I am intending to conclude this ‘Spinoza week’ with some architectural applications of this philosophy; however, it is probably useful to dedicate the first articles to compose a sort of Spinozist ‘toolbox’ in order to understand those examples with more accuracy. This is obviously an assignment that I can do only with clear limitations as I am neither a philosopher nor a specialist of Spinoza (or anything else for that matter!); nevertheless, I will try to do my best to explain the bases of a few of his major concepts.
The first of these concepts is the one of determinism, although it would be an anachronism to attribute this word to the Spinozist terminology as it appeared later in history. The idea behind the word is however the same, as Spinoza is convinced that nothing that happens could have possibly happen differently as each of these events, as ‘minor’ it might be, constitutes the result of the sum of circumstances that occurred in the world since the latter started. There is no theology in this philosophy, or at least, not a transcendental one in which destiny or God have planned a path for the world; this vision has more to do with a logical holistic chain of events. We can say that this chain is following the law of physics, although the latter are of course an incomplete human interpretation (one might say decoding) of the former.
As written in the last article, there is therefore no freedom possible in the philosophy of Spinoza: we are condemned to be the object of the necessity of the world events just like his famous example in the Ethics, a stone for which no human would doubt of the inability to act upon its will:
Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.
[…] an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid. So the delirious, the garrulous, and others of the same sort think that they act from the free decision of their mind, not that they are carried away by impulse.
At that point, one might interprets the philosophy of Spinoza as an essentially pessimistic one as we are just carried by the stream of the causes that determines us. Spinoza is however known as the philosopher of joy, which might lead us to wonder if there would not be a more positive way to interpret his work. What determinism allows us is to get rid once and for all of every form of regrets or remorse as worlds which would include different versions of history (one might think of Leibniz’s pyramid) are irrelevant to imagine as such a different version would imply a change in the totality of the sum of events since the beginning of the world (beginning that might even be an illusion as well). To go back to the example of Leibniz who, to some extents, seems to precede Spinoza even though he does not, if Julius Caesar is crossing the Rubicon, it is not because God always chooses the most perfect world, but more simply because the ensemble of causes that preceded this historical event led to it with no other possible outcome.
It would be too easy to think that, in addition of forbidding regrets, Spinoza’s philosophy also withdraw the sense of responsibility that anybody has to own towards his or her actions. While regret consists in a passive interpretation of the past manifested by the impossible wish that things should have happened differently, responsibility corresponds to the fact that we, as individual, cannot escape from acting upon our lives (in other words, not doing anything would not extract us from determinism) and therefore should assume our responsibilities based on those actions and the illusion of free will.
Philosophically, what that means is that, even though we can never be free in the Cartesian sense, we can adopt an active attitude towards the determinist stream by understanding (always in a limited way) the causes that lead us to act the way we do. Politically and judicially (i.e. in a more pragmatic imperfect model), this philosophy consists in the acknowledgement of the social context that conditions any event. Once again, the responsibility is the same but it helps us to address those same conditions as catalysts of behaviors and therefore react to them.