ontology into an Ethica. This is an interesting move from three to two, in particular because Spinoza tells us that there are not only Two Attributes, but an infinite number, only two of which our intellect can discern. What is the result of this transformation, in particular in view of Thornton’s question?

It is my intuition that by restoring the trinity of concepts as primalities of Being, in an analytic maneuver, the full constitutive relationship of rationality and the imagination that we find in Spinoza’s arguments toward sociability (part IV of the Ethics), (and Davidson’s ethical advisment that prescription proceeds description), are recast in a panpsychism of sense (the void of the lower orders implicit in Spinoza’s architecture of Being are made more explicit: is the relative passivity of trees due to their holding of inadequate ideas?). Tim Thornton’s question to Davidson, though designed to point to conceptual pluralism, opens up the possibility of an Attribute of the moral.

Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore, come from the base questions What? How? Why? in The City of God (xi, 26) and corresponding to the classical categories of the Natural, the Logical, and the Moral (vii, 4), in Spinoza and Davidson, are played out through a dualism of concept, in history, for Spinoza in Extension, Thought and Joy. The question remains, what are the metaphysical commitments that lie beneath this play of history, even for Davidson, who wished to shrug off the metaphysical. And does the trinity of concepts then enliven even further Spinoza’s panpsychism of supposedly sensing, imagining, ideating confused bodies, in continual assemblage?

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3 responses to “Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?

  1. Pingback: Tommaso Campanella et Benedict Spinoza « Frames /sing

  2. Daniel Lindquist February 22, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    Just noticed this post. Hampshire actually asks Davidson about this in the “In Conversation” video, in the context of Spinoza’s two Attributes and Davidson’s “conceptual dualism”. Here’s a short quote from DD, from my notes:
    “I certainly think that we have more than two ways of conceiving reality. I often sound as if I think there are just two, natural science and psychology or something, but, no, there are a lot of natural sciences, and they have different ways of describing things, perhaps irreducibly different…. I don’t know how you’d count potential conceptual schemes, so I don’t see that one should boggle at them [like Spinoza did].” So it seems that Thornton’s point was already appreciated by Davidson. He just wrote as if he hadn’t thought of it a lot of the time, because the only relevant schemes in the context were the mental & the physical (the rational and the nomic).

  3. kvond February 22, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Very cool. Excellent quote.

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