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Spinoza: The Human Mind as an Understanding of the Nature of its Body


The thesis of this dissertation is that Spinoza thinks the human mind is an understanding of the nature of its body. What that means is that the human mind is at its basic level a cognitive structure. The mind’s basic operation and tendency is understanding, that is, the formation of true ideas. It does so by drawing upon from internal, intellectual resources inherent in the mind’s basic cognitive structure. Now, in particular, Spinoza thinks that the mind’s essential cognitive structure is a kind of an intellectual account of the causal operation of the human body, i.e. a rich and complex explanation (or better, a model) of the how and why the human body operates physiologically.

Spinoza’s view is his solution to the Early Modern mind–body problem: what it is for the human mind to be united with this particular body? The premise of that problem is that mental activity is fundamentally different in kind from physiological activity. One way to reach Spinoza’s view is to consider his dissatisfaction with Descartes’ famous view of the mind as a thinking being whose essence (and thus operative principle) is independent of its body (or any other body). In Descartes’ view, then, the mind’s basic, essential structure is only accidentally related to its body. Spinoza recognizes that Descartes’ view requires an additional explanatory factor, the mind-body union, aside from the essences of the mind and the body. That third factor is what accounts for what it is for the human mind to be united to the human body. In Spinoza’s view, the postulation of such a third factor is explanatorily empty. Thus, he rejects Descartes’ view of the mind-body union, and also his view of the mind as it stands. For Spinoza thinks that the origin of difficulties in Descartes’ view was the notion of the mind as an agent whose essence is independent of its body.

As a result, Spinoza thinks that the only way to work around that fundamental difference between mind and body is that the mind’s basic cognitive structure expresses the nature of this particular body. This does not mean that the mind is made of matter. Instead, the formation of mental states in this mind proceeds and presupposes the mind’s essential structure. That essential structure is an understanding of the physiological operations of this particular body. The mind-body union is, according to Spinoza, that the mind’s essence is a cognitive expression of its body. That relation of cognitive expression is the same as the relation between an understanding and its subject matter.

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