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Spinoza's Ethics is without doubt one of the most exciting and contested works in philosophy. The primary goal of this work written in the austere geometrical fashion is, as it was of the Ancients, to teach how we should live, and it ends with an ethics in which the only thing good in itself is understanding; only that which hinders us from understanding is bad; and beings endowed with a human mind should devote themselves, as much as they can, to a contemplative life. The purpose of the present volume is to provide a detailed and accessible step-by-step exposition of the Ethics; in this Introduction, we want to present the outlines of the reasoning behind Spinoza's rather uncompromising ethical intellectualism and briefly designate the particular topics discussed in the ensuing chapters. It seems that any theory of good life inevitably makes some fundamental assumptions concerning what human beings are, and it can be seen as an important virtue of Spinoza's approach that these basic questions are tackled in a thorough and explicit manner. For Spinoza, to know what we are depends on knowing what the universe or God is, because Spinoza sees us as limitations in God or the universe. Our bodies have spatial limits and our understanding has limits in thought. In seriously thinking about our bodies, we have to conceive them as being embedded in a larger spatial whole, and in thinking about our minds, we clearly see that our intellects are limited, even defective.
Since its publication in 1677, Spinoza's Ethics has fascinated philosophers, novelists, and scientists alike. It is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and contested works of Western philosophy. Written in an austere, geometrical fashion, the work teaches us how we should live, ending with an ethics in which the only thing good in itself is understanding. Spinoza argues that only that which hinders us from understanding is bad and shows that those endowed with a human mind should devote themselves, as much as they can, to a contemplative life. This Companion volume provides a detailed, accessible exposition of the Ethics. Written by an internationally known team of scholars, it is the first anthology to treat the whole of the Ethics and is written in an accessible style.
When philosophers write about action, what they mostly have in mind is events in which something mental becomes realised by the body through the agent's will. The work of the will is to translate the mental antecedent, which may be a desire, or an intention, or more generally some kind of pro-attitude, to the bodily realm. The mental antecedent of action gives the aim, the agent has beliefs as to how to reach it, and the will (or acts of will) has the role of executor. There are versions of causal theories of action where the role of the will is redundant. What happens in an action is just that the pro-attitudes cause the relevant bodily movements in the right way. In any case, it seems that this view of what could be called overt actions is rather natural. In overt actions, the body is governed by the mind. However, there are also actions that could be labelled as acts of the understanding or doxastic actions. Forming a belief on the basis of evidence seems to require an act of the understanding. Inferring from premises to a conclusion seems to be an active process - not something that just happens to the person. For these kinds of actions it is difficult, or perhaps impossible, to give a purely causal account in terms of beliefs causing other beliefs. It is the agent who draws the conclusion and has to take care of the inference going right or of the belief being formed correctly by the evidence at hand. What is distinctive to these kinds of actions is that there is a sense in which the agent involved in them does not aim at good, or does not try to get rid of some uneasiness, but aims at truth. These kinds of acts may be called acts of the understanding.
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