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  • Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy, and the Good Life
  • Matthew Homan
Matthew J. Kisner . Spinoza on Human Freedom: Reason, Autonomy, and the Good Life. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xi + 261. Cloth, $85.00.

On a classic account, freedom in Spinoza is the liberation from the bondage of sad affects that results from the active formation of adequate understanding—a cognitive achievement with therapeutic import. Kisner views this account as incomplete, promising in this book to take the reader "beyond therapy" (1). Beyond therapy we find morality: a free life, as Kisner reads Spinoza, is a moral one, in a sense of the term 'moral' not unrecognizable to Kantians.

Kisner locates the chief moral compass in Spinoza in the two "dictates of reason": (i) seek your own advantage; and (ii) desire nothing for yourself which you do not desire for other men. The relationship between these dictates poses a problem: why should my primary desire for my own advantage entail a secondary desire for everyone else's? I think that Kisner is right to reject a purely instrumental interpretation of benevolence. We are neither merely using others when, as good Spinozists, we promote their advantage, nor is our activity on their behalf independent of our own. Rather, Kisner suggests, acting for the good of others is constitutive of acting for our own good.

Kisner's notion of constitutive value represents an admirable attempt to capture what Spinoza had in mind. Reconstructing Spinoza's argumentation, however, is another matter. What seems clear is that the link between the dictates has something to do with humans' shared rational nature, but exactly how this works is not clear, and some commentators have concluded that it simply does not. Kisner defends Spinoza on this head, appealing to the following two features of reason: (i) it is beneficial to everyone; and (ii) unlike material goods, it is not the sort of thing that could ever be fought over. But Kisner's points about reason show only that acting for the advantage of others by acting to promote their reason is thereby not in conflict with acting for one's own advantage; they do not persuasively show that there is any non-instrumental reason to desire the advantage of others. Nevertheless, this shortcoming does not affect Kisner's overarching contention that Spinoza is more "friendly to moral concepts" (129) than often appreciated. I am persuaded (thanks, in part, to Kisner's book) that benevolence is non-instrumental for Spinoza, even if his arguments to this effect remain rather opaque.

One of Kisner's boldest claims is that the portrait of the free man that emerges at the end of Ethics Part 4 is not the model of human nature that commentators have normally taken it to be, but merely a kind of "thought experiment" (162). As Spinoza portrays him, the free man is guided by reason, thinks hardly at all about death, and always acts honestly, to name a few of his salient traits. According to Kisner, homo liber is an ideal unattainable for finite human beings inextricably bound to the passivity of inadequate understanding; as such, it violates the rule that ought implies can. The basis for this deflationary reading of the free man is Kisner's claim that it is impossible for human beings to have anything but qualifiedly adequate ideas. Textual concerns aside, this basis makes the reading hard to accept. It is true that humans are always buffeted by infinite external causes, but to the extent that we can pick out general features of extension and laws of motion and rest, the ideas we have of such features are identical to those of God. Spinoza is quite clear that we [End Page 460] can pick out such features on the basis of the "common notions." In this more optimistic light, the sketch of the free man can stand as the exemplar that it is usually held to be. While the deflation of the rather Stoic free man fits well with Kisner's shift of focus to the dictates of reason, it does not fit as well with Spinoza's theory of knowledge.

In general, Spinoza on...


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