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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 14.4 (2001) 243-267

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Freedom and Free Will in Spinoza and Santayana

Angus Kerr-lawson
University of Waterloo

Baruch Spinoza is known for his powerful notion of freedom, which consists in a certain partial autonomy firmly situated within his naturalism. He offers the view that individuals have freedom of action, in a measure, because they have a place in nature, and, within that locus, they may exert a real influence, although that influence is not absolute and indeed is severely limited. It is through this influence that freedom has its relevance and moral significance. Our salvation will come, if it comes at all, through following the dictates of reason--the unique path to freedom. Only confusion and error can arise when the matter is discussed in terms of a free will based on indeterminism. Spinoza has an earnest skepticism about the reliability of the will and the commonsense notion of how thought leads to action. Indeed, the will is not a cause of action, but an aspect of mind, and the function of mind is solely to think.

On all these points, George Santayana adopts very similar positions; indeed, one might conjecture that he developed his notion of freedom with that of Spinoza as the basic starting point. This would be unsurprising, since he acknowledged Spinoza as his master in many aspects of his thought. 1 Most basic here is their shared opinion that human beings are a part of the natural physical cosmos and derive their incomplete autonomy through participation in it, not through an intervention from something beyond nature. Santayana endorses Spinoza's arguments that a free will that appeals to randomness and indetermination is completely at odds with the tight economy and single-mindedness required for genuine and effective self-determination. Both disavow theories that take will to be the fundamental concept in the analysis of freedom. Instead, they stress the tendency of people to delude themselves, and they adopt a more classical account of freedom in terms of self-knowledge. [End Page 243] Santayana's The Life of Reason assigns great importance to reason, although in a very different manner from the treatment found in Spinoza. The important influence of Spinoza on Santayana has not received much comment in the literature, as is noted by H. T. Kirby-Smith. 2

Especially useful for the student of Santayana are comparisons of their skeptical views about the human will and the effectiveness on action of thought, views closely tied to their very similar notions of freedom. Powerful arguments from Spinoza's works may be helpful to those who have difficulties with Santayana's discussions. The relevance of comparisons is different for the student of Spinoza, whose ideas have already been discussed at great length in the literature. Here, the analogies offer, I hold, a way of assessing an account of freedom very like Spinoza's fundamental position, but less dependent on dated, seventeenth-century notions of science. This is particularly true of Spinoza's inflexible opinions on determinism and his parallel theory of mind. Regarding these points, Santayana incorporates in his account of freedom more timely views, which could lead to a sharper discernment either of the merits of Spinoza's intrinsic vision of freedom or of some essential features making it unacceptable. Beyond this, Santayana's many comments on freedom are of independent interest. In particular, he considers, in the context of his materialism, a fresh and helpful account of spontaneity. I will call attention to his remarkable evaluations of Spinoza's philosophy; once well known, these are little read today, although they remain unsurpassed as sympathetic studies of that difficult system.

These two thinkers differ sharply regarding the metaphysical question of determinism. While Spinoza is the quintessential uncompromising determinist, Santayana leans to indeterminism, and certainly stresses contingency at every opportunity. They nevertheless come to the same conclusion: that freedom does not require indeterminacy. The comparison offers arguments from different quarters for a notion of freedom independent of the question of determinism. This notion falls in with a widely held...


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