Garber, Della Rocca, and Spinoza’s Unicorn

unicorn1I’ve been wanting to write about the exchange between Daniel Garber and Michael Della Rocca in the latest edition of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, ever since it was brought to my attention (thanks Daniel Andersson). Eric Schliesser has done some excellent blogs on the subject in the meantime, and I’m sure there are many others. I’m coming to this a bit late, but I was distracted by things less rare and difficult.

I’m not going to summarise the debate. There would be little point, since nobody writes more clearly or more succinctly than Garber and Della Rocca. If you can’t get access to the JHP, Schliesser’s blog posts give an excellent summary and are freely available. Suffice to say that the debate is about the status of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in Spinoza. Della Rocca claims that Spinoza is committed to an extreme version of it. Garber thinks otherwise.

The PSR is, roughly, the belief that everything has an explanation. It rules out the possibility of ‘brute facts’, facts that cannot be explained – facts that just are the case. In his book, Della Rocca references Wittgenstein running to the end of an explanation and saying: ‘my spade is turned’. Spinoza’s spade, says Della Rocca, is never turned. There is always an explanation to be dug out. Usually one fact’s explanation requires an appeal to other facts. But certain facts explain themselves: you can’t see that they are true without also seeing why they are true. Della Rocca also suggests that, for Spinoza, we never fully see that something is true until we see why it is true. So even if there could be brute facts, they couldn’t be fully known by us. We cannot, as the Leiden theologian Christoph Wittich proposed we can for the ‘Mysteries of the Faith’, know ‘το ὅτι’ but not ‘το διότι’.

Garber makes several arguments against Della Rocca’s reading, but one that interests me is the following. According to Spinoza, the explanation for the existence of any finite thing that actually exists will point to the existence of other finite things, preceding it in time, which brought it into being (your existence is partly explained by the existence of your parents). Now, says Garber, consider ‘Harry the Horse and Eunice the Unicorn. Harry exists, but Eunice does not.’ The explanation of Harry’s existence will point towards those things that brought about his existence, e.g. his parents. Eunice’s nonexistence can also be explained, in terms of there being no things in the whole temporal series of finite existents that could bring her into being – e.g., no unicorn parents. But, Garber argues, that last fact – the fact that the temporal series of finite existents does not include anything Eunice-producing – is brute. Why is the series thus? Why isn’t it otherwise? There seems to be no good answer available within Spinoza’s system.

Della Rocca responds by trying to find some answer in Spinoza’s system. But I am not sure he spinozashould have accepted the premise of the question. Can we really just stipulate that Eunice the Unicorn doesn’t exist? Is it possible, according to Spinoza, that he doesn’t?

One reason to think not is Proposition 16 of Part 1 of the Ethics (1p16), which states that everything conceivable by an infinite intellect must exist. Schliesser notes the strange absence of this seemingly relevant proposition from Garber and Della Rocca’s discussion. It seems quite clearly to entail that Eunice does exist. After all, Eunice was conceived of by Garber. It is well known that Garber possesses an infinite intellect. Therefore Eunice is conceivable by an infinite intellect, and must, by 1p16, exist. Even if, as the heretics whisper in their black masses, Garber’s intellect is in fact less than infinite, it is reasonable to suppose that in that case a truly infinite intellect would be capable of conceiving of more not less than Garber – still including Eunice.

At various points (one of the clearest instances is 2p45s) Spinoza seems to distinguish between two ways in which finite things can exist – one is atemporal, in a sort of Platonic heaven; the other is within a temporal order, where each finite thing comes after some finite things and before some others. Garber might explain 1p16 as entailing that Eunice exists in the atemporal sense but leaving it open whether Eunice exists in the temporal sense. And then, if we suppose that Eunice does not exist in the temporal sense, this appears again to point towards a brute fact.

But I am not sure this will do. The temporal series is assumed by Spinoza to be infinite (see 1p28). Descartes argued that his physics that, given enough time, matter takes ‘all the forms of which it is capable’ (Principles III.47), and Spinoza’s physics may have been sufficiently similar to warrant the same conclusion (Leibniz thought so). Then we can say, adopting Cartesian rather than Spinozist terms, that matter will eventually be shaped into the form of a unicorn. Mere probabilistic reasoning is perhaps enough to get to the conclusion that at least one unicorn exists somewhere in the temporal order.

Some confusion is created by the fact that ‘Eunice’ appears to be a proper name. Michael Dummett discussed, and mostly rejected, the proposal that ‘Unicorn’ also functions in something like the manner of a proper name. At any rate, if we are to treat ‘Eunice the Unicorn’ as possessing sense but not necessarily possessing reference, then there must be something that we understand when we understand that term. This could be expressed, at least roughly, in some sort of description. What is the description?

If ‘Eunice the Unicorn’ means, roughly, ‘a unicorn that does not exist in the temporal order’, then there is a very good reason why the temporal order should be such as not to include Eunice the Unicorn: if it did, a logical contradiction would result.

If ‘Eunice the Unicorn’ means something like ‘a unicorn currently residing in Daniel Garber’s garden’, then we may have a case where Eunice does not exist in the temporal order, and Garber can claim that this points towards a brute fact. But it depends on what is meant by ‘Daniel Garber’s garden’. If ‘Daniel Garber’ is taken to be a proper name, its meaning can perhaps be fixed by reference to that particular person, and then nothing will count as ‘Daniel Garber’s garden’ besides the garden of that particular person. If there is no unicorn in it, then there is no Eunice the Unicorn.

But I don’t think Spinoza could have taken a term like ‘Daniel Garber’ to be a proper name in this sense. Names, in the logic of his time, could refer only to substances, and for Spinoza there was only one substance, which he called ‘God’ or ‘Nature’. The logic of his time (I am thinking of the shared theory between Franco Burgesdjick’s Institutionum Logicarum and the Port Royal Logic) did permit referring expressions of a different sort called ‘participles’. These are expressions of the form S qua P, where S names a substance and P a predicate. The whole expression then refers, not simply to the substance named by S but to something distinct – ‘a modified substance‘ is how the Port Royal Logic puts it. Spinoza often explains terms referring to finite things as though they are participles of this sort: ‘God insofar as he constitutes the essence of such-and-such’ (which might be abbreviated to ‘God qua such-and-such’.)

Since ‘Daniel Garber’, infinite intellect notwithstanding, is not co-referring with ‘God’, the expression ‘Daniel Garber’ must either express the predicate portion of a participle or function itself as a disguised participle. In either case, since it cannot have its meaning simply by direct reference, it will need to have its meaning via some sort of description, e.g. ‘a large, kindly, bearded historian of philosophy, known as “Dan” to his friends, etc. etc.’

Now the question of whether Eunice the Unicorn – the unicorn resident in Daniel Garber’s garden – exists will amount to the question of whether there is a unicorn resident in the garden of a large, kindly, bearded historian of philosophy, known as ‘Dan’ to his friends, etc. etc. Spinoza has, it was suggested above, said enough to imply that there should be, somewhere in the whole temporal series, such a unicorn. Such a unicorn is conceivable by an infinite intellect, along with its companion philosopher and his garden. And philosopher, garden, and unicorn all amount to one of the forms that matter can take.

There is much more to be said about this, but I’ll leave it here. Before arguing about whether or not Spinoza can explain the absence from the temporal order of Eunice the Unicorn, we must first decide whether or not his metaphysical system can allow for any such absence. I am not sure that it can.


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