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Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order


In my rereading of Spinoza I have come upon an apparent contradiction which bothers me some, in particular his treatment of the attribution of “order” to things. In the Appendix to part one he makes of order [ ordino, ordo ] something entirely of the imagination, yet in part II, prop 7, he sets forth his most vital and difficult proposition of what has been called “the parallel postulate”.

The two passages:

And those who do not understand the nature of things, but only imagine them, affirm nothing concerning things, and that the imagination for the intellect, they firmly believe, in their ignorance of things and of their own nature, that there is an order in things [ordinem in rebus]. For when things are so disposed that, when they are presented to us through the senses, we can easily remember them, and so easily remember them, we say that they are well-ordered [bene ordinatas]; but if the opposite is true, we say that they are badly ordered, or confused.

And since those things we can easily imagine are especially pleasing to us, men prefer order to confusion, as if order were anything in nature more than a relation to our imagination [quasi ordo aliquid in natura praeter respectum ad nostram imaginationem esset]…

Appendix, Ethics Part I

[such a statement is also found in his letter to Oldenburg (15/32) : “but I will premise that I do not attribute to nature either beauty or deformity, order or confusion. Only in relation to our imagination can things be called beautiful or deformed, ordered or confused.]


The order and connection [ordo et connexio] of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.

Ethics Part II, prop7

While I understand that in the appendix Spinoza is attacking the teleological notion that God has put things in order so as to benefit mankind (or himself), I am troubled by his rather categorical insistence that order is nothing other than a relationship between “things disposed” and our imagination. This seems to preclude the founding of his parallel postulate which guarantees the order of both ideas and things, (or at the very least confines this to the imagination itself).

The order of the PII7th propostion is founded upon Axiom 4 of the first part:

The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.

But knowledge of cause must also pertain to memory, and the ease of its use, must it not? Even the retention of the axioms of geometry involve their memorization and employ, the ease of which is produced presumably by their disposition.

The order of the parallel postulate could be of a different kind, perhaps that founded upon his concept of “common notions”, but it is altogether unclear how he can essentialize this order outside the imagination, which he has already foreclosed in his appendix description. In fact Spinoza himself seems to feel that he has encountered an aporia, as he continues (or discontinues…):

Nor will it, perhaps, give them pause that infinitely many things are found which far surpass our imagination, and a great many things which confuse it on account of its weakness. But enough of this.

Appendix, Part I

It would seem that Spinoza who founds the pleasure and good of order upon the capacties of memory to retain, that is, within the domain of the imagination, sees a world whose incomprehensibility defies even the dictates of order imposed by his parallel postulate, something that he perhaps relegates to Infinity.

[written August 24, 2007]


One response to “Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order

  1. Pingback: Pythagorian Spinoza? « Frames /sing

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