Spinoza and the Inevitable Perfection of Being

Dissertation, (2019)
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Metaphysics and ethics are two distinct fields in academic philosophy. The object of metaphysics is what is, while the object of ethics is what ought to be. Necessitarianism is a modal doctrine that appears to obliterate this neat distinction. For it is commonly assumed that ought (at least under normal circumstances) implies can. But if necessitarianism is true then I can only do what I actually do. Hence what I ought to do becomes limited to what I in fact do. This is one widespread way of construing the danger that necessitarianism poses for ethics. There is, however, another way in which this collapse of what is with what ought to be can be construed. One could think of what is as already being what ought to be, of the two being one. On this picture, everything that is, is already valuable. In this thesis I explore the theory that being is intrinsically valuable. I do so by investigating the philosophy of perfection present in the works of the early modern rationalist Spinoza. For in his philosophy of perfection, I argue, we find being and value to be perfectly aligned. Hence, my reading challenges a widespread interpretation, according to which (ontological) perfection is divested of normativity in Spinozism. The position that all being is intrinsically valuable since it is perfect may be thought to be incompatible with human perfectionism. For what room can there be for human progress toward an ideal of perfection if all that exists, is necessarily perfect? The goal of the thesis is to respond to this question by providing a systematic interpretation of the metaphysics of human perfectibility in Spinoza’s philosophy. In order to achieve this goal, I undertake two tasks. First, I examine Spinoza’s multi-faceted philosophy of perfection. I distinguish between ontological and teleological perfection. Moreover, I argue that since Spinoza maintains that everything is perfect to the extent that it is, perfection shoulders the role of a transcendental within his system. In order to highlight the normative significance of transcendental perfection, I compare Spinoza’s thought with the transcendental theory of the good in Thomas Aquinas. In addition, I distinguish between ontological and speculative perfection. Speculative perfection is conscious awareness of ontological perfection. Second, I show how infinity plays an essential role in Spinoza’s ethics by indicating how we, by availing ourselves of this notion, are able to acquire a perspective on reality from which its ontological perfection may be discovered. On this basis, I am able to demonstrate the (relatively understudied) ethical and soteriological importance of Spinoza’s conception of infinity. I argue that it is because (a) Spinoza’s ideal of human perfection is speculative, and because (b) one will be able to establish the (ontological) perfection of things by deducing it from the divine essence only when one considers this essence absolutely infinite, that (c) the absolute infinity of the divine essence plays a significant role in Spinoza’s account of human perfection as consisting in conscious awareness of the value of all being.
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