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On the Improvement of Understanding, by Benedict de Spinoza, [1883], at


[64] (1) Secondly, it follows that if a complex object be divided by thought into a number of simple component parts, and if each be regarded separately, all confusion will disappear. (2) Thirdly, it follows that fiction cannot be simple, but is made up of the blending of several confused ideas of diverse objects or actions existent in nature, or rather is composed of attention directed to all such ideas at once, [64b] and unaccompanied by any mental assent. (64:3) Now a fiction that was simple would be clear and distinct, and therefore true, also a fiction composed only of distinct ideas would be clear and distinct, and therefore true. (4) For instance, when we know the nature of the circle and the square, it is impossible for us to blend together these two figures, and to hypothesize a square circle, any more than a square soul, or things of that kind.

[65] (1) Let us shortly come to our conclusion, and again repeat that we need have no fear of confusing with true ideas that which is only a fiction. (2) As for the first sort of fiction of which we have already spoken, when a thing is clearly conceived, we saw that if the existence of a that thing is in itself an eternal trut fiction can have no part in it; but if the existence of the conceived be not an eternal truth, we have only to be careful such existence be compared to the thing's essence, and to consider the order of nature. (64:3) As for the second sort of fiction, which we stated to be the result of simultaneously directing the attention, without the assent of the intellect, to different confused ideas representing different things and actions existing in nature, we have seen that an absolutely simple thing cannot be feigned, but must be understood, and that a complex thing is in the same case if we regard separately the simple parts whereof it is composed; we shall not even be able to hypothesize any untrue action concerning such objects, for we shall be obliged to consider at the same time the causes and manner of such action.

[66] (1) These matters being thus understood, let us pass on to consider the false idea, observing the objects with which it is concerned, and the means of guarding ourselves from falling into false perceptions. (2) Neither of these tasks will present much difficulty, after our inquiry concerning fictitious ideas. (3) The false idea only differs from the fictitious idea in the fact of implying a mental assent—that is, as we have already remarked, while the representations are occurring, there are no causes present to us, wherefrom, as in fiction, we can conclude that such representations do not arise from external objects: in fact, it is much the same as dreaming with our eyes open, or while awake. (67:4) Thus, a false idea is concerned with, or (to speak more correctly) is attributable to, the existence of a thing whereof the essence is known, or the essence itself, in the same way as a fictitious idea.

[67] (1) If attributable to the existence of the thing, it is corrected in the same way as a fictitious idea under similar circumstances. (2) If attributable to the essence, it is likewise corrected in the same way as a fictitious idea. (67:3) For if the nature of the thing known implies necessary existence, we cannot possible be in error with regard to its existence; but if the nature of the thing be not an eternal truth, like its essence, but contrariwise the necessity or impossibility of its existence depends on external causes, then we must follow the same course as we adopted in the of fiction, for it is corrected in the same manner.

[68] (1) As for false ideas concerned with essences, or even with actions, such perceptions are necessarily always confused, being compounded of different confused perceptions of things existing in nature, as, for instance, when men are persuaded that deities are present in woods, in statues, in brute beasts, and the like; that there are bodies which, by their composition alone, give rise to intellect; that corpses reason, walk about, and speak; that God is deceived, and so on. (68:2) But ideas which are clear and distinct can never be false: for ideas of things clearly and distinctly conceived are either very simple themselves, or are compounded from very simple ideas, that is, are deduced therefrom. (3) The impossibility of a very simple idea being false is evident to everyone who understands the nature of truth or understanding and of falsehood.

[69] (1) As regards that which constitutes the reality of truth, it is certain that a true idea is distinguished from a false one, not so much by its extrinsic object as by its intrinsic nature. (2) If an architect conceives a building properly constructed, though such a building may never have existed, and amy never exist, nevertheless the idea is true; and the idea remains the same, whether it be put into execution or not. (69:3) On the other hand, if anyone asserts, for instance, that Peter exists, without knowing whether Peter really exists or not, the assertion, as far as its asserter is concerned, is false, or not true, even though Peter actually does exist. (4) The assertion that Peter exists is true only with regard to him who knows for certain that Peter does exist.

[70] (1) Whence it follows that there is in ideas something real, whereby the true are distinguished from the false. (2) This reality must be inquired into, if we are to find the best standard of truth (we have said that we ought to determine our thoughts by the given standard of a true idea, and that method is reflective knowledge), and to know the properties of our understanding. (70:3) Neither must we say that the difference between true and false arises from the fact, that true knowledge consists in knowing things through their primary causes, wherein it is totally different from false knowledge, as I have just explained it: for thought is said to be true, if it involves subjectively the essence of any principle which has no cause, and is known through itself and in itself.

[71] (1) Wherefore the reality (forma) of true thought must exist in the thought itself, without reference to other thoughts; it does not acknowledge the object as its cause, but must depend on the actual power and nature of the understanding. (2) For, if we suppose that the understanding has perceived some new entity which has never existed, as some conceive the understanding of God before He created thing (a perception which certainly could not arise any object), and has legitimately deduced other thoughts from said perception, all such thoughts would be true, without being determined by any external object; they would depend solely on the power and nature of the understanding. (71:3) Thus, that which constitutes the reality of a true thought must be sought in the thought itself, and deduced from the nature of the understanding.

[72] (1) In order to pursue our investigation, let us confront ourselves with some true idea, whose object we know for certain to be dependent on our power of thinking, and to have nothing corresponding to it in nature. (2) With an idea of this kind before us, we shall, as appears from what has just been said, be more easily able to carry on the research we have in view. (72:3) For instance, in order to form the conception of a sphere, I invent a cause at my pleasure—namely, a semicircle revolving round its center, and thus producing a sphere. (4) This is indisputably a true idea; and, although we know that no sphere in nature has ever actually been so formed, the perception remains true, and is the easiest manner of conceiving a sphere. (72:5) We must observe that this perception asserts the rotation of a semicircle—which assertion would be false, if it were not associated with the conception of a sphere, or of a cause determining a motion of the kind, or absolutely, if the assertion were isolated. (6) The mind would then only tend to the affirmation of the sole motion of a semicircle, which is not contained in the conception of a semicircle, and does not arise from the conception of any cause capable of producing such motion. (72:7) Thus falsity consists only in this, that something is affirmed of a thing, which is not contained in the conception we have formed of that thing, as motion or rest of a semicircle. (8) Whence it follows that simple ideas cannot be other than true—e.g., the simple idea of a semicircle, of motion, of rest, of quantity, &c. (72:9) Whatsoever affirmation such ideas contain is equal to the concept formed, and does not extend further. (10) Wherefore we form as many simple ideas as we please, without any fear of error.

[73] (1) It only remains for us to inquire by what power our mind can form true ideas, and how far such power extends. (2) It is certain that such power cannot extend itself infinitely. (3) For when we affirm somewhat of a thing, which is not contained in the concept we have formed of that thing, such an affirmation shows a defect of our perception, or that we have formed fragmentary or mutilated ideas. (4) Thus we have seen that the notion of a semicircle is false when it is isolated in the mind, but true when it is associated with the concept of a sphere, or of some cause determining such a motion. (73:5) But if it be the nature of a thinking being, as seems, prima facie, to be the case, to form true or adequate thoughts, it is plain that inadequate ideas arise in us only because we are parts of a thinking being, whose thoughts—some in their entirety, others in fragments only—constitute our mind.

[74] (1) But there is another point to be considered, which was not worth raising in the case of fiction, but which give rise to complete deception—namely, that certain things presented to the imagination also exist in the understanding—in other words, are conceived clearly and distinctly. (2) Hence, so long as we do not separate that which is distinct from that which is confused, certainty, or the true idea, becomes mixed with indistinct ideas. (3) For instance, certain Stoics heard, perhaps, the term "soul," and also that the soul is immortal, yet imagined it only confusedly; they imaged, also, and understood that very subtle bodies penetrate all others, and are penetrated by none. (74:4) By combining these ideas, and being at the same time certain of the truth of the axiom, they forthwith became convinced that the mind consists of very subtle bodies; that these very subtle bodies cannot be divided &c.

[75] (1) But we are freed from mistakes of this kind, so long as we endeavor to examine all our perceptions by the standard of the given true idea. (2) We must take care, as has been said, to separate such perceptions from all those which arise from hearsay or unclassified experience. (3) Moreover, such mistakes arise from things being conceived too much in the abstract; for it is sufficiently self-evident that what I conceive as in its true object I cannot apply to anything else. (75:4) Lastly, they arise from a want of understanding of the primary elements of nature as a whole; whence we proceed without due order, and confound nature with abstract rules, which, although they be true enough in their sphere, yet, when misapplied, confound themselves, and pervert the order of nature. (5) However, if we proceed with as little abstraction as possible, and begin from primary elements—that is, from the source and origin of nature, as far back as we can reach,—we need not fear any deceptions of this kind.

[76] (1) As far as the knowledge of the origin of nature is concerned, there is no danger of our confounding it with abstractions. (2) For when a thing is conceived in the abstract, as are all universal notions, the said universal notions are always more extensive in the mind than the number of individuals forming their contents really existing in nature. (3) Again, there are many things in nature, the difference between which is so slight as to be hardly perceptible to the understanding; so that it may readily happen that such things are confounded together, if they be conceived abstractedly. (4) But since the first principle of nature cannot (as we shall see hereafter) be conceived abstractedly or universally, and cannot extend further in the understanding than it does in reality, and has no likeness to mutable things, no confusion need be feared in respect to the idea of it, provided (as before shown) that we possess a standard of truth. (5) This is, in fact, a being single and infinite [76z] ; in other words, it is the sum total of being, beyond which there is no being found. [76a]

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