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Fr. 395

September 19, 2013


Spinoza portrays the faculty of memory in a manner that is decidedly at odds with more conventional depictions of memory. For Spinoza, memory is essentially an associative faculty that interfaces with the mind’s capacity for imaging (or more simply, imagination). Moreover, Spinoza ascribes a very limited epistemological role to memory. This ascription becomes clearer when one better understands the various physical and ontological motivations underlying Spinoza’s account.

This investigation consists in two parts. The first concerns the manner in which Spinoza’s physical and ontological commitments determine the role of memory in the mental economy. Moreover, these same commitments motivate a narrow functional relationship between imagination and memory. The second section discusses Spinoza’s reasoning for the limited epistemological role of memory. His rationale seems two-fold. First, the process that Spinoza outlines for acquiring adequate knowledge has no need of such a faculty. Second, there are strict limitations built into memory, due to its nature as an associative power that is arbitrary, passive, and an aggregate of habit. This investigation will explore these limitations.


The first item requiring clarification concerns the scope of the relation between mind and body under Spinoza’s system. The object of the human mind is the idea of the human body, for “the nature of its object” is “the nature of the human body (II P13, Sch.).” There exists a peculiar relationship between this mind and this body, for they are the same determinate mode of being considered under the attributes of thought and extension, respectively. In sum, the human mind concerns itself principally with ideas of the affections or modes of the human body.

Spinoza then sketches out a simplified physical theory, detailing both the interaction and composition of individual bodies. He lays out this tentative foundation through a series of axioms, definitions, lemmas, and proofs. The initial elements of this theory detail the manner in which simple bodies interact. These simple bodies can be “distinguished from one another solely by motion and rest, quickness and slowness (II P13, Ax. 2).” Spinoza then introduces the notion of composite bodies or individual things, constituted by simple bodies united with one another in “an unvarying relation of movement (II P13, Def. to Ax. 3).” An individual thing or body will retain its own nature so long as its individual parts maintain this mutual relation of movement and preserve their original, constitutive magnitude. Finally, Spinoza then conceives of a third subset of bodies, obtained only when the previous subsets are extended to infinity. In this way, “we shall readily conceive the whole of Nature as one individual whose parts – that is, all the constituent bodies – vary in infinite ways without any change in the individual as a whole (II P13, Sch.).” Here, Spinoza sets out a clear argument for the plenum, that is, the universe conceived as completely full or infinitely extended. This claim factors into both the constitution of memory as a faculty and its epistemological restrictions.

The plenum detailed, Spinoza then claims that mind “is able to regard as present external bodies by which the human body has been once affected, even if they do not exist and are not present (II P17, Cor.).” That is, the body possesses both the ability to represent or imagine objects that are no longer affecting it and to reconstruct past associations between objects, the act of remembrance. Moreover, the mind will continue to represent these objects as present until another external object acts upon the body in such a way as to dislodge the current representation from the mind.

Spinoza now enumerates the types of individual components of the body, which are three in number: hard, soft, and liquid. He then details the process by which the external bodies interact with these individual components comprising the human body:

When external bodies so determine the fluid parts of the human body that these frequently impinge on the softer parts, they change the surfaces of these softer parts (Post. 5). Hence it comes about…that the fluid parts are reflected therefrom in a manner different from what was previously the case…they (fluid parts) are reflected in the same way as when they were impelled towards those surfaces by external bodies. Consequently, in continuing this reflected motion they affect the human body in the same manner, which manner will again be the object of thought in the mind…that is…the mind will again regard the external body as present. This will be repeated whenever the fluid parts of the human body come into contact with those same surfaces in the course of their own spontaneous motion. Therefore, although the external bodies by which the human body has once been affected may no longer exist, the mind will regard them as present whenever this activity of the body is repeated.

Thus, upon the repetition of this activity or stimuli, the mind will imagine the same set of stimuli to be acting upon it. Specifically, “the mind imagines…any given body for the following reason, that the human body is affected and conditioned by the impressions of an external body in the same way as it was affected when certain of its parts were acted upon by the external body (II P18, Proof, my emphasis)1.” In sum, when two or more external bodies (A1, A2…Aⁿ) interact with the human body (B), the pattern of their interaction is reflected through the fluid portion of the human body. The fluid parts abut the soft parts of the human body; the reflections through the fluid parts “change the surfaces of the softer parts.”

Suppose that A1 and A2 have previously acted on this particular human body. Whenever the reflection of an external object’s impulse through the fluid parts corresponds to the reflection that shaped this portion of the body’s soft component, the human mind will imagine the object as present. If A1 and A2 jointly acted upon the body, the shape on the soft component will correspond to their reflection through the fluid parts. Now, suppose that A1 acts on this same body again. Due to its current effect on the body, the mind will represent A1 as present. The human mind will also, however, detect that the reflection of A1 matches or (a weaker claim) bears some resemblance to the shape of the surface of the soft component created by the action of A1 and A2 on the body. To the human mind, there seems to exist a narrow, causal relationship between A1 and A2, as evidenced by this affected, imprinted surface. Thus, the human mind will effectively reconstruct the original interaction. It already represent or imagines A1 as present, but, to this representation of A1, it will link a representation of A2, even though A2 is not, at present, acting on the body in any manner. The human mind has been conditioned to associate the causal affections of A1 with those of A2.

Though Spinoza does not speak of an indexical or referential system in regards to external stimuli, it might be helpful to appeal to such a system in analyzing the mechanics underlying the account above. In acting upon the body, two or more stimuli (whether through one causal interaction or a series of causal interactions) create a distinctive reflection pattern that is reproduced, in some sense, upon the surfaces of the soft components of the body. The human mind has some idea of these soft surfaces, recognizing a distinctive causal or functional pattern embodied by the shape of this surface. This portion of the surface then serves as an exemplar of a specific causal interaction. That is, when an element of this causal interaction (or affection) is repeated, the human mind will pair the present affection with a past one (an exemplar of this particular reflection, the nature of which is captured by the body’s soft component) to which it bears sufficient similarity. The body will then redeploy within the imagination any and all representations or images contained within the exemplar. These additional representations or images supplement the ongoing representation of the external object in the imagination. For example, if an individual once tripped over a particularly troublesome tree root, twisting one’s ankle in the process, the renewed impinging of this tree root on the body will necessarily summon with it the representation of twisting one’s ankle. In sum, the mind appeals to an exemplar in reconstituting the full range of stimuli associated with a particular affection of the body. This reconstitution, association, and reference constitute Spinozist memory.


1 It is at this point that one encounters a certain ambiguity in Spinoza’s argument. The heading for Proposition 18 seems to indicate that such a reconstruction and redeployment of affections can only occur if the original affection of the body included two or more objects acting upon it at the same time. There seems, however, no reason provided in the text to suppose that the mind must imagine or be affected by two external objects simultaneously, beyond Spinoza’s mention of the hypothesis of such in the proof of Proposition 18. This naturally leads one to ask whether the faculty of memory only arises with a plurality of stimuli. Does one have a memory of a singular stimuli? It would seem to be “no”, by Spinoza’s associative definition of memory. This seems a moot point, regardless, as Spinoza’s memory is a purely passive faculty, lacking the ability to represent without the impetus of external stimuli.

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