Spinoza’s Panpsychism

What is to be understood here concerning the stone should be understood concerning any singular thing whatever, no matter how composite it is, and capable of doing a great many things: that each thing is necessarily determined by some external cause to exist and produce effects in a certain and determinate way.[1]


Panpsychism, the concept that all basic physical constituents of the universe have mental properties, follows from the relationship between freedom and necessity in Spinoza’s metaphysics. Responding to Tschirnhaus’ concern that there are two types of freedom, one applicable to entities possessing reason and consciousness and another to those lacking these properties,[2] Spinoza notes that his interlocutor’s position is simply an illusion. A stone will remain at rest without external cause, and once external cause (slingshot, wind, arm, gravity) is imposed on the stone, the stone will continue unabated until another force counters. The stone knows only its own striving and mistakenly assumes itself free because it is has inadequate knowledge of these other forces. Human freedom constitutes the same illusion: “that men are conscious of their appetite and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.”[3]

Spinoza’s panpsychism is comprehensive insofar as it denies humans any privileged ontological status above other animals and objects, but it becomes more radical as it affords all entities, including inanimate objects, some degree of animation and denies a significant role for the emotions and purpose in human actions. That is, while panpsychism is suggested by the ontology of Part I of the Ethics and made explicit in the modal development of Part II, it has radical implications for Spinoza’s psychology in Part III. The essay that follows 1) defines panpsychism and briefly explicates its logical deduction; 2) elucidates the means by which Spinoza posits and defends panpsychism in Part II of the Ethics; 3) considers the means by which Spinoza further defends panpsychism and incorporates it into his theory of affects; 4) considers some challenges to the non-animal mentality with which Spinoza endows all modes and fundamental particles of the universe; 5) reflects on some potential challenges to panpsychism as it pertains to humans, including goal-directedness, self-destruction, altruism and aesthetics.

1) Panpsychism defined

According to Thomas Nagel, panpsychism follows from four premises (or anti-premises): anti-dualism, -reductivism, -elminativism, and –emergence.[4] That is, panpsychism assumes all things are complex systems of matter; mental properties are not logically implied by physical properties; humans possess mental properties; and no aphysical properties can arise from physical properties. Nagel’s argument is relevant to a consideration of Spinoza because in addition to succinctly stating what can only be deduced piecemeal from Spinoza’s writing, Nagel argues against sui generis nomological necessity in favor of strict causal necessity and fully explicable series within complex systems. Like Spinoza, Nagel’s concept of panpsychism arises from necessitarianism, naturalism and thoroughgoing rationalism. In considering the relationship between panpsychism and the affects, it is also significant that the capacity of humans to think becomes one of the bases for the logical deduction of panpsychism rather than an obstacle to it.


2) Panpsychism in Spinoza’s modes

Spinoza implies panpsychism in the scholium to 2P13 when, after considering the relationship between mind and body, he writes, “For the things we have shown so far are completely general and do not pertain more to man than to other individuals, all of which, though in different degrees, are nevertheless animate.”[5] That is, at least to this point in the Ethics, Spinoza’s naturalism precludes any exceptional ontological status for humans. Any modal concept related to humans also relates to other animals and inanimate objects. As Jonathan Bennett writes, “[T]he concept of life itself has no basic place in the true story of the universe.”[6]

Spinoza’s further development of Part II also suggests that if the mind is God’s idea of the body, and God must possess an idea of every extensional mode, then every body must have a mind. According to David Skrbina, panpsychism follows from 2P3, “In God there is necessarily an idea […] of everything which necessarily follows from his essence,“[7] and 2P11, The first thing which constitutes the actual being of a human Mind is nothing but the idea of a singular thing which actually exists.”[8] Skrbina completes the syllogism, reasoning, “If minds are ideas, and all real things have ideas, then all real things have minds.”[9]


3) Panpsychism in Spinoza’s affects

Spinoza’s naturalism and his substance monism also support the extension of the principles at play throughout nature to those of human psychology and vice-versa. The laws governing mind are the same ones governing the natural world, the former conceived through the attribute of thought and the latter through extension. Psychology, for Spinoza, is then a science like any other. In the demonstration to 3P1, Spinoza writes, “And those [ideas] which are inadequate in the mind are also adequate in God (by 2P2C), not insofar as he contains only the essence of that mind, but insofar as he also contains in himself, at the same time, the minds of other things” [emphasis added],[10] and Spinoza provides no ostensible reason to limit these other things to less than everything. According to 3P6, “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being,” in 3P7, striving is defined as “nothing but the actual essence of the thing, and in 3P8, striving is posited as involving “an indefinite time.”[11] As a result, the actual essence of atoms and coffee pots, as with that of giraffes and humans, is to strive and persevere until acted upon by an outside force.

These propositions, however, do not preclude degrees of independence between ideas and external causes, nor does Spinoza’s panpsychism extend to hylozoism, the theory that all entities have life. In the scholium to 2P13 cited earlier, Spinoza continues:

However, we also cannot deny that ideas differ among themselves, as the objects themselves do, and that one is more excellent than the other, and contains more reality, just as the object of the one is more excellent than the object of the other and contains more reality. And so to determine what is the difference between the human mind and the others, and how it surpasses them, it is necessary for us, as we have said, to know the nature of its object, that is, of the human body.[12]

While Spinoza never ascribes the capacity to achieve complete adequacy of ideas to humans, he clearly favors degrees of adequacy with less confused ideas becoming less dependent on external causes. As a result, humans are less dependent than the giraffe, which is less so than the coffee pot, which is still less so than the atom. While Spinoza’s concept of striving here only applies to an entity’s essence and does not preclude the possibility that an entity might take actions that weaken itself provided its essence perseveres, Spinoza’s panpsychic application of mentality still presents some problematic issues.


4) Issues of non-human mentality in Spinoza’s panpsychism

Steven Nadler argues that Spinoza is a panpsychist only to the extent that his work is psychologized, a tendency against which Nadler operates. However, Nadler’s contention is largely semantic, because he only wants to deny consciousness and sensation to the inanimate object without precluding the concept of a thought in God to accompany every body. That is, while Nadler does not want to extend the unique power of memory, imagination and self-awareness to modes lacking a human mind, he seems to accept that ontologically there is nothing special about the human mind.[13]

According to Spinoza’s twofold use of the principle of sufficient reason, mentality must be explained in terms of its causal independence and degree to which it becomes the complete cause of other things. As such, the more lingering issue with Spinoza’s panpsychism and gradated ontology is the seeming recourse it takes to emergence. That is, the “degrees of animation” argument would seem to posit higher mental functions as arising from the organization of lower mental functions, which is strictly forbidden by Nagel’s panpsychism and would counter Spinoza’s naturalism, as well.

Michael Della Rocca indirectly addresses this issue by insisting that striving is not an issue of psychology but merely, as Descartes previously defined it, a matter of being a function of a given state at a given moment. He writes, “But the fact that a table strives does not, for Spinoza, presuppose that it has mentality. Spinoza’s attribution of striving to all things is made independently of the considerations that lead to his panpsychism.”[14] For instance, the heart strives to circulate blood or a baseball strives to break a window because of their position and motion at a given point in space and time, independent of any mentality. All modes, according to their natural tendencies and left to their own power and resources, then preserve their being without necessarily having beliefs or intentions.

Spinoza’s gradated ontology is actually developed to prevent needless psychologizing. His assertion that entities possess degrees of animation supports his claim that affect and power, possessed by all entities, are measures of a body’s capacity to combine and become more active, to affect and be affected. Ideas, defined as the thoughts that accompany affects, should not be conflated with feelings and emotions. Consciousness and sensation, far from signifying an understanding of, or freedom from, physical causality, only provide additional means for humans to become confused regarding the actual cause of their affects.


5) Issues of human mentality in Spinoza’s panpsychism

If the mentality of forks is problematic, the mentality of humans is even more so, because unlike utensils, humans seem to help others, to plan, to intentionally self-destruct, to create art and participate in other exceptional endeavors. Spinoza summarily dismisses altruism as an illusion. We always act according to our own needs. Future direction is more complex, but Spinoza argues that if someone, for example, puts money in a 401K, this is not, as one might assume, a matter of planning for the future but is in fact an attempt to alleviate current worry. According to his causal logic, immediate outcomes can lead to distant outcomes, but the immediate ones are all we know. Putting money in a retirement plan only works if one believes that it is working now. In addition, anorexia, a seemingly self-destructive condition, for Spinoza would be explained as the body’s attempt to liberate itself from its dependence on food. One is not free to eat, as one might assume. One is rather caused to eat, which (metaphysically at least) is no different from the causal behavior propelling a ball to complete its trajectory or the heart to pump blood.

Finally, Spinoza’s naturalism, which posits everything in existence as part of the same Nature, and its resulting panpsychism seem to preclude aesthetic value. The lack of a distinction between natural and artificial objects, as well as the lack of a privileged status for purposeful creation, precludes Picasso’s Guernica from being interpreted (rationally at least) as anything more than a physical object with physical predicates like all other objects. While Spinoza’s metaphysics clearly precludes a unique ontological status or privileged existence for art, his panpsychism precludes the emergence of meaning. Ascribing an excess of meaning to particular material objects of behavior is an illusion of the imagination.




Bennett, Jonathan. “Spinoza on Error.” Philosophical Papers 15 (1986): 59-73.

Della Rocca, Michael. “Spinoza’s Metaphysical Psychology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, edited by Don Garrett, 192-266. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Nadler, Steven. Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Nagel, Thomas. “Panpsychism.” In Mortal Questions, 181-95. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Skrbina, David. Panpsychism in the West. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005.

Spinoza, Benedict de. A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works. Edited and translated by Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Van Cleve, James. “Mind–Dust or Magic? Panpsychism Versus Emergence.” Philosophical Perspectives 4, no. Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind (1990): 215-26.

Wolfson, Harry A. “Spinoza’s Mechanism, Attributes, and Panpsychism.” The Philosophical Review 46, no. 3 (May, 1937): 307-14.

[1] Benedict de Spinoza, “Freedom and Necessity: Letter 58, Spinoza to Schuller for Tschirnhaus,” in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 267.

[2] Benedict de Spinoza, “Tschirnhaus on Freedom: Letter 57, Tschirnhaus to Spinoza, 8 October 1674,” in A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 266.

[3] Spinoza, “Freedom and Necessity: Letter 58, Spinoza to Schuller for Tschirnhaus,” 268.

[4] Thomas Nagel, “Panpsychism,” in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), passim; also see James Van Cleve, “Mind–Dust or Magic? Panpsychism Versus Emergence,” Philosophical Perspectives 4, no. Action Theory and Philosophy of Mind (1990): passim.

[5] Spinoza, Ethics, 124.

[6] Jonathan Bennett, “Spinoza on Error,” Philosophical Papers 15(1986): 59.

[7] Spinoza, Ethics, 117.

[8] Ibid., 123.

[9] David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005), 90.

[10] Spinoza, Ethics, 154.

[11] Ibid., 159.

[12] Ibid., 124.

[13] Steven Nadler, Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 136. Nadler goes on to echo Harry Wolfson’s earlier argument that “[Spinoza’s] omnia animata need not therefore on that account be taken literally; it means, as I have tried to show, that all things may be said to have an anima in the same sense as in the older philosophy all things were said to have a forma.” [Harry A. Wolfson, "Spinoza's Mechanism, Attributes, and Panpsychism," The Philosophical Review 46, no. 3 (May, 1937): 312.]

[14] Michael Della Rocca, “Spinoza’s Metaphysical Psychology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza, ed. Don Garrett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 194.

One Response to “Spinoza’s Panpsychism”

  1. George T. Maxwell says:

    Interesting read and very conceptually detailed. I have only just stumbled on panpsychism as a concept and see the similarities with animism which is my interest.

    I liked this line “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being” because I believe that every particle strives to experience, for that is the purpose of the universe.


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