Oliver Istvan Toth

Spinoza’s theory of consciousness – an epistemic interpretation

Spinoza’s treatment of consciousness presents a problem because of Spinoza’s denial of a sharp distinction between human and non-human, or even between animate and inanimate beings. Most recent attempts to reconstruct Spinoza’s theory of consciousness in a consistent way have focused on presenting a view that is both Spinozistic enough – in the sense that it does not admit a “dominion within a dominion” – and commonsensical enough – in the sense that it does not imply that the toaster is conscious in the same way as humans are (Garrett, 2008; LeBuffe, 2010; Martin, 2007; Nadler, 2008).

In my presentation I introduce an interpretation of consciousness by arguing that consciousness in Spinoza ultimately depends on knowledge in two ways. First, I argue that even though Spinoza does not distinguish between phenomenal and access consciousness, we should do so. Access conscious are those mental states which can rationally coordinate the subject’s speech, action and inferences (Kim, 2010, pp. 310–311). These are in Spinoza mostly adequate ideas of the intellect, by which the agent can act and reason. Phenomenal conscious are mental events that have a special ‘what is it like’ character (Kim, 2010, pp. 304–306). By definition, only temporal mental events can have this character (Crane, 2001, pp. 105–108), therefore adequate ideas of the intellect, which constitute the eternal part of the mind, cannot be phenomenally conscious. Thus, my inadequate ideas of imagination constitute the phenomenally conscious experience.

In Spinoza every finite mode is constituted by other finite modes, which are its constituents, like in the case of a red ball among others the redness, roundness, plastic matter etc. I claim that the adequacy of our ideas should be understood as the degree of how fine grained we conceptualize the content of our phenomenally conscious experience, more specifically, the adequate ideas of the mind are the concepts with which we pin down the conceptual character of the experience. Conceptual content is that on which we can exercise our inferential and recognitional capacities: if I can later tell the red of the ball from the green of a leave, I have a very coarse grained concept of redness; however, if I can pick the specific shade of red of the ball, I have a finer grained concept of redness of the ball.
Similarly, the more adequate ideas the subject has in Spinoza, the more content will be conceptualized and will be distinguished from the confused richness of the non-conceptual content. This amounts to the claim of Spinoza that the more adequate ideas we have, the more we are conscious. Also, the more of the content of my conscious experience is conceptual, on the more I can exercise my inferential capacity, which enables me to become more active in the Spinozistic sense.

This picture presents a threefold distinction: the Spinozistic subject has adequate ideas, which form its access conscious but not phenomenally conscious concepts and beliefs with which it can handle its phenomenally conscious experience. The ideas of imagination present the phenomenally conscious experience of which those elements that can be conceptualized distinctly by the mind using its adequate ideas form the both access and phenomenally conscious conceptual content of its experience, while those elements that are present confusedly, constitute the phenomenally but not access conscious non-conceptual richness of experience. I claim that through this interpretation I am able to reduce all cases which LeBuff called extensional uses to cases of knowledge use, which may not solve the question regarding the consciousness of toasters, but at least can show that Spinoza had a consistent theory of consciousness.