Contrary to most philosophy, which struggles to arrive at truth and yield access to true ideas, Spinoza’s epistemological conundrum is how to arrive at falsity and produce false ideas. Because his theory of knowledge is inextricably linked to his ontology, because modal ideas are God’s ideas (by 1P15), and because all God’s ideas are true (by 2P32), then all ideas – infinite, finite, divine, human and so on – are ostensibly true. Similarly, if, according to Spinoza’s parallelism, an extended idea accompanies every idea in thought, then it seems to follow that every idea has to agree with its object. The solution to this seeming paradox lies in Spinoza’s unique epistemological conception of falsity, as well as its relation to imagination, truth, adequacy and inadequacy.
To this end, the first part of what follows defines falsity by exploring its role in imagination and the first kind of knowledge. The second part distinguishes the external nature of falsity from the internality of inadequacy. The third part addresses and attempts to resolve possible objections to this characterization of falsity, including the argument that it leads to pure relativism, conflates subjectivity and objectivity, as well as Spinoza’s ostensible positing of false or inadequate ideas in God, which would undermine his metaphysical system. The final part considers the value of falsity, including its capacity to demystify superstition, refute skepticism and explain why we erroneously assume the possession of free will. Falsity also reveals the power and necessity of representation as volition, an active (never passive) conceiving of and by the mind that allows for the development of common notions.
Falsity and Imagination
Throughout the Ethics, Spinoza never defines truth. Truth is only given axiomatically, first in 1A6, which states, “A true idea must agree with its object,” positing truth as an external relationship. This correspondence theory of truth and falsity is reinforced by 2P43S, which states, “[A] true idea has no more reality or perfection than a false one (since they are distinguished only through the extrinsic denomination).” In other words, externality rather than content or nature distinguishes true ideas from false ones.
Truth and falsehood, however, do not have a strictly binary relationship. The agreement of an idea with its object constitutes a sufficient and a necessary condition for the truth of an idea, but a failure to agree does not necessarily constitute falsity. Spinoza writes:
If an architect conceives a building in proper fashion, although such a building has never existed nor is ever likely to exist, his thought is nevertheless a true thought, and the thought is the same whether the building exists or not. On the other hand, if someone says, for example, that Peter exists, while yet not knowing that Peter exists, that thought in respect to the speaker is false, or, if you prefer, not true, although Peter really exists. The statement ‘Peter exists’ is true only in respect of one who knows for certain that Peter exists. Hence it follows that there is something real in ideas through which the true are distinguished from the false. (more…)