Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spinoza's theory of individuals: Video of my dissertation defense

Hello Readers!

I successfully defended my dissertation today and am now "Dr. Wion." It is very nice to have earned this degree after 16 years of toil, debt, and struggle. I provide here the videos of my summary of the dissertation. The Q&A sections of the defense will be posted later. If you don't know Spinoza's thought that well, I recommend that you read the Introduction to my dissertation which I have pasted here right below the video.


Spinoza speaks often of individuals. Indeed, the well-being of a particular set of individuals, namely human individuals, is the principal focus of his philosophy. Naturally we expect such a systematic philosopher as Spinoza to provide a theory about what, precisely, an individual is. This expectation is bound to be present with regard to any philosopher who stresses the importance of individuals. For Spinoza, however, the problem is particularly acute, for he famously argues that there is only one substance, one self-existent being. If there is only one substance, it seems to follow that there is only one individual. Since substance in the western philosophical tradition is ordinarily restricted to particular individuals, this seems to be a sensible conclusion. It thus appears that Spinoza would conclude that there is only one individual. He does not do this, however. He repeatedly speaks of individuals in the plural, in particular of human individuals and their well-being. It is obvious that Spinoza holds that there are multiple individuals. Since he holds that there are many individuals but only one substance, it follows that most individuals are not substances. This invites the question of what an individual is for Spinoza.

In this study, my principal concern is to answer the question of what Spinoza holds an individual to be. My secondary aim is to argue that Spinoza's conception of an individual has important moral and political consequences regarding the nature of the state and the role of the community in the life of the individual.

I will present my reading of what an individual is for Spinoza and the moral and political implications that follow from his conception of individuals over the course of five chapters. Chapter 1 will argue for and explain my reading of Spinoza's system as a whole. We cannot begin to understand Spinoza’s conception of an individual without a firm grasp of the nature of his larger metaphysical system. This means that we must first clarify Spinoza’s central metaphysical concepts. These concepts are principally found in Ethics 1 and 2. They include the concepts of substance, attributes, and modes, as well as the central ideas which Spinoza offers on the relationship of the mind to the body, and his argument for universal casual determinism. A thorough investigation of Spinoza’s conception of the individual requires an adequate comprehension of these concepts.

In my second chapter, I will look closely both at Spinoza's primary texts for his understanding of what an individual is and at the work of leading interpreters on this aspect of his thought. The critical issue that I will examine in chapter 2 is what exactly counts as an individual for Spinoza. Although this issue, for reasons that will be presented, cannot be fully resolved, I will venture some conclusions about the origins of Spinoza's account of individuals and what he considers to be paradigmatic individuals.

Chapter 3 proceeds from the doctrine of individuals in general to a particular application of that doctrine. My focus here will be on whether or not the state (or “civil society”) counts as an individual. This question is important because Spinoza claims that the human individual is part of some larger individual, though he never explicitly says what this larger individual is. Since, for Spinoza, to be part of a larger individual is to have one's very nature determined by that individual, it is absolutely critical to determine what that individual is. In this chapter, therefore, I will carefully examine the work of Alexandre Matheron and his critics, primarily Steve Barbone and Lee Rice. Matheron argues that Spinoza thinks of a civil society as a kind of individual of which human beings are a part. Rice and Barbone argue against Matheron's reading.

In chapter 4, I will shift my analysis to the moral and political implications that follow from Spinoza's understanding of what an individual is. I will argue that Spinoza, contrary to some common readings of him, is not an egoist. Spinoza is not an egoist because his conception of individuals is primarily a relational one; whereas egoism, I will argue, depends upon a non-relational theory of individuals. To demonstrate this contrast between a relational and non-relational understanding of individuals and its role in interpreting Spinoza's position, I will carefully examine the work of feminist scholars who have written extensively on this issue. I will also contrast the work of these thinkers with the contribution of Rice.

Chapter 5 will briefly examine some political implications for Spinoza's theory of the individual. In particular, I will argue that Spinoza's understanding of the individual requires a strong commitment to what is often called “the welfare state.” To illustrate his commitment to a strong welfare state, I will argue, on the basis of his general political theory and several key texts, that Spinoza would support universal health care coverage.

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