Sacred Texts  Philosophy  Spinoza  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

On the Improvement of Understanding, by Benedict de Spinoza, [1883], at


[107] (1) But, so far as we have not got any rules for finding definitions, and, as we cannot set forth such rules without a previous knowledge of nature, that is without a definition of the understanding and its power, it follows either that the definition of the understanding must be clear in itself, or that we can understand nothing. (2) Nevertheless this definition is not absolutely clear in itself; however, since its properties, like all things that we possess through the understanding, cannot be known clearly and distinctly, unless its nature be known previously, understanding makes itself manifest, if we pay attention to its properties, which we know clearly and distinctly. (3) Let us, then, enumerate here the properties of the understanding, let us examine them, and begin by discussing the instruments for research which we find innate in us. See [31]

[108] (1) The properties of the understanding which I have chiefly remarked, and which I clearly understand, are the following:—I. (2) It involves certainty—in other words, it knows that a thing exists in reality as it is reflected subjectively.

II. (108:3) That it perceives certain things, or forms some ideas absolutely, some ideas from others. (4) Thus it forms the idea of quantity absolutely, without reference to any other thoughts; but ideas of motion it only forms after taking into consideration the idea of quantity.

III. (108:5) Those ideas which the understanding forms absolutely express infinity; determinate ideas are derived from other ideas. (6) Thus in the idea of quantity, perceived by means of a cause, the quantity is determined, as when a body is perceived to be formed by the motion of a plane, a plane by the motion of a line, or, again, a line by the motion of a point. (7) All these are perceptions which do not serve towards understanding quantity, but only towards determining it. (108:8) This is proved by the fact that we conceive them as formed as it were by motion, yet this motion is not perceived unless the quantity be perceived also; we can even prolong the motion to form an infinite line, which we certainly could not do unless we had an idea of infinite quantity.

IV. (9) The understanding forms positive ideas before forming negative ideas.

V. (108:10) It perceives things not so much under the condition of duration as under a certain form of eternity, and in an infinite number; or rather in perceiving things it does not consider either their number or duration, whereas, in imagining them, it perceives them in a determinate number, duration, and quantity.

VI. (108:11) The ideas which we form as clear and distinct, seem to follow from the sole necessity of our nature, that they appear to depend absolutely on our sole power; with confused ideas the contrary is the case. (12) They are often formed against our will.

VII. (108:13) The mind can determine in many ways the ideas of things, which the understanding forms from other ideas: thus, for instance, in order to define the plane of an ellipse, it supposes a point adhering to a cord to be moved around two centers, or, again, it conceives an infinity of points, always in the same fixed relation to a given straight line, angle of the vertex of the cone, or in an infinity of other ways. VIII. (108:14) The more ideas express perfection of any object, the more perfect are they themselves; for we do not admire the architect who has planned a chapel so much as the architect who has planned a splendid temple.

[109] (1) I do not stop to consider the rest of what is referred to thought, such as love, joy, &c. (2) They are nothing to our present purpose, and cannot even be conceived unless the understanding be perceived previously. (3) When perception is removed, all these go with it.

[110] (1) False and fictitious ideas have nothing positive about them (as we have abundantly shown), which causes them to be called false or fictitious; they are only considered as such through the defectiveness of knowledge. (2) Therefore, false and fictitious ideas as such can teach us nothing concerning the essence of thought; this must be sought from the positive properties just enumerated; in other words, we must lay down some common basis from which these properties necessarily follow, so that when this is given, the properties are necessarily given also, and when it is removed, they too vanish with it.

The rest of the treatise is wanting.

Next: Endnotes